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Charmed Life

Different Drummer

Christopher Myers

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 1/22/2003

You can see John Millen's house from Windsor Mill Road in Leakin Park, a small white geodesic dome perched on a wooded bluff above Gwynn's Falls. I spotted the place years ago, but when I drove into Windsor Hills recently for a closer look, the odd little house seemed to have vanished. I eventually realized that it sits below street level, reachable by a steep flight of stairs, hidden from all but its nearest neighbors,

Millen, a tall, snowy-haired man of 60, smiles when I remark on his nearly invisible dwelling. "A good thing, when the rest of the houses are Victorian," he says. Millen designed and built the dome himself between 1979 and '82. "I'd never built a house before," he says, "but I have an intuitive understanding of how to build things." Millen isn't boasting, just explaining.

For the last 15 years, the soft-spoken Baltimore native has applied his intuition to the making of drums based on traditional designs--the Irish bodhran, the congalike ashiko, the Inuit kilaut, and a half-dozen other models prized by multicultural percussionists and "New Age" healers. Working under the trade name of Thunderheart Drums, Millen employs no assistants or middlemen; his buyers find him at high-end craft shows or through his Web site (www.thunderheartdrums.com).

The enterprise takes its name from a one-of-a-kind ceremonial drum that Millen built in 1988, now on display in his living room. Suspended in a wooden cradle, the original Thunderheart consists of a cylinder more than five feet in diameter and 16 inches deep. It's fitted with a cowhide drumhead painted in bold colors. According to its maker, Thunderheart is one of the largest natural-skin drums in the world. It has boomed at all sorts of events, from the national Earth Day celebration in 1990 to a concert with the U.S. Marine Band. Millen demonstrates, tapping the drumhead gently with a padded mallet. The resonance rattles objects on the far side of the room.

The drum business provides a modest but satisfying livelihood. "I live month to month," Millen says, "and I've had times when I felt this wasn't working, but without fail something would happen to bring in money. . . . If you do what you're supposed to do in life, the universe pitches in. You get help."

Millen came to drum-making after a series of interconnected adventures and careers. He grew up in Northwood, learned to play the trumpet, attended the Peabody Conservatory on scholarship, and then got seduced by dreams of "sailing off into the islands."

"My ambition was to be a beachcomber," he says. While working as a music teacher, he built a 35-foot trimaran--a speedy three-hulled craft--which he dubbed the Aquarius. In 1970 Millen and a ragtag crew set off on an 18-month voyage to Florida, the Bahamas, and the Cacos Islands.

Skills acquired through boat-building led Millen to fine cabinetmaking and construction work. Somewhere along the way he got involved in what poet Robert Bly dubbed the "expressive men's movement." While contemporary humorists mocked the notion of sweaty middle-class guys beating drums around campfires and discovering their "inner warriors," Millen found a new purpose for his skills and sensibilities--and a new obsession. "I went into an intense exploration of drums," he recalls. "I studied every drum I could get my hands on." Within two years he was a full-time drum-maker.

"It couldn't have been more accidental," he says, "and yet I feel it couldn't have been accidental. . . . There couldn't be anything more appropriate for me to do."

In retrospect, Millen traces his present vocation to the same impulse that inspired him to build a sailboat 35 years ago. "It was a way of understanding the necessity for building harmony in things. It was an aesthetic problem, not just a construction problem," he says, stressing that his take on aesthetics was not just a matter of appearances, but of "essence."

Lately, his quest for essence has focused on the tar, a handheld Arabic drum less than five inches deep, "probably the smallest drum and the most intimate. . . . It's been around for hundreds and hundreds of years." At craft shows, Millen says, his tars attract people of Mideastern descent, some of whom are experienced players. "They'll pick it up and the whole scene just moves out to the Arabian desert."

He has also been drawn "more and more to the silence underneath the sound. . . . I don't know how to talk about that or describe it, but in a good drum the sound comes out of a silence that has clarity and speaks.

"It's kinda weird," he muses, "to be a maker of drums and be fascinated by silence."

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