A last-minute Facebook alert led me to check out the Wichita Ukulele Society’s appearance at The Donut Whole this evening, a combination concert, jam session and singalong. Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in groups of like instruments, so you just know that I couldn’t resist hearing a band of about a dozen (give or take a few members of the audience playing along) ukulele enthusiasts. The repertoire included expected songs like “Tom Dooley,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (complete with falsetto, and on Tiny Tim’s birthday, no less!), as well as surprises like “Y.M.C.A.,” “Paint it Black,” and “Margaritaville.”
“The Torture Garden: It’s where the Devil calls the tune . . . to play a concerto of fear!”
–Trailer for Torture Garden, 1967
In honor of Halloween, it’s time to look at the spookier side of musical instruments, specifically the roles some have played in mystery and horror fiction. On the one hand, the organ has the most sinister reputation of any instrument through its association with the Phantom of the Opera and his fictional descendants: there’s just something about the full organ’s portentous sound and the gloomy atmosphere of the Gothic cathedral that goes hand in hand with cobwebs and candlelight, so expect to hear many renditions of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (or at least the opening bars) during October. The organ, nicknamed “the king of instruments,” also fits nicely with the popular association of criminal masterminds with classical music: we like our villains to have refined taste, whether played by Vincent Price or Anthony Hopkins. In the same way, the organist seated at his instrument, surrounded by ranks of keyboards, pedals, and organ stops ready at his command, is a neat visual shorthand for a master manipulator, sitting at the center of a web, controlling everything around him. (In at least one case, the direct-to-video Disney sequel Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, the organ is the villain, conniving to make others to do its will even though it cannot move from its place.)
Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera
Brian De Palma’s 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise
The violin, on the other hand, is often associated with the Devil, as in such pieces of music as Danse Macabre, L’Histoire du Soldat, and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” In folk tales, the Devil enjoys wagers, betting his own gold fiddle against the souls of his opponents. He may also bestow musical talent in exchange for a soul, a prominent part of the myth surrounding Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Later, the great Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was the subject of lurid rumors that he had sold his soul, and worse: Theosophy founder Madame Helena Blavatsky included Paganini in her story “The Ensouled Violin,” and graphically embroidered on the notion that the strings of Paganini’s violin were made from human intestine, and that his uncanny ability to mimic the human voice with his playing actually came from a spirit trapped within the instrument.
A similar story is part of the mythology of the Blues: Robert Johnson was supposed to have met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight, where he traded his soul for his legendary guitar-playing ability. The legend formed the basis of the Ralph Macchio film Crossroads and was parodied on Metalocalypse (in the episode “Bluesklok”).Interestingly, Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, has shown that the same story was originally attributed to a Tommy Johnson and then transferred to Robert when his legend outpaced Tommy’s. Naturally, the whole thing has roots in folklore: Wald points out, “When Harry Middleton Hyatt collected stories of musicians going to the crossroads to gain supernatural skills, as part of a vast study of Southern folk beliefs in the late 1930s, he reported as many banjo players and violinists as guitarists,” as well as an accordionist.
Why is there such a connection between fiddling and death? In the Middle Ages, instrumental music was considered both profane and frivolous, closely associated with itinerant, always-suspect actors and minstrels and the drunken singers in taverns. In depictions of Death (usually as a skeleton, the same as now), musical instruments were often a symbol of the sinfulness, vanity, and futility of all human activity, not just music. (The popular image of Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” probably owes much to this symbolism, as the violin had yet to be invented in Nero’s day; likewise, contrast the supposed indolence of grasshoppers with the industry of ants.) The image of a grinning skeleton “playing” his victims into the grave may have struck the medieval viewer as cruel irony, a just punishment, or as a warning.
