Jesse Stewart plays the bibliophone in the geodesic dome surrounded by students

Jesse Stewart Gives ‘Hitting the Books’ a Whole New Meaning

By Joseph Mathieu

It was one for the books.

Passersby poked their heads into a geodesic dome at the MacOdrum Library, where an interactive concert called “Hooked on Bibliophonics” had popped up over the lunch hour on Jan. 23, 2017.

For the first performance in a series of five, a bibliophone—a xylophone made out of hardcover books—was available for anyone to play. The interactive 2017 DOME Pop-Up series was conceived to explore musical possibilities on campus in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG) and Carleton’s 75th anniversary.

Making noise for Carleton’s 75th

Jesse Stewart, a Carleton music professor and award-winning percussionist, set up his 11-foot-tall and 20-foot-wide geodesic dome in the main floor reading room. Through two entrances, several players rotated drumming while Stewart played for the whole hour from the middle of his books.

“It’s not just for students. It’s open to anyone who walks, strolls, or rolls by,” said CUAG Director Sandra Dyck as she handed drumsticks to curious onlookers.

The bibliophone contained more than 50 books that Stewart had chosen for their variety in size, colour, and sound quality. They were spread over four tables like flattened, multi-coloured cowbells. Hanging mics gently amplified the beat of sometimes more than a dozen players, making the music loud enough to carry outside the dome but gentle enough not to disturb library reading.

Colin Harkness, gifts co-ordinator in the library’s department of development and acquisitions, offered Stewart a selection of out-of-circulation hardcovers, many of which annually form the library’s Christmas tree of books. Tomes of fiction, non-fiction, dictionaries, and atlases surrounded Stewart like a drum kit.

The books were tapped and pummelled with the same joy. One player slammed Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible into another publication, and Rustic Artistry for the Home by Ralph Killoe proved to be a student favourite.

As different improvisers came through, the bibliophone changed shape. Small piles changed the tonality of the thumps, and the rustling of pages and books opening and closing joined the improvisation. Stewart played the books as if they were toms and cymbals with the same intensity and dedication he lends to his performance with jazz, orchestral and experimental musicians from around the world.

Seeking new sounds

Ever curious, Stewart has been seeking out new sounds his whole career. Over the years, he has performed entire concerts with only a piece of cardboard. In 2010, he performed on an instrument he designed and built out of ice. He has gone on to play with musical luminaries from around the world and regularly plays drums for the Juno Award-winning trio Stretch Orchestra.

His second performance will pop up on March 27 inside the CUAG, and like the next three shows in the fall term, it will be something completely different from the last.

“Look for the dome,” said Stewart, at the end of his set, “[because] you know there’s something crazy going on inside that dome.”

Jesse Stewart plays the bibliophone in the geodesic dome surrounded by studentsJesse Stewart plays the bibliophone in the geodesic dome surrounded by studentsJesse Stewart plays the bibliophone in the geodesic dome surrounded by studentsJesse Stewart plays the bibliophone in the geodesic dome surrounded by studentsA closeup of the bibliophone, played by Jesse StewartA look at the geodesic dome used for Jesse Stewart's performance