J Berry and the quest for the sound

Deep in the basement of the Frohlich Piano and Percussion Building is a storage room that, to the untrained eye, appears to be full of junk.

To J Berry, manager of Instrument Services at Interlochen, that room full of “junk” represents hours of work, years of memories and boundless resourcefulness. This place holds the various auxiliary instruments created for some of Interlochen’s most memorable performances—because not every instrument written into a composition can be bought ready-made from the store.

Originally a classically trained string instrumentalist and an Interlochen Arts Camp alumna herself, J has been in charge of helping Interlochen’s conductors and percussionists find just the right sound for the past 20-odd years.  “We try to mimic what we think the composers wanted,” said J. “The first step is listening to every recording of the piece and deciding what it needs to sound like. Then it’s a matter of finding it on campus.”

One of J’s first challenges was finding the right thunder sheet for Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. J and stage services scoured Interlochen’s campus in search of just the right piece of metal to create a thunder sheet. Each time a new sheet was used in rehearsal, the conductor’s response was the same: “It’s not enough!”

J reached out to her friends and colleagues, finally finding a sheet of scrap metal in a friend’s barn. (“It took eight people to move!” she recalled.) Maintenance cut the sheet into three smaller sections and helped hang one segment on a percussion stand. The conductor was finally pleased—with the metal.

“He said, ‘that’s the right metal, but the wrong mallets,’” J said. “We ran through all the mallets we had—which is about 40 mallets. We even tried hammers, which he said were ‘too tinny.’” One of J’s colleagues joked that maybe it was time to cut down a tree. Then, behind High School Girls cabin 27, they found the perfect log. Two holes, a broom handle and some felt later, J had two perfect “Mahler mallets.”

J and her team often collaborate with maintenance to find the perfect materials for auxiliary percussion instruments. “Maintenance thinks we’re crazy, but they enjoy us,” she said with a laugh.

Perhaps not quite crazy, but certainly focused. “J is like the cavalry in the summer when she and her program staff dismount from their cube truck to deliver or remove music stands and chairs from multiple venues,” said Director of Maintenance and Facility Services Bill Singer.   

Other maintenance technicians, particularly Neal Wilson and Roger Beattie in the body shop, are familiar with J’s visits. More often than not, she’s seeking their expertise in metalworking. Besides rewelding the numerous stools and instrument stands that break each summer, maintenance also provides and cuts scrap metal for custom percussion instruments. One such example was a set of wind chimes made from bolts—a dead ringer for a telephone’s chime.

Maintenance also lent a hand when alumnus Lew Lipnick (IAA 62-64) returned to campus in 2009 to perform a contrabasson concerto he had commissioned from Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Aho’s composition scored “chains to be dropped into a wooden box.” A campuswide search for a perfectly-pitched box resulted in the selection of a box that was constructed as a stepstool for junior campers. With the box picked, J and Lew visited maintenance for a chain. “He stood there with his eyes closed, listening to the chains fall into the box, saying, ‘Not that one. That one’s close. Can I hear the second one again?’” J said.

Although the bulk of J’s creations are percussion instruments—”It’s a way of life for them”—she has also had to alter other instruments from time to time. Prepared pianos are common. “Composition majors are always wanting to stick erasers and coins and nails into pianos,” J said.

For the 2016 NY Phil Biennial performance, J helped many students modify their instruments to create the composer’s desired sound. Ashley Fure’s “Bound to the Bow” found J providing styrofoam to violinists, creating mallets out of superballs and coat hangers, and threading honey dippers into harps. “The harpists almost had coronaries when I said we needed to put honey dippers in their strings,” J recalled. “I had to tell them, ‘Don’t worry, it won’t hurt your instrument.’”

Nico Muhly’s “So Far So Good” also called for an uncommon instrument: ocean waves. After dozens of electronic recordings failed to produce the sound Muhly was looking for, J began researching other ways to make wavelike noises. The perfect solution? Beans placed in a traditional Irish drum known as a bodhran.  

In 2007, J’s skills were put to the test when WYSO performed Carlos Chavez’s Sinfonia India. The piece calls for dried butterfly cocoons and deer hooves. J’s team came up with a simple, humanitarian solution to the cocoons—peanut shells filled with birdseed. Deer hooves, however, were harder to obtain. As usual, J reached out to her connections in maintenance, asking if anyone had any hooves left over from deer hunting season.

The next morning, J arrived at her office to find that her entire staff was standing outside. J asked what was wrong. “They delivered your deer hooves,” was the answer. Sure enough, four deer hooves were sitting in a plastic bag on J’s desk—but with bits of muscle and hair still clinging to them, they were in no shape to be used, much less placed on anyone’s desk. “I put the bag outside the door, called maintenance, and said, ‘Can you clean these up for me?’”

J’s favorite experience, however, was collecting what was affectionately known as “the car parts” for Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony. Dun’s composition called for wheel rims—specifically tuned wheel rims. J’s team was dispatched to every nook and cranny of campus to collect an assortment of wheel rims from every type of vehicle: from golf carts to what J described as the “big yellow manly truck.” Once collected, the wheel rims were washed and repainted. Then it was the conductor’s turn.

“He came down to the maintenance bus barn with a tuner and tuned every rim,” J said. “All of maintenance stopped what they were doing to watch.”

J is keeping Interlochen’s long history of resourceful instrumentation alive: during her days as a camper in the 70s, she recalled a performance of the 1812 Overture that subbed shotguns—firing blanks, of course—for cannons. These days, Interochen opts of safer electronic alternatives, but the need for outside-of-the-box thinking and creative instrumentation is the same.

“We’ll come up with anything that you need us to,” J said proudly.