When I met Walter Kitundu, shortly after I started working at the Walker in 1998, he was making music. And musical instruments. And intricate dollar-bill drawings. And god knows what else. Now, as of Monday, he’s a MacArthur Fellow, honored with a $500,000 grant to continue his inventions — and all of us at the Walker wish him warm congratulations.
A quick scan of Kintundu’s website offers ample evidence of the 35-year-old San Francisco resident’s catholic creative impulses: from sometimes sharply political dollar drawings to remarkable nature photography (a raccoon testing the buoyancy of a river log, for instance, shot during his ongoing residency at Headlands Center for the Arts) to musical compositions to visual art. But what he is perhaps best known for is inventing and building instruments, most notably the phonoharp, a hybrid of turntable and stringed instrument. Described by the San Francisco Chronicle as looking “like something John Sebastian might sample on a reunion tour of the Lovin’ Spoonful,” the instrument “creates a sound that combines the gentleness of the plucked strings with an LP spun on the turntable.” That sound captured the attention of the members of Kronos Quartet, who each wanted one. They hired him on as Kronos Instrument Builder in residence, and he ended up writing a composition for phonoharp specifically for the group; it was performed at last year’s San Francisco Jazz Festival, with Kitundu accompanying on clarinet (he’s reportedly building four “trumpet violins” for the quartet as well).
A native of Rochester, Minn., Kitundu has a long history with the Walker. Performing Arts Residency Coordinator at the turn of the millennium, he also co-wrote a commissioned piece, entitled simply 8, for the opening of the Walker’s 1999 exhibition of Robert Gober’s art. And last year, he opened up a concert by So Percussion and Matmos in the McGuire Theater. Living in San Francisco for the past decade, Kitundu is employed as a MultiMedia artist at the Exploratorium and is currently the Wornick Distinguished Visiting Professor of Wood Arts at the California College of the Arts, in addition to his work for Kronos.
“We’re thrilled for Walter. We had the pleasure of working with him at WAC in his formative days,” says Doug Benidt, associate curator of performing arts. “His omnivorous curiosity, unfailing grace, and ease of medium manipulation was evident early on. It’s a remarkable statement of achievement and a proper cosmic turn for the better. His career is shaping into an exceptional compound… instrument builder, bird photographer, composer, designer, musician, woodsmith, (what’s next?)… Walter is a true artist who now has the luxury of dollar-drenched research limited only by his preferences.”