Tag Archives: Instruments

Gumleaf redux

Herb Patten, an Elder of Koori, painter, and outstanding gumleaf player, has preserved this indigenous tradition by performing everywhere from pubs and parties to national television and the Sydney Opera House.

Patten (above) has enabled anyone to participate in this tradition with his book/CD set How to play the gumleaf (Sydney: Currency, 1999; RILM Abstracts 1999-14755). Patten’s book includes practical tips on how to select a suitable leaf and develop proper lip technique, and his demonstrations include popular and old-time songs along with the calls of several indigenous Australian birds.

Below, Herb Patten holds forth.

BONUS: Now there’s no need to imagine hearing John Lennon’s Imagine on a gumleaf.

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Dürer’s bathing musicians

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Das Männerbad (ca. 1496–97) includes a portrayal of two men playing recorder and rebec in a public bath.

The artist’s meticulous attention to detail shows clearly that the recorder is a flûte à neuf trous (drilled to give the player a choice of left or right little finger, the unused hole to be filled with wax).

In the bath, singing is probably more widely practiced than instrumental playing, and indeed, wooden instruments might not take too kindly to the humidity; some people might be more attracted to drinking while bathing, like the gentleman to the musicians’ left.

This according to “Musical ablutions” by Herbert Hersom (The recorder magazine X/1 [March 1990] 20–21; RILM Abstracts 1990-30337).

Today is Dürer’s 550th birthday! Below, music by Ludwig Senfl, who worked at the court of Maximillian I around the time that Dürer was employed there.

More posts about iconography are here.

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Iberian women and square frame drums

The Iberian double-skinned square frame drum known as the adufe, the pandeiro quadrado (Portuguese), or the pandera cuadrado (Spanish) is played almost exclusively by women, and is a legacy from the medieval period.

While Spanish and Portuguese women play various round-frame drums, the square drum has particular roles in several aspects of secular, religious, and ritual life. The songs women sing while playing the drum reflect their thoughts, concerns, and circumstances.

This according to “‘This drum I play’: Women and square frame drums in Portugal and Spain” by Judith R. Cohen (Ethnomusicology forum XVII/1 [June 2008] 95–124; RILM Abstracts 2008-2708).

Today is International Women’s Day! Below, Vanesa Muela demonstrates.

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Filed under Europe, Instruments, Women's studies

Didjeridu playing and sleep apnea

 

Snoring and obstructive sleep apnea syndrome are two highly prevalent sleep disorders caused by collapse of the upper airways. The most effective intervention for these disorders is continuous positive airway pressure therapy, which reduces daytime sleepiness and the risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in the most severely affected patients. For moderately affected patients who complain about snoring and daytime sleepiness, however, continuous positive airway pressure therapy may not be suitable, and other effective interventions are needed.

A didjeridu instructor noticed that he and some of his students experienced reduced daytime sleepiness and snoring after practicing with this instrument for several months. A randomized controlled experiment confirmed that regular didjeridu playing is an effective treatment alternative well accepted by patients with moderate obstructive sleep apnea syndrome.

This according to “Didgeridoo playing as alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome: Randomised controlled trial” by Milo A. Puhan, et al. (BMJ CCCXXXII [December 2006]; RILM Abstracts 2006-51373). The article won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

Above and below, traditional uses of the didjeridu.

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Tepsijanje—singing by the pan

 

Singing by the pan, a women’s folk tradition known as tepsijanje (“panning”), was documented in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Ottoman period.

Recent research has shown that tepsijanje is still popular, especially with Muslim and Roman Catholic populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a rare example of a nonmusical object—in this case, a cooking pan—functioning as a musical instrument.

This according to “Examples of an interesting practice: Singing along the pan” by Jasmina Talam, an essay included in Studia instrumentorum musicae popularis. II (Münster: Monsenstein und Vannerdat, 2011 251–56; RILM Abstracts 2011-49486).

Below, two examples of tepsijanje.

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“Wooden laughter” in the opera house

 

For much of the 18th century there was a clear divide between the music of the upper and lower classes in Austrian society. However, by the late 1790s, a time when Europe’s ruling classes were under threat in the aftermath of the French Revolution, there is evidence to suggest that folk instruments previously associated with the lower classes—including the hurdy-gurdy, zither, tromba marina, and a peasant xylophone known as the Hölzernes Gelächter, (“wooden laughter”, above)—were played in aristocratic settings.

