Category Archives: Instruments

The Mills violano virtuoso

 

Nobody knows how many of the 2,500 violano virtuosos manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company between 1912 and 1926 exist today, but one ended up in the Smithsonian Institution in 1959, where it was designated one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade.

A complex instrument, it contains a 44-note piano with bass strings in the center and treble notes on either side in addition to a real violin. An electric motor with variable speeds simulates the action of bowing through the use of electromagnets.

Arthur Sanders, a specialist in mechanical instruments, was engaged to oversee the instrument’s restoration. “I assumed theirs had been in operating condition when they got it,” Sanders later noted, “but the grease had jelled, the oil had become gummy, and it needed new strings.” Mr. Sanders worked on it with some spare parts from similar instruments. “Even the curators from the fossil section came around,” he said, describing what must have been an exciting moment for the famous museum.

This according to “Making music with machines” by James Feron (The New York times 17 June 1984, pp. 507, 529). Above and below, the rare double violano virtuoso.

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Père Castel’s ocular harpsichord

 

The Jesuit priest Louis-Bertrand Castel had his hour of fame in the 18th century thanks to his ocular harpsichord.

Starting from the idea of a physical analogy between sound and color, Castel conceived of a harpsichord that would diffuse a music of colors organized into a scale on the basis of their natural correspondence with sounds. In this way he sought to reveal the rational principles that determine the order of nature, grounding art in reason. Art would thus bear witness to a divine intelligence compatible with reason, and the music of colors would be a form of revelation.

In addition, this development would rescue people from boredom, the languor that takes away their feeling of existing, by ensuring continuous movement and surprise, renewing the pleasure of variety, and satisfying the natural inconstancy that goads them relentlessly to seek other objects of pleasure. From this to the preaching of a libertine art was a matter of a single step, which Castel took without realizing it. For him, amusement had achieved a respected place in the world.

This according to Le Père Castel et le clavecin oculaire by Corinna Gepner (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2014).

Today is Castel’s 330th birthday! Above, a caricature of Père Castel and his instrument by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin; below, a brief discussion.

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Asante gold-dust weights

Until the second half of the mid-19th century, the Asante and related peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast used small brass castings made by the lost-wax process as weights for measuring their gold-dust currency.

These weights, made in large numbers by professional metal workers, came in all shapes and sizes. There were two sorts of weights: those which represent miniature objects, creatures, and activities from local life, and those in non-representational, geometrical forms.

Many of the representational weights depicted musical instruments, either on their own or being played, and activities which traditionally took place to the accompaniment of music. The great majority of these weights show only two types of instruments: ivory trumpets, and various types of drums.

This according to “Music and gold-weights in Asante” by Malcolm Donald McLeod (British museum yearbook 1980, pp. 225–42).

Above, a weight depicting a pair of atumpan drums of the Akan people; below, the atumpan in action.

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From virginal to Tangentenflügel

 

A small polygonal virginal built by Franciscus Bonafinis in 1585 was ingeniously converted to a tangent piano in 1717; this was accomplished simply by replacing its jacks with shorter slips of wood and moving its strings so that they lie directly over the jack slots, producing an instrument with struck rather than plucked strings whose sound varies in loudness with the force applied to the keys. The instrument is now at the Metropolitan Museum.

Instruments employing this principle were well-known in the eighteenth century—the trend culminated in the Späth & Schmahl Tangentenflügel.

This according to “En route to the piano: A converted virginal” by Edwin M. Ripin (Metropolitan Museum journal XIII [1978] pp. 79–86).

Above, the Museum’s depiction of the instrument; below, Aleksej Borisovič Lûbimov performs on a tangent piano.

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Cuba’s corneta china

 

As one of the four main ethnic groups in Cuba, the Chinese people have made notable cultural contributions. Among the most significant of these is the corneta china, a shawm derived from the Chinese suona.

The instrument is no longer played by Chinese Cubans; rather, the corneta china has been appropriated by other ethnic groups—particularly in the eastern region of the island, where it is played almost exclusively by performers of African descent. Despite a short-lived attempt to reintroduce the instrument in Cuban performances of the Chinese Lion Dance in the 1980s and early 1990s, the corneta china and its originators have followed separate paths.