According to one author, the connection between the violin and mortality was more than just poetic: in 2006, Rohan Kriwaczek published An Incomplete History of The Art of Funerary Violin. According to Kriwaczek, there had once been a Guild of Funerary Violinists, whose work, repertoire, and indeed their very existence had been suppressed by the Vatican during the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and ‘40s. After 1846, the few remaining members of the Guild went underground, and Kriwaczek, eventually entrusted with their legacy, was able to piece together this secret history and bring it to the public. Kriwaczek describes the Funerary Violinist as playing a potent intercessionary role:
In his tone the violinist must first convey the deep grief that is present in the gathering, and then transform it into a thing of beauty. By the time he is finished, a deep and plaintive calm should have descended, and the bereaved should be ready to hear the eulogy. . . . The violinist’s is a position of great responsibility, akin in many ways to that of a priest or shaman, and should not be taken lightly.
Alas, the book was a hoax, supposedly concocted by Kriwaczek to increase his bookings as a violinist at—you guessed it—funerals. Still, I can’t help but feel that Kriwaczek’s story, with its dueling Funerary Violinists, buried secrets, and cameos from outsized characters including composers, Popes, and virtuosi, would make a smashing TV program, a historical saga with more than a touch of gothic intrigue.
Sometimes the instrument is cursed: in the short “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by the master of the English ghost story M. R. James, it’s an ancient bronze whistle (proving that another James title, “A Warning to the Curious,” could equally apply to almost all his stories):
He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure–how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.
Just as frequently it’s a MacGuffin that activates the plot: a Stradivarius is as valuable as a van Gogh, and serves as well as any other objet d’art as the motivation in a murder mystery. An example is the three-quarter sized Strad, the Piccolino, at the center of Gerald Elias’ mystery Devil’s Trill, the first of a series centered on violinist-sleuth Daniel Jacobus. And despite its unusual varnish, the titular instrument of the 1998 film The Red Violin is haunted more by tragedy and human foibles than by any supernatural evil.
The weaponized instrument is an infrequent literary device, but there are a few examples: the murder in Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death is accomplished by a revolver hidden inside an upright piano, rigged to fire when the pianist plays the third chord of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, a Rube Goldberg arrangement that sounds about as practical in real life as this:
Likewise, it doesn’t seem that it would be that hard to escape the vengeance meted out by the grand piano in “Mr. Steinway,” a section of the 1967 anthology film Torture Garden, based on stories by Robert Bloch. In the story, the piano in question belongs to a prominent virtuoso, a gift from his mother, and his devotion to it is tested when a young lady (played by Barbara Ewing) enters his life. The black wing shape of the piano is a looming presence in the film version, always in the background or casting its shadow over the doomed couple, and the Oedipal implications of the pianist’s relationship with his mother, never seen but personified by the piano, are left as unspoken subtext. So far, so good, but by the time the piano lurches into motion and pushes the intruding girl out the window, we’ve entered the realm of delirious high camp. The lesson: music is a jealous mistress.
Finally, as a bonus, I present one of the most bizarre (and gratuitous) examples of this trope, from the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown: death by trombone. Happy Halloween!
In 1925, violinist Ernest LaPrade wrote a charming children’s book entitled Alice in Orchestralia, in which a young girl travels to a magical land of talking musical instruments. Although obviously modeled on Alice in Wonderland, the book is in the didactic tradition of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, introducing young readers to the standard instruments of the orchestra and their roles. (In fact, one could easily imagine Alice in Orchestralia being turned into a narrative concert piece like Peter, with the only drawback being that the book features even less plot than the similar Tubby the Tuba.)
At one point, Alice encounters a lonely outsider camping at a fork in the road between the villages of the woodwinds and brasses:
“Why do [the brass] turn you out?” she asked.
“They claim I’m a wood-wind instrument, because I’ve got a reed like a clarinet, and they say I ought to go and live in Panopolis.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Oh, I’ve tried to, time and again, but it’s no use. The wood-wind instruments say I belong in Brassydale, because my body is made of brass. So at last I got this tent and pitched it here, halfway between the two villages. It’s damp and rather lonely, but at least they can’t turn me out of it.”
After a little more discussion, the loner reveals that his name is Saxophone.
