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After more than a century of turmoil, Kaho‘olawe is poised for a new beginning
Vol. 9, No. 2
April/May 2006

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The Shape of Sound 

story by Jamie Winpenny
photos by Joe Graziano


It’s a breezy mid-morning in Nu‘uanu Valley, with the pre-dawn dew still clinging to the grass and the sun just working its way through the cloud cover above the Ko‘olau mountains. Artist and twenty-year Honolulu resident Steve Rosenthal is barefoot on his backyard patio, surveying this idyllic scene as he describes the particular challenge of tuning a concert grand piano over the roar of a lawn mower. As if on cue, a neighbor’s gas-powered weed whacker fires up, the insistent whine threatening to drown out our conversation. Rosenthal smiles, then shrugs.

“You just have to integrate it.”

Soft-spoken and prone to this sort of Zen-tinged understatement, Rosenthal himself is a study in artistic integration. He is a piano-tuner by trade; a sculptor and woodworker whose art has been exhibited from Honolulu’s Contemporary Museum to the United States Embassy in Bangladesh; and an avant-garde composer and musician who often performs on instruments of his own construction, which are themselves works of museum-quality art. Somehow it all fits together, but … how?

“We use the same words to describe music and art,” he offers, scratching absently at his salt-and-pepper beard. “Tone, texture, contrast and composition: They’re equally important to both.”

Fleeing the noise of yardwork, we trade porch for living room, which is filled with all manner of musical instruments: conga drums, Chinese gongs, marching band cymbals, maracas, flutes, lutes and guitars. As he explains the origins of the various devices, Rosenthal leans over an odd contraption he fashioned out of found items—a wood file, a small length of construction rebar and other random metal objects. He gently strikes the instrument, producing pitch-perfect, other-worldly tones.

As the son of a concert pianist growing up in San Diego, California, it was natural for Rosenthal to gravitate to music. Classically trained in composition and performance— primarily with double reed and wind instruments—he began his formal musical education when he was nine, and went on to study at San Diego State University and the Kansas City Conservatory of Music, where he focused on the oboe.