This according to “The Chinese community and the corneta china: Two divergent paths in Cuba” by Rolando Antonio Pérez Fernández (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI [2014] pp. 62–88).

Above and below, the corneta china in action.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, West Indies

Poster stamps

Poster stamps, or Reklamemarken, were advertising labels or seals printed like postage stamps on perforated sheets of adhesive paper.

Widely used and extremely popular before World War I in Europe, especially in Germany, these little collectibles almost disappeared after World War II.

As music iconography, they are exemplified in a collection of recorder-themed poster stamps recently donated to the American Recorder Society by Ewald Henseler, the author of “Not postage stamps—but recorder poster stamps” (American recorder LIX/1 [spring 2018] pp. 32–39).

Above, recorder poster stamps advertising Tobler chocolate; below, a chocolate recorder. Don’t miss the climactic ending!

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Béla Fleck’s Africa Project

In early 2005 Béla Fleck traveled to Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, and Mali to meet, jam, and record with an impressive array of musicians, bringing along a recording engineer, a film crew, and enough gear to ensure that no encounter would go unrecorded. He accompanied the player of a massive marimba in Uganda, played with kalimba masters and harpists in Tanzania, and encountered a possible banjo ancestor—the akonting—in Gambia.

In an interview, Fleck explained that his aggressive travel agenda was part of a strategy to circumvent his inner control freak. “By putting myself in a situation where I couldn’t really be completely prepared, I was forced to dig deep into things that I do that I can’t tell you where they come from. I have been pegged as a complicated guy, and so it’s funny that I feel freer not being complicated in this setting.”

This according to “Béla Fleck’s Africa Project” by Banning Eyre (Guitar player August 2009).

Today is Fleck’s 60th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from his award-winning film Throw down your heart.

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Karinding Attack’s heavy metal bamboo

Karinding Attack is a group from Bandung, West Java, that performs original songs, covers international death metal hits, and engages in collaborations with musicians who specialize in other genres—all to the accompaniment of Sundanese bamboo musical instruments that were virtually extinct only 20 years ago.

After the Sundanese people’s embrace of a hegemonic modernity in the 20th century relegated these instruments to obscurity, their efflorescence represents an alternative modernity in which, instead of adopting disdain for their own past as the primitive Other against which European hegemonic modernity is constructed, Sundanese people construct their own history against which to articulate a coherent Sundanese modernity.

This according to “Heavy metal bamboo: How archaic bamboo instruments became modern in Bandung, Indonesia” by Henry Spiller, an essay included in Studies on a global history of music: A Balzan musicology project (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018, pp. 241–55).

Below, Karinding Attack covers Sepultura’s Refuse/Resist.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Instruments, Popular music

RILM’s one millionth record

RILM’s one millionth record is now online!

The record documents 音乐考古学与古代音乐遗迹研究 (Archaeomusicology and research on music relics) by 方建军 (Fang Jianjun) (Zhongguo yinyue/Chinese music 3:147 [2017] pp. 75–82, 106).

Fang’s article discusses the relationships between archaeological environments and musical functions, between ancient workshops and the building of instruments, and between soundscapes and music performance, with reference to archaeomusicological sites in Europe and Africa as well as China. China has many such sites, among them Xiaoshuangqiao of the early Shang dynasty (16th–11th century B.C.E.) in Henan province, Sanxingdui in Sichuan province, and the Neolithic tomb sites at Jiahu village, also in Henan province.

Above, flutes excavated at the Jiahu site; below, reproductions of bronze bells from a tomb dated around 433 B.C.E.

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RILM publishes its 200,000th full-text record!

 

In 2016 RILM announced the release of RILM abstracts of music literature with full text on EBSCO Information Services. Today we celebrate the publication of our 200,00th full-text record!

The milestone record is a review by Markus Lutz of Martin und Johann Christian Hoffmann: Geigen- und Lautenmacher des Barock—Umfeld, Leben, Werk (Leipzig: Hofmeister, 2015) published in Journal of the Lute Society of America (XLVI pp. 80–88). Above, a lute made by Johann Christian Hoffmann; below, a copy of a lute made by Martin Hoffmann.

Highlighting this review gives us an opportunity to remind you that reviews in RILM’s database are always linked to the item under review—so when you read a book review the record for the book itself is just one click away!

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