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