Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Sackbut, a Noble Instrument With a Funny Name

I have recently had some fun at the expense of the poor sackbut. (See Instruments With Funny Names) My conscience has been reproaching me ever since. I hope that I haven't offended any sackbut players. I expect that most sackbut players have a good sense of humor and aren't easily offended. At least, I hope that's the case.

Actually, the sackbut is respectable instrument that played an important role in the history of western music. Basically, it's name comes from Middle French and means push and pull (from sacquer and bouter). The name makes sense when you consider that the sackbut is an ancestor of the modern trombone.

The sackbut was developed from the medieval slide trumpet. The slide trumpet was quite a popular instrument in its day, but it had the disadvantage of only having one slide. You had to move almost the entire instrument to change the note. The double slide of the sackbut solved this problem. Like the trombone, you only have to move the slide to change notes.

We tend to associate the modern trombone with comedic sound effects, but the sackbut played an important and dignified role in church music, even in grand cathedrals. It had a pleasant vocal quality and was prized as an accompaniment for choirs.

Eventually, the sackbut went into decline and became nearly extinct. However, the trombone became a popular instrument. Because there's increasing interest in authentic performances on period instruments, some trombonists are taking up the sackbut, leading to a small resurgence of the instrument.

Sackbut Links
The Sackbut at The British Trombone Society
Wikipedia Article
Sackbut Video

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Japanese Koto

If I hear a koto, I immediately think of Japan. I have never been to Japan, but the sound of the koto paints vivid images in my imagination of what I perceive to be the finest aspects of Japanese culture. It makes me think of a kind of grace, elegance and tranquility that is seldom experienced in the western hemisphere. Maybe these associations are overly romantic and unrealistic. I don't know. I do know that the koto is a remarkable instrument for being able to evoke these feelings.

The koto is a thirteen string zither with movable frets for tuning. Players usually use three fingers (with finger picks) to pluck the strings. It is a very ancient instrument, being introduced to Japan from China around the eight century. It was developed from the guzheng, one of China's most ancient instruments.

For almost a thousand years, the koto was only played in the royal court. Then, in the seventeenth century, a blind shamisen player learned to play the koto, even though it was against the rules for blind people (or women) to be taught the koto. He composed many important pieces and led the way for other common people to learn this fascinating instrument.

You can achieve a rough approximation of a pentatonic koto tuning on western instruments by using D D# G A A# D. I'll sometimes use this scale when playing the piano or mandolin. The instruments might not be authentic, but you can really hear the oriental influence.

See the video Flowers of Japan, with Koto Music

Koto Links
Japanese Koto
An Overview of the Koto

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Lute Builders

Here's a list of links to lute builder sites. I provide this for informational purposes, only. If you are thinking of purchasing a lute, then it pays to do research. I hope this list will help. Even if you aren't planning on buying a lute, it can be a lot of fun to look at the pictures.

Daniel Larson
Chris Allen and Sabina Kormylo
Stephen Barber and Sandi Harris
Bruce Brook
David Edwards
Malcolm Prior
Arthur Robb
Martin Shepherd
George Stevens
Oliver Wadsworth
Jiri Cepelak
Stephen Murphy
Flox Florum
John Butterfield
Stephen Gottlieb
Sebastián Núñez & Verónica

Grant Tomlinson
Paolo Busato
Martin Hurttig

I know this list isn't complete. Please feel free to leave similar links in the comments section.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Odd Music and Odd Instruments

I love early music and instruments, but I also have other musical interests. I enjoy serious, formal music as well as unusual experimental varieties. If you have visited my other blogs, you are likely aware of my interest in composing microtonal music. This certainly relates to early music and the history of tuning, but it goes well beyond it.

I mention all this because there is an excellent web site that goes a long way towards satisfying my curiosity about the unusual in music. Odd Music features a large virtual gallery of unusual instruments, including photographs and sound samples.

In addition to a lot of newer, experimental instruments, there are some more ancient instruments that may be familiar to early music fans. You may enjoy the pages on the serpent, shakuhachi, LEGO harpsichord, glass armonica, bandura, balalaika, aeolian harp, and bonang.

If this isn't enough to pique your interest, then maybe this video will get the job done.

Odd Music

Odd Music can keep you busy for hours. I hope you have fun, just don't have too much fun and forget to come back and visit me again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Glass Armonica

It's interesting to think about how the raw materials in an instrument affect its sound. Many of our favorite instruments are made of wood. Wood serves as an good resonator, yet it can produce a very soft and pleasant tone. Metal is another common material. It is great for making instruments, like trumpets, that are meant to be loud. Other common materials include animal skin or horns, stone or ceramics, even plastic.