Alice in Orchestralia, illustration by Carroll C. Snell
Nowadays, there is little dispute that the saxophone is a genuine woodwind instrument (using historian Curt Sachs’ terminology, a “single reed aerophone,” like the clarinet), the method of sound production being more important than the material from which the body is made. In fact, if the saxophone’s metal construction were truly disqualifying, one would also have to evict the metal clarinets and oboes that have been experimented with over the years, not to mention the flute.
There is also no question that the saxophone (or rather saxophones, in several sizes) has earned its place as a recognizable and easily available instrument, at least the sizes in common use. Unlike the ophicleide it is hardly obscure, and unlike the harpsichord it has never really gone away since its invention.
Still, the saxophone’s dual nature has been problematic since Adolphe Sax patented it in Paris in 1846. Most texts point out that Sax combined the clarinet’s single reed with the oboe’s conical bore, resulting in an easy-to-blow woodwind with a simplified fingering (the clarinet’s cylindrical bore causes it to overblow at the twelfth rather than the octave, resulting in a more complicated fingering pattern); historian Anthony Baines, however, speculates that Sax may have hit upon this combination by attaching a bass clarinet mouthpiece to an ophicleide—both instruments were specialties of his shop—creating a true woodwind-brass hybrid. Likewise, its brass construction and wide bell give it a powerful tone that blends equally well with brass or woodwinds, so it’s not unreasonable to consider it a bridge between the two groups.
The saxophone was initially developed with the military band in mind, and it was quickly adopted by the French authorities for that use. However, the qualities that made it perfect for bands—its volume, its distinctive timbre—have made it only an occasional visitor to the orchestra as a special color, despite Hector Berlioz’s enthusiastic prediction that it—or rather, an entire section of them—would become a regular part of the orchestra of the future. (It’s often forgotten, in fact, that Sax’s original design included two families: a group in the “band” keys of B-flat and E-flat, and a group in C and F for orchestral use. Of the second group, the C “melody” saxophone, a tenor that allowed sax players to read from scores in concert pitch, survived the longest but was out of production by the middle of the twentieth century.)
One could easily be led to believe that the saxophone’s adoption by jazz bands in the early twentieth century led to its increased popularity, but the opposite appears to be true, at least in the earliest days of jazz. Concurrent with the rise of jazz was a fad for saxophones (and other “novelty” wind instruments) on the Vaudeville stage, led by such groups as the Six Brown Brothers (who were active from about World War I until 1933). The saxophone became (along with the banjo) a symbol of student life, as necessary to depictions of 1920s college students as the raccoon-skin coat and football pennant, and a musical shorthand equivalent to the bongos in the beatnik ‘50s or sitar in the psychedelic ‘60s.
Bringing Up Father, 1936
Manufacturers responded to the instrument’s popularity with a number of short-lived saxophone variants, some (like the slide saxophone) little more than novelties and others simply straightened out standard saxes. Of greater interest is the “Conn-O-Sax,” a straight F alto with a resonating bulb on the bell, and clearly positioned as a single-reed alternative to the English horn. The Conn-O-Sax was only made in 1929 and 1930, and examples are now very rare and highly collectible, but it has been adopted by some jazz players and shows like Saxophobia, which specializes in demonstrating a wide variety of old and new saxes. It is a unique instrument, and it seems that there would be a market for a modern reproduction, or perhaps even a revival by the Conn company.
When the saxophone was heard in jazz of the 1920s, it was most frequently a soprano replacing clarinet or cornet, or bass, replacing the tuba or string bass. There just wasn’t room for the alto or tenor to play in the improvisatory New Orleans style without stepping on either the cornet or trombone line. (It is for this reason that the tenor saxophone included in much post-World War II “Dixieland” sounds especially inauthentic.) It wasn’t until jazz migrated to Chicago and New York that a fad for oddball instrumental combinations, at least on record (including such eccentricities as the “goofus,” a kind of melodica*, and even “swing harp”—orchestral harp, that is, not harmonica), made room for the saxophone as a lead instrument.
