Music

Ben Franklin’s Glass Instrument Stirs Back to Life

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A glass armonica, originally invented by Benjamin Franklin and revived at a recent performance at the Park Avenue Armory (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In 1761, Benjamin Franklin invented an instrument eventually thought by some to drive its players out of their minds: the armonica, which produced the same echoing, high-pitched sounds as singing water glasses. Made of glass bowls nested into one another, with the entire stack skewered with a spindle, the instrument essentially simplifies the busy setup of carefully tuned glasses. A foot pedal, when pumped, rotates the spindle so you may play the instrument like a keyboard, using wetted fingers to stroke the bowls’ rims to make haunting notes. The armonica caught on quickly — thousands were manufactured, and even Mozart composed music for it — but it developed a bad reputation by the early 19th century: reports of the instrument causing mental anguish emerged, and the glass bowls gradually faded from stages.

Camille Norment and Craig Taborn perform in Park Avenue Armory’s Veterans Room as part of the Artists Studio series (photo by Da Ping Luo)
Camille Norment and Craig Taborn perform in Park Avenue Armory’s Veterans Room as part of the Artists Studio series (photo by Da Ping Luo)

Franklin’s centuries-old device made a rare public appearance in New York City this past Sunday, revived to sing in a contemporary, electronic score. As part of the Park Avenue Armory’s Artists Studio series curated by Jason Moran, the sound artist Camille Norment, and electronic musician Craig Taborn performed their “Causes and Cures: Music for Glass Armonica and Excited Piano Strings” in the recently restored Veterans Room. Norment often plays the armonica with electronics and has specially wired hers so its spindle turns autonomously and endlessly. For his part, Taborn played a Steinway piano outfitted with effects units as well as a synthesizer.

Marrying the past with the present, the performance was well suited for the space, which now merges original designs by Louis C. Tiffany and Co., Associated Artists and modern touches by Herzog & de Meuron. The armonica also gleams within that gilded setting; its smooth, glossy appearance alone is mesmerizing, even seductive. But although it was clearly the instrument that most intrigued its intimate audience, it played a quiet role that evening.

Camille Norment and Craig Taborn perform in Park Avenue Armory’s Veterans Room as part of the Artists Studio series (photo by Da Ping Luo)
Camille Norment and Craig Taborn perform in Park Avenue Armory’s Veterans Room as part of the Artists Studio series (photo by Da Ping Luo)

Rather than a melodic piece, Norment and Taborn’s composition was sparse and cautious, filled largely with delicate sounds that recall the fragility of glass itself. Norment gently pressed the rotating bowls to emit slow, drawn-out notes. Amplified by microphones, they mingled with Taborn’s creation of atmospheric sounds, tinkling of piano keys, and tinny tones made from his striking of the Steinway’s inner strings. The effect was soothing, filling the space with notes vibrating with varying strengths — although edging on soporific at times, as evidenced by some  audience members. Yet the two were constantly moving, tinkering with their individual devices to manipulate and layer sounds. Their score conflated time, setting into harmony instruments of different eras, but this also made it difficult to identify the sources of the high-pitched tones and ultimately, truly appreciate the armonica’s full capabilities.

The instrument was just one in Norment’s orchestra of glass: she also rubbed glass fragments together to create rough noises, scraped others around in a dish, and tossed them, one by one, into metal bowls to produce hard clangs. While Taborn moved around his instruments with precision, Norment was surrendering control to embrace chance. Her interactions introduced unexpected, rough textures to the ongoing composition. Resounding in contrast with the armonica’s delicate voice, they exemplified the vast potential of the fragile material as a soundmaker.

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The glass armonica, originally invented by Benjamin Franklin
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Camille Norment’s set up at the Park Avenue Armory

Causes and Cures: Music for Glass Armonica and Excited Piano Stringstook place at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on October 16.

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