Pretty pictures

Some lovely photos by Mierswa-Kluska of the interior of musical instruments made as part of an ad campaign for the Berlin PhilharmonicSee them all.

Violin interior

I suspect the instruments were cleaned up a bit for the shoot.  Old violins especially are notorious for collecting prodigious amounts of dust. Peter Seman (Seman Violins near Chicago) has a display case of musical curiosities that includes a large clump of dust retrieved from the interior of an instrument brought in for repair.

Europe’s ‘earliest string instrument’?

I wonder sometimes about scientific discoveries, especially when it comes to archaeological artifacts. The BBC and other British news sources report the finding a notched piece of wood on Skye “believed to be the bridge of an ancient lyre” some 2300 years old. Cambridge “music archaeologist” Dr Graeme Lawson said the discovery marked a “step change” in music history.

I’m reminded of the saying “If all you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails.” Dr. Lawson may indeed be correct about his analysis and, indeed, fragments of early lyres are known from graves and other sites in Britain, and lyres are among the most ancient of instrument types. It’s not impossible. But you have to question the evidence when all you have is a notched fragment of a bridge. I’ll withhold judgement pending further examination of the research, which appears to be in private corporate hands (another reason to be suspect).

I can think of a dozen more likely uses for a piece of wood that shape, including a tape loom, a comb, a hide scraper, some kind of small rake…. ok, maybe not a dozen. But if you’re a music archaeologist, you’re going to be looking for artifacts that could conceivably have had a musical function. If you’re a textile specialist or a tool specialist, you might see any number of possible functions for the object. What does it look like to you?

This is not the best picture. There is a hole drilled through the bridge about halfway up the right side for no obvious reason. Note that the thing is quite small. My question would be why such deep notches? Inefficient at the least and bad physic too, probably, having a damping effect on the strings.

Kinect Gestural Organ Controller

Australian composer Chris Vik performed a piece written for the Melbourne Town Hall organ. Vik has been experimenting with the Kinect device to provide gestural control for digital musical instruments, so he was excited to learn that the Sidney organ had been converted to MIDI control back in the 1990s. Too much fun.

Church Music

A Baroque church in the city of Olomouc  in the eastern Czech Republic might seem an odd choice of an object to be turned into an advanced musical instrument. Over the last few years, the Macula project (a partnership of 3 Czech techno-artists) has been creating remarkable large scale animated projections on interesting architectural structures. Most of these are programmed performance events, but in the case of Archifon I (which name suggest future sequels) the installation is a real-time interactive musical instrument. As they say on their Vimeo site:

“Architectonical objects are re-interpreted by virtual layer via projection and sound. It is possible by mapping the virtual surface on the chapel’s interior. Up to ten visitors at a time can interact with the Archifon through the laser pointers. By pointing on any of more than 100 elements different audiovisual actions are initiated.”

The laser pointers don’t merely trigger events. They can be used to program drum sequences and to control effects sliders. With a lot of people playing, it could be pretty chaotic, but with practice an intention, devices like this may have potential for more controlled composition.

The video speaks for itself:

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The adoption of innovation

William Weir writes in The Atlantic about the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech’s Center for Music Technology (previously highlighted on Mewzik), focusing on how experimental musical instruments don’t often find their way into the mainstream.

English: String instruments at the Musical Ins...

tromba marina

Stroh Violin

Stroh Violin

This is true, but I think it’s always been true. Instruments come and go. The tromba marina was fairly popular for a couple hundred years, if extant examples in musical instrument collections are any indication. But who today has ever even heard

The Chapman Stick was developed in the early '...

Chapman Stick

of the thing? Before Amati and the Cremonese school more or less standardized what we now think of as a violin, there were lots of variations on the theme — some unique, some

Musical instrument


actually semi-popular for a time. The baryton was a favorite of Haydn’s patron prince Nikolaus Esterházy, so there are 120 trios by Haydn for this now obsolete instrument. Some instruments like the Stroh violin were developed to take advantage of technologies –in that case the early acoustical recording process that valued an instrument’s ability to project over its tonal depth. When electronic recording arrived, the Stroh became obsolete.