Exceptions include the larger bands fielded by King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson and the “symphonic jazz” of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, but in those groups arrangements became more necessary to corral the larger numbers of players. The differentiation between soloist and accompaniment is clearer, foreshadowing the swing style of the 1930s. The saxophone’s presence thus became a dividing line between “hot” and “sweet” players, and between New Orleans purists and fans of the coming swing era: some of the harshest criticisms come from jazz historian Rudi Blesh, who as late as 1946 bemoans the replacement of the trombone with the saxophone in the Chicago style in his New Orleans-centric history Shining Trumpets: “For even an inferior trombone breathes new life into the music which the fashionable foghorn, the saxophone, had murdered.”
The saxophone fad eventually gave way, as all fads must, but not before the association between the saxophone and jazz had become permanent. Even before its versatility and technical fluency made it a natural vehicle for such giants as Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, the saxophone became an internationally recognized symbol, embraced by energetic youth and reviled by totalitarian governments. It’s no wonder: the saxophone may have started out with the body of an ophicleide or bass clarinet, but its shape is unique: in profile it makes a perfect logo. As Czech novelist Josef Škvorecký writes in his essay Red Music, both the Nazis and the Soviets sought to root out the saxophone (replacing it with the cello in most cases), but for opposite reasons: to the Nazis the saxophone’s association with an African-American musical form made it musically suspect (even before that, Germany had been one of the few nations to exclude the sax from its military bands); to the Soviets the hybrid nature of the instrument was somehow “bourgeois,” not of the people. Ultimately the saxophone has outlasted both of them.
* A favorite solo instrument of Adrian Rollini, who was also known as the “Wizard of the Bass Sax.” Rollini was truly a renaissance man of offbeat instruments.
The real question is, where I am going to find cases for these things?
The instrument at the top is a mellophone, a simplified substitute for the orchestral horn, once commonly used in bands to play the alto part. (Instruments nowadays called “mellophones” are acoustically similar but wrapped differently, more like a bugle, or as we used to joke in high school marching band, “a pregnant trumpet.”) The second instrument was once shaped like the one on the left, but was converted to its current bell-front configuration by a family friend. It belonged to my uncle, a trumpet player, and was passed on to me.
The outward forms of brass instruments can be changed like this because of the simplicity of their construction (compared to the mechanical keywork of a woodwind instrument, for example) and because, acoustically, the tubing can be curved in many different ways without changing the basic sound of the instrument (up to a point: in general, the more bends there are in the tubing, and the tighter they are, the “stuffier” the horn will sound; unless there is a compelling need for a more compact shape, instrument manufacturers try to use an “open wrap” with as few bends as necessary). The malleability of brass (not a single metal, but an alloy of copper and zinc, usually combined with smaller amounts of other metals such as nickel or gold) also makes it possible to be worked by hand with the right tools.
I’ve known a number of instrument technicians (repairmen), and converting or otherwise customizing horns is something most of them have done. Like auto mechanics, it’s hard for them to resist the temptation to soup up or experiment on cast-off parts in hopes of building a hot rod. Boredom can also be a factor: one technician I knew who served in the armed forces told me that a favorite prank on the base was to get the lead trumpeter’s instrument and surreptitiously remove its support braces, then slip it back in to his case. It wasn’t impossible to play, but much less stable and comfortable, and it was always a memorable break from dull routine, especially if it was before a performance or review!
What really affects the tone of a brass instrument is whether the tube is mostly the same diameter (cylindrical) before expanding into the bell, or widens gradually throughout its length (conical). This is the “bore profile” of the instrument, and it is the same no matter what shape the tube is bent into. Brass with a cylindrical bore, like trumpets and trombones, are more penetrating in sound; conical-bore instruments, such as horns and bugles, are mellower. Cornets, which are partially cylindrical and partially conical, have a sound that falls somewhere in between. (The width of the bore also plays a role, and is in fact the primary difference between the three B-flat instruments marked “Tenor,” “Baritone,” and “Bass” in the following illustration–they are the same length but sound and play somewhat differently; there is no room for discussion here, but the nomenclature of low brass instruments has always had the potential for confusion.)