There is one material, however, that produces an effect that is quite unique. If you gently rub a moistened finger on the rim of a fine wine glass, you get a haunting, other worldly sound.

This type of sound requires a technological sophistication that is far removed from sounds produced with naturally occurring materials like wood or stretched animal skin. (Glass also occurs naturally, but not in a form that is very useful for making music.)

The innovation of glass music required not just the innovation of glass but the production of delicate glass vessels of fine quality.

It appears that glass production has been around for about 4,500 years. Originally, glass was produced with casting techniques. Around the first century BC, glass blowing was discovered in Syria. This resulted in a major improvement of the quality and diversity of glass vessels. Still, the glass tended to be fairly thick and was incapable of producing the singing tones that we are familiar with.

Around 1450 a new type of glass was discovered called cristallo. This type of glass could be made with thinner walls. It became very popular and was very expensive, worth more than its weight in gold. It was common for a wealthy household to only own one of these wine glasses. The guests would have to take turns drinking from it.

These wine glasses were capable of producing a pleasant singing tone. However, their exceptionally high cost was an impediment to their use in music. A collection of these glasses would be about as practical as a golden xylophone, and far more delicate.

Eventually, prices of glass declined and a tax on glass by weight prompted makers to produce glasses with thinner walls that were especially suitable for making music. By about 1750, sets of musical glasses, tuned with water, were popular.

In 1761, Benjamin Franklin heard a set of these musical glasses and decided that he could do better. He envisioned a sort of glassy-chord that would be easier to play. His new instrument featured a set of pretuned glasses that were nested inside of each other and mounted on a rotating spindle. He called his new instrument the glass armonica.

It was a big hit. People loved its haunting sound. Many famous composers, including Mozart and Beethoven, wrote music for it. Ah, but then the wild rumors started to fly. It was thought that its haunting sound was dangerous and could cause insanity. It also wasn't very loud, so it suffered in popularity as large concert halls became more popular.

It remains a rarity, an interesting footnote in the history of music.

View glass armonica videos at my video blog.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Shawm

The shawm is an early version of the oboe and bassoon. It's a double reed instrument that comes in a large variety of sizes. It has a shrill piercing sound that is appropriate for outdoor use. Many instruments that resemble the shawm are still being used throughout the world.

Shawms make frequent appearances in recordings of early music. They are usually pretty easy to identify, if you are acquainted with their distinctive sound.

If you are not yet familiar with this instrument, you may enjoy the following links, where you can view pictures and hear audio examples: The Renaissance Shawm
and The Medieval Shawm.

Other Double Reed Links
Tromboon (Babone)
English Horn

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Silvius Leopold Weiss, Lute Composer

Silvius Leopold Weiss was an extraordinary lutenist and composer of lute music. About 650 of his compositions have survived to the present day, making him the most prolific lute composer in history.

Weiss was a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach. Although he is much less famous, the skill of Weiss, as a composer and performer, has often been compared favorably with that of Bach. Many people think that Weiss would have become much better known if he had written more than just lute music.

The genius of Weiss is difficult to describe, it is far better to hear his music. A good place to start is with a recently posted radio documentary about Weiss. This page also contains some nice audio examples of his music.

More Weiss Links
Silvius Leopold Weiss
Weiss at Goldberg, the Early Music Portal

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Instruments With Funny Names

Ok, I know this isn't a scholarly article. There have been heroic attempts to classify and describe the vast array of instruments that exist and have existed throughout the world, but this isn't one of them.

Important factors in describing instruments include: method of sound production, materials used in construction, tuning practices, cultural factors that influence the design and use of an instrument, political conflicts which influence the spread or decline of particular instruments, linguistic or etymological factors that influence the naming of instruments, etc.

If you present this type of information to a group of children (or even most adults), you are likely to receive a lot of yawns and blank stares. If, however, you just mention the word sackbut, you are almost guaranteed a response of smiles and giggles.

The scholarly among us may point out that funny instrument names were usually not meant to be funny at the time the instrument was commonly used. The fact that we now find them humorous is a sad commentary on the current disassociation of modern society with historical cultures.

It might be worth discussing this in greater detail, but not now. For now, I will content myself to just list some instruments that sound funny to me. Click on the name if you want to learn more.

Sackbut, serpent, crumhorn, racket, hurdy-gurdy, didgeridoo, diddley bow, bombard,
sarrusophone, clavicytherium, banjolele, crotalum, oliphant, heckelphone, kazoo, theorbo, trautonium, ophicleide, orpharion, viola pomposa, nose flute, nose whistle

What instrument names sound funny to you? Which instrument do you think has the funniest name? So far, my vote goes to sackbut, but I would be happy to change my mind if you come up with something better.

