All things Considered
by Sacha Pfeiffer
April 20, 2o11, 6:45pm
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — If you’ve ever boarded the Red Line at Kendall Square, you may be familiar with the interactive musical sculpture that has hung over the tracks for years.
It’s an elaborate system of pipes, mallets and hammers connected to a network of rods, cables and gears, and it’s called the Kendall Band.
“It makes waiting for the T a lot more fun,” says Alessondra Springmann, a 25-year-old grad student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I used to really enjoy showing up at Kendall five minutes before the train would show up and just playing the bells. You swing a lever back and forth and these pendulums swing, and you can produce really cool music while you’re waiting for the T.”
Springmann says that from the first time she stepped foot on the Kendall train platform, she was struck by how the sculpture brings people together.
“You see kids there and they’re kind of wiggling the hammer back and forth and nothing’s happening — and not just kids but adults acting like kids,” she says. “Sometimes someone on the other platform will start playing. It’s really interactive. It’s a very collaborative piece of artwork.”
But for the past year that artwork has been silent. It was installed back in 1987 to mark the opening of the rebuilt Kendall station, and it had become so dirty and damaged after two decades of heavy use that it needed a major overhaul.
So last spring it was partly dismantled and taken to an MIT machine shop for cleaning and repairs in a volunteer effort organized in part by MIT engineering instructor Mike Tarkanian.
“The first step is that we spray it down with a citrus de-greaser, and that seems to remove the brake dust quickly,” Tarkanian explains. “The next stage, after removing all the dirt, is to clean it with soap and water, and then we sand it with sandpaper.”
In many ways, it’s simple work; it takes muscle, time and — in Tarkanian’s words — “literally elbow grease.” At the end of that process, components that were once black and grimy look shiny and new.
In all, thousands of pieces of the sculpture — from the giant pipes to the coils, ropes and weights — had to be cleaned and repaired, Tarkanian says.
“The best part,” he adds, “is to get inside of the sculpture and see how Paul put it together, visualized it and built it.”
“Paul” is 78-year-old Paul Matisse, grandson of artist Henri Matisse and creator of the Kendall Band. For years he had repaired the sculpture by himself, traveling to Kendall Station in the middle of the night, when the trains had stopped running, to dismantle broken parts, repair them at his home outside Boston, and then reinstall them. Over time he began to wonder if it was worth the hassle.
But from now on, volunteers from MIT will be responsible for the artwork’s upkeep. MIT instructor George Stephans is one of the people pitching in, and he says he tells his physics students that helping repair the sculpture is instructive in a way no class or textbook could ever be.
“Students spend far too much time sitting in front of a computer screen,” Stephans says. “For a lot of these kids, taking something apart with a wrench is a good experience. It’s dirty, it’s complicated. You have to adjust what you’re doing as you go along because some things don’t work. So I think that kind of education is invaluable.”
Another person helping rehab the musical sculpture is Springmann, the MIT student who said she used to like getting delayed at Kendall because it gave her time to play with the artwork. She says she can’t wait to show off the artwork to her friends.
“I’ll walk into the T station with a friend and be like, ‘I helped clean those. I slaved over putting liquid nylon on those things. I scrubbed this handle here that says the Kendall Band on it,’ ” she says.
“It will have been worth it because five people are going to read my thesis, maybe, if I’m lucky,” Springmann adds. “But being able to have worked on something that thousands of people will see daily, weekly, is going to be very rewarding.”
On Wednesday night at Kendall Station, after rush hour, a major piece of this newly cleaned, newly operational artwork will be reinstalled. The MIT volunteers will then decide whether to clean and repair the other parts of the sculpture. That way, the music above the Kendall tracks will be playing for many years to come.