For mid-September, the weather in Wailuku is beautiful. A mild breeze gently blows cool air down a stairwell at 33 Market Street, causing a few fallen leaves to flutter and spin. They appear to be dancing in rhythm to the music.
I’m sitting on the stairs of the courtyard enjoying an impromptu musical performance by Michael Kollwitz, one of the island’s newest and arguably most unique musicians.
Kollwitz moved to Maui from California with his wife last year. He’s a master of the Chapman Stick, a little-known musical instrument.
As he performs his original composition “Waterfalls,” his face contorts from expressions of peace to concern, from happiness to wistfulness. My emotions follow along as I give myself over to the tale he’s telling with his hands.
The rich sound emanating from just one unimpressive looking speaker fills the open space around me until I feel like I’m floating in a warm sea of sound–drifting on chords, gliding through melodies.
Kollwitz is a pleasant man in both appearance and demeanor. Sporting a loose Aloha Shirt, on the surface he appears easy going. But there’s an underlying intensity and excitement lurking beneath the surface. He is extremely passionate about his instrument.
The American musician Emmett Chapman created the Chapman Stick in 1974. He wanted a stringed instrument with great range that he could play two-handed. What he came up with is totally unique.
The instrument looks like a large fret board from an electric guitar, but without the curvy “guitar” body. That’s how it gets its nickname—“The Stick.” It plugs into an amplifier, which picks ups the gentle tapping of the strings and transmits the sound to the listener.
“It’s a stringed instrument, but you play it more like a piano,” Kollwitz says. “You don’t pluck the strings, but simply tap and hold them.”
The Chapman Stick comes in eight, 10 and 12 string varieties. They are most commonly made from exotic hardwoods, but are also available in graphite and resin. The stick Kollwitz played at his impromptu concert in Wailuku had 12 strings and is made of tearara, a hardwood from South America.
Kollwitz plays while seated, but Chapman meant for musicians to play his instrument while standing. But Kollwitz doesn’t care. “It just feels more natural to me this way,” he says.
He’s in the middle of Lennon and McCarthy’s “Yesterday” when a woman who works in a nearby office walks by. By the quick steps she’s taking, it appears that she’s in a hurry. But she eventually stops and listens.
“What is that thing?” she asks.
“Chapman Stick,” Kollwitz says with the true smile of a firm believer. “Isn’t it cool?”
“Maybe I’ll just listen for a little while,” she says.
She stands there a long time.
Once, I relaxed by entering a sensory deprivation floatation tank. It’s a simple yet powerful experience. I remember disrobing and slipping into a completely black and silent tomblike chamber filled with water heated to body temperature. The buoyancy of the water was extremely high and I floated with no sense of direction, gravity or space for what seemed an immeasurable (neither long nor short) amount of time.
The sensation that I am experiencing now, through Kollwitz’s Chapman Stick music, is similar to the way I felt in the tank–relaxed, separated from the tedium of life and connected to the core of who I really am.
It’s odd that the two experiences make me feel similar, because listening to the Chapman Stick is close to auditory overload. It’s amazing how much sound can come out of something that is so simple on the eye. If I hadn’t been sitting directly in front of Kollwitz, I would swear a small band was playing multiple instruments simultaneously, because that’s what it sounds like.
“When I first heard The Chapman Stick, that’s what I thought,” Kollwitz says. “I thought, how can so much sound be coming out of that thing? I knew from that moment that I wanted one.”
Kollwitz first discovered the instrument in 1976, two years after Chapman invented it. Kollwitz was 19 years old and stumbled across Emmett Chapman himself.
“I told myself that no matter what, I was going to get my own Stick by the end of the year,” Kollwitz says.
He did, and still remembers the day clearly.
“It was December 29,” he says. “It cost me like $700, which was a lot of money back then. A lot. I didn’t have a car or even an amp to plug it into to, but I just knew that things would fall into place.”
That day he took his first lesson–which ended up lasting for three hours–with Chapman. “I took lessons with him for a long time,” Kollwitz says. “I loved it right away… But it took about ten years for me to say that I was truly comfortable with its capabilities. It has a 5.5 octave range. A piano has eight. So if you take off the real high and the real low keys of the piano, you’ve got the Stick.”
Kollwitz demonstrates that range beautifully as he goes into what sounds like a flamenco version of “Yesterday,” followed by a haunting “Stairway to Heaven.” He’s been playing the Stick for about 30 years and says that he’s still learning, still discovering new things about it all the time.
The Chapman Stick can play classical, flamenco, hard rock and even something approximating a “slack-key” sound, but it’s not even close to well known. I ask Kollwitz why he thinks most people have never seen or heard it before.
“I have no idea,” he says. “I want the world to know about this instrument. I want Oprah to know about the Chapman Stick.”
Its lack of fame may have something to do with the fact that the Chapman family is still the exclusive producer of the instruments. They put out a limited number each year.
Other people may have seen and heard the Chapman Stick, but didn’t know that’s what they were hearing. In the movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the futuristic musical instrument called the balliset was actually a Chapman Stick painted gold. Its music was included in the soundtrack.
More people flow through the courtyard. Not one of them just walks by. Everyone, regardless of age, stops and listens to Kollwitz play his Chapman Stick.
Over the years, Kollwitz has played at countless festivals, fairs and resorts. He has put out nine albums and one full-length concert DVD. He’s been covered in local papers and interviewed on the radio.
While here on Maui, he plans on playing at the resorts as well as under the Banyan Tree in Lahaina. In fact, the general public of Maui will get its first chance to experience Kollwitz and his Chapman Stick at the upcoming Maui County Fair.
It’s said that music is universal–and not just in it’s over all appeal. A scientific study presented this past April at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy meeting in Lancashire, England reports that “looping magnetic fields across the Sun’s outer regions, called the corona, carry magnetic sound waves in a similar manner to musical instruments such as guitars or pipe organs.”
Granted, these sound waves are much too low for humans to hear—and sound doesn’t move through the vacuum of space in any case—but if we could, we would actually be able to listen to the sun. And it would sound like music.
“I’ve been told that the music from the Stick is peaceful and healing,” Kollwitz says. “I never set out to do music like that, but it just is.”
For more information visit www.michaelkollwitz.com MTW