By Ricky O’Bannon
Earlier this month, Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax would have marked his 200th birthday.
Music history is deeply connected to the progress of technology and the instruments available, but very often the success of an instrument has less to do with the intentions and designs of the man or woman who came up with them and instead depends on the creativity and invention of musicians who opt to play it.
Sax’s designs are credited for improving the bass clarinet and influencing the creation of both the flugelhorn and euphonium, but Sax is most remembered for combining ideas from the clarinet and other brass instruments into the saxophone for use in military bands.
Dying in 1890, Sax lived to see his instrument move from military band to a handful of classical pieces, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the instrument found wider use in the concert hall, primarily by French and later Russian composers.
The saxophone — first patented in 1846 — is one of the youngest instruments to find a semi-regular place in classical music. Its history also provides a framework to judge other new instruments. Great jazz virtuosos took up the saxophone in the early 1900s, but it was mostly dismissed as a novelty or grotesque by much of the classical world before the career of German-born sax virtuoso Sigurd Rascher.
Rascher caused a stir in Europe when he played a saxophone concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1932. The response from classical critics to a 1953 recital recording by Rascher showed that even a century after the instrument’s invention, it was not widely respected. Music critic John Briggs in The New York Times expressed some shock that the recording was actually good, writing “The idea of a recital on the E-flat alto saxophone may strike one as faintly comical—until one hears the new Sigurd Rascher Recital.”
The point is that no matter the design or invention of an instrument maker, the fate of a new instrument is dependent on a virtuoso musician showing its potential or a composer writing a magnum opus that utilizes it well. In many cases, that takes a great deal of time. For Adolphe Sax’s invention, even today musicians like Colin Stetson are experimenting with modern techniques to make new music for the instrument in ways Sax never imagined.
In honor of Sax’s 200th birthday, below is a list of newly invented instruments. Like for the saxophone, whether they eventually find a place in the musical world or fall away as a novel footnote in history will depend on the creative people who might champion their cause in this century or the next.
The Yaybahar was designed by Istanbul-based musician Görkem Şen and is an entirely acoustic instrument. Vibrations from the strings travel along metal coils to drums and back creating an otherworldly sound that is almost reminiscent of effects from a synthesizer or distorted guitar. All sound in the above performance is recorded live.
Looking something like the lovechild of a bassoon and synthesizer, the Eigenharp is like many recently developed electronic instruments that could solve a problem. Electronic music made strictly by computers does not translate as well to live performance as musicians playing instruments. No matter the level of craft involved in its creation, an audience will always think differently of a musician standing behind a Macbook versus one sitting behind a piano.
The Eigenharp began development in 2001, and it allows a musician using it multiple ways to change its output including breath control, several percussion keys, strip controllers and 120 keys that are touch sensitive to bend and warp the sound.
3. Mi.Mu Glove
(Performance at 13 minute, 27 seconds)
Singer Imogen Heap has been leading the charge to develop the Mi.Mu Glove. In a promotional fundraiser video, Heap said she uses computers and electronic effects in her music, but she wanted a way to play her computer as expressively as she would an instrument. The result is the Mi.Mu Glove, which allows pre-programmed sounds to be triggered and manipulated by the wearer’s gestures, motions or place on the stage.
Sensor-based instruments that make use of gesture or the performer’s position is actually a somewhat crowded competition. Efforts at build a “data glove” date back to 2005, and students at Cornell created the Aura data glove earlier this year.
Commissioned by singer Björk, the Gameleste is a hybrid instrument that combines percussive elements from Javanese gamelan ensembles with the celesta (otherwise known as the instrument most people hear exactly once a year during “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.) The original steel bars of a vintage orchestral celesta were replaced with bronze tonebars giving the instrument its unique sound.
While looking a little strange, the hydraulophone is most closely related to the woodwind family. Instead of air being blown in through a mouthpiece, water is pumped in and the resulting pitch is controlled by covering certain holes in the body of the instrument, similar to woodwinds. The hydraulophone started as something of a novelty, but some are trying to elevate its status by writing and performing concert works that feature the instrument.