Ralphael, (Re)Visionary Stefene Russell Culture

local_cafe Ralphael, (Re)Visionary

by Stefene Russell

Published in Issue No. 20 ~ January, 1999

Charlie Andrus only cuts men’s hair because he learned how to barber in the Army. His barber shop is on State Street, Salt Lake City’s main drag, where barbarians drive their Mustangs really fast and prostitutes walk to and fro. It’s about 40 miles long, full of nothing (it seems) but pawn shops, car dealerships, and bad dim sum parlors. This is why it’s strange to see Charlie’s shop there. You can’t miss it – on the front is a cement bas-relief of a barbershop choir, and near his door is a giant rock that reads “13th South River Rock.” If you get your hair cut in Charlie’s barber chair, you will see that the inside of his shop is just as distinct as the outside. His ceiling is painted with clouds, and there is a very strange fireplace, edged with gingerbread trim. He’ll talk about the family of gray squirrels who pop in and out of the flue. He’s been trying to trap them for years (he doesn’t want to kill them). And if you look just to the left of the fireplace, you will see a photocopied poster that reads:

Like the Greek slave ANDROCLES
RALPHAEL feared not his knee in the
lion’s mouth, when he re-sculpted the
State Capitol Lions, and he fears not
breaking tradition and doing to the VIOLIN
what TIME stopped STRADIVARIUS from doing.

patented, call for appt.

Ralphael Plescia (Ralph for short) is Charlie’s friend, an artist who has a studio in the same building as the barber shop. Ralph is a kind of Mormon William Blake. He’s the author of a theological text, The Theory of Creation (his answer to Darwin), which he painted on large panels of wood. He has also painted a series of calendars that track the creation of the earth and solar system from God’s perspective as he created them. He sculpts, too – a few years ago, he tore out the ground floor of the building and built a replica of hell in his basement, using only cement and rebar. Even the bridge over the lake of groundwater (which appeared in the basement when he dug up the floor) is made of cement and rebar. He also used cement and rebar to refurbish the lions mentioned in the poster, the ones who guard the Utah State Capitol. As a counterpoint to the hell room, Ralph has built a model of heaven upstairs in the attic. He tore out the ceiling, put in a hexagonal skylight, and painted murals of his immediate family in heavenly pre-existence on the walls. They have silver hair and eyes the color of blue gas flames. It may be that in heaven we look like this…because Ralph can see. He trucks with the otherworldly.

Some people don’t think so. Ralph has been labeled a “nut.” He sort of looks like a nut – he’s got wild, curly white hair, and he’s walleyed (one eye is green, the other gray). I think it is mostly people who don’t write down their dreams, and people who take too many aspirins, and people who drive too slowly who think he’s a nut. The only nut that is relevant when you’re talking about Ralph is the tuning nut – Ralph is the creator of the only sound-improvement device for the violin known to mankind. When Clifton Jolley of the Deseret News wrote about Ralph a decade ago, he invited a group of Utah Symphony violinists to try out Ralph’s bridge-and-nut modifications. “The nut enhances the tone…the vibration goes both ways on the string where it’s fingered,” Ralph explained to them. “What I do is carve out the nut to let the string resonate more fully.” He produced five lousy violins, which the musicians played as-is. Then Ralph popped in the modified nut and bridge and handed them back. The musicians were amazed at the difference. When Ralph showed his invention to Joseph Silverstein, the conductor of the Utah Symphony, Silverstein conceded that he “might let it be done to his violin, even though it was outside tradition.”

“I think he was a great man for saying that,” Ralph told me. “It’s hard to change tradition, even in yourself.”

Ralph has also defied tradition by modifying pianos, cellos and guitars the same way. “If it works on one kind of string, it’ll work on another,” he points out.

Ralph used to work at a music store, fixing broken instruments. Maybe looking at bridges and tuning nuts and rosin and tuning forks all day caused the very strange dream which percolated in his head one night.

“A little blond girl came to me in my dream,” Ralph says, “and she said, come with me, there are some people who need to speak with you.”

The little girl led him to two older men in suits – no wings, but it was implied that they were angelic beings. They taught him all sorts of things that night, but the most important information was about sound, about music. How, through a few simple modifications, you can change the vibration of a string on a musical instrument. They also told him that there was much more for him to learn, but now was not the time. Ralph trusts his dreams. So he took their advice – hence his violin modifications. Ralph’s latest experiments involve brass instruments.

“He brought down six identical trumpet mouthpieces, all with different modifications,” says Briant Summerhays, who owns the music shop where Ralph used to work. “We showed them to the customers. Some of the changes went over tremendously, some of them didn’t. But Ralph is still in the experimental phase with that one.”

That is the thing about Ralph – he is brave enough to be always in the experimental phase. Which means that the results aren’t always as polished as most people find appealing. He does have a patent on his violin modifications, but he still hasn’t seen any money from it because no one is really interested in making cheap violins sound like expensive ones.

“You walk around, trying to get people interested in what you’re doing,” he says, “and then you spend too much darn time, and then you realize nothing’s happened. When I’m here [in my studio] I’m my own boss. I finance it myself. Even though it’s small, even if it doesn’t mean a lot, at least it’s my own vision. I’m not depending on anyone else.”

Except – maybe – angels.

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Stefene Russell is a writer and editor who lives in the Midwest. She also plays in a samba/world percussion band, and still uses a manual typewriter from time to time, including as a percussion instrument.