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.
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?
Some Modern Odd Instruments
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
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.
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.
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.