Austrian Composers wrote operas, concertos, and chamber pieces that included parts for folk instruments; some of these works were even dedicated to the Emperor Franz II and the Empress Marie Therese. The setting of these works, compositional practice, and the design of the instruments themselves enabled the music of the lower classes to be adopted by the upper classes, perhaps to evoke a sense of place and national identity during a period of great political change. These practices paved the way for folk music to influence composers later in the 19th century.

This according to “‘Wooden laughter’ in the opera house: The appearance of folk instruments in Bohemian and Austrian high society at the turn of the nineteenth century” by Sam Girling, a paper included in Studia instrumentorum musicae popularis VI (Berlin: Logos-Verlag, 2019 83–100; RILM Abstracts 2019-12296).

Below, the Hölzernes Gelächter in action!

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The theremin turns 100!

 

 

After the electronic oscillator was invented in 1915, revolutionizing the radio industry, the Russian inventor Léon Thérémin used this technology to develop the first fully functional electronic musical instrument; originally called the etherphone, it became widely known as the theremin.

Without touching the instrument, the player controlled pitch through relative proximity of the right hand to a vertical antenna, and volume through similar movements of the left hand in relation to a horizontal antenna. The instrument employed a heterodyne, or beat frequency system, and boasted a range of three to four octaves.

On the invitation of Lenin, Thérémin travelled throughout Russia, demonstrating his instrument, and toured Europe in 1927, causing excitement in Germany, France, and England. Later that year, Thérémin travelled to the U.S., where he remained until 1938.

In 1929 he sold his patent to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which made and sold 500 instruments. Leopold Stokowski collaborated on a fingerboard version, which he used with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1929 to 1931. Thérémin performed with the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra, and presented several coast-to-coast broadcasts. He returned to the USSR in 1938.

This according to The theremin in the emergence of electronic music by Albert Glinsky, a dissertation accepted by New York University in 1992 (RILM Abstracts 1992-424).

The theremin is 100 years old this month! Above and below, the inventor in action.

BONUS: A brief presentation of further historical and technical information.

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A 3D-printed concertina

 

In an interview, Edward Jay described his invention:

“My concertina is almost entirely fabricated on a 3D printer, meaning that it’s made of mostly plastic. In the prototype, only the reeds and bellows are made in the traditional way, though I am quite close to fabricating these on a 3D printer too.”

“3D printing has been around for a while actually, but only recently has it become more accessible and affordable. For example, the printers I am using now cost £800 each. But 3D printers aren’t exactly quick; to give you some idea of speed, each part on my instrument can take between 1 and 12 hours each to print. So having a farm of printers beavering away can speed things up significantly.”

“That said, it takes just 2 days for 3 printers to print all the parts for a single instrument, which I think still is a significant edge on the time required to fabricate all the parts using traditional methods. Actually, I understand it takes something close to 3 months to make a new traditional concertina—as long as my entire prototype development period.”

“Interestingly, I’ve somehow managed to create a concertina sound, I believe, due to my material choice, because 3D plastic is hollow! If you didn’t know, early concertina insides were made of balsa wood, or similar woods, woods that were chosen rather for their lightness than their integrity, which I believe in part gave traditional concertinas their signature sound.”

“This is not a toy at all. Every part of it is engineered properly; the stresses and strains, the tension forces, and so on, everything has been accounted for. So it won’t break. This concertina is very solid.”

Quoted in “Concertone Instruments: Interview with Edward Jay” by Kait Gray (Concertina world 480 [January 2020] 37–45; RILM Abstracts 2020-3864).

Below, Jay demonstrates his concertina; his website for Concertone Instruments is here.

More posts involving concertinas are here.

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The Siena piano

 

A legendary instrument whose sonorities reputedly have no equal anywhere, praised by musicians such as Liszt and Saint-Saëns, the Siena piano is surrounded by an aura of mystery due to its astonishing history.

Its soundboard was supposedly made of wooden pillars from the ancient Temple of Solomon in Israel. Stolen by German soldiers during World War II, it was discovered half buried in the sands of the African desert.

