Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Inventing a musical instrument

When I was a medical student, I had a neighbor named Danny who lived across the street.  He was young and brilliant with computers, and he played the violin.  But he had one ambition that puzzled me: he wanted to invent a musical instrument.

Glass harmonica
In my unmusical way, I tried to imagine what a new instrument might be.  What family would it be in, I asked Danny: wind? string? percussion?  He just shook his head.  I disappointed him by thinking within the grooves of old paradigms. But the only instrument I could think of that really broke out of these categories was the glass harmonica.

The truth is, I don't know if Danny ever invented his instrument, but this evening I heard a story on NPR about John Cage (1912-1992), who played an important role in avant-garde art and music.  His most famous musical piece, perhaps, is 4'33," a piece where the musician sits at the piano not playing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds while the (initially puzzled) audience hears ambient sound.

John Cage
Cage, whose hundredth birthday would have been today, also experimented with "new" instruments, which were essentially variations on old ones.  For example, he used the "prepared piano," which is a piano with various objects stuck between the strings.  This instrument combines piano notes with percussion. Presumably a musician could do the same thing with a guitar or even a harp. People can also strike their fist on the strings of the piano or click on the keys of a woodwind instrument without blowing into the mouthpiece.  According to Wikipedia, some even put a saxophone mouthpiece on a trombone.  But none of these would have satisfied Danny; they're all just variations.

A new way of producing electronic music might have satisfied him, but I think he was looking for something simpler and more concrete, a new way of creating vibrations. In place of a vibrating string, drumhead, or air within a column, why not ball bearings rolling in a pot or balloons of different size rubbing together... or... or... well, you think of something.

Morris dancers - an inspiration for the miners of Lexicon?
In THE ICE CASTLE, a half-crazed hermit sits deep in a cave trying to invent musical instruments.  In fact, he's trying to re-invent them in a society that has banned them.  He ropes Ivan, one of the novel's protagonists, in to help him.  Ivan is frustrated to realize that although he's familiar with lots of musical instruments at home, he hasn't examined any of them closely enough to draw one or fully explain how it works.  Now there's a thought experiment: if you were stranded in a completely alien culture, could you show them how to make the musical instruments that are so familiar to us?


In the end, with the help of an ancient manuscript, some mathematics and some experimentation, Ivan succeeds in helping the hermit.  He figures out the principle behind tuning stringed instrument. Ivan and his friend Fort also find a way to make an entire band of miners, dancing with bangles on their wrists and ankles, into a kind of group musical instrument.  I guess in the end Ivan did invent a new musical instrument--and so did I.  I just haven't tried to play it yet.


1 comment:

Marva Dasef said...

How "inventive" you are, Penny!

I remember the instrument-free city-state. Very neat writing.

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