Category Archives: Instruments

How to destroy an organ

 

Part of the U.S. Army technical manual published on 13 November 1963 dealt with the installation, operation, and maintenance of the Hammond organ, which was then the instrument of choice in chapels on army bases.

One of the chapters details the destruction of the organ in the case of the capture or abandonment of the instrument to an enemy, urging all concerned to memorize the procedures so the manual will not have to be consulted in an emergency.

The chapter (above) is reprinted in “Your tax dollars at work for you” by Rollin Smith (The American organist LI/7 [July 2017] p. 88. Below, one way to do the job.

Comments Off on How to destroy an organ

Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Instruments

Cymbals and symbols in ancient Greece

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses an astonishing bronze figurine, perhaps unearthed in Cyprus: a nude woman playing a pair of cymbals, standing on a frog (inv. no. 74.51.5680). It was probably the handle of a mirror, and the craftmanship is typical of ancient Laconia.

Scholars have never explained the relationships between all the represented elements, but the figurine is obviously related to ancient Spartan music, or at least to its soundscape.

We may wonder whether there is a link between the frog and the cymbals in terms of sound. Did ancient Greeks perceive the croaking as a percussive sound? In Greek antiquity, frogs seem to be associated with several types of instruments.

Since the figurine might come from Cyprus and it depicts a nude woman, it is usually interpreted as Aphrodite. However, if it is a Laconian piece of art, it seems more relevant to recognize here one of the main goddesses of Sparta, Artemis Orthia. She stands on a frog, because her sanctuary was located in the marshlands of Sparta, a place appropriate for batrachia. This place had a specific soundscape of croaking frogs and water sounds. Further, there are remains of feline paws on her shoulders; the archaic Artemis is the mistress of wild beasts.

In the sanctuary, archaeologists found cymbals and auloi dedicated to the goddess for apotropaic purposes. It may be opportune to compare this piece with Asian drums decorated with frogs, which were used to ask for rain fertility: perhaps the cymbals associated with croaking had the same function in ancient Spartan marshlands.

This according to “Croaking and clapping: A new look at an ancient Greek bronze figurine (from Sparta)” by Sylvain Perrot (Music in art XLIII/1–2 [2018] pp. 175–83)

Below, an illicit visit to the sanctuary.

Comments Off on Cymbals and symbols in ancient Greece

Filed under Animals, Antiquity, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments, Nature

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.

Comments Off on The Mills violano virtuoso

Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

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.

Comments Off on Père Castel’s ocular harpsichord

Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments

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.

Comments Off on From virginal to Tangentenflügel

Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

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.

Comments Off on Cuba’s corneta china

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!

Comments Off on Poster stamps

Filed under Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments

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.

Comments Off on Béla Fleck’s Africa Project

Filed under Africa, Instruments, Performers

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.

Comments Off on Karinding Attack’s heavy metal bamboo

Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Instruments, Popular music