The instrument was saved from destruction in the nick of time and restored by an Israeli craftsman; subsequently it aroused enormous media attention before being largely forgotten.

This according to La légende du piano de Sienne: Récit instrumental by Florent Ploquin (Plouharnel: Menhir, 2017).

Below, Marisa Regules performs Debussy’s Estampes on the Siena piano.

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, December 2, 2019: Harmonica Used Aboard Gemini 6

Wally Schirra’s 8-note Hohner “Little Lady” harmonica. Gift of Walter M. Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford Jr.

From turntables to banjos, drumsticks, pianos, and beyond, musical instruments tell powerful stories about the multiple meanings of music in everyday life, highlighting how musical objects are never just things. Rather, they are often the result of complex processes arising from their production histories and circulation, accruing multiple layers of meaning through their varied uses and their associated cultural, ideological, affective, and economic values. Enter the humble harmonica, the free-reed wind instrument also known as the mouth organ or the French harp. How did a harmonica reach outer space in 1965? And what might it mean that it was the instrument of choice for the first song ever to be played outside planet Earth?

*****

When you pack your astronaut bag, you might smuggle a harmonica and miniature bells, if you are anything like Walter “Wally” Schirra or Tom Stafford. There is always some extra room next to the oxygen and the medication. Schirra and Stafford packed a Hohner “Little Lady,” a harmonica now given “The space traveler” moniker on the maker’s website, capable of playing one octave through its three-and-a-half–centimeter body. Why a harmonica, of all instruments? For one, it is portable, possessing a travel-readiness that has allowed it to circulate globally. The history of the harmonica is linked to that of its sister instrument, the accordion, especially during the mid-19th century. German instrument makers offered an extensive catalogue of accordions and harmonicas, pioneering a transformation of musical instruments into mass-produced commodities. As part of its global circulation, it has become a ubiquitous fixture in imagery that is, appropriately, about travel, as in the prototypical American Old West scene; characters like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid played the harmonica, and Abraham Lincoln is reported to have often carried a harmonica in his pocket. Remarkably, it is also present as a shamanic instrument of power used in healing rituals within some Amerindian shamanic traditions in the Amazon. A small instrument can travel far.

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The rendition of “Jingle Bells,” the first song (just its melody) played in outer space, is a precedent to the famous 1977 Voyager recording and the first instance in a long list of musical activities in space. These have included, among many others, the recording of a music video for “Space Oddity,” played by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013 and the 20-day radio transmission of the song “Dongfang Hong,” or “The East Is Red,” from China’s first space satellite of the same name, in 1970.

Commander Chris Hadfield Performs a Version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Rare Earth Series, Published by Onward Music Limited 

“The East Is Red” with English Subtitles, Posted by User Joaquin2123

Other instruments that have traveled outside the Earth include the flute brought onboard by Ellen Ochoa, a classical musician and NASA‘s first female Hispanic astronaut, Carl Walz’s keyboard, and Aleksandr Laveykin and Yury Romanenko’s guitar, among many others. The recurrence of the musical within extraterrestrial voyages demonstrates the ubiquity of music as part of shared human activities, be it in mundane settings or in the extraordinary context of riding in a spaceship or living in a space station. Which is a more fitting rhetorical question: Why music in space? or, Why not music in space? If astronauts in close quarters going through physically and intellectually demanding activities of massive proportions still have to monitor closely their physical needs, such as eating, breathing, sleeping, and digesting, the presence of music in the spectacular encounter between the earthly and the extraterrestrial is a wonder in its own right.

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The first song played in outer space was “Jingle Bells.” The first SMS (short message service) text message, sent in 1992, read “Merry Christmas.” These instances demonstrate the embeddedness of technology with specific cultural contexts; even though the Gemini 6 mission was completed in December 1965, the song played by its crew could have been any other. “Jingle Bells,” written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–93) and first published as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” was originally about a (sleigh) ride, but not one linked to the imagery of Christmas holidays beyond the shared snow. “Jingle Bells” is also reported to have been one of the songs selected in the first recording of a Christmas record in an 1889 Edison cylinder. As the theater historian Kyra Hamill has demonstrated, the song gained prominence in 1857 after being performed as part of the blackface minstrel repertoire. That Schirra and Stafford performed it for humorous reasons tells us something about music and comic relief at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, only a few years before the historic moon landing. That this specific context is one of many that are a part of the song’s history demonstrates the multi-layeredness and depth of any one musical object, no matter how trivial it might seem.

