Bizarre Instruments

Posted in Music by Diana




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An introductory guide to some of the most remarkable innovations/curiosities within music technology.

Now that music and everything about it is so easily accessible, we have much better knowledge of everything within its domain. You’ve probably heard of a number of peculiar music instruments, names of which might not have rung a bell a few years ago, such as for instance the theremin, the musical saw or even the didgeridoo. I’ve recently seen some bizarre pieces being performed, read a cool article about the relationship between music instruments and technology, and also bought a new album which contains music made mostly using retro electronics and old-school modes of sound production from the 1960s and 70s.
When it comes to bizarre music instruments and composers there's always a lot to explore, so I'll just knock myself out here.

The Telharmonium

Quite an extraordinary piece (or rather a huge chunk of equipment) is an instrument called the Telharmonium. Developed at the end of the 1890s, its first version was completed in 1901 by a guy called Thaddeus Cahill. He used telephone receivers to which paper cones were attached as amplifiers, in order to transmit the music to any household, hotel or a restaurant in town, by connecting the whole apparatus into a telephone switch (Apparently, they had multifunctional phones back then, too). The problems occurred later on when it started to mess with the actual use of telephones for their original purpose - personal communication. In addition, the Telharmonium was quite big (it took up an entire room) and weighed 200 pounds, so it wasn’t exactly a handy size. According to Brian Eno it was, however, most likely the first truly portable, electronic, music instrument.


Then there was a lady called Daphne Oram, an electronic music pioneer, also known as “The Grandmother of Techno”, who invented a new style of making music by building a machine which 'drew' sound. She was using small synthesizer bits to control the tunes, meaning that anything from the sound of a trumpet to an alien spaceship would come out in real time, depending on what one drew on a thin film strip. The Oramics machine contributed greatly to the British electronic music scene, but sadly Daphne's masterpiece received close to zero recognition while she was alive. Not surprisingly, all her work seemed too peculiar to the public at that time. But now an iPhone app called Oramics, has been developed as a tribute to Daphne. Savvy!

Harry Partch

When it comes to musicians who compose and play music outside the boundaries of convention, Harry Partch is without a doubt a unique figure. His hatred of constraints, hypocrisy and conformism, prompted him to create his own rules within his own world. Harry received a classical musical education but slowly grew bored of it and was striving to find something that would answer the questions of contemporary music theory and explain why the rules were what they were - rather restrictive. One thing he couldn’t understand and identify with was the tonal scale, which consisted of a mere 12 tones, a rule that he found very odd. Knowing that music has since the beginning of time been in close relation with the natural speaking patterns that humans have, he wanted to create something which had a greater equivalency to the natural to sounds of the human voice by capturing every tiny tone in it. He therefore expanded the tonal scale, inventing microtones, small intervals between the traditional notes we know, and in the end you had 43 tones per octave instead of just 12 (and frankly, that does offer a lot more possibilities now, doesn't it?). Having the new tonal scale ready, he started building instruments which could play all these tones as well as gathering people who wanted to learn how to play his music on them. Harry was one of the first people to get this kind of offbeat unconventional music played in so-called “serious concert halls”.

Yuri Landman

Speaking of concerts, the best ones are those which you do not have any expectations for and which turn out to be better than anything else you've seen in a while. The previously mentioned Festival of Endless Gratitude, which took place here in Copenhagen in September made this happen for me by putting on a show with Yuri Landman, one of the contemporary microtonal composers, Dutch instrument maker and singer, who in fact is applying Harry Partch's microtonal framework in his instrument and music making. I hadn't done much research before the festival for the lack of time and also for the fact that I know I can trust the taste of the festival's organizers 100%. Hence, I only knew I shouldn't miss Landman's performance but wasn't exactly sure what to expect. The show was a spectacular thing to watch. My jaw dropped on the floor when he started playing the “invisible” string instrument that was stretched across the room, with drumsticks. Since it was quite dark, it took me a while to figure out that there was an actual string and he wasn't playing one of those instruments that you don't touch.

Another cool part of the festival, was the workshop led by Yuri, which was nice because you could sign up for it and build your own instrument called “The Homeswinger”. So apart from the string instrument, Yuri was playing his hyper custom guitar called “The Hyper Tremolo”. He was also running around conducting the whole orchestra consisting of about 8 people who had attended the workshop, and playing the instruments they had built. I wish I had a good HD video of the performance to show you, but sadly I don't, which also means, if you ever get a chance to have Yuri in your town or catch him wherever else, go for it like there's no tomorrow! Yuri has made a number of instruments for well-known musicians such as Health, Sonic Youth, Women, Liars, Dustin Wong and Melt-Banana. If you long after one, attend his workshop and make it yourself. After all, who says you need to buy a guitar?

Zinovieff's Synth

The VCS3 synthesizer, is the last one in the bunch of odd instruments here. Invented by Peter Zinovieff in the late 1960's, the sound it produced was quite negatively received by critics in the beginning. They called it an interesting noise but also said that it was hardly music. It was being referred to as plinky-plunky and Zinovieff couldn't even receive performance royalties on it because the Performing Rights Society didn't consider it as music!

WTF, really!? I love my new Danish retro electronic CD and the plinky-plunkiness of it. Probably not something you wanna listen to, say, on your way to work, but despite the fact it requires certain amount of alertness and genuine interest, it's very absorbing. Even more so when you read the description of the tracks and how they were made. I was trying to figure out why a lot of this music sounds so familiar and not at all behind the times, even though it was recorded about 50-60 years ago, and just like it says in the CD booklet, it does very much resemble the music of contemporary noise/drone/ambient acts. Have a look at this:

Danish composer and musician, Fuzzy, considers “Blau” an application of electro-acoustic possibilities, which he studied in his previous piece called “Ave”.

“The opening section [of “Blau”] produced exclusively with a drumstick vibrating against a hard bed, which - depending on the electronic processing – generates anything from clattering-flapping sounds to spaces of roaring noise. Elements of traditional rhythm and melody pop up, i.e. a passage from The Doors well-known theme Light My Fire is twisted around for a while before it passes over the edge in whistling noise and spins out in a hectic keyboard improvisation, a bubbling splutter and an almost static flute solo, even if: Staying on the same chord for that long was not very fashionable in those days, as Fuzzy says.” You’ll find the first part of the described track above. Check out part 2 as well. It's pretty good.

That was it for our little guide to bizarre instruments and remarkable music technology. We hope it inspires you to do some searching (and maybe even some building?) of your own.