Hal Rammel is an instrument builder, improviser, teacher, photographer, author, record-label owner, and a radio producer based in Wisconsin. All of his creative output relates to the notion of improvisation and self-design as ways to reach a higher level of surrealist imagination. He performs rarely and has released few records, but he played with Davey Williams, LaDonna Smith, Michael Zerang, and Gene Coleman, among others.
Rammel grew up in a house inhabited by art. His father was a photographer (with an interest in woodwork), his mother a painter and sculptor. He was exposed to a wide range of music as a child. His jazz interests during his teens led him to the music of the AACM, Anthony Braxton, and the whole experimental scene happening in the late '60s and early '70s in Chicago. Meanwhile, a passion for off-kilter vernacular traditions (one-man bands, Spike Jones, cartoon music) and the works of surrealist writers and artists pushed him toward instrument design, before becoming a performer (he eventually published a book on the surrealist concept of utopia in pop culture, Nowhere in America: The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Other Comic Utopias, in 1990 on the University of Illinois Press). He built his first instruments, thumb pianos, in the mid-'70s. AACM saxophonist Douglas Ewart, who used one of his marimbas on-stage, encouraged him to pursue this line of work, and he continued to design strange string instruments (like the one-string guitar he uses in Raccoons) and electro-acoustic sound sculptures.
Starting in the early '80s, Rammel was active on the Chicago free improv scene, playing with the likes of Coleman, Zerang, Jim O'Rourke, and John Corbett, but leaving no recordings for posterity. A decade later he moved to Wisconsin, where he organized a small new-music scene, hosting a weekly radio show since 1992 (Alternative Currents on WMSE, Milwaukee) and running his own small independent record company, Penumbra. On this label he released a string of CDs. He also teaches instrument building at the School of Art Institute of Chicago and in elementary schools.
During the '90s, he also developed his interest in photography, building his own cameras to make pinhole photographic art. He has exhibited in Wisconsin, and his works have graced the covers of albums by Joe McPhee and Ellery Eskelin, in addition to his own releases. Since he left Chicago, his most stable musical associations have been with saxophonist Steve Nelson-Raney, Corbett, and Terry Kapsalis (as the trio Van's Peppy Syncopators), and Chris Rosenau and Jon Mueller (as Raccoons).