Tuesday, July 29, 2008


My hard drive has crashed, so I'm afraid this blog will be on hold for a bit. Check back in a few weeks. The Singing Hand will make a comeback.


Monday, July 14, 2008

British Rock Bands


The Englishman Peter Crosthwaite, after a miserable stint in the family wool business, spent a number of years fighting off pirates on the East India Company gunboat "The Otter." After his tour of duty, he decided to settle down and found the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery. He also published maps. Perhaps feeling that he needed to enlarge his resume, he went on to invent, among other things, a cork-bottom lifeboat, a portable bathing machine, a swing purported to improve one's help, and a wind-operated harp. In 1785, he also discovered 6 stones that, when struck, produced perfect notes. Over the next six months, he scrounged up another ten, tuning them by chipping away at the rock. After assembling his set, he placed a system of mirrors near the museum window to help him spot carriages as they neared. He, his daughter, and his wife, would then begin a sonic assault that included gong, drum, barrel organ, and the stones, in the hopes that the passersby might stop in and pay a visit. The Keswick Museum and Art Gallery is currently ranked third on helium.com's list of The World's Strangest Museums.

This lithophone may still be viewed at the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery today.


It seems that if one does not want to be seriously outdone, one should devote more than six months to developing lithophones.

In 1790, stonemason, musician, and experienced musical inventor Joseph Richardson began developing his own collection after noting the musicality of certain rock from the Lakes District, eventually deciding that the Keswick rock was the most sonorous. This rock, the same kind used by Crosthwaite, is known as hornfels. Over the next thirteen years, he fashioned a set that spanned eight octaves, more stones than a piano has keys. Each stone was submitted to rigorous testing and shaping before it could be deemed worthy of the instrument. He was so monomaniacal about the project that he practically sent himself and his family to the poorhouse. In 1840, he named the completed lithophone, 'The Richardson Set.'


Richardson and his sons began to play local concerts, and generally blow minds in the Keswick region. A three week tour of Northern towns turned into a three-year rock-tapping odyssey. A number of different effects were achieved by striking the stones with different methods. Apparently they were able to replicate flute, harp, organ, and piano, or, as a 1846 newspaper ad boasts, anything from the warble of a lark to the deep bass of a funeral bell. They played songs ranging from popular dances to pieces by the likes of Handel and Mozart. People lost it.

Never satisfied, Richardson decked out 'The Richardson Set' with swiss bells, two rows of steel bars, and even some kick drums. Thus was born the Rock, Bell, and Steel Band. After an initial command performance at Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria invited back twice more. They toured Germany, France, and Italy and played over 60 concerts in London. Joseph Richardson and Sons and Rock, Bell, and Steel Band were preparing for a US tour when Robert, the youngest and most gifted son, died of pneumonia. The lithophone languished and was, in 1917, finally sent to join its sister instrument at the Keswick Museum and Gallery. 'The Richardson Set' is now famously known as The Musical Stones of Skiddaw.


Apparently they also invented the combo ottoman/fax machine.


In 1881 The Till Family Rock Band began playing concerts in The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, eventually playing a total of 136 shows there. Rocking out on a Skiddaw lithophone they dubbed the "harmonicon." It was eleven to twelve feet long, with a wooden frame. Five octaves of stone were supported upon straw rope.

Here is an excerpt from a 1903 letter to Mrs. J. Crosby Brown from William Till.

These Musical Stones were gathered from the Cumberland Mountains of England by Mr. William Till, now residing in Bayonne, N.J. Mr. Till for many years explored the Palaeozoic rocks of the Cumberland Mountains and at length found a series, which, when struck, produce musical sounds. The Rocks are Gneiss and Hornblende Schist. Mr. Till commenced to collect these stones by way of amusement, and by the end of the year he had gathered enough to form an instrument of an octave and a half on which simple airs could be played. The idea of a perfect instrument followed as a natural sequence. Mr. William Till assisted by his father continued to work on it and devoted many years in completing the instrument, which is now in the possession of Mr. Till.

They accompanied the harmonicon with other instruments such as cello, violin, and even a version of the Aeolian Harp, invented by Peter Crosthwaite. They spent five years touring Canada and the US. Reportedly, they played over 8,000 concerts and never failed to show up for a gig.

Till Family Rock Band

It is worth noting that the final configuration of this rock band included three women.


Brian Dewan of Catskill, NY recently composed seven pieces for The Musical Stones of Skiddaw. The stones were reassembled on a new frame; Dewan used 36 of the 60 stones. A concert was held lakeside and the amplified music of the stones drifted across the lake to Coniston village in the North of England. New pieces were performed at the Liverpool Biennial of 2006, backed by a Chinese Orchestra.

The stones went on to reach a vast audience via BBC Radio 4 and NPR. Additionally, the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery has teamed up with The University of Leeds to try and discover why hornfels has musical properties.

