Among my plans, activities and resolutions for the New Year, I have decided that every day I will listen to a new piece that I had never heard before by a living composer. This blog brings my impressions of my favorite ones.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Resurrecting a Forgotten Instrument - Jörg Widmann's Armonica

In 1761, American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin attended a concert in London that featured a performance of musical wine glasses. Franklin was ecstatic. A true renaissance man—not only a brilliant politician but also a writer, inventor, musician, and scientist—Franklin decided to build a machine that would create the same effect as the wine glasses, but with a more efficient arrangement. He placed a bunch of glass bowls around a turning rod activated by pressing a pedal. Franklin called his new instrument “Armonica” after the Italian word for harmony, “Armonia,” in reference to the instrument’s new capability of creating harmony, i.e. chords—three or more notes played at the same time.

Benjamin Franklin playing the armonica
A musician named Marianne Davies was the first person to play the instrument at a concert in London. It just so happened that a wunderkind by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in town at the same time for his own concerts. Mozart heard Davies playing the armonica and was intrigued by the new instrument. While he spent the ensuing years writing string quartets, piano sonatas, symphonies, and many more, he never forgot about the peculiar instrument. In 1791, a few months before his death at the age of 35, Mozart returned to the armonica. He wrote a couple short pieces featuring the instrument, and those turned out to be the last chamber music pieces he ever wrote.

In the decades that followed, the big concert halls that were built and the increasing capability of acoustic instruments to produce stronger sounds pushed the soft-sounding armonica to the dark corners of history, where it mostly remained quiet, collecting dust. Two centuries passed, and then German composer Jörg Widmann was asked to write an homage piece to Mozart to be performed on January 27th 2007—Mozart’s 251st Birthday. Widmann chose an original way of doing so. He used his own musical language to commemorate the instrument for which Mozart wrote his last chamber music piece.

An armonica in an orchestra is like someone who goes to a party alone without knowing anyone there.  In order to help the armonica feel more comfortable in its new surrounding, Widmann adds a couple more friends: the accordion and the water gong. Although these don’t often get invited to most orchestra parties either, they are more common instruments than the armonica, and are both connected to the armonica. This enables them to serve as a bridge between the armonica and the rest of the orchestra.

The upper register of the accordion sounds very similar to the armonica. But whereas the armonica’s sound is glassy and somewhat cold, the accordion is softer and warm. The water gong is a bronze drum hung over a small tub filled with water. After hitting it, the player lowers the drum into the tub. As the drum takes a dip, its pitch changes. The use of the water gong is a clear reference to the armonica and the musical wine glasses, which are both played with moistened fingers.

Armonica
One of the unique characteristics of the armonica is the delay in its sound production, like seeing the light of a star that died millions of years ago. Everything that happens in Widmann’s piece derives from this idea of delayed sound. The orchestra here is an extension of the armonica. The armonica sets things in motion, and the orchestra takes them further, as if trying to stretch the instrument’s abilities. Like the armonica, with its sound constantly fading in and out, the orchestra performs a series of crescendos and diminuendos. It begins with mere breathing—first by the accordion, whose bellows go in and out without making a sound, just air. Then, the breathing becomes vocal. The instrumentation grows with each crescendo-diminuendo pattern, like a stream of water that gradually thickens, increasing its erosion and velocity. The orchestra reaches a huge climax when all the instruments play a few loud, repeated chords.

But the real climax, the emotional one, comes toward the end of the piece, when the armonica becomes soft singing. Literally. The human voice was always the object of envy for instruments. When we learn to play an instrument, our teacher regularly implores us: “sing!” In the score of their instrumental pieces, composers often write cantabile, songful. In a hair-raising moment, as a final effort of stretching the boundaries, Wildmann asks the armonica player to sing while still playing, making it sound as if the singing is coming out of the instrument. Like spinning straw into gold, the sound of the armonica turns into a human voice.

Wildmann’s Armonica has a ghostly feel to it in part because of the nature of the instruments, but also because of the extensive use of the octanonic scale—alternating intervals of a whole step and a half step. Composers used the octatonic scale often in order to create a supernatural atmosphere. Listening to the piece, you might very well feel as if you are conjuring ghosts, perhaps those of Benjamin Franklin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, trying out the armonica for the first time.


To listen to Widmann's Armonica click here

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