*****

On December 16, 1965, the following three-way conversation took place between Gemini 6, Gemini 7, and the NASA Mission Control Center (“Houston”), with a reported sighting of Santa Claus in outer space:

Gemini 6: We have an object. It looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory, traveling from north to south. It has a very high [fineness] ratio. It looks like it might be [inaudible]. It’s very low; it looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. Stand by, One. It looks like he’s trying to signal us. [Stafford and Schirra play “Jingle Bells”]. 

 Gemini 7: We got him, too! [Laughter].

 Gemini 6: That was live, Seven, not taped.

 Houston: You’re too much, Six.

Performance in Space by Astronauts Schirra and Stafford, Posted by User Buzzlab

The objective of the Gemini 6 mission was to test the ability of two crewed spaceships to rendezvous. The musical moment performed through “Jingle Bells” highlights the desire and possibility of contact and communication. Effectively, Gemini 7 and the Houston ground control were morphed into audience members, with Gemini 6 clarifying that what they had indeed witnessed was a live performance. Both of their acknowledgments close a communicational loop of great significance. Communicating with the beyond and the non-human has also been a constant preoccupation in space travel, as explored in the selection of “world music” onboard the Voyager, or in Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures Project,” which includes a “micro-etched disc with one hundred photographs, encased in a gold-plated shell, designed to withstand the rigors of space and to last for billions of years. Inspired by years of conversations and interviews with scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers, the images chosen for The Last Pictures tell an impressionistic story of uncertainty, paradox, and anxiety about the future.”

*****

The presence of the harmonica brings a certain nostalgia to the fore in the musical moment created by the Gemini 6 mission. As a quintessential travel instrument, the harmonica in outer space can be interpreted as an instance of employing the familiar in order to ground a sense of place in the face of novelty, given its mainstream recognizability as part of the folk revival movement that peaked in the decade of the 1960s. The juxtaposition of tradition and modernity could not be starker in the moment it was brought to life through a Hohner “Little Lady” playing a Christmas song with a troubled racialized history hundreds of miles outside planet Earth. Yes, it was a funny moment, but it was more than the laughter.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Andrés García Molina, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bermúdez Cujar, Egberto. “Beyond vallenato: The accordion traditions in Colombia”, The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more!, ed. by Helena Simonett. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012) 199–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-10356]

Accordion music in Colombia has a much longer history than the music that is called vallenato, and is not confined to the Valledupar region that allegedly gave it its name. This essay examines the development of accordion music in Colombia (including Panama before its separation from Colombia in 1903) and its role in Colombian traditional and popular music. Drawing on archival research and oral history, the author begins with the accordion’s arrival in Colombian territory in the second half of the 19th century and concludes with vallenato’s incorporation into the national and international popular-music circuits. (author)

Field, Kim. Harmonicas, harps, and heavy breathers: The evolution of the people’s instrument (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1993). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-13329]

García Molina, Andrés. “Labor and the performance of place in the Upper Putumayo”, TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review 20 (2016) 27–45. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-45171]

I develop a problematic around two interrelated themes: labor and the performance of place. Drawing from fieldwork conducted among taitas, or shamans, from the Colombian Upper Putumayo region, I investigate the varied ways in which taitas understand and use sound in their ritual practice. Taitas sing and perform songs for long periods of time and under strenuous circumstances during tomas de yajé, rituals that involve drinking yajé, a psychoactive brew made from local plant species. Taitas claim one main reason they sing and play during the ritual is to recreate the sensorium of Amazonia, performing a ritual place that becomes replicable wherever they might conduct rituals, whether in rural Colombia or in urban centers of the West. I argue for the importance of understanding what taitas do—and conversely, shamanic practices in general—as a form of labor; in doing so, I propose a framework that permits theorizing the commodification of cultural practices that, even though embedded in present-day capital relations, exist concurrently in imaginaries that situate them in a distant precapitalist past. The increasingly common encounter between taitas, non-indigenous Colombians, and Westerners in general, allows us to reconsider basic questions of labor and place through the music—and more broadly, sounds—that taitas perform in ritual. (author)

