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Ingenious Instruments

Musical apparatus you might have never heard of before.

A little over twenty years ago I played a fundraising concert on Waiheke Island for a Musical Museum founded by Lloyd and Joan Whittaker to help them put their life’s work into the safe hands of a Charitable Trust.

Thanks to a handful of very generous donors as well as the general public, the museum’s beautiful instruments are still on display in working order and can be played by visitors from around the world.

End of last year I was one of those visitors. My favorite item in this unique collection had always been the Dulcitone — an instrument of celestial sound yet without strings. Instead, metal pieces in the shape of tuning forks (mounted on springs attached to the soundboard) are striked by a felt covered hammer action:

The video is totally worth watching in its entirety by the way and if you happen to visit New Zealand (or Waiheke Island in particular) do not miss going to this special place.

Just like the instruments in Lloyd and Joan’s museum inspired me, I would like to inspire you learning something new about instruments that you may never have heard of before.

Let’s start with the video shared1 right on top of the article — The Theremin, which perhaps is the most unique instrument ever invented2.

The Theremin

Before discussing the background of the Theremin and why it is such an incredible instrument, yet so difficult to master, I would like to invite you to first listen to the following performance by one of the leading theremin artists of our time.

Understand that this instrument is played without any physical touch or excitement whatsoever, yet marvel at the almost ethereal human voice sound it produces:

Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s take a closer look at the origins of the theremin (“θɛrəmɪn”, also known as the ætherphone/etherphone, thereminophone or termenvox/thereminvox), an electronic musical instrument named after its inventor, Leon Theremin3 (who was born in Russia as Lev Sergeivich Teremen before coming to the West).

Invented over a century ago and patented in 1928 already, the device is still the only musical instrument which is played without any physical contact4. It’s like playing a harp with invisible cords, trying to produce a sound like an angel singing an opera.

In 1993, the film “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey”5 was released, and the instrument gained perhaps its highest level of popularity to date among musicians and filmmakers. The theremin also inspired a surge in sound technology that led for instance to Robert Moog’s creation of the modern synthesizer, transforming the musical landscape ever since:

If you like the sound of the theremin, have a look at what some of the world’s leading artists are able to do with it:

Or, if you’re inspired to try learning the theremin yourself6 (know that it’s really hard, but a lot of fun), here is a list with a few options where you can acquire the instrument (note that there aren’t many manufacturers of theremins out there):

  • Theremini: Moog’s beginner version.

  • Etherwave: Moog’s semi-professional version. The Etherwave “Plus” is the professional bigger brother.

  • Claravox Centennial: Moog’s high-end theremin was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the instrument and as a tribute to virtuoso thereminist Clara Rockmore7.

  • D-Lev: A (mostly) Digital Theremin.

  • B3 Series and the Zep: Burns provides an excellent selection of very affordable theremins.

  • OpenTheremin V4: Build your very own theremin from the ground up using high quality open source electronic components.

I hope you enjoyed the theremin, now comes the next unique instrument — the waterphone.

The Waterphone

A waterphone is an instrument which was invented, developed, and manufactured by American Richard Waters8 (1935–2013).

Influenced by a Tibetan drum containing a small amount of water affecting its timbre, it’s somewhat related to the nail violin, which also used a resonator and rods (or nails) for being struck or bowed:

The waterphone is also called an ocean harp and can be taken into the water, where on several occasions it has been used successfully to call whales and other cetaceans, especially by Jim Nollman9 of Interspecies Communication.

The waterphone is featured in soundtracks to many movies, including Matrix, Star Trek, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and many more10.

If you’d like to learn more about the waterphone or buy one online, check out:

In fact, water is a fascinating medium to make music with, just see the Zadar sea organ, how an orchestra uses frozen water to create ice instruments, or how water filled glasses turn into a Glasspiel (or “verrillon” = glass harp) — many which you can still hear being played in various places in Europe, e.g. at Mozart’s birthplace Salzburg in Austria.

Benjamin Franklin was even so impressed by a verrillon performance on a visit to London in 1757 that five years later he decided to create his own instrument, now known as the glass harmonica and perhaps one of the most dangerous instruments of all time:

Instruments in (or with) Nature

A few years ago a Lithophone11 known as “The Great Stalacpipe Organ” had its 60th anