DID MARLENE DIETRICH REALLY PLAY THE MUSICAL SAW?
WHO WAS THAT LADY I SAWED WITH YOU LAST NIGHT?
The Musical Saw occupies a niche these days as a novelty instrument. It is most often seen being played by street performers who use its unique sound to entice passer-bys to become patrons. Rarely might you see one on a stage or as part of a band. [ed. Noting exception to this point, both Vagabond Opera and Fishtank Ensemble played the Musical Saw at a recent performance at McCabe’s Guitar Shop.] But there was a time when it had captured the fascination of the public and was immensely popular. So what is it, how does it work and when was it so popular?
The Evolution of the Harp
A Simple Instrument
As instruments go, the idea of a harp seems pretty simple. There are separate strings for each note in the scale so there’s no need for frets or string-adjusters, just tuning pegs. With the strings tuned to the notes of a scale the harp itself is tuned to a particular key. While this is, indeed, simple it is also very limiting. For instance, if you want to play in a different key you will need a different harp. But even with harps of different keys, the question is: how can you play accidentals or sharped or flatted notes that are not part of that key’s scale? This is the chromatic problem and the evolution of the harp is the story of how this problem has been addressed.
SEE YOU LATER ALLIGATOR OR WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT B FLAT?
What do alligators know about B flat? Why do some musical instruments play in the key of B flat even though their music is written in the key of C? Does the universe play music in the key of B flat? If you find these questions intriguing then please continue reading and I will do my best to supply the answers.
A Most Bizarre Part of Music History - The Castrati
The Dark Past
It is the 17th Century and you are the choirmaster of a Roman Catholic Church somewhere in Italy. The Church, citing the words of Saint Paul, does not allow women to participate in the choir so young boys must sing the higher parts. In some ways, this is better, because a young voice offers an unmatchable innocence and purity. The problem for you as choirmaster is that the investment of your time and energy shaping these young vocal instruments will be lost when puberty "breaks" their voices. If only there was some way to keep these voices from being stolen away at puberty. What if they never went through puberty? But how could that happen? There was only one way-castration. Castration was already a well accepted and understood practice, al least for livestock. Why would anyone let their young son be so mutilated and robbed of such a great aspect of life? Surely no one would ever agree to such an evil thing, would they? Was it worth the cost for the sake of art and music? This was the enigma of the castrato who dominated the musical stage for almost 230 years.
The Pedal Steel Guitar
I can usually sit down with an unfamiliar musical instrument and quickly figure out enough about it to play some tunes. An exception to that happened on the one-and-only time I had access to a pedal steel guitar. For me, it was far from obvious how it worked or what nefarious devices were hidden inside. My frustration was amplified because of my fascination with the sound of this instrument since I first heard it. In the early days of television in Los Angeles there were two popular country and western band shows featuring the steel guitar: the Spade Cooley Show that ended when he went to prison for killing his wife and the Doy O'Dell show (not to be confused with the Dell O'Dell TV show of the same era, hosted by a popular Los Angeles lady magician). One of those two shows always featured a song played on the "Talking Steel Guitar."
Why this fascination with the sound of the pedal steel? In part it may be due to the intricate sequential structure that I can only compare to the vocal harmonies as heard in bluegrass-gospel and barber-shop-quartet. The pedal steel lends itself to chord progressions where only one note at a time might change until the sound finally comes to rest on the next chord. What could be more pleasant in music then to have such excruciating anticipation sweetly followed by a comforting resolution? That very stress and release may, in fact, be the essence of music itself. But then I digress.
The Mills Violano-
A VIOLIN THAT PLAYS ITSELF
I grew up in Los Angeles before there was a Disneyland or a Magic Mountain. I still have fond memories of the local attractions that I visited with my family. Most of these attractions are gone now with the notable exception of Knott’s Berry Farm. Back then the park was not fenced off and you could saunter in and spend the day wandering around Ghost Town, which was like a living museum of the Old West. They had people working the concessions that had actually been part of the Old West. Some friends of my sister spent an entire day talking with the old timers who worked at the Pan-for-Gold concession and learned enough to go out to the desert and pan for gold at played-out abandoned mines. Gold was still fixed at $35 an ounce and many of the mines were abandoned when it was no longer profitable to work them at that price. The park was also host to a collection of nickelodeon music boxes and I had been told that there was one that actually played the violin. Every time I asked about it I was told that it was out for repair and I never got to see it — but my interest was peaked and I continued to ask.
The Sound of Bells
An Acoustic Paradox
Who hasn't marveled at the majestic and haunting sound of church bells? What is it about the sound of bells that is so moving and mystical? Bells have an almost magical sound that is truly unique in the family of musical instruments.