Hamill, Kyna. “‘The story I must tell’: Jingle bells in the minstrel repertoire”, Theatre survey: The American journal of theatre history 58/3 (September 2017) 375–403. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2017-51193]

Krampert, Peter. The encyclopedia of the harmonica (Pacific: Mel Bay Publications, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-12510]

Lankford, Ronald D., Jr. Sleigh rides, jingle bells, & silent nights: A cultural history of American Christmas songs(Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-8609]

When Bing Crosby’s White Christmas debuted in 1942, no one imagined that a holiday song would top the charts year after year. One of the best-selling singles ever released, it remains on rotation at tree lighting ceremonies, crowded shopping malls, and at warm diners on lonely Christmas Eve nights. Over the years, other favorites have been added to America’s annual playlist including Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas, the King Cole Trio’s The Christmas song, Gene Autry’s Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Willie Nelson’s Pretty paper, and of course, Elmo & Patsy’s Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Under the surface of familiar melodies and words there lie jolly Santas, winter wonderlands, and roasting chestnuts—both masking and representing an intricate cultural landscape crowded with the meanings of a modern American Christmas. Songs that most readily evoke those meanings, desires, and anxieties have become classics, painting a portrait of the American psyche past and present. Viewing American holiday values through the filter of familiar Christmas songs, the author examines popular culture, consumerism, and the dynamics of the traditional American family. He surveys more than 75 years of songs and reveals that the “modern American Christmas” has carried a complex and sometimes contradictory set of meanings. Interpreting tunes against the backdrop of the eras in which they were first released, he identifies the repeated themes of nostalgia, commerce, holiday blues, carnival, and travesty that underscore so much beloved music. (publisher)

Licht, Michael S. “Harmonica magic: Virtuoso display in American folk music”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 24/2 (May 1980) 211–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1980-3491]

In the USA a virtuoso tradition of harmonic playing developed that used special mouth, hand, and nose techniques. It was influenced more by African than by European traditions. Public competitions fostered the development of special effects such as the fox chase and the locomotive. With the growth of audiences (e.g., for television and radio), the practice of accompanying spoken narratives became increasingly widespread. The author explores the symbolic meaning of some harmonic music genres, referring to the conflict of man and nature (in fox-chase pieces), and the growth of industrialization (in locomotive pieces). (Jeffrey Rehbach)

McCrory, Knox. “Notes on the harmonica: Toy or musical instrument?”, Missouri Folklore Society journal 20 (1998) 159–166. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-23779]

Simonett, Helena, ed. The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more! Music in American life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, no. 2012-10346]

An invention of the Industrial Revolution, the accordion provided the less affluent with an inexpensive, loud, portable, and durable “one-man-orchestra” capable of producing melody, harmony, and bass all at once. Imported from Europe into the Americas, the accordion with its distinctive sound became a part of the aural landscape for millions of people but proved to be divisive: while the accordion formed an integral part of working-class musical expression, bourgeois commentators often derided it as vulgar and tasteless. This rich collection considers the accordion and its myriad forms, from the concertina, button accordion, and piano accordion familiar in European and North American music, to the exotic-sounding South American bandoneón and the sanfoninha. Capturing the instrument’s spread and adaptation to many different cultures in North and South America, contributors illuminate how the accordion factored into power struggles over aesthetic values between elites and working-class people who often were members of immigrant and/or marginalized ethnic communities. Specific histories and cultural contexts discussed include the accordion in Brazil, Argentine tango, accordion traditions in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, cross-border accordion culture between Mexico and Texas, Cajun and Creole identity, working-class culture near Lake Superior, the virtuoso Italian-American and klezmer accordions, Native American dance music, and American avant-garde. (publisher)

Studwell, William E. “From Jingle bells to Jingle bell rock: Sketches of obscure or fading American popular Christmas songwriters, 1857–1957 (and a little beyond)”, Music reference services quarterly 5/1 (1996) 1–20. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1996-1302]

Although many people are familiar with the enduring and even classic American popular Christmas songs that are reprised every holiday season, the creators of these songs are obscure or fading from the collective American consciousness. In an effort to help preserve their names and accomplishments, biographical sketches of 34 writers of popular Christmas songs are presented.

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