Brass available in both configurations, from The Music Men by Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen
During the nineteenth century, the “golden age of brass,” a wide variety of different forms were tried out, some born of functional necessity and others out of the search for novelty. Brass instruments were often designed in “families” that followed the same pattern, from the high E-flat cornet to the BB-flat “monster” bass tuba. One of the most famous images of Civil War music is the “over the shoulder” brass band, with instruments that literally pointed backward, so that marching soldiers could hear them when the band marched or rode on horseback at the front of a formation. After the war, over the shoulder horns continued to be used, but were gradually displaced by “bell front” or “bell up” instruments closer to the forms in use today. (Note the use of rotary valves on the over the shoulder instruments; rotary valves are rarely seen on American instruments nowadays, with the obvious exception of the orchestral horn.)
Another pattern that was once widespread is the “helicon” or circular wrap, which went around the musician’s shoulder or wrapped around their torso like the modern Sousaphone, the only helicon instrument still in common use. (Contrary to popular belief, Sousa’s innovation was not the wrap-around shape, but the decision to enlarge the bell, at first pointing straight up, and later angled to point forward, for a more directed sound.)
One of the more eccentric shapes was conceived by Louis Schreiber of New York, who formed his “Schreiber horn” into a teardrop with an S-shaped bell. (According to Schreiber’s 1867 patent, he justified his new shape partially on ergonomic grounds, with the weight of the bell resting on the player’s shoulder.) Again, an entire family of Schreiber horns was created, although it didn’t last long and examples are now quite rare.
Musician with Schreiber horn, ca. 1870, from The Music Men
And that’s to say nothing of the famous double-bell euphonium, another innovation that has come and gone. Such experimentation is now the exception: as far as the big instrument companies go, there is less room for innovation in the basic shapes of the instruments, even as a great deal of research (including computer modeling) and quality control that would have been unimaginable a hundred years ago goes into refining acoustic and mechanical properties.
David G. Monette has been a notable example of the artisanal approach, designing and building custom trumpets (most famously for Wynton Marsalis and other jazz greats) while pouring the fruits of his custom work into his instrument lines, much in the same way innovations in concept cars eventually turn up in the regular models. Monette’s innovations include the “integral” or built-in mouthpiece and his instruments have an organic, art nouveau-influenced form. Monette has also continued the nineteenth century tradition of crafting beautiful instruments to honor great musicians, or in the case of the Elysian Trumpet for New Orleans, to memorialize tragedy. While Monette’s designs are available to a wider market than they once were, even expanding to a student line of mouthpieces, Monette remains a boutique brand when compared to the industry giants.
Elysian Trumpet by David G. Monette and Tami Dean
On the real fringes are the experimentalists who aren’t concerned with perfecting or customizing existing instruments at all, but use them as raw material for art in which the instrument and the performance are one. As an example, jazz musician and horn sculptor Mark Southerland of Kansas City builds his own instruments (as well as work which is purely sculptural) from scrap parts for use in live performances that include elements of improvisation, ritual, and multimedia. Southerland is a saxophonist, so his playable sculptures are actually woodwinds, but crossbred with borrowed trumpet and horn bells: they are true hybrids. He follows in the footsteps of such free jazz pioneers as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who modified his instruments so that he could play three saxophones at once. Southerland’s work is qualitatively different from the nineteenth century inventors like Schreiber or modern artisans like Monette, closer in spirit to the found-object transformations of outsider art or the process of discovery undertaken by electronic circuit-benders.
Brass instruments aren’t the easiest article to collect; making them the medium of your art is even more challenging. But all the examples I’ve given above started with a tactile, manual approach to music-making; even a factory-made instrument involves an enormous amount of assembly and finishing by hand. For those who combine their musical sensibilities with an urge to tinker, creating a one-of-a-kind instrument can be uniquely satisfying, whether it’s as straightforward as a modified lead pipe or as exotic as a double-belled metallic flower.