2021 A to Z: Letter U…Weird Holidays

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2021 A to Z: Letter U

is for

Uncommon Musical Instrument Day (July 31)

Join in the festivities and boost your awareness of unusual instruments with this collection of musical oddities that you definitely won’t hear every day.

Double Contrabass Flute

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this played in person by Roland Tso with the LA Flute Orchestra at Fireside at the Miles [Playhouse] in Santa Monica, CA.

This massive musical contraption made by Kotato & Fukushima in Japan contains around 18 feet of tubing, providing for an unusual range of fluttery sounds, and making it the largest flute ever created. It is about nine feet tall.

Sea Organ

Located on the Mediterranean coast of Zadar, Croatia, the sea organ was designed by architect Nikola Bašić with the help of hydraulics consultant Andročec (from Zagreb Civil Engineering University) and others. The organ is comprised of layers of deep steps reaching from the coast down to the ocean. At around 230 feet wide, it has 35 pipes of various lengths that are attached to whistles reaching from the lowest tide level up through air holes to the surface. Every time the tides change and the sea pushes the air through the pipes, diverse sounds are produced, adding to the natural, soothing sound of the ocean waves.

Singing Ringing Tree

In the midst of the beautiful, hilly countryside of Lancashire, England stands a unique musical creation. Designed by Tonkin Liu, the singing ringing tree was made from galvanized steel pipes cut to different lengths and stacked on top of one another. Placed not too far from part of the country’s Forest of Burnley Reforestation program, the tree converts wind energy into low pitched sounds thanks to its tubular, tree-like shape.

Lithophone

Named for the Greek word λίθος (lithos), meaning “rock”, lithophones are made of flat slabs of stone placed on top of or tied down to two parallel wood or metal risers. This creates a gap between the ground and the rocks, allowing room for resonation. Contemporary metal/wood percussion instruments, including the xylophonemarimbavibraphone, and glockenspiel, mimic the keyboard-style layout pattern of the lithophone. The oldest of these ancient, Stone Age instruments have been found at prehistoric sites in Vietnam – who knew rock music went back so far? They can be played by scraping the slabs with other small rocks, or banging them with mallets, and are currently used to scare animals away from crops, in addition to making music.

Floppy Drive Orchestra 

Here’s one use for obsolete technology: all over the internet, orchestras of floppy drives are being programmed to perform music in a number of styles (a cover of the 1993 techno hit “What is Love,” anyone?) thanks to software designed by engineer Sam Archer. Now, enjoy the soothing sounds of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D on eight screeching machines:

Glacier Music

Matthew Burtner is an Alaskan-born composer, sound artist, and eco-acoustician, whose music and research explores embodiment, climate change, polymetrics, and noise. Syntax of Snow is formed from the unlikely duo of amplified snow and glockenspiel. The performers played the glockenspiel with one hand and the snow with the other, speaking to the snow’s ability to communicate information to people and animals about environment, weather conditions, and landscape. Below is the spotify playlist of the album Glacier Music for your enjoyment.

BONUS MATERIAL:

Check out the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog for the familiar, the forgotten and the simply odd. 

Folio with musical instruments, from a leaf from a giant Bible, Italy, 11th-12th century, Add MS 47683, f. 1v

Featured image: “U is for Upstairs” from Digital Synopsis, created by UK based graphic designers Liam + Jord

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