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Peter Whitehead Artist Musician


Born and raised in England I had no formal musical or art education. My interest in music started at a very young age, singing along with songs on the radio. At the same time I discovered that by shifting the radio dial up and down at different speeds I could play with the sounds and create interesting electronic effects using the crackling and buzzing due to poor reception and noisy tubes. Since then my musical interests have always been somewhere between these two poles. When I was twelve I discovered the magic of microphones and tape recorders and the capturing and manipulation of sound as an art form separate from performing.



Early on I was lucky to go to a school that encouraged drawing and painting and gluing things together. At age four when my Dad handed me a big paintbrush and asked me to help him paint the kitchen I felt like I had done it before. I liked the feel of moving the paint around and knew exactly what to do. Similarly I discovered scissors and glue around age five and they also felt very familiar and rather magical. My teachers encouraged me to pursue art but I opted for science instead obtaining a degree in Biology from Sussex University before shifting focus to art and music and then moving to California in 1975.



In 1982, inspired by photographer Peter Beard, I began keeping large collage journals, a daily practice which I have continued since then. In 2016 I published a book of the journals. Currently I am on my tenth journal.



I always enjoyed taking photographs but I hated the dark room process so when digital came along I welcomed the ability to work directly and quickly with images. I'm mostly drawn to urban situations and derelict post-industrial sites, such as Treasure Island, which has become the focus of an ongoing documentation project and a book.



I built my first instruments in Thailand in 1989 during a long journey through South East Asia, using materials collected locally, such as bamboo, coconuts and bicycle spokes. It was a way to bring together my interests in sculpture and music-making. Before this I had been experimenting with electric guitars, pickups and effects boxes, as well as found instruments such as driftwood and kitchenware. I also had a growing interest in the music and instruments of other cultures and after returning to San Francisco I came across Bart Hopkin's magazine Experimental Musical Instruments and soon became immersed in the world of instrument building and sound making. I wrote a little for the magazine and since then have worked with Bart on several live performances, often improvising  in various configurations including with the group Pet the Tiger.

In 1991 I joined the performance group Mobius Operandi, which made music and theater using Oliver Di Cicco's original instruments and sound sculptures. Over time I have collaborated with many in the Bay Area builders community, often in improvisational settings, in performance or in recording studios, and I have exhibited with them in galleries and museums.
My main purpose in building an instrument is to create a beautiful sculpture that is a reliable, consistent source of interesting, unique sounds. The over riding intention is to make good music. Most of my instruments are inspired by existing folk instruments from around the world, but use unusual or modern materials to bring together the traditional and the new.  I am a great believer in the sound of an instrument being more important than the finesse of its craftsmanship - hence the leaning towards folk instruments, natural materials and simple tools.

Dancers, Film Scores and Songwriting

In 1990 two dancer friends invited me to make music for one of their shows using some of my instruments, partly because of the sculptural qualities of the instruments on the stage, and so I was introduced to the world of performance and scoring. Following this I made scores for many dance companies usually played live on the stage, often featuring original songs. Later I became involved with film makers to create a number of soundtracks.  I have collaborated musically with both groups and individuals, on recordings and in live settings and have worked a lot in the world of improvisation, both with dancers and musicians.
Over time I have collected instruments from various parts of the world, and these in combination with the instruments I have made myself, together with toys, found or re-purposed objects, conventional western instruments, electronics and sampling, make up my orchestra.



In 1991, new to the world of instrument building, I organized 'The Spirit of Invention' - an exhibit of original instruments with performances by ten Bay Area artists at Studio Valencia, San Francisco. This was followed by a show consisting of bowed & blown instruments - 'Bowing and Blowing'. It would be almost thirty years before 'The Spirit of Invention III ' finally manifested at Bridge Art Space in Richmond, California. This show featured live performances, workshops, hands on experiences and film shows, as well as an exhibit of outdoor instruments. Almost all the community of Bay Area instrument builders who I had come to know over the years was represented. The show was so well received it was extended to a three month run.

The Spirit of Invention I - San Francisco 1990
The Spirit of Invention II - San Francisco 1992
Hello Again - Traveling Exhibit, Oakland Museum, Vancouver, Los Angeles 1997
Vinculum - Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco - 1999
Gallery 66 - Solo exhibit, San Francisco 2012
The Center for New Music - San Francisco 2014
Spirit of Invention III - Bridge Arts Center, Richmond CA 2019

Ojai Art Center - Ojai California 2022

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