Educator, performer and Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra member Eugene Nichols has had an active spring and summer, engrossed with building and perfecting a new-and-improved hubcaphone—a percussion instrument spanning 4 and 1/2 chromatic octaves, made of carefully selected vintage hubcaps and played with mallets. “What a thrill to start at square one with a new instrument!” says Gene. “I like occupying the timbral territory between gamelan and steel pans.”

After constructing an initial ‘hubcaphone’ in 2008-2009, with help from Jim Sawyer, Clifton Moser and other UMM students, Gene began wishing to create version 2.0 in 2012, and took first steps towards creation of the new instrument in June 2020. This time ‘round, he’s been helped by neighbor Don Ficker and UMM stalwart Chris Skinner, and sourced hubcaps, as always, at ‘Hubcap Country’, Dalton Munson’s business in East Machias, Maine.

At every phase of the new instrument’s construction, Gene has been self-documenting with his iPhone—while on the hunt for just the right hubcaps, painting the instrument’s support pipes, drilling, hanging and tying, and through extensive testing and adjustments. He’s also begun recording tunes to send to distant friends and family. A premiere tune shared here is the Irish ballad “Come Give Me Your Hand,” performed in honor of the birth (in Switzerland) of his daughter Daphne’s second child, Aoife (‘ee-fa’: Irish for beauty).

“I played ‘Happy Birthday’ over the phone as [she] gave birth. I video’d ‘A Child is Born’ by Thad Jones and ‘Come Give Me Your Hand,’ but don’t have the oomph to send them overseas.” Perhaps via these means, Daphne and family will be able to enjoy the tune inspired by Aoife’s advent, as well as ‘intro’ tune, “The Midnight Fire Alarm,” a novelty descriptive march dating in the family repertoire back to Gene’s grandmother.

About the major photographic project undertaken in tandem with hubcaphone construction, Gene notes, “I always thought I’d enjoy photography. Back in 1976 I had a little candy bar camera and took some snapshots of my first couple circus seasons. After that—nothing until this phone. A few short videos of Les Trois Etoiles, etc., and now this.”

Gene, who leads the music department at the University of Maine at Machias, has been an active participant in Cobscook Institute’s weekly music circle (Monday nights via Zoom) and an open online Open Mic hosted by Elizabeth Nichols-Goodliff (Sunday nights, also via Zoom). In addition to these online endeavors, Gene’s also been doing experimental live performances with Les Trois Etoiles, an improv group who’ve been doing outdoor popup shows throughout Washington County (read more about the group, and see videos of them in action, including at EAC’s 2012 Moose Island Follies, here).

Gene (at right) performs at Bad Little Falls, Machias, with improv outfit Les Trois Etoiles in April 2020; a frequent collaborator Clifton Moser is at left.

Stay tuned here at EAC Video for more from Gene, including performances, footage of the hubcaphone project, and clips from his August 2010 EAC show with Duane Ingalls, ‘Negotiating Worthless Instruments,’ where some may remember the original hubcaphone (transported to EAC in a U-HAUL) making a big splash with Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk.”