Cooking with steam

Radiator music warms up local orchestra
By EMILY PARKHURST  |  February 24, 2010

KEEPING WARM Composer-for-radiators Travis Ramsey.

While most of us find the clang and bang of old radiators an annoying aspect of living in an old building, composer Travis Ramsey thought they sounded like music.

"We recently bought a 1937-era house. All these crazy radiators make a bunch of wild noises," says Ramsey, who lives in Malden, Massachusetts. They have inspired a wild new composition.

His piece, The Lost Art of Steam Heating, which is named after the book by Dan Holohan that Ramsey and his wife used to tune up their old heating system, will have its world premiere this weekend, when the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra (SMSO) performs it alongside the notoriously challenging Pictures at an Exhibition by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, Felix Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave Overture, and a selection of three of Antonin Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances," led by two USM conducting students.

Ramsey graduated from the USM School of Music in 2003 with a degree in music education and is currently finishing up a master's in music education at Boston University. He teaches elementary school music in Massachusetts, but composing has always been his true passion.

"I really just enjoy creating something that's never been heard," Ramsey says. He describes The Lost Art of Steam Heating as starting out quietly, like a radiator often does, with hisses and clicks. "Once the heat clicks on, it gets more exciting," he says.

"It really does evoke the sounds of being in those older homes," says SMSO conductor Robert Lehmann.

The work is one movement between six and seven minutes long that requires the percussion section to literally bang on two old radiators. Ramsey said he wanted to use more traditional methods of composition and not require the use of electronic recordings to enhance the piece.

"I couldn't think of anything that sounds like a radiator except for banging on a radiator," he says.

The percussionists will be asked to tap, hit, and bang on the radiators using small hammers or heavy mallets in three different places, generating three different tones. The top of the radiator where the ribs connect is a high-pitched clang; the ribs themselves produce a darker, deeper tone; and the bottom, where the legs and valve are, offers a duller, dead tone.

Ramsey says he's never written for radiators before, which, unlike brake drums, have not made the transition from utilitarian use to musical instrument, and that, if he had to do it over again, he may have reconsidered. Lehmann says he had a very difficult time locating two used radiators for the performance.

"Most of them are still attached to pipes, heating houses," Ramsey says. "They were very difficult to find and to move into the space."

Lehmann says he contacted contractors and salvage yards, but couldn't promise the radiators wouldn't be damaged by the percussionists.

"One of the musicians is lending us one that she had in her basement. It's a big, old one. It's going to take three or four people just to move it," he says.

Ramsey says that aside from the non-traditional percussion, the rest of the work is very tonal, calling for a standard orchestra. But while the symphony will carry his music onward, his initial inspiration may have departed: His wife, a chemical engineer, has been working on the radiators in their house. "I'm happy to report, since we moved in she's fixed them all," he says.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at

THE LOST ART OF STEAM HEATING | composed by Travis Ramsey | performed by the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra | February 27 @ 8 pm | Gorham Middle School auditorium, Weeks Rd, Gorham | $6 | 207.780.5555

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