Overweening Generalist

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Smattering on Odd Musical Instruments

Taxonomies of Instruments: Two Models
Standard "music appreciation" in Unistat seems still squarely in the strings/woodwinds/brass/percussion taxa; a few years ago I read a book by Bozhidar Abrashev, a Bulgarian composer/musicologist. I forget the title, but he was relaying a taxonomy of musical instruments that attempted to account for all instruments used worldwide and throughout history:

  • Aerophones: these are any instrument in which the sound is produced by vibrating air, and flutes are a good example.
  • Membranophones: sounds are obtained by a vibrating stretched membrane, like drums or the kazoo.
  • Idiophones: any instrument that vibrates, due to the material it's made of, like glass, wood, or ceramics. A vibraphone works like this.
  • Chordophones: the Big Boys: violin, piano, guitar...instruments that produce their sound via vibrating strings. 
In the strings/woodwinds/brass/percussion dealio, I remember what I thought was the Big Trick Question: what class does the piano fit in? A: percussion. Why? Because in Unistat "Music Appreciation" classes any instrument that uses a mallet or hammer was percussion, and pianos are teeming with little hammers inside.

Since I read Abrashev I've thought both models complement each other. I later learned that the Aero/Membrano/Idio/Chordo model/taxonomy was invented in 1914 by Erich von Hornbrostel and Curt Sachs. It's probably only one of them "coincidences" that one guy has "horn" in his name and the other guy is a homophone for the Sax.

Someone else tried to add Electrophones to the Sachs/Hornbrostel model, I forget who. These instruments would be any that used "juice" to get sound: anything amplified, anything plugged-in to the wall. So, the guitar goes from Segovia's chordophone to Hendrix's electrophone. I remember reading the argument for adding this class. It sounded good: what is a Moog synthesizer, anyway? How about a Theremin? But then the writer added that any instrument that had been recorded in a studio had become an electrophone, and I took the next off-ramp. How did it help to think of Bach's flute stuff as being played by electrophones?

My Take on De-Extinction
I've been reading a bunch of stuff on synthetic biologists and cloning and bringing back animal species that had gone extinct. It's called "De-Extinction." I find it thrilling, marvelous stuff, and I think "they" will be able to do it, but it's such an amazing idea that I want to see a lot of it before I'm convinced. Will there be chimeras, monsters, hybrids? Probably. But then I found out a similar process of de-extinction had been going on with ancient musical instruments. Some archaeologists dig up something that looks like it may have been used for music, and then art historians, computer scientists, anthropologists, musicologists (of course!), historians, engineers, and experts in the area of physics called acoustics all get involved and network around the world, trying to figure out how these things were played, and especially how they sounded. They even networked a bunch of computers to help solve this problem. (This seems like a wonderful puzzle for academics and a chance for much interdisciplinary work. And grant-money. See HERE and HERE.) We now "know" how the epigonion (an ancient harp) sounded, how the salpinx (ancient trumpet) sounded, how the barbiton (like a 2000 year old bass guitar) sounded, how the aulos (archaic oboe) sounded. And the syrinx, too (an old pan-pipe).

This all seemed almost as marvelous as resurrecting extinct animals, but when I found out that they ended up simulating the sounds of these old instruments through MIDI, so that the guitarist or keyboard player can flick the switch for epigonion or salpinx, I worried a bit. First off: there's enough doubt that the simulation, as run through our ultra-modern gadgets, wouldn't become "interpreted" somewhere down the line as being a lot like what we already know about sounds. Then I wondered about the problem of understanding tuning and scales. The Greek modes as Plato understood them are not the same as the way modern players understand those modes. And modern well-tempered tuning only came in during Bach's time. How much would get washed out in those areas?

What I thought was an even bigger problem was the aspect of physicality of playing. If you're a player, you have a strong feeling for the way your whole body plays the instrument. And the way an instrument is made very strongly influences the way it's played. By obtaining a very complex algorithm-model for the way the instrument probably sounded, then feeding that into our electronics so that the keyboardist can play those sounds with a piano-player's body? (Or, more precisely?: A piano-player's nervous-system's sort of orientation in the culturally-sanctioned "ways" plus physical parameters of the musical instrument itself-as-it-interfaces-with-a-Western-trained musician who has deep grooves burned into neural circuits in her brain that have much to do with the practicing of millions of idiomatic iterations which qualify as distinctive features to her particular instrument?) I had my doubts. I think Jean-Pierre Rampal's (flute virtuoso) physical approach to his instrument was different than Charlie Haden's (jazz bass virtuoso); and I think Ivo Pogorelich's (piano virtuoso) was different than Vilayat Khan's (sitar virtuoso) approach. Viktoria Mullova (violinist extraordinaire) had a different physical approach to her axe than John Coltrane (tenor and soprano sax wizard). They're all different personalities playing music at the highest level, aye; but the 20,000+ hours of practice and performance on their particular axes, with those instruments' own programed-in physical demands, peculiar to that instrument alone? That seems a vastly underrated aspect of what Derrida may have called differance. 

Imagine you're an insanely wealthy person and you hire each of the paragraph-above-mentioned virtuosos (or their living equivalents) to come to your birthday party and play you their own version of "Happy Birthday." The melody and rhythm's the same; the effect and expression are another thing: they have to do with the instrument, what's possible on it, and its interaction with that unique human nervous system playing for you, as you grin like you're tripping on Ecstasy in some gold sequined jump suit that you wore on your helicopter ride, cake dotting the corners of your mouth, your butler near at hand, Viktoria Mullova standing in your massive kitchen, where the acoustics are quite good, surprisingly.

<Ahem!> Back to my take on the route to de-extinction of ancient instruments. Your take may differ. Check out this video of the Lost Sounds Orchestra "playing" these ancient instruments, together with modern sounds. It sounds to my aural reality labyrinth like the stuff you hear when you go into a "New Age" bookstore, looking to stock up on incense, or candles, or maybe some book on modern pagans. I found it disappointing, but then I wondered: how much "weirder" can some old instrument made of wood, bone, bamboo reeds and animal skin sound, to me? Was I expecting too much from the de-extinction of these ancient instruments? Probably?

Some Modern Odd Instruments 
Quartz Harmonica
Gerhard Finkenbeiner's glass (quartz) harmonicas seem pretty cool. Zeitler's lookin' all Ben Franklin-y 'cuz Ben was very much interested in an older version of this instrument, before Finkenbeiner innovated:

Player Pianos, Airplane Propellers, Electric Bells and Much More!
George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique: friend and collaborator with Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy, Man Ray, Francis Picabia and Ezra Pound, this is Antheil's most famous piece. He later came back to America and ended up in Hollywood writing film scores that were oh-so-tame compared to this! When it was premiered, multimedia-style, in Germany in 1924, it caused a Rite of Spring-like riot:

You all know this one, but I still think it's soooo cool. Here's Theremin himself playing his Thang:

If you haven't seen the documentary about Theremin's life, strongly consider it. It's heartbreaking, filled with intrigue, and TRUE!

Sonically, the theremin seems to want to be "violinistic," but I also think it sounds like a second cousin to the musical saw. (Maybe the first exhilarating and weird buzz I ever had seeing someone play an odd instrument beautifully was some guy on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, circa 1972. As I remember it, the guy played "Genie With Light Brown Hair," and it was transcendent.) How much the theremin differs from the violin as a way to physically play the instrument! The theremin is never touched; the violin seems quite the opposite to me, being intensely touchy-feely in its nature.

Olfactory Organ
Purely theoretical. Now we're getting Out There. You can't make stuff like this up. When I stumbled across this article, I thought it was a put-on, but it appears to be a "real" idea that the editors at the magazine Science and Invention took seriously, in 1922. Driven by the 1857 book by French perfumer-extraordinaire Septimus Piesse, The Art of Perfumery. Synthaesthetic in aim, the idea was that people would dress up and go to a concert hall, but instead of hearing an organist play pleasant sounds, they would watch (and sniff?) as the organist played odors or scents. Piesse was fond of using musical metaphors for scents, and it looks like the geeks at Science and Invention got carried away. Read the article for yourself (it's short) and the jokes write themselves! I will trot out a favorite word, for this special occasion: cockamamie!

Philodendron, Schefflera, Snake Plant and humans doing algorithms
Listen to the music here. Read how it was derived. Plants composing/playing music with the help of human interpreters. It reminds me of much of Brian Eno's ambient recording oeuvre, and other ambient music.

                                           Philodendron giganteum

This one does seem like a Rube Goldberg-ish way to make noise, but I still think it's cool. Would I sit and listen to it for the better part of an hour? Well, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea listened to a record of whales singing while stoned (Shea and Wilson were stoned, not the whales), so I think I could, with the right amount of weed. A "bum workout," indeed:

This one seems to have, roughly, the ontological status of the Olfactory Organ. I first read about it in a book on Athanasius Kircher, and John Glassie's recent, excellent bio of Kircher, goes over it. Supposedly a bunch of cats were placed in separate boxes and arranged chromatically according to the pitch of their meows, their tails stretched out so that a keyboardist would "play" the cats by hitting a key on a keyboard, and a nail would come down on a cat's tail and cause it to yell out. Now, I'm a cat lover and this just seems heinous, not to mention fiendishly hellish to listen to, were anyone to actually make one and play it. The idea has been attributed to Kircher, but it seems doubtful he actually made one of these. The effect was supposed to be "funny." Today, the ASPCA and PETA would be all over the asses of any asses who tried this shit. HERE's an article on it.

