Coburn Tuller with one of his Celestial Tones instruments, inspired by wind chimes but developed into a sophisticated musical instrument. (Contributed photo)

When Coburn Tuller died in late January at age 74, he was looking forward to continuing the adventure in a fourth dimension.

Although not widely known to the general public, Tuller was a unique and popular character in the Springfield and Branson theater, dance, yoga and, most recently, music communities. And those who did know him say they still feel the presence, or at least the influence, of his spirit.

“We are not just three-dimensional beings,” he once said. “We’re not human beings trying to find a spiritual experience; we’re spiritual beings trying to find a human experience.”

Coburn Tuller

In the earthly realm, Tuller was a master woodworker who put his artistic and inventive skills to good use as a designer and builder of stage sets for theater productions, and also knew his way around theater sound and lighting systems. 

In his 30s, he decided to enroll in the theater department at then-Southwest Missouri State because he felt led to become a ballet dancer despite his age and 6-foot-4 height. And he immersed himself in yoga, into meditation, into spiritual healing.

But perhaps most remarkably, over the past 25 years, Tuller developed massive melodic percussion instruments — sort of xylophones on steroids — with which he produced soothing, ethereal music. He called his creations the Celestial Tones.

As Tuller recounted to his longtime friend Kevin Richardson in a recorded interview, he was restless one night in 1996: 

“I couldn’t make myself sit down. So I’m on a midnight walk and I hear this beautiful sound while walking through the neighborhood. And I thought, ‘Well, what’s that?’ It was wind chimes (but) it was the first time I’d heard the really, really pretty ones. I’d heard the ‘tinky-tinky’ ones, but these were like really nice.” 

He decided to make some for himself. The next day, driving by a Springfield metal supply shop, he turned in to see what they had in the way of raw materials. He bought some flat pieces of metal, but also a four-foot length of aluminum tubing about two inches in diameter. 

“When I hit it, the tone lasted almost a minute — and I was hooked,” he told Richardson. “Went back the next day and bought 20 feet of it, went back two days later and bought another 20 feet.”

Eventually, Tuller concluded, “These are not wind chimes. These are a musical instrument.”

Coburn Tuller’s Celestial Tones instruments incorporate aluminum, brass and PVC tubing cut into precise lengths to produce musical scales in several octaves. (Contributed photo)

Applying what he termed his “basic understanding of music,” Tuller cut tubing — brass and PVC, in addition to aluminum — into lengths that would produce musical scales in several octaves, then assembled them in sturdy, decorative wooden racks. “It took me 10 years to make a decent instrument that had a sound that was unique and wonderful and inspirational and healing,” he said. (Listen here to the music made by his instruments and hear Tuller in his own voice.)

Tuller supported this admitted obsession by building theater sets, and also trade show displays for Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG), out of his Butterfly Productions workshop in downtown Springfield. Some were elaborate, with such features as waterfalls, steam trains and animated characters including a 35-foot-long dragon named Scorch. 

“It was wonderfully creative work and interesting and fun,” Tuller said. “And I got paid for it.”

Richardson assisted Tuller with the AWG assignments, and marveled at his skill as a “creative engineer.”

“His creativity could blow your mind. But at the same time he had to design a display so it could be taken apart and put on a truck. Then you had to get it into another space, reassemble it, make sure it works — and then take it back down again, transport it and store it.”

Polly Brandman met Tuller years earlier, shortly after she moved to Springfield in 1979 to become artistic director of the Springfield Ballet Company and School. “Coburn had come to dance training a little late in life,” she recalls, “but he loved music and movement.” 

The local ballet company was too small at the time to mount a full-scale version of “The Nutcracker” for the holidays, so Brandman created a less-populated production titled “The Magical Toy Maker,” with Tuller in the title role. 

“I could see how popular he was with the kids. He had a profound sense of mischief about him — a twinkle in his eye, and a smile like he knew something that you didn’t. He was perfect for the role.”

Beth Spindler also was a longtime friend of Tuller, dating back to the early 1980s. “Here he was, 10 years older than the other dancers, this huge, tall guy — but he loved, loved, loved to dance. Gosh, he was so into it. And he could lift the girls over his head, which is needed in ballet.”

Over time, the strenuous activity took a toll. “The dancing did in his hips. Eventually he had to have double hip replacement,” she says. That led him into becoming a serious student of yoga, attending Spindler’s yoga therapy classes.

Like her husband Richardson, Spindler admired Tuller’s set-design skills. “He was like the Mad Inventor. If you couldn’t figure out how to do something, you’d take it to Coburn. He could figure out how to do anything.”

Last summer, Tuller was confronted with a challenge he couldn’t overcome — cancer. 

In the autumn he moved to Washington state to be with his daughter Cheyenne in his final months. Like his friends here, she admired his personality and ever-expanding interests.

“My dad was quite the character, to be sure,” says Cheyenne, who grew up in Springfield and attended Greenwood Lab School. “He had the privilege of following his bliss, listening to his muse, following his artistic dreams. He was crazy in a good way — pretty wacky, a lot of fun. He loved practical jokes and puns.”

In all, Tuller created about two dozen Celestial Tones instruments. Some were sold, some given away. The ultimate disposition of his masterpiece, with more than 400 percussion tubes that  took up an entire room in his house overlooking the James River east of Springfield, remains uncertain. “It needs a good home,” says Cheyenne. “He would love nothing more than for a museum to have it.”

Cheyenne says that while others knew her father for his art and his music, she and her siblings — three sisters and one brother, scattered around the country — benefited from being instilled with his personal traits of “kindness and generosity. All us kids really try to embody those qualities. They are his legacy.”

Tuller wrote a book titled “What In the World Is Going On Here?” in an attempt to share his philosophies. “It’s his take on spirituality and how to live a good life,” says Cheyenne. “It’s full of advice. Really sweet.”

In the recorded interview with Richardson, Tuller explains a key tenet this way:

“We need to open up to the spiritual, open up to our angels, open up to intuition, however you want to say it — open up to Jesus, whatever works for you … Pay attention to what’s going on now. The past is history, the future is mystery. The present is a gift — that’s why we call it the present. Celebrate what’s going on right now.”

Shane Knox took Tuller’s lessons to heart.

“Coburn was one of my best friends for 25 years,” says Knox. “He was one of the kindest, most spiritual people I ever knew. He helped me to develop my practice as a shaman and how to just be a good person.

“I told him toward the end that he had shown me how to live, and that now he had to show me how to leave this world with grace. 

“He did that.”

Mike O'Brien

Mike O’Brien is a longtime newspaper reporter, editor and columnist and is also a college journalism educator in Springfield. To suggest a person who might make a subject for Lives Remembered, email him at or More by Mike O’Brien