To our American readers, Happy Independence Day! And to everyone else in the world, well, really, you’re not fond of taxation without representation, either, are you? Mostly what this means is I’m taking the day off right in the middle of the week. But I’m not leaving you empty-handed. Here’s a little CDM on 18th Century Music technology. (Maybe I should preface that with: “I know this is a little old, but …”)
Founding father Benjamin Franklin was more than a skilled negotiator, statesman, inventor/maker, and kite flying hobbyist. He was also an inventor of musical instruments. Musical sound from glass, and eventually wine glasses (thank you, Gallileo) came long before Franklin’s instrument. But the glass armonica (not to be confused with harmonica) is entirely Franklin’s. The instrument involves a series of glass discs, mounted around a cylinder, then rotated mechanically, so that you can play by touching the glass directly. It’s a much more compelling instrument than the later glass harmonicas, which used a keyboard; with the armonica, your touch creates the sound without any mediating apparatus. The sound is delicate and rich; no wonder composers like Beethoven were enchanted.
Thanks to a handful of dedicated players and builders, the instrument has entered our era. There’s plenty of information on the Web, but don’t miss:
Benjamin Franklin and his Glass Armonica, at The Franklin Institute Online, including a QT video of Franklin playing the instrument. (It’s extremely low-res, but I guess they lacked good QuickTime codecs in the 18th Century.)
The History of the Glass Armonica, as compiled by modern armonica player William Zeitler. Zeitler, pictured, has a fantastic site with resources like downloads, scores, photos, and videos, plus his own CDs and playing schedule.
Because this is Franklin’s 300th anniversary, there are also extra opportunities to learn about Franklin and hear the instrument:
The exhibition spans the U.S. and France, but most of the armonica concerts are here in the U.S. The Met Opera Orchestra of NYC has its own resident armonica player, Cecilia Brauer, and if you happen to be near Villanova, Pennsylvania on Thursday, you should catch her recital. Mr. Zeitler is playing a full schedule of Franklin 300 events from Colorado to Downtown Disney; check his site to see if he’s coming to a town near you. In Philadelphia, you can hear regular lecture/demos of the instrument through the fall at the Independence National Historical Park.
Franklin could also be seen as the prototype for Make Magazine, to which I’m a regular contributor. Makers will want to visit Benjamin Franklin: A How-To Guide, an exhibition at Harvard, since Franklin basically invented the how-to.
Unfortunately, Franklin Remixed is not a musical remix contest. Too bad — but that shouldn’t stop you from doing it anyway.
Thinking of building an armonica? You might want to reconsider, based on stories from Zeitler’s site. Organist and music technologist E. Power Biggs tried, on the last major Franklin anniversary. (Note that Franklin and Mozart were born exactly 50 years apart, so this is a Mozart year, too.) Beware deadlines, DIY instrument builders: the concert barely happened, and when it did, the instrument wobbled and screeched and the results were a flop. Stranger still, in 1999 an armonica builder disappeared completely, the biggest instrument-maker disappearance since Leon Theremin was kidnapped by the KGB.
I’m a little disappointed that no one has tried to reimagine the armonica in digital form. Just sampling or recreating it would be boring and un-Franklin-like. But imagining what Franklin would do with Reaktor or Max/MSP? Now that’s exciting.