Player-Piano (Pushed to Insane Limits!)
I had not realized how seriously some people took the player-piano, but then I read a piece about a modern composer named Conlon Nancarrow, who had studied under Nicolas Slonimsky, Roger Sessions, and Walter Piston. He was known for composing music so demonically difficult for player-piano that no single human could play the piece, no matter how much they practiced. His stuff now seems to prefigure composing for computers. If you check You Tube, you'll find all sorts of amazing things by Nancarrow. A lot of it strikes me as Cecil Taylor on some LSD cut with lots of speed.

The player-piano included here is not so much an "odd musical instrument" but more a very radical approach to a established instrument.

Taking a page (<---HA!) from Nancarrow, get a muthafreakin' load of this piece, "Circus Galop" (sp?), by Marc-Andre Hamelin, who composed it to stress-test MIDI equipment. At times there are 21 notes being played, so no single human could pull this off. I can't help but think that, were Charles Ives around to witness this, he would have approved. I saved the best for last, and it truly is INSANE! Enjoy:

P.S: I realize I've left out Harry Partch and his found-in-the-desert industrial waste instruments, but you probably know all about that schtuff anyway.


tony smyth said...

Thta last one is nuts. Great fun.Love the flass harmonium too which I think you can buy sampled.

michael said...

That insane circus music, overflowing with chromatics and dissonance and huge chords I can't identify as they careen past my ears at near light speed, and over a cliff...it makes me wonder about the nervous system of a guy who composes this. Nancarrow seemed to live there; Marc-Andre Hamelin did a bang-up job of it if the express purpose was to stress test the limits of other systems by overloading them with possibilities.

The quartz harmonica's timbre seems as "celestial" as that wonderful little instrument Tchaikovsky had made for that section of The Nutcracker: the celeste. Who DOESN'T respond to that sound quality, as long as it's not overdone? It's light snow falling through craggy tree branches with a full moon lighting up the night sky in the distance, while you rest comfortably in bed without a care in the world, drifting in and out of pleasant dreams.

Anonymous said...

I had Harry Partch on the mind throughout my entire reading of this blogspew. You gave him an honorable mention at the end but you did not mention Raymond Scott, another figure that comes to my mind when these innovators of zany musical instruments come up. He invented many electronic instruments like the Clavivox and Harmonium. The compositions he wrote these musical toys seem to prefigure the music of guys like Brian Eno. Bob Moog worked for Raymond Scott before creating his own synthesizer and credited him as an influence.

The Residents seem like they have taken a few notes from guys like Raymond Scott and Harry Partch. Their most recent album has an Homage to Nancarrow.

Anonymous said...

Oh! And on the subject of singing plants, there's Joe Davis and his audio microscope.

michael said...

@Anon: That link to Partch is nothing to sneeze at: you can "play" his instruments there; it's pretty cool.

Thanks for lending further confirmation to my suspicion that I have some readers who are WAY beyond me in some of my enthusiasms. Raymond Scott should be better known. I had only known of Nancarrow for about 18 months when I mentioned him, above. Then, just yesterday, I played a CD of 20th c. composers I'd checked out from the library - on impluse, simply because Elliot Carter's name was on the cover - and Nancarrow was the first composer.

I had to look up Joe Davis. Wow. It's getting to the point: you start Googling this stuff and following a few odd tributaries of musical weirdness...and you realize that, people will take all sorts of things from nature and assign them numbers with attributes to fit into algorithms, and VOILA!:you have DNA-created pieces, and Cagey uses of musique concrete with mash-ups and accompanying voice-over by Burroughs, McKenna, RAW...

I think a lot of people hear "Moog" and they think of Rick Wakeman or something like that (which is cool), but how about Jean-Jacques Perrey using Paganini's "Moto Perpetual" and using "gossip" as the idea...?

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention one more inventor of zany instruments, Laurie Anderson. I find her tape-bow violen quite amazing. Not only has she made her own instruments and voice filters but she worked for the Encyclopedia Britannica and played the role of Artist in Residence at NASA. A person your age with your tastes and interests has probably heard of her but I did not live through the time when they played Laurie Anderson's music on TV and many people of my generation have not heard of her.

