Monday, August 15, 2011

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Anyone who follows my tweets may have noticed that I have been posting a lot about some pretty esoteric instruments. Glass harmonicas, Cristal Baschetts, glass bowls, Boomwhackers and PVC instruments, bowed gamelons and other exotic and unusual instruments. So why am I so interested in these instruments? For a few reasons. An important one is that they are not expected. Modern pop musical culture creates entire genres from certain sounds, the hi gain distortion guitar sound of metal, the short percussive sounds and rhythms of hip hop or the deep bass of dub step. It's natural for us to like things that we are familiar to us and to copy one another.

One also does not need to look only to pop music. In some sense, classical music is based on copying styles and following the rules, coloring within the lines. Even serialism is an attempt to recreate a new set of rules. However, the great composers worked within a certain traditional framework but they did color outside the lines, sometimes way outside. 20th century classical is an example of this. It was not uncommon for these composers to use unusual instruments or even make their own. Messiaen looked to birdsong, eastern rhythms and instruments. Harry Partch made his own instruments.

Looking to the east for inspiration can also be found in jazz musicians who looked to the eastern musical tradition for new scales or the Beatles who introduced the sitar to listeners used to a stricly pop diet.

What I often find difficult in coloring outside the lines is that some listeners can't get past the difference. Handel for example was more popular in his time than Bach because he wrote music that was familiar and pleasing to the ear.

As for me, while it may not get me as many listeners, I refuse to imitate and monkey other musicians. I look to them for ideas but I don't let my music be limited by any genre. So, I hope that explains my unusual choice of instruments.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Glass Works

I have rarely reviewed any synthesizers or sample libraries but I wanted to at least say a few words about Sonic Couture's "Glass Works". "Glass Works" is a library of Kontakt instruments based on three rather unique and fascinating instruments. Instruments that so fascinate me that I am still in the midst of doing research on them and there is a lot out there to look at.

One instrument, the oldest of the three, owes its origins to a little musical trick that children learn when they are young. That if you take a crystal wine glass, wet your finger and rub it around the edges, you get a most pleasant sound. By varying the amount of water in the glass, the frequency of the tone changes.

Many musician's and composers toyed with this idea but perhaps the most renowned is Benjamin Franklin who actually designed a very effective design and made this instrument more accessible. Composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and Richard Strauss all wrote compositions for it. The rather mysterious figure of Mesmer better known for his hypnotic explorations also played one and attributed to it certain unusual mysterious effects.

Then we move to 20th century American classical music and the wild and sometime delightfully wacky world of Harry Partch. Partch not only composed music but made his own instruments including an instrument called "The Boo" and the instrument that made it into the "Glass Works" library, "The Cloud Chamber Bowls".

You can give them a try here. Have fun!

Finally moving onto "Le Cristal Baschet". An instrument which is as much instrument, art and acoustics experiment all wrapped into one, a statement in itself. It is designed by Frances Baschett based on chromatically tuned glass rods:

They have been used by various composers including, just to name a few, Thomas Bloch (who has written for many interesting instruments including the Ondes Martenot), Toru Takemitsu, Francois Bayle (who interestingly enough studied with Karlheintz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer and Olivier Messiaen). Messiaen wrote music for the Ondes Martenot (which can also be found in one of Sonic Courture's libraries), Luc Ferrari (influenced very much by Edgar Varese). Clearly one can see the strong connection in that twilight between 20th century avant guarde and modern electronic music (pre electronica)

So that's a sort of brief tour of these instruments. What I find interesting is that fact that Le Cristal Bachett is really more of a concept if you will. Each Cristal Baschet sounds different related to the shape. Art and music seem to be strangely joined here as well as science. Here is there web site:

What surprises me here it the influence of Pierre Schaeffer who believed and wrote about a philosophy about how to categorize sound based on a broader philosophical school of phenomenology (of which I am an advocate). So many ideas seem to intersect here, so many intellectual and musical streams joined in a complex weave.

What makes glass instruments unique is that they are "non linear". I could give you a lot of definitions for this that would only make partial sense. What this really means is that a simple action such as moving ones finger over glass, can create a complex sound. I pulled a file of a glass harmonica off of Freesound last night and then magnified it. I was blown away. It is highly complex. Elements of AM and FM and waveshaping. Some of the papers I have read on the glass harmonica range from wavegides, to resonators to complex non linear physical models. The proof is really in the listening and all of these instruments have a haunting sounds.

Of course, Sonic Couture has now made it possible to change them in real time and create complex performances. I am impressed by this library of sounds not just because it sounds good but that it reflects a depth of thought that I rarely see from other synthesizers and sample libraries.

So, that is my humble review or reflection. Call it what you want to if you get a chance, read about these instruments. I think you will be amazed or dare I saw enchanted, mezmorized and haunted.