Odd Instruments

This never fails to amaze me.  (The song is “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach. recognizable to probably anyone who’s played a wedding, or maybe even attended a wedding.  Up there with the dreaded Pachebel.  Although this Pachebel rant is great  – especially if you’re a cellist.)

Let’s see, how should I proceed?  Perhaps the first instrument ever was voice.  For unusual vocals, I think of possibly the highest note in the “Queen of the Night” aria (here’s a remix of that put to an xmas light show), or the castrati.  (Speaking of high-pitched, there’s this guy, pretty amazing range.  And my favorite from last year’s America’s Got Talent, Prince Poppycock.)

I don’t know much about Appalachian Harp/Shape Note/Sacred Harp singing, but it intrigues me.  I think it uses roughly the same scales as western music, but that a printed note can be various pitches, depending.  (There may be four names, fa sol la and mi, for seven notes, without the do re and ti, if I remember Sound of Music, which, according to this site, may result in a scale or harmony with all whole tones and one semi tone.)  I wonder if Sacred Harp singing is an American take on semi-tones, quasi-tones, or modal music?  In any case, it allows for some really interesting harmonies.  Here are two YouTube examples I found: “Wayfaring Stranger” and Alabama Sacred Harp Convention.  But, hands down, winner of weird (and cool) has to be throat singing.

(I also found Mongolian throat-singing and blues, apparently from the film “Genghis Blues”.)

Moving on from vocalists… I’m not sure if one could make a chronology of instruments globally, but I would venture to guess that percussion would be next.  I started out with the forest xylophone above as my contribution to this class.  And there’s this guy on what looks like a variation on a lead/soprano steel drum; I think they call it a Hang.  There’s plenty of Blue Man group stuff out there, so I won’t dive into that particular sea at this time.  But I’ll make a side note to the soundtrack composer Thomas Newman, probably best known for American Beauty, because of his unique percussion-oriented style.

Perhaps brass, flutes, and pipe-like instruments would be next.  Or concurrently with strings?  I think organs, along with pianos, are technically percussion instruments.  Or a pipe-percussion hybrid.  In any case, there are a whole lot of strange and fascinating organs out there.  Such as the hydraulophone.

There are actually a lot of videos of “Walking in the Air” and “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on hydraulophone or hydraulophone duets.  But I also found Coldplay, which, though a little mucky, is ethereal, and  “House of the Rising Sun”.  Moving on to the more bizarre, there’s this thing, probably the most complex haunting wind chime thing ever:

and a beer organ, possibly originally a simple concept, then modified, then modified some more with a computer:

and then there’s this, apparently a tubulum.  Make that Monster Tubulum.  This is great!

I’m not sure what I should put for weird string instruments.  I have particular favorites, which aren’t particularly weird: cello, bass, koto, and sitar.  Something I recently discovered was the whamola, a variation on a washtub bass.  You have to hand it to Les Claypool for bass ingenuity.  (As for other strings, there’s banjos, strum sticks, bass balalaikas…this could go on and on…)

Moving on…my guess is that woodwinds, or at least saxophones, are more recent additions to the instrument family.  Most people are familiar with tenor and alto sax, and it’s likely many have heard of the bari sax (one of my personal favorites).  But there’s also a soprano sax, a bass sax, and a contrabass sax.  And the even rarer, none of which I’ve seen, sopranissimo, sopranino and subcontrabass saxes.

As I’m winding down… modern instruments.  There’s the ArcAttack band with Tesla coils.  I think the weirdest instrument of all is probably the theremin.  What may be even more intriguing is that it was once played as a virtuoso instrument and the story of it’s inventor, Leon Theremin, is just as strange and fascinating.  All this is really a plug for the documentary Theremin: An Electric Odyssey.


And lastly, though you can’t top the theremin, you can make a building sing!


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