In August 1928 representatives from the German record companies Odeon and Beka were sent to Bali; their efforts resulted in 98 recordings on 78 rpm discs of a wide variety of examples of Balinese music.
As it happened, at that time Bali was undergoing an artistic revolution. A new style known as kebyar was rapidly gaining popularity, and older ceremonial styles were literally disappearing, as their bronze instruments were melted down and reforged to accommodate the new style’s requirements; the Odeon/Beka recordings preserve several musical traditions that were later lost.
These were the recordings that inspired the young Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who first heard them in 1929. McPhee went to Bali in 1931 and remained there for nearly a decade; his activities included making painstaking transcriptions of Balinese pieces.
This according to the commentary by Edward Herbst that accompanies the CD The roots of gamelan: The first recordings—Bali, 1928; New York, 1941 (World Arbiter, 1999).
Above, a Gamelan gong gede group in Denpasar around the time the recordings were made; this tradition dates from the 15th century. Gong gede survives today, as the video below attests.
Related article: Debussy and gamelan
The serinette (after the French serin, canary) is a very small barrel organ that was used to teach repertoire to pet songbirds in the 18th century. These instruments were made in England, France, and Germany.
In 2007 an independent organ and barrel organ builder affiliated with the mechanical instruments center of Waldkirch in Baden-Württemberg embarked upon a series of modern reconstructions of the serinette. His main sources were the description of the serinette found in Dom Bédos de Celles’s L’art du facteur d’orgues (Paris, 1778) and two instruments from Mirecourt.
This according to “Serinetten französischer Bauart aus Waldkirch” by Achim Schneider (Das mechanische Musikinstrument: Journal der Gesellschaft für selbstspielende Musikinstrumente XXXVI/107 [April 2010] pp. 6–9; the author is the organ builder in question.
Above, La serinette by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin; below, occasionally vertiginous views of a working serinette.
Ēkhō Verlag issued the first volume of the series Flower world: Music archaeology of the Americas/Mundo florido: Arqueomusicología de las Américas in 2012.
This bilingual series aims to raise the study of the music-related activities of the pre-Columbian Americas to a new level, with peer-reviewed studies of both past and living traditions, providing a platform for the most up-to-date information on the music archaeology of the New World.
Below, a brief film about the pre-Columbian instruments of Mexico.
Dating from the 5th century B.C.E., the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in Suizhou, Hubei, furnished some of China’s oldest musical instruments and earliest reliable musicological writings.
The instruments, found in two separate rooms, appear to represent two separate musical genres. Those in the large central chamber—65 bronze bells in graduated sizes ranging over more than five octaves, a large pole-drum and two smaller drums, seven large 25-string se (zithers), four sheng (mouth organs), two paixiao (panpipes), and two chi (transverse flutes)—match the description of a courtly ensemble described in the Shijing (551–479 B.C.);
The instruments in the smaller chamber containing the Marquis’s coffin—two mouth organs, one small frame drum, three se, and one five-stringed and one ten-stringed instrument—suggest a more intimate chamber genre such as that depicted in a 5th-century tomb in Shaoxing, Zhejiang. These two genres may correspond to the “old” music of the Zhou court (ca. 1050–256 B.C.) that Confucius preferred, and the “new” music of the surrounding states that he felt had a corrupting influence.
This according to “Different tunes, different strings: Court and chamber music in ancient China” by Jenny F. So (Orientations XXI/5 [May 2000] pp. 26–34). Above, replicas of the bells; below, a performance on the bell replicas and those of other instruments from the tomb.
Jokes about accordions often involve their destruction. (The difference between an accordion and an onion: People shed tears when they chop up an onion.) Presumably this is due to their sound. (The difference between an accordion and a macaw: One makes, loud, obnoxious squawks; the other is a bird.)
Indeed, the very presence of the instrument is counted as a misfortune. (A man had to park on the street, and he left his accordion on the back seat. When he returned, he was shocked to see that one of the car’s back windows was smashed, and there were now two accordions on the back seat.)
But the sound of the accordion is identical to that of the reed organ once found in genteel parlors; the instrument’s true fault is its lower-class associations, often involving marginalized ethnic groups and non-mainstream music.
This according to “Accordion jokes: A folklorist’s view” by Richard March, an essay included in The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more! (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012 pp. 39–43). Above, Gary Larson’s classic meditation on accordions in the afterlife. Below, “Werid Al” Yankovic discusses the misfortunes of accordion ownership.
