Photo: Thomas Bloch
True, your friend trying to make a ukulele out of a Japanese lunchbox is probably a little bit out there, but these five instruments – which have enjoyed an at least mentionable amount of success – put him to shame. Some sound surprisingly pleasant, but for others, well, your friend’s lunchbox ukulele might be preferable.
A twentieth-century electronic instrument, the theremin is manipulated without the player ever touching it. Instead, the player’s hands cause changes in the surrounding electromagnetic field, which the instrument’s two antennas detect and use to produce different pitches and volumes. Its timbre conjures up associations of ghosts and aliens; Janet Maslin of the New York Times described its sound as resembling “a violin or a soprano or a Martian making a landing.” The theremin is perhaps best known for its appearance on Miklós Rózsa’s soundtrack for the Alfred Hitchcock film, Spellbound, though other notable composers including Dmitri Shostakovich and Percy Grainger have written for the instrument, and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page performed solos on it during live performances. Here, a band covers Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” with a theremin on the vocal line:
The baryton is much like a cello – and even more like its better-known cousin, the viola da gamba – in sound and appearance, but a couple of important features set it apart. For one, the baryton contains six strings as opposed to the cello’s four. And more importantly for its timbral effect, it contains sympathetic strings in the back that resonate when the bowed strings play certain pitches. The sympathetic strings can be plucked themselves as well, allowing for the simultaneous production of two very different sounds. Joseph Haydn’s principle employer for almost 30 years, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, played the baryton, and Haydn’s body of works, therefore, contains a considerable number of pieces for the instrument.
It looks almost like an alpenhorn and sounds like a kid playing his first notes on a trumpet, but the tromba marina – “marine trumpet” – is actually a bowed string instrument. Its single-string construction involves a bridge that vibrates against the soundboard, producing a buzzing sound, much like that of brass instruments. The tromba marina enjoyed considerable use from the fifteenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries. Its incredibly complex tone is capable of containing all notes of the harmonic overtone series (the sequence of naturally-occurring intervals that dictates the space between notes of the same fingering on brass instruments) through the sixteenth partial, and some designs contain sympathetic strings as well. Here’s a sample of its sound:
If I had known my continued training might have led me to playing this beast, perhaps I would’ve paid a little more attention when we learned the recorder in fourth grade music class. At around eight feet tall, the subcontrabass recorder is the lowest in range of the recorder family. Subcontrabass recorders have been around since the 1500’s but are so uncommon that they are seldom included in recorder orchestras and, compared to their smaller relatives, little repertoire exists for them.
In its early forms, the glass armonica resembled something of a bored musician’s cheap entertainment: differently sized glasses tuned with water. The instrument enjoyed moderate popularity in the 18th century. Opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, for instance, played a concerto on, as it was called, “26 glasses,” and Mozart even wrote an adagio for solo glass armonica. Though having weaned in popularity since then, the instrument is still played today in its 1761 form. None other than Ben Franklin himself conceived of the modern design, which consists of a series of glass basins arranged pitch-wise around a pedal-powered rotating spindle. Franklin commented once, “Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction.”