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Ewen's Favourite Object (part 2)

Ewen works in our Learning Department - he tells us about one of his favourite objects - the glass armonica.

Is this a favourite instrument of yours?

Yes, it’s called the armonica. Although sometimes it’s called the glass harmonica, it has various other names.

Is that a wheel on the end?

It is quite an unusual instrument because you might look at it and think what an interesting contraption. You might wonder what it does, and is it something to do with doing the washing or laundry. You wouldn’t know immediately what it was.

There is a wheel on the end and there is a pedal at the bottom, so you sit and peddle and the wheel turns which turns the glass bowls. It is similar to when people play glasses with a wet finger, which when you move your finger around the glass it makes it sing. That is basically what you are doing here, but it was evolved into a mechanism to be able to do it.

Each bowl is tuned to a different note and that is how you can play music and because of the way it is laid out you can use all 10 fingers in the way that you would on a piano. You can play harmonies and melodies on it.

This actual set up was invented by Benjamin Franklin. What particularly interests me is that it was particularly popular in the late 18th century and into the 19th century and was used in music by Beethoven and Mozart. Although often they would end up re-transcribing the music for another instrument because the armonica moved largely out of fashion partly because the sound they make is quite quiet and it wouldn’t really carry over a full orchestra.

However, they have come back into fashion over the past 20 or 30 years, so there are a lot of contemporary people like Daman Albarn and Tom Waits who have been using them in music.

Have you ever played one?

No, I’d love to. If I had to pick an object that I would like to have, this would be one. I don’t think they are particularly easy to get hold of and they are probably very expensive. What I like about it, as well as being a really unusual instrument, is the sound that it makes. It is incredibly spooky, it makes a kind of eerie, wailing sound.

There was a rumour (and this is one of the reasons they may have gone out of fashion) that the sound would drive people mad; both the listeners and the musicians’ nervous systems would be affected.  It is something to do with the specific frequency of the sound which is a frequency that is very hard for the human ear to process and pin point. It makes you feel disconcerted. I suppose is a bit like the sound of a musical saw or theramin.

It was used by Donizetti in an opera he wrote called Lucia di Lammermoor to accompany the heroin’s mad scene. I am fascinated by the concept that there an instrument that scared people and made them feel unnerved.

Our glass armonica is featured in a BBC radio programme featuring Evelyn Glennie. It is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday, 28 April at 12.15pm. Full details here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01gvqsb