And now, at long last, here is Brian Dewan, along with Jamie Barnes, playing The Musical Stones of Skiddaw.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

An Instument of Melancholy

Touted by its inventor as "the voice of Angels," and blamed for madness, melancholy, illness and even death, the glass armonica is indeed a storied instrument, endowed with a mythology that might've contributed to its near-extinction. It was invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin and was the first musical instrument known to be invented by a colonial (read: White) American.

The glass armonica, commonly know as the glass harmonica, or, more esoterically, as the crystallophone is composed of a graduation of nesting glass bowls, each tuned to a note on the Western scale. These are skewered upon a spindle and are rotated by a treadle mechanism. The whole device resembles a cross between an antique sewing machine and a spit. Over one hundred composers have composed for this instrument, and yet it endured a period of virtual extinction for more than one hundred and ten years.

Its sound is indeed bewitching, gorgeous, eerie, and altogether disconcerting. According to Dr. Nicky Gibbon of Sheffield Hallam University, this is because its timbre predominately resonates in the range of 1,000 to 4,000 hertz, a range that our spatial hearing does not cover. Thus we cannot place where the sound is coming from.

Here is a video clip of Thomas Bloch, one of the few contemporary virtuosos, playing a solo piece.

The glass armonica was, in its heyday, believed to have astonishing powers. Franz Mesmer, the charismatic faith healer and proponent of "animal magnetism," played the armonica very well and it was a crucial part of his "mesmerizing" process. What follows is an account of a gout healing:

After several turns around the room, Mr. Mesmer unbuttoned the patient's shirt and, moving back somewhat, placed his finger against the part affected. My friend felt a tickling pain. Mr. Mesmer then moved his finger perpendicularly across his abdomen and chest, and the pain followed the finger exactly. He then asked the patient to extend his index finger and pointed his own finger toward it at a distance of three or four steps, whereupon my friend felt an electric tingling at the tip of his finger, which penetrated the whole finger toward the palm. Mr. Mesmer then seated him near the armonica; he had hardly begun to play when my friend was affected emotionally, trembled, lost his breath, changed color, and felt pulled toward the floor. In this state of anxiety, Mr. Mesmer placed him on a couch so that he was in less danger of falling, and he brought in a maid who he said was antimagnetic. When her hand approached my friend's chest, everything stopped with lightning speed, and my colleague touched and examined his stomach with astonishment…. The sharp pain had suddenly ceased. Mr. Mesmer told us that a dog or a cat would have stopped the pain as well as the maid did.

However, the perceived power of the instrument terrified many. It was believed to cause mental breakdowns in players. One contemporary theory is that the lead in the glass caused lead-poisoning. Yet this theory holds no water, for people at the time ingested much larger quantities of lead in snake-oil remedies and the like. The antique theories of why players went mad were related more to the actual sound of the instrument. I found no better quote to demonstrate this than the following quote, which was found on Wikipedia.

One example of fear from playing the glass harmonica was noted by a German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung where it is stated that "the armonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood that is apt method for slow self-annihilation. If you are suffering from any nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it."

Though these fantastical beliefs may have helped lead to the decline of the instrument, it is more likely that the main factor in its century-long period of dormancy is its quietness. Musical fashion gradually moved from small chamber ensembles to great concert halls with fully symphonies. The armonica was simply too quiet to keep up.

Bruno Hoffman helped to bring the instrument back to public attention with his sensational performances on glass harp, which is actually an assemblage of wine glasses, tuned with varying quantities of water. The glass harp is what initially inspired Benjamin Franklins more elegant, cohesive sister instrument. Hoffman played pieces originally intended for the glass armonica, thus drawing attention to the arcane instrument.

In the late 20th century, musician and master glass-blower Gerhard B. Finkbeiner began to labor over the problem of how to manufacture a modern version of the glass harmonica. His current version, available here, has cups made of quartz glass, and gold bands mark the "black keys." The silica cups are supposed to allow the purest sound possible and eliminate any excuse for lead-related superstition. They start at $7,180, which all but ensures the continued rarity of the instrument.

Now there has arisen the strange phenomenon of the glass armonicist performing in colonial garb, an obvious, but perhaps poorly judged reference to Benjamin Franklin, while amusing, these costumes help to condemn the glass armonica to reliquary, when it is really an instrument so haunting, and so much easier to play than its sister the glass harp, that it deserves a full-fledged revival, especially in this day and age of amplification. Even the glass harp, maybe because of its cobbled-together appearance, is seen as something of a parlor trick rather than as a real instrument.

Here you may see William Zeitler, looking like he stepped out of the Boston Tea Party, playing Tchaikovsky's timeless "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." The composer wrote the main melodic line for the glass armonica, and so you shall hear it played as it was orginally intended.

The glass armonica is surely one of the most intensely beautiful and ghostly instruments known to man. Personally, I pray for a full-scale revival and for an economical version to hit the market.