A Quartet Of Experimental Instruments

Jimmy Monsta Funk’s been threatening to do this for time. He’s always coming out with random knowledge on the history of obscure instruments, so following on from his brilliant 3 part Techno x Jazz series, he’s now breaking down some of his favourite (and often forgotten about) experimental instruments.

via Jimmy Monsta Funk

Every new generation think that they created something afresh, before someone taps them on the shoulder and tells them that there is a precursor (or more to the point, ‘Weather Report’ were making drum and bass thirty years ago….’). For every Lil’ Wayne, there is a Last Poet (thank god!), for every Aphex Twin, there’s a Raymond Scott and for every MPC2000, there is a theremin!

With regards to the last statement, through the history of humanity people have looked to new technology to solve a problem or to assist in greater creativity. As a species, we have gone from cave painting, to multimedia site specific art; we’ve gone from writing on papyrus to typing on a keyboard, and we’ve gone from banging on a drum, to programming beats with a sampler.

Throughout this timeline, instruments have come and gone, only to be re-discovered by artists looking for something different. I wanted to draw attention to four experimental musical instruments (some better known than others) that make incredible noises.

1: Theremin
An early electronic musical instrument patented in 1928 that is named after its Russian inventor, Professor Léon Theremin. In essence, it consists of two metal antennas that control frequency and volume. The player places their hand within range of the antennas and moves their hand to manipulate the sound, the Theremin can be played without being touched. It famously featured in the Beach Boy song ‘Good Vibrations’, as well as appearing on several recordings by Portishead.

Here’s a very old video of Professor Léon Theremin presenting his invention:


2: Ondes Martenot
The Ondes Martenot is an early electronic musical instrument by Maurice Martenot. It was produced between its invention in 1928 until production was stopped in 1998. The instrument uses oscillation in vacuum tubes to produce eerie notes that sound not dissimilar to an amplified stringed instrument. The sound of an Ondes Martenot has been used by a diverse set of artists from Edgard Varèse to Frank Zappa and has featured on several tracks by Radiohead.

Here’s a video of foremost expert Jean Laurendeau putting an Ondes Martenot through its paces (the sound can be heard from 4 minutes in):


3: Cristal Baschet
The Cristal Baschet is a musical instrument created in 1952 by Bernard and Francois Baschet that produces sound from 54 chromatically-tuned glass rods. The glass rods are rubbed with wet fingers to produce vibrations that pass to a heavy block of metal by a metal stem whose variable length determines the frequency produced and the sound is amplified through fibreglass cones. The instrument is completely acoustic and has been used by Damon Albarn and Jean-Michel Jarre amongst others.

Here is a video showing the Cristal Baschet in action:


4: Glass Harmonica
Although people have ‘played’ glasses with variable amounts of liquids in them to create music, one of the founding fathers of the United States and noted polymath Benjamin Franklin invented a completely new way of using glass to create music in 1761 with his invention the ‘armonica’ after the Italian word for harmony. 37 bowls are mounted horizontally on an iron spindle which was turned using a foot pedal. The sound was produced by touching the rims of the bowls with wet fingers. Used by musicians as diverse as Mozart and Tom Waits, it has even been mentioned that Queen Marie Antoinette of France was a keen player when not suggesting that the poor ‘eat cake’.

Here is the king of esoteric instruments, Thomas Bloch playing the Glass Harmonica: