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  • The Strangest Instrument June 5, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    In his forlorn attempts to bring the bizarre into melody Beachcombing has done a little browsing through music-history books in the last six months. And one of the manila files that he consequently opened – now stored in the rusty filing cabinet in the downstairs bathroom – was entitled ‘weird instruments’.

    Beachcombing is going to be honest: the file is only half full for now, but he is going to run the flag half way up the pole and offer what he has come up with to date: any other contributions would be gratefully received and will be appended below – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    The early history of music is almost entirely lost to us – despite some interesting anthropological theories about singing and language. However, Beachcombing has never been afraid to generalise  recklessly or what is worse use others’ reckless generalisations recklessly. So let’s hear it for the bizarrely-named and the bizarre-sounding didgeridoo from out of the red sands of Australia, ‘ the oldest wind instrument’, a wind instrument that might even predate agriculture.  Other cultures, if they couldn’t match the sound of the Australian instrument, employed bone (rather than wood) to make their own pipes: including – one of the traditional instruments of the central Asian shaman – pipes sculpted from human thigh bone.

    From historical times there are some fabulous descriptions of the ‘music’ of warbands, for example, Roman descriptions of Celtic armies in Italy with their diabolical out-of-tune  carnyx players – the carnyx was a Celtic war trumpet. There is, indeed, a post to be written on the music/noise/war-cries created by different armies in history. Memories here of a terrified Chinese force faced by Tibetan drummers dressed in tiger outfits.

    Then there is Beachcombing’s favourite musical instrument the therapeutic rain stick that probably had its origins in pre-Columbian times in Latin America and that imitates ‘soft rains’.

    The rattle is too simple to be bizarre though the sixteenth-century German explorer Hans Staden describes how Brazilian cannibals made their victims play the rattle before being cooked – something that can be paralleled in other Meso-American and South American societies where sacrifice was accompanied by a bit of rhythm or, at the very least, some dulcet conch music.

    Other curious instruments include those that are not bizarre in themselves, but that transcend our modern categories. For example, there is the cimbalom which is a cross between a xylophone and a violin. Or what about the hurdy-gurdy: essentially a cranked fiddle?

    More exciting are some of the crack-pot inventions of recent centuries. Beachcombing has visited the notorious cat organ before and still has nightmares.

    Then what about Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica (1761) that tried to make music on the back of the bore in the bar running a wet finger around and around his glass? Incredibly Mozart was persuaded to include the ghostly sounds of the GA in several compositions. Beachcombing is still trying to track down which.

    There is too the theremin, patented in 1928 by Léon Theremin, the most novel instrument of the electronic age – a long generation before Jean Michael Jarre got all histrionic with his ‘air organ’.  The player of the theremin lifts their hands above two antennae that transmit the hand movements to a loudspeaker. In modern times the great Hawkwind have employed this curious music-maker, appreciating its eerie undertones and its potential for theatre.

    Nor can we forget Yosuke Yamashita (pictured above) playing a burning piano on the beach: its got to be better than watching a spoilt rock star smash up his guitar.

    Then, finally, in  modern music, commercial and otherwise, the most mundane objects have been used to create certain sounds on famous tracks. The Beach Boys employed a clanging ashtray on Barbara Ann. Fairport Convention – if Beachcombing remember correctly – used a pile of chairs for percussion on their most famous single Si Tu Dois Partir: the chairs collapse at the end of the song? And the Penguin Café Orchestra have built their reputation on their use of routine objects to make sounds: one of their most famous tracks is Telephone and a Rubber Band.

