Tag Archives: Instruments

Typatune typology

In 1940 Alexander Rose (1901–85, above) received a U.S. Patent for his Typatune, a toy piano with a QWERTY typewriter keyboard. He seems to have been destined to create this curious invention both through his vocation as a court stenographer and his choice of a wife—one Clara Berger, daughter of Samuel Israel Berger, a noted maker of toy typewriters.

World War II may have caused a moratorium on the Typatune’s manufacture, as the toy did not appear on the market until shortly before Christmas 1945, when it was widely advertised.

The purchaser of a Typatune also received a spiral-bound booklet showing which keys to press to produce a number of popular melodies. Two models have been identified—one in a red rexine case and one in an off-white wooden case, both with a collapsing carry-handle. A later development was the addition of a hinged lid to protect the keyboard. All versions carry the label Made in Switzerland.

This according to “Neither one thing nor the other: Alexander Rose’s Typatune” by Arthur W.J.G.  Ord-Hume (The music box: An international journal of mechanical music CCVIII [summer 2017] pp. 48–50).

Below, a brief demonstration with an inside view.

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Roll over, Stradivari?

Old Italian violins are routinely credited with playing qualities supposedly unobtainable in new instruments. These qualities include the ability to project their sound more effectively in a concert hall—despite seeming relatively quiet under the ear of the player—compared with new violins.

Although researchers have long tried to explain the mystery of Antonio Stradivari’s sound, it is only recently that studies have addressed the fundamental assumption of tonal superiority. Results from two studies show that, under blind conditions, experienced violinists tend to prefer playing new violins over Old Italians. Moreover, they are unable to tell new from old at better than chance levels.

In two separate experiments, three new violins were compared with three by Stradivari. Projection was tested both with and without orchestral accompaniment. Projection and preference were judged simultaneously by dividing listeners into two groups.

The results were unambiguous. The new violins projected better than the Stradivaris whether tested with orchestra or without, the new violins were generally preferred by the listeners, and the listeners could not reliably distinguish new from old. The single best-projecting violin was considered the loudest under the ear by players, and on average, violins that were quieter under the ear were found to project less well.

This according to “Listener evaluations of new and Old Italian violins” by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, and Fan-Chia Tao. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 8 May 2017).

Above, detail from Antonio Stradivari in his atelier by Antonio Rinaldi; below, a report on one of the experiments, including excerpts from interviews with Fritz and Curtin.

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When women play

kulintang

In many societies musical roles are divided along gender lines: Women sing and men play. Men also sing and women sometimes play; yet, unlike men, women who play often do so in contexts of sexual and social marginality.

Contemporary anthropological theories regarding the interrelationship between social structure and gender stratification illuminate how women’s use of musical instruments is related to broader issues of social and gender structure; changes in the ideology of these structures often reflect changes that affect women as performers.

This according to “When women play: The relationship between musical instruments and gender style” by Ellen Koskoff (Canadian university music review/Revue de musique des universités canadiennes XVI/1 [1995] pp. 114–27; reprinted in A feminist ethnomusicology: Writings on music and gender [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014]).

Above and below, kulintang, a women’s instrumental genre discussed in the article.

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A pipe organ for a vaudevillian

charles-herbert-barritt-memorial

Charles Herbert Barritt (1869–1929, more generally known as Clifton Barritt) spent much of his life as a vaudevillian and music hall entertainer and his last years as a London publican.

Born in Manchester, Barritt was already treading the boards in his early twenties. Local newspaper notices chart a twelve-year career that took him from Ulster to the Isle of Man, Reigate to Grantham, and all points in between—there seems hardly a pier or stage that did not feature Barritt’s mellow baritone and perfect comic timing at some time between 1892 and 1904. One of his many favorable reviews praised his ability to imitate the styles of various composers, performers, and instruments, adding that he was “always funny, but without being vulgar.”

Barritt remains a notable figure to this day, as his funerary monument in London’s Hampstead Cemetery replicates the form of a life-size pipe organ (he was not known to play the organ at all).

This according to “‘Always funny, but without being vulgar’: Charles Herbert ‘Clifton’ Barritt (1869–1929), Hampstead Cemetery” by David Bingham (The London dead, 25 February 2015). Above, the monument in question.

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Instrumentarium de Chartres

chartres-cathedral-rose-window

Built during the 12th and 13th centuries, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Among the cathedral’s precious treasures dating from the 12th through the 16th centuries are the statues of the Portail Royal and its three stained glass windows, the largest collection of stained glass from the 13th century, and several hundred 16th-century bas-reliefs in the choir. These unique elements contain 312 catalogued depictions of 26 musical instruments representing a veritable history of French instrument making from the High Middle Ages through the Renaissance.

