All instruments have been new and unusual in their time. The piano started life as a louder, more reliable spinet or harpsichord. The clarinet was an 18th century novelty which took society by storm, and no-one expected to last. And the saxophone was just the latest in a line of persistent attempts by entrepreneur Adolphe Sax to design an instrument that he could sell in bulk to the French army.
Equally, as new instruments lose their novelty, their precursors begin to appear bizarre and outlandish - look, for example, at the distinctively dark and winding form of the Serpent, a familiar enough instrument in bands until two-hundred years ago, but now an oddity, supplanted, like its fellows the Sackbut, Shawm and Crumhorn, by what we see as 'proper' instruments such as the trumpet, tuba and trombone. The principle, however, remains the same, and who can tell what hitherto unimagined instruments might some day replace these orchestral mainstays.
The creative urge has long been as alive in instrument design as it has been in other arts. Sometimes some instruments capture the public imagination and become accepted - the clarinet, the marimba, the harmonium for example. But for every saxophone there is a failed Saxhorn, for every pianoforte a Clavicytherium.
Some have been artists first and instrument makers second: the Futurist sculptor Luigi Russolo scandalised polite society in the 1920s with his Intonarumori, noise making machines with all the aural delicacy of a dozen racing motorscooters competing with a fleet of propeller aeroplanes. Russolo's magnum opus 'Veglio di una Citta' gave the expression 'The Art of Noise' to the world.
A twentieth century pre-occupation with exploring rhythm has seen a gallimaufry of new percussion instruments to hit, rattle and shake, and a broad spectrum of materials have been called into service, from wood to glass (in the work of Anna Lockwood and others), metal and plastic. Player-pianos or pianolas have been constructed that literally 'play themselves' by means of punched paper rolls which trigger the piano's hammers, not unlike the pegs in a musical box. The American composer Conlon Nancarrow wrote almost exclusively for the pianola, painstakingly punching increasingly complex rolls, some of which were designed to involve several machines playing simultaneously. Towards the end of his life he composed a 'Concerto for Pianola and Orchestra', with the mechanical and 'live' sound producers playing together.
A number of composers, taking their cue from musical innovator John Cage, have experimented with the 'prepared piano', altering the sound of an ordinary piano by inserting objects, whether every-day or especially constructed, between the strings.
Some bizarre instruments have never existed outside of the imagination of their creator - notably some of the impossible - or at the very least, improbable - cartoon visions of W. Heath Robinson, and the legendary Gerard Hoffnung.
The new dimension for instrument makers in the twentieth century lay in the understanding of electronics. When a Cornell University graduate called Robert Moog developed a keyboard operated sound synthesizer in the early 1960s, no-one could have forseen that within thirty years the Moog synthesiser would have transformed the world of music, and paved the way for widespread computerised origination of sounds and scores, sampling and numerous other applications (including the extraordinary 'circuit bending' instruments of Q Reed Ghazala).
But Moog was already part of a tradition of experimental electronic instruments. As early as the 1920s, Maurice Martenot had invented the Ondes Martenot, a keyboard on which the pitch was altered by use of an electrical strip, which enabled unearthly sweeping glissandi. The most enduring use of the Ondes Martenot has been as part of the lush textures of Olivier Messiaen' s 'Turangalila Symphony' (1947).
Another pioneer was the Russian Lev Termin (aka Leon Theremin), whose unconventional instrument, the eponymous Theremin, became the other-worldly soundtrack to many science fiction and horror films in the 'forties and 'fifties. The Theremin has recently come back into fashion, and brand new ones can be bought from the American company Big Briar whose president is none other than Robert Moog: surely a good demonstration of how electronic music making has come full circle.
(from a Big Briar promotional leaflet)
(photo from the CD of '1898' by Kagel)
In the early days of gramophone recordings,
it was very difficult to achieve a good sound balance using traditional
instruments. Augustus Stroh invented a peculiar family
of instruments in which the traditional was augmented in such
a way as to enhance the sound production. The Stroh-'cello,
for example, was similar to a 'real' 'cello, except that the
sounding box had been removed and replaced by a metal horn. Often
this accounts for the 'tinny' sound of early
Some musicians and composers have abandoned instruments altogether and use electronic generators and natural sounds recorded onto magnetic tape to work with sound at its most primal.
A similar end was achieved by a keyboard called a Mellotron, familiar to many people from its use on the Beatles' 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and the Moody Blues' 'Nights in White Satin'. This instrument used an in-built library of pre-recorded discs as its sound source and was, in effect, a primitive sampler.
Development of the ideas underpinning Musique Concrete was continued in the UK during the 50s and 60s by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop - the famous Doctor Who theme music, for example, is a series of electronically generated sounds recorded onto tape, then cut into pieces and stuck back together in the appropriate order!
If making music is an essential creative act, then instrument construction demonstrates a special resourcefulness.
Experimental Musical Instruments magazine (1985
A New Dictionary of Music (Penguin, 1973)
New Grove Dictionary of Music (Macmillan, 1980)
The Voice Electric (pamphlet, Big Briar (USA), 1997)
BBC Radiophonic Workshop - 21 (LP- BBC, 1979,
recorded 1958 - 1979)
John Cage - Complete Piano Music vol 1: The Prepared Piano 1940-52 (played by Steffen Schleiermacher, double CD - MDG 1998)
Electronic Music (two volumes, LPs - Turnabout, 1966/7)
Gravikord, Whirlies and Pyrophones (CD & book Ellipsis Arts, 1998)
Dr Samuel J. Hoffman - Dr Samuel J. Hoffman and theTheremin (3 CDs, Basta, 1999)
Mauricio Kagel - 1898 (CD - Deutsche Grammophon, 1999, written and recorded 1967)
Anna Lockwood - The Glass World of Anna Lockwood (LP- Tangent, 1970)
Conlon Nancarrow - Studies for Player Piano Vols 1-5 (CDs, Wergo, 1988-91, music written 1950 - 1988)
Orbitones, Spoon Harps and Bellowphones (CD & book - Ellipsis Arts, 1997)
Panorama of Musique Concrete vols 1 & 2 (LPs - Ducretet Thomson, 1956/7, music recorded 1946-1959)
Clara Rockmore - The Art of the Theremin (CD - Delos, 1988)
Luigi Russolo - Veglio di una Citta (on Dada For Now LP, Ark records, 1985)
Karlheinz Stockhausen - Electronic works (CD & book - Stockhausen Verlag, 1992, written and recorded 1953-60)
This article first appeared in the programme for Pipeworks,
an event staged as part of Common Ground's Confluence project.