    Oh and there’s a Vegetable Orchestra that plays out of Vienna…


    8 June 2011: Many wrote in with this extraordinary site that celebrates unusual instruments and that is well worth a visit. Thanks to all of you. Ruth communicates, meanwhile, that the glass armonica still lingers! ‘Check out  http://www.glassarmonica.com/ and http://www.williamzeitler.com/’  Invisible, on the other hand, writes ‘I have been a church organist for over 45 years. Believe me, the organ has MANY strange ‘instruments’, like the clarabella, sesquialtera, unda maris, bombarde, trompette en chamade, viola d’amore, and the zimbelstern, a whirlygig of bells that tinkles in a random and highly obnoxious manner.  To get the full range, just check out some of these stop names…. .  I have heard of organists who called their cats after organ stops… But for true organ oddities…  Organs of marble! of porcelain! of bamboo! (very popular in the Philippines). Open air organs, an organ in the shape of a hand, the organ of Dr Caligari with irregularly angled pipes! And John Cage’s work for organ designed to be played as slowly as possible. It’s all here! An instrument often used in churches without organs was the serpent–yes, snake-shaped and covered in (usually) black leather. It provided a thumping bass accompaniment to choirs and congregations.  But back to instruments made of human bones. As you mentioned, Central Asia is a hotbed of this musical morbidity. You can even get a CD on Amazon called Kang Ling, Tibetan music played on the trumpet made from a human thighbone.  (Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet by Berthold Laufer) The Inca also had flutes made of human bone and drums made with human skin. I assume the Aztecs did also. Apparently people are still using human bone instruments today, either in a ‘magickal’ way.  Or as the soundtrack to a show about a serial killer. Oh dear….. Then, although not made of bone, there are the ‘cursed trumpets’ of King Tut.  I always thought that the banjolele, that cross between the banjo and ukelele, as played by Bertie Wooster in Thank you, Jeeves, was just the comic invention of P.G. Wodehouse. But no – they actually exist and have a fan base. You can buy one on Amazon. Not that I would. The neighbors would complain.’ Then Ricardo to the rescue: ‘Search for the American composer and instrument builder Harry Partch. He was also a hobo for part of his life, actually. And off course, if you want to wage war on your neighbours… find a Calliope.’ Beachcombing has been listening to the music of the Calliope on Wikipedia all morning, haunting and ghastly. Thanks again to all who wrote in with musical advice!!! This is clearly a rich field.

    23 June 2011: Virginia writes in with the following link, ‘This may not exactly fall under the heading of a ‘strange’ instrument, but finding someone who makes and plays replicas of the aulos is perhaps a bit unusual.’ Thanks Virginia!

    6 July 2011: Ricardo continues with his work on musical instruments. ‘I asked a musician friend of mine for added comments and here is the transcript. He also does his own instruments, usually works with radio feedback. Which reminds me of people playing tesla coils… But, anyway, my friend told there is a mistake in your posting and reminded me of another fantastic instrument of which I have a record I dearly love, the daxaphone. ‘The vegetable orchestra is from Vienna, not Vietnam [now corrected]. One lovely instrument, which really amazes me, and only has two players in the world, as far as I know, is the daxophone. It was invented by Hans Reichel, and it is pieces of wood in various forms that are being bowed. All sounds on this website are made with the daxophone linked above. Amazing thing really. the only other musician who plays it is Uchihashi Kazuhisa. Then there is the Printar of Dan Wilson, a mix of dot matrix printer and guitar.’ This reminded me that the only dot matrix printer musicians I knew off were [The User], a duo of canadians. And these did another amazing thing, they got this huge, abandoned silo and set it up has a huge resonant chamber to which people could send their sound through the internet and, so, in a way, play the silo. It’s the… silophone!’ Thanks Ricardo and Ricardo’s friend!!

    7 July 2011: Andy the Mad Monk writes in with this tip off, ‘You are always looking for unusual musical instruments – well, what about the Pyrophone?  An organ powered by flaming gas. And here you can even see (and hear) one being played.  (I also found a number on you-tube, but this has the purest tone)‘ Thanks Andy!!

    11 August 2011: With weird musical instruments Ricardo R. sends in an exceptional video (haunting music) and Invisible a site with a couple of strange commercially available collections. Thanks Ricardo and Invisible!

    30 Sept 2011: A bewitching tune on a glass harp from Nev. Thanks Nev