Tag 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Reverend Gary Davis and Miss Gibson

rev. gary davis

One day Manny Greenhill, Reverend Gary Davis’s sometime manager, received a desperate call from Wurlitzer, one of Boston’s most staid and respected music stores.

A quavering voice explained that an elderly man, a minister of some sort, had seized the most expensive guitar in the store and refused to part with it.

The man had tried out several models, had chosen the top-of-the-line Gibson, and had been there for some time, talking to it, and playing and singing spirituals in a loud voice. No one dared to take it away from him. “He says he has no money, but he gave your name, Mr. Greenhill, as his manager. He is upsetting the other customers. What shall we do?”

Greenhill bought Davis the guitar, and the debt became a longstanding joke: Davis was always going to pay him back for Miss Gibson “on the next check.”

This according to “Remembering Reverend Gary Davis” by Eric von Schmidt and John Kruth (Sing out! LI/4 [winter 2008] pp. 66–75).

Today is Davis’s 120th birthday! Above and below, Davis and Miss Gibson in action.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Afghanistan at peace

Music in the Afghan north, 1967–1972 presents materials from Mark Slobin’s research in Afghanistan before successive waves of war and Islamist rule began to decimate its traditional culture.

The site involves three layers of organization, with increasing access to the study’s technical materials: an introduction to the ideas and topics with capsule summaries; links to excerpts from the book-length study; and the complete book Music in the culture of northern Afghanistan (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976).

Still photography, moving picture clips, and sound clips accompany the written text. Above, a rubāb maker in Mazār-i-Sharīf; below, drums for sale in Istālif, a village renowned for its glazed pottery.

Related post: Robert Garfias: Ethnomusicology

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Filed under Asia, Ethnomusicology