“Fifteen musicians sat in a crosswise position on both sides, and thus in a broken row divided into two groups; these in turn sounded together a strange tune with reed-instruments, cymbals and various stringed instruments; drums struck with a light finger, and less often the human voice, joined in with them.
Perhaps you expect my opinion about this ensemble? A noise rather than an ensemble, it was unencumbered by any rules of harmony, but nevertheless not confused nor disagreeable; in truth if I except the singer’s voice, it was pleasant enough, and subordinated to the extent that it did not disturb the conversations or the proceedings in the assembly, but rather with a certain strangeness in its varied but low-level sound caressed the ears and spirits of the seated company with its sweetness.”
So wrote Engelbert Kaempfer in Amoenitates Exoticae (1712), which documented his observations in Persia in the late 17th century. Excerpts from the book are translated in Time, place and music: An anthology of ethnomusicological observation c. 1550 to c. 1800 by Frank Harrison (Amsterdam: Fritz Knuf, 1973).
Above, a plate from the original publication; below, a modern-day performance of Persian court music.
Related article: Virtual Assyria
“For our first breakfast on the sunny forecourt our host…brought us croissants, brioches, and six metal clarinets!”
So begins “Surrounded by woodwind in Normandy” by John Playfair (Clarinet & saxophone XXXV/1 [Spring 2010] pp. 36–37). The article describes a visit to Gîte d’Ivry (above), a bed and breakfast that now occupies part of the former Eugène Thibouville woodwind factory in Ivry-la-Bataille. Some 1200 of the maker’s instruments are on display, and many are available to be played by guests.
Below, Phillipe Perlot performs on a Thibouville flageolet.
In the late 17th and early 18th century the great violin maker Antonio Stradivari used a special wood that had grown in the cold period between 1645 and 1715. In the long winters and the cool summers, the wood grew especially slowly and evenly, creating low density and a high modulus of elasticity. Until now, modern violin makers could only dream of wood with such tonal qualities.
Similar wood can now be made available for violin making. The fungus species Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes can decay Norway spruce and sycamore—two important kinds of wood used for violin making—to such an extent that their tonal quality is improved. Unlike other fungus species, they gradually degrade the cell walls, inducing thinning; but even in the late stages of decomposition a stiff scaffold structure remains through which the sound waves can still travel directly.
The implementation of such biotechnological methods for treating soundboard wood could make it possible one day for violinists to afford instruments with the sound quality of a Stradivari.
This according to “Production of superior wood for violins by use of wood decay fungi” by Francis W.M.R. Schwarze, et al. (Journal of the Violin Society of America XXII/1  pp. 116-124). Above, a Stradivarius at the Palacio Real de Madrid. Below, a brief documentary on the process described by Schwarze.
Although it was championed by the likes of Mozart and Benjamin Franklin, in its heyday the glass harmonica was also the object of considerable trepidation.
In the 18th century music was regarded by some as a form of nervous stimulation that could cause a range of maladies, and the glass harmonica was considered especially dangerous.
The glass harmonica player and composer Karl Leopold Röllig stated that the instrument could “make women faint, send a dog into convulsions, make a sleeping girl wake screaming through a chord of the diminished seventh, and even cause the death of one very young”, and physicians warned of possible ill effects including muscle tremors, prolonged shaking of the nerves, fainting, cramps, swelling, paralysis, and seeing ghosts.
This according to Bad vibrations: The history of the idea of music as cause of disease by James Kennaway (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). Many thanks to the excellent Wonderland blog for bringing this book to our attention!Below, Thomas Bloch threatens you with Mozart’s adagio, K.617.
Related article: Mozart effect redux
In 1892 Alfred Hill, of the London violin-making firm W.E. Hill & Sons, got into an argument about Irish Home Rule with one of his employees. The argument escalated until the employee became enraged and walked out.
This confrontation had considerable consequences; the employee was the firm’s only bow maker.
At a loss, Hill took two men from the case-making department and told them to start making bows. Neither William Napier nor William Retford (inset) had any experience as bow makers—but they went on to revolutionize the art of bow making, developing the fine and reliably consistent product that the violin world now knows as the Hill bow.
This according to “Industry meets art: The history of the iconic Hill bow” by Philip J. Kass (Strings XXV/4:187 [November 2010] pp. 61–64).