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.


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