If you would prefer a more serious discussion of this topic, please see Of Phonemes, Fossils and Webs of Meaning:
The Interpretation of Language Variation and

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Listen to a Lutecast

I just learned of a new lute blog that I thought my readers would enjoy. It's called The Lutecast. It features podcasts about lute music and composers. (Hint: click on the post titles to hear the podcasts.) It's a new site, but there are enough podcasts to keep you busy for a few hours.

The Lute Society of America

It's good to see that appreciation of the European lute has spread well beyond the confines of Europe.

The Lute Society in the U.K. was the first lute society, but I was surprised to hear that The Lute Society of America is now just as big. If you check their links page you will find that there are several other lute societies throughout the world, including one in Japan.

I encourage you to visit The Lute Society of America. Check out their downloads page for sound samples and other resources. If your interest in the lute is more than casual, it may be worth it to become a member and get a subscription to their LSA Quarterly and Journal.

I would like to thank my readers who pointed out that I neglected to have a link to this society in my sidebar. I have corrected the oversight. I appreciate any comments that alert me to resources that deserve a mention on this blog.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sting's New Lute CD

It's fortunate for me that I decided to start this blog at about the same time that Sting released his new CD "Songs From the Labyrinth" featuring lute songs by John Dowland.

I should have posted about this much sooner, but I was a little intimidated. I have been following some of the online discussions and I have to admit that there are a lot of people who are much better qualified to evaluate this CD than I am.

Still, I would like to share my thoughts and, more importantly, give you an opportunity to do the same.

I'm not a lutenist, but I know enough to recognise that Sting's performance isn't entirely authentic. This doesn't concern me too much, although I can certainly understand how some people might be bothered by it.

I think it's great that a popular musician is willing to experiment in early music. The results might not live up to some people's expectations, but the songs are quite interesting and enjoyable.

The best thing about this CD is the attention it is giving to early music. I have often thought that more people would enjoy early music if they only had more of a chance to be exposed to it. This CD may provide that opportunity.

I recommend that you visit the NPR website for a nice article on Sting's CD. It also has some audio examples and excerpts from an interview.

You may also enjoy visiting my Video Blog for a post on Sting Plays the Lute.

Please leave a comment about what you think.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

View Instrument Videos at my New Video Blog

I now have a video blog called Video Archive by Daniel Thompson. It's a collection of videos with cultural and educational value.

I plan on including videos on a wide variety of subjects including some on early instruments. You may enjoy the following posts:

Viol Videos
Sting Plays the Lute
More Lute Videos

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Early Music Groups

If you are interested in early music or play an early instrument it may be difficult to find relevant information about your interests.

It might be worth checking out some of the many early music groups that are now available. They can be a great resource for exploring obscure topics. If you have a question, you can search the archives or post your question for others to comment on.

My favorite way to use these groups is to sign up for email summaries of the discussions. This way, the information comes to me. I also use a separate email account and avoid giving out personal information to maintain my privacy.

I have assembled a fair number of links. Please feel free to leave a comment with links to other early music groups you enjoy.

Early Music Groups

Medieval and Renaissance Music
Music of the Middle Ages
Early Music Tribe
Medieval Musicians
Early Music Performance
Early Modern
Baroque List

Lute Groups

Renaissance and Baroque Lute
Baroque Lute
Lute Lovers Tribe
Renlute 2002
Bach Plucked
Classical Guitar and Lute

Viola da Gamba Groups

Viola da Gamba Tribe
Viola da Gamba

Harpsichord Groups

Harpsichord Enthusiasts Club

Recorder Groups

Recorder Friends

Ney Groups

Ney Lovers
Turkish Ney

Other Early Instrument Groups

Hurdy Gurdy Tribe
Renaissance Woodwinds
Dulcian List
Cornetto Zink

World Music Groups

World Music Forum

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Hurdy-Gurdy

The hurdy-gurdy is an ancient stringed instrument that makes sound with a turning rosined wheel. It has both drone strings and melody strings that are shortened by keys. Some hurdy-gurdies also have one or more buzzing bridges.

The player usually turns the wheel with his right hand and plays the melody by pressing the keys with his left.

Some people claim that it sounds something like a bagpipe. Of course, its not a wind instrument but it is characterised by persistent drones that remind one of a bagpipe. The sound is quite medieval. It's well worth checking out the following links, especially if you're not familiar with this intriguing instrument.

