On a windy day in southern Arizona's remote borderlands, Glenn Weyant had everything he needed to make music — a cello bow, a mallet and the miles-long fence dividing the United States and Mexico.
His method, like his music, was improvisational and low-tech: He inserted electronic equipment into an Altoids tin, turning it into a microphone. Weyant filled the tin with magnets and pressed it against the fence a few inches off the ground. Wires attached to the tin led to an amp and several effects pedals — the kind electric guitarists use — which allow him to manipulate sounds.
Desert scrub, mesquite and sun-bleached rocks would serve as his audience; sometimes they do double duty as instruments.
"Nobody thought of the border wall as possibly anything other than something to separate people," he said. "I transform it. I play it."
For eight years, he has tapped, banged and stroked the fence to produce haunting, sometimes ethereal, sounds in a region he has called the "de facto militarized zone." Compositions can last a minute — or more than half an hour. "I'm a border deconstructionist," said the 50-year-old Tucson resident. "I want to deconstruct preconceived notions. What I'm saying is you don't need to be afraid of the wall. You have nothing to fear."
He moved to Tucson 19 years ago when much of the border fence in southern Arizona was barbed wire. It seemed forbidden. He didn't know whether he could even touch it. "Am I allowed?" Weyant recalled wondering.
Though people tend to stay away — at least on the northern side — it's not against the law to touch it.
The New Jersey native had been drawn to unusual sounds his whole life — as a boy he enjoyed listening to the hypnotic pattern of his grandfather's electric fan. One day in 2005 — a time of growing concern about illegal immigration and terrorism — he decided he wanted to hear what sounds the fence could make. "It was a symbol of fear and loathing. I wanted to transform it into something else … an instrument so that people on both sides can have open dialogue and communication," Weyant said.
He experimented with drumsticks, mallets, violin bows and cello bows. Sometimes he'd use sticks found on the ground.
In Nogales, he played a fence made of repurposed helicopter landing pads, sometimes creating a staccato sound. He'd capture the noise from birds landing on top of the fence, and the sounds of cars and people passing through the port of entry.
In Sasabe, he created a delicate raspy sound when he put a violin or cello bow on rusty mattress wires ranchers had stretched between fence posts to keep their cattle from straying into Mexico.
The results, he said, were beautiful.
Weyant is more interested in creating effects than melodies. His recordings can sound like wind chimes or have the flutelike breathiness created by blowing across a bottle top. Other sounds resemble moans, whistles and clicks and suggest whale songs or the ambient noise on a New Age relaxation tape. "Some people describe it as nails on a chalkboard," he said. "It can elicit a repulsion, fear, eeriness. It can be ethereal. It's something that can be expansive."
People who have stumbled across Weyant sometimes looked on from afar, unsure of what he's doing. Others have approached him and stayed for a private concert. "Making the inhumane, humane and human," one person commented on a YouTube video of Weyant making music. "Bravo. Beautiful. Inspiring."
For the most part, Border Patrol has left him alone. "I'm a white male playing the border wall," Weyant said. "I'm aware of my privileged status."