MIT Concourse team restores Kendall T Station’s musical installation
Instructor Steve Drasco and students ensure Paul Matisse’s 30-year-old Kendall Band continues to resonate
The Kendall Band, a three-part musical sculpture in Kendall T Station, was first dedicated in October 1987. Each piece — Pythagoras, a line of alternating 16 bells and 14 hammers; Kepler, a 55-inch diameter ring and hammer; and Galileo, a stainless steel “thunder sheet” — can be played by someone standing on either platform of the station.
Artist Paul Matisse, now 84, had spent years carefully crafting and tuning the three pieces. Matisse comes from an artistic lineage as grandson of Henri Matisse and stepson of Marcel Duchamp. He studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s architecture program. In 1963, Matisse invented the Kalliroscope, an artwork visualising currents in liquid, which he still sells to museums and research centers. After 1980, Matisse switched to working primarily with sound, including many large bell installations.
Matisse, in an interview with The Tech, said that inspiration for Pythagoras first came from being at an old heavy aircraft setting in the 1950s, when he tossed stones at several steel rods and they made “beautiful sound[s].”
Unfortunately, the Kendall Band broke soon after its installation, with Pythagoras failing before Kepler and Galileo were even fully installed. Matisse said, in an email to The Tech, that he himself recognized “as a not very sophisticated piece of machinery, it does have a few weaknesses: connections loosen or break, parts occasionally fail.”
Matisse first worked on repairs alone. Matisse said that as he did repairs, he “would leave a message on the board [and] the message would receive comments.” Comments ranged from thank-yous: “Thanks Paul, it does wonders for the decor,” and, “Thanks, even the subways can be beautiful,” to technical advice: “Galileo’s cable needs tightening.”
But, after nearly 20 years, Matisse began to tire of the work. He said, “I eventually realized that if its music mattered enough to the riders of the T, the repairs would have to come from a supporting group, ideally a small band of students from MIT.”
In June 2009, Brown University alumnus Seth Parker came to similar conclusions. He asked various organizations for support and ultimately found MIT Theater Arts’s Clarise Snyder. Snyder then contacted MIT alumnus and technical instructor in Materials Science and Engineering Michael Tarkanian ’00.
Tarkanian, in an email to The Tech, said that he “agreed to run the technical side of the project and Clarise ran the administrative side.” They formed the Kendall Band Preservation Society, a student team of over 20 members. The MBTA trained and permitted the team to restore the Kendall Band. After 13 months, the team restored Pythagoras and held a re-installation ceremony on Apr. 30, 2011.
Soon, though, Tarkanian married and his professional responsibilities at MIT grew, the students graduated, and the Kendall Band Preservation Society lost its status as an official MIT student group. Tarkanian said, “I just ran out of time and energy to devote the project, but it kept me up at night not working on it because the Kendall Band is a special thing to me. I wanted someone to work on it.”
Luckily, Tarkanian found Concourse physics instructor Steve Drasco. Drasco first experienced the Kendall Band in the early 1990s as a graduate student visiting from New York. In an interview with The Tech, he said he was fascinated by the installation’s mixture of art and science.
But, when Drasco returned in 2016 to begin his job at MIT, he found that the Kendall Band was no longer working. Drasco’s wife, an art historian at Harvard, connected Drasco to Matisse through a coworker. Matisse then brought Drasco to Tarkanian. Tarkanian called Drasco “a perfect fit.”
By May 2017, Drasco and two of his students, Maxine “Max” Beeman ’20 and Carlos Sendao ’20, had fixed one of the outbound levers on Pythagoras, which once again chimed in the station. This year, Drasco has enlisted several more students to work on the project.
So far, Drasco and his students have been down in the station to work on the project four times. Lani Lee ’21, one of the students who joined the project this year, said in an interview with The Tech that she originally joined because of her interest in music. She also said, “It’s a cool project because … we go [to Kendall Station] all the time and … it’s … very relaxing [to listen to].”
Amusingly, Lee noted that oftentimes when they worked, they would be misrecognized as MBTA workers. One time, Lee said she was asked, “‘Can you fix that machine over there? It ate our ticket.’”
Lee said that she plans to continue working on the project because of its low commitment and since it is “really rewarding” to successfully fix a piece.
Fixing the pieces, though, has come with many challenges.
The greatest has been finding enough students to work on the project. Matisse, in an email to The Tech, explained this conundrum: “In the entire world there are probably no students with less free time on their hands, no students so fiercely challenged by the requirements of their teachers, no students more intensely focused on excelling.”
Drasco said that even for a small 15-minute repair, like placing a threaded metal tube between two boxes in Pythagoras, they need at least a team of three. The team also needs to notify the MBTA ahead of time in order to obtain a flagger to warn the incoming trains.
He and Tarkanian both expressed hope that Concourse’s influx of new students every year will continue providing eager restorers for the project. Drasco welcomed anyone interested in helping to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another challenge is that all blueprints have been lost in a hard drive failure. There is now only the Kendall Band Preservation Society’s Kendall Band Operations and Maintenance Manual, a binder of technical drawings and parts lists.
Unfortunately, Drasco stated that the technical drawings were “not really useful” and therefore “of minimal influence.” Furthermore, as Drasco flipped through the binder, it was clear that many of the specifications for parts were missing. Instead, Drasco and his team have been relying on Tarkanian and Matisse’s expertise.
Drasco and his students also have little room to work in. Currently half of Drasco’s office is occupied by restoration equipment. Drasco wished that there could be space — even a closet — outside of his office for the students to work in, so that they could also work without his supervision. But, he conceded, this was unlikely to happen at MIT, where “finding space … is harder than finding money.”
Drasco claimed Pythagoras could be completely working again by the end of IAP, an event that Matisse said would warrant “celebration.” Once again, the ethereal B minor chords may be reverberating through the station. After Pythagoras, Drasco and his team will begin work on Kepler and Galileo.
With regards to the future, Tarkanian stated that while the “instruments are not terribly complicated,” they will need “routine repairs and maintenance.” Matisse was equally positive: “anybody who cares for it can probably make it happen.”
Update 02/02/18: The article was corrected to reflect that Seth Parker is in fact an alumnus of Brown University, not of MIT.