Preliminary research led to a 1966 proposal by Julien Skowron to reconstruct some of the instruments depicted in the cathedral’s visual arts; six instruments were built, and in 1977 the Instrumentarium de Chartres was born. Today the collection of some 40 string, wind, and percussion instruments comprises the most complete and most played instrumentarium in Europe; it also serves an important pedagogical function for the curious of all ages who enjoy hands-on experience with the collection. The success of the project attests to the fine medieval and Renaissance artistry that makes modern reconstruction of this rich historical collection possible.

Instrumentarium de Chartres is an open-access online presentation of this collection, presenting images of the original artworks and the newly reconstructed instruments, and many other resources for scholars, performers, and the general public.

Above, a rose window from the cathedral that includes several images of instruments (click to enlarge); below, a brief demonstration of some of the instruments.

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Nero’s kithara

 

Lyre of Piero Parravacini

Although Arrigo Boito devoted 56 years to the composition of his Nerone, at his death the opera was still incomplete; Arturo Toscanini bustled to refine and finish the last act for the work’s premiere at La Scala on 1 May 1924.

Since the figure of the mad psychopath Nero is best remembered in the collective imagination as he plays and sings while observing the Great Fire of Rome, for the first staging of the opera a true kithara was made by the lute maker Piero Parravicini at the Milan workshop of Antonio Monzino e Figli; today the instrument is on display at the Civico Museo degli Strumenti Musicali in Milan.

This according to “‘Or che i Numi son vinti, a me la cetra, a me l’altar!’: Kithara constructed for the premiere of Arrigo Boito’s Nerone” by Donatella Melini (Music in art XL/1–2 [2015] pp. 267–72).

Above, the instrument in question (click to enlarge); below, the scene referred to in the article’s title.

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Meet the gamelatron

The gamelatron, a robotic gamelan built by the sound artist Aaron Taylor Kuffner, has appeared regularly at events such as Burning Man, raves, and exhibitions.

Breaching the conceptual divides between instrument and art installation, performance and recording, sculptor and composer, and prosthesis and robot, the gamelatron is a singular site for investigating imaginaries of the human, machine, and media.

This according to “Atmosphere as a concept for ethnomusicology: Comparing the gamelatron and gamelan” by Andrew McGraw (Ethnomusicology LX/1 [winter 2016] pp. 125–147.

Below, the gamelatron 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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Early sources for African instruments

Le triumphe de la noblissement des Gentilhommes

Among the various musical instruments depicted in early documents (bells and double bells, drums, scrapers, horns, flutes, xylophones, and bow-lute), the double bell is of particular interest because of its relatively good pictorial documentation.

In 1687 a double bell from the Congo-Angola area called longa was first mentioned in print. Even today the Ovimbundu people call the double bell alunga (sing. elunga), and give it an important role in the enthronement of the king.

Early pictorial sources and later reports indicate four types of double bell—those with stem grip, bow grip, frame grip, and lateral bar grip—and of these the stem grip double bell, found in the Congo-Angola areas as well as Rhodesia, represents the older type of double bell and probably has its origin in Benin-Yoruba. It appears that the Portuguese, who got to know the double bell as an important court instrument in the Guinea area, brought this instrument, together with other court appurtenances, to Luanda, their new base of operations after the breakdown of the Congo kingdom.

This according to “Early historical illustrations of West and Central African music” by Walter Hirschberg (African music IV/3 [1969] pp. 6–18).

Above, Le triumphe de la noblissement des Gentilhommes, published by Pieter de Marees in 1605. Below, Nigerian double bells and other instruments.

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The vocal tract organ

vocal tract organ

 

The vocal tract organ is a new musical instrument that consists of three-dimensional (3D)-printed vocal tracts (throat and mouth) for individual vowels sitting on loudspeakers to enable static vowel sounds to be produced.

The acoustic excitation from the loudspeakers is a synthesized version of the typical waveform produced by the vibrating human vocal folds during pitched sounds, which enables the instrument to be played from a keyboard.

The vocal tract organ will become an instrument in its own right, and it could be used as a direct replacement for the vox humana organ stop, given that its acoustic output is a much closer representation of the human vocal output than that from a vox humana organ pipe. The 3D-printed tracts may also be used  in vocal and choral workshops as well as degree-level music technology education.

This according to “The vocal tract organ and the vox humana organ stop” by David M. Howard (Journal of music, technology & education VII/3 [2014] pp. 265–277).

Above, an illustration from the article; below, a composition by Professor Howard.

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