And no, thank you. I have read every one of your blogspews for the last year or more and you have turned me onto many great ideas, videos, books and articles. I would love to spend a day digging through your blog archives.

I think a good deal of the clips in your Partch Link come from Harry Partch - Music Studio video which you can find on YouTube. Very interesting stuff.

Thinking about Laurie Anderson, who explores the territory between Science and Art, or Harry Partch, who created new tools from old junk, brings me back to Joe Davis. They call him an Artist in Residence at MIT where he creates installations in exchange for scrap-junk. At Harvard they call him an Artist Residence and I think they might even have him on the payroll. He didn't just invent the Audio Microscope but other far-out and exciting toys like the polytractor - a protractor that one can use to create polygons not allowed by 360º bias of ancient Sumeria. His lecture on exo-hexahedrons (another thing ou can find on YouTube) blew my mind. You'll have to watch the lecture to find out what exo-hexahedron means.

That reinterpretation of Paganini reminds me of OOIOO's interpretation of Coro Delle Lavandaie. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJ1FLn7T448

OOIOO hails from Japan and has gained some popularity in The West but Coro Delle Lavandaie comes from Italy. The idea that American listeners may think the lyrics Japanese while Japanese listeners may think the lyrics Nonsense amuses me. I heard tale that Yoshimi P-We of OOIOO practices Oomoto along with her fellow members in band The Boredoms. The Oomoto religion claims con-lang Esperanto as their official language. I sense some sort of attempt to transcend cultural and linguistic limitations here but perhaps not.

The Residents ain't nothing to sneeze at neither. They've made music, videos (heck! they invented the music video) and art for four decades and until recently nobody knew their names. Nowadays they go by Chuck, Randy & Bob. Chuck or Charles Bobuck (banana nana fo-fuck) recently name-dropped Thomas Pynchon on his Facebook and it wouldn't surprise me if the dudes went waaay back.

These Residents have some high concept stuff! Lately I dig on The Ughs: a primitive-jazz and foley-room type reproduction of their narrative album The Sandman which they based off of Hoffman's old tale.

Okay, the little clock at the bottom left corner of my screen says 5:09 AM, I've sucked myself into an infinite digression catastrophe and I got shit to do tomorrow (er, today?) so I'll let this sprawling comment come to an end.

Enjoy. Hopefully I've pointed out some new things for you to groove on. Hope you have plenty of warmth and summertime fragrance in Berzerkely down there. C'ya!

Eric Wagner said...

Great blog. I love the Residents. I remember the TV show Night Music (1988 - 1990). They would have a variety of musical guests each week, and at the end of the show they would perform together. One week they had Conway Twitty and the Residents. I hoped and prayed they would perform together. At the show's conclusion, Conway performed "When You're Cool, The Sun Shines All the Time" and the Residents danced along. I felt very happy with the world.

I once published an interview between the Residents and Thomas Pynchon. (Yes, I made it up.)

michael said...

@Anon: Killuh addition to the OG here. Thanks! I checked out Laurie Anderson for around 6 months back around 1994...it started with her collaboration with Burroughs.

The Residents: Duck Stab and Cap'n Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica (along with John Zorn's "Bad Hawkwind") were CDs to pop in when the party was going on far too long and I wanted everyone to go home. I remember a friend playing something from the mid-80s by the Residents and it sounded like a completely different band. I have not kept up on them. I'll check The Ughs.

@Eric: REALLY? Conway Twitty and The Residents on the same TV show together? Far-flippin' out!

I saw Conway Twitty on Family Guy not long ago. He was not animated.

Feel free to link the Pynch-Residents imaginative interview here.

Jeez! Both Anon and Wagner show themselves as major info-philes here. Me like.

Eric Wagner said...

Yeah, I know of nothing to clear out a party like the Resident's "Third Reich and Roll."

I saw Snakefinger in concert once. I remember one lyric: "I gave you my spleen. You said it was obscene."

On another note, I've changed my perception of Bob's Tale of the Tribe. I used to regard it as an unwritten work. Now I regard it as a perfect fragment, like the fragments the Romantics liked so much. (I love Charles Rosen's discussion of Romantic fragments in his The Romantic Generation.) We live in that perfect fragment, the Tale of the Tribe. (Well, you and I seem to live in that fragment. Perhaps our whole culture, our whole tribe, does.)

One can see "Kubla Khan" as another such, um, complete fragment, a successful poem about incompletion.

I remember Bob telling me he had a conversation in 1968 in Chicago with Ginsberg and Burroughs about The Cantos, and they decided it seemed appropriate for the epic of the 20th century to end in fragments.

Eric Wagner said...

Conway Twitty and the Residents: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO_xzwbXKas