In modern times we see many innovative new instruments, and it’s not clear how many will have a sustained life. The Chapman Stick has been around since around 1974, and while it is not even as popular as accordions or tubas  (perhaps due to its $2100 base price), it’s still in production and continues to be fairly widely used. Other “fad” instruments abound, like the Hang drum  and its imitators, spurred by viral marketing and an apparently intuitive playing technique.

English: Low Hang played horizontally Deutsch:...


Weir rightly discusses the impact of audio synthesis, essentially divorcing the sound from the controller. Many of the latest innovations in musical instrument design are focused on the user interface, attempting to make it more intuitive and functional. And in some cases, attempting also to restore the haptic responsiveness of an acoustical device.

Sale of an Important Stradivari Cello

The “Countess of Stainlein, ex-Paganini” cello by Stradivari was played for over 50 years by Bernard Greenhouse of the Beaux Arts Trio. It was expected to exceed the previous top price of $6 for a cello. Reportedly Greenhouse wanted to sell the instrument before he died (at age 95) so that he could ensure that it went to a deserving musician who would appreciate it as he had, but couldn’t bear to part with it. It was recently sold at auction by Reuning & Sons, Boston, for an undisclosed amount to an anonymous patron in Montreal (alas). But at least it didn’t go to an Arab sheik or something. Be a shame to have it put away in a vault. Instead the instrument has been “endowed” (I guess like a long-term loan?) to an 18 year old Canadian cellist.

2012 Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition

Who knew Georgia Tech was a hotbed of musical instrument innovation? Well, apparently a lot of people knew, but I sure didn’t. They actually have a Center for Music Technology and next month they are presenting the 2012 Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition. Check out the Resistor JelTone, a “partially edible toy piano” by Brooklyn-based hacker collective, NYC Resistor, or the Audio Skin, incorporating on-body textiles in a sculptural and performative musical instrument, by Vienna, Austria-based Martin Rille.



Musical instruments are brilliantly complex devices that, from an engineering perspective, are a tremendous challenge to combine ergonomics, sound, and aesthetic nuance. An instrument must not only produce a desirable sound, it must interface with the human body in such a way that the function is sufficiently intuitive as to become an aid rather than a hindrance to music making.  Having an instrument that is also delicious is simply a bonus.

The Virtual Museum of Music Inventions

Think it’s all been done already? Think again. The Virtual Museum of Music Inventions showcases musical instruments built by school children across the globe. Just goes to show that if you need inspiration, just look at things from the mind of a child.

Melody Box by Joachim L., High School of Messaria, Santorini, Greece

Melody Box by Joachim L., High School of Messaria, Santorini, Greece

YouRock Guitar

YouRock Guitar
There have been numerous attempts over the years to create an entirely digital guitar interface. By which I mean a digital interface in the shape of a guitar. The YourRock guitar is a recent addition to the list and is a little more earnest than most. While it’s still not much more than a toy, I can see how it has possibilities for new expressive music making. As long as you realize it’s not a guitar, but an interface. The main difference from a player’s perspective is nuance. You can use the whammy bar to add expression to the notes, but most real musicians understand the importance of the left hand in bending notes and adding vibrato, etc. Despite its frets, a guitar is not a discreet-pitch instrument. The most attractive feature of this device is likely the tap playing capability. For those who want to try experimenting with this  technique, a machine like this could well be a useful controller.

I always look for what they don’t tell you in a promo ad or video. Obviously they want to highlight only the instrument’s best and coolest features. On almost none of the video promos did anyone play polyphonic music. There were a few chords strummed at the beginning of one, so I know it has polyphonic capability. But they don’t promote that at all, which makes me wonder why.


AR-4i | Audio Interface for iPhone 4 | Fostex

Fostex has been known for its portable professional quality recording equipment for many years. Their latest foray is an attachment stereo microphone/digital audio interface for the iPhone. Featuring exceptional audio quality – record/playback via Dock connector with built-in AD/DA converter. Equipped with 3 x stereo inputs (Line/Mic), 2 x plug-in powered condenser cardioid type mics, 4-dot LED level meter for input monitoring, thumb wheel input gain control, and a free App available at the Apple App Store


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