Melissa the Loud

If you would like to try a free software version of the hurdy-gurdy, visit Soundbytes

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lutes Verses Guitars

Many think of a lute as simply an old fashioned guitar, maybe a little harder to hold or tune, but not fundamentally different. So it's perhaps understandable that much of the lute repertoire is performed and recorded on classical guitars. I am happy, of course, that so many guitarists are interested in lute music, but I'm usually not satisfied with the result. The music sounds somewhat dull and lifeless to me.

If the original composer had the guitar in mind while composing, it might be a completely different situation, but these two instruments are different enough that I feel it does them both a disservice to pretend that either can properly represent the other.

What do you think? Am I being too picky? Or is it best to avoid recordings that feature guitars playing lute music?

View Lute Videos.
View Videos of Guitars Playing Lute Music.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Few Words About Myself and this Blog

I think I was about twelve years old when I first remember hearing a lute. I was listening to public radio and they were interviewing someone who played a baroque lute with twenty-six strings. I was fascinated by both the instrument and the music. I've been hooked on early music ever since.

I compose and write about music, but when it comes to early music and ancient instruments, I'm strictly an amateur. In some ways, I prefer it that way. We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, products of of our environment and upbringing. When I compose music, I do things in a way that makes sense to me. I realize that my perceptions of music, based on modern cultural influences, will always be a part of my music. Since I compose experimental music, I find it helpful to try to transcend my cultural conditioning or mimic the musical views of others. Still I know I can only partially succeed in this.

When I listen to early music, I know that I'm not hearing it like they did when it was written. Its not "my music" and never will be. But for me, this is where much of its appeal lies. There's a great mystery in listening to music that comes from a time that is very different from ours. Of course, they shared many of the same feelings and motivations that we do today, but the context is quite different.

I feel that music is one of the best ways to learn about others. I do not, however, share the common view that music is a "universal language." There is a danger in thinking that our personal musical perspective is sufficient for understanding the musical traditions of others. Different musical traditions are somewhat like different languages. You may get some superficial information from someone speaking a foreign language by observing their gestures or tone of voice. But if you want to really understand them, you must begin to learn their language.

One reason I feel early music is unappreciated by most people is simply because it can be difficult to understand its musical language. Some of us may respond naturally to this music, but I have to acknowledge that, at times, I don't enjoy certain types of early music either. Is this simply because I lack the ability to understand it properly, or is it because I just don't like it? I don't know, but I find it to be a fascinating question and I'm determined to learn more.

Ancient instruments are an important part of these musical traditions. They have greatly influenced musical thought and practice. Instruments don't just make music they also help determine how music is made.

In this blog, I hope to not just examine these instruments in isolation, but also consider their complex interaction with historical forces and their lasting effect on us today.

Since I am a product of Western civilization, this blog may be somewhat biased, but I plan on making an effort to include information on ancient and interesting instruments from the rest of the world, too. As always, your comments are appreciated.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Pardessus de Viole

Welcome, Early Music Lovers!

So what kind of music do you like? If you have unusual tastes in music like I do, you know this can be a tricky question. Chances are, your companion is merely trying to make small talk or establish some sort of common ground. It is generally hoped that you will mention some sort of common, modern music and then proceed to a bland discussion of it.

Well, I just can't get myself to do this. I have no desire to hide who I am and what my interests are. On the other hand, a direct exclamation of your enthusiasm for lute music, or something similar, can be a perilous course. Politeness, if not complete ignorance of the subject, will usually prompt your companion to ask some sort of question. Now this is when I get into trouble. I tend to actually answer the question! Frequently, my enthusiasm gets the best of me and I begin a long lecture on just what a lute or viol is, what historical forces lead their eventual disuse, and how a lot of people would probably really like this kind of music if they could only experience it for themselves. Sometimes I say something incredibly stupid like, "So would you like to borrow some cds?" This is an uncomfortable situation because they have to come up with some kind of polite refusal and I start to wonder if I really want to loan out my cherished lute cds.

I think I have a solution. The next time I get asked what kind of music I like, I'm going to clearly and briefly state my preferences and then refer them to this blog in case they want to learn more. I will then deftly steer the conversation to a safer subject like the recent performance of the local sports team or the unusually average weather we've been having.

I hope this blog will also be useful in other ways. I am especially looking forward to hearing from you. We all have our unique perspectives on music and on life. Regardless of whether you are a professional performer of early music, an instrument builder or someone who has only recently discovered early music, your insights can benefit the rest of us.

Music is really just the organization of sound waves. Its the human emotional responses to these sound waves that are responsible for the true beauty of music. Music is an incredible journey that can help us to understand people throughout the world and throughout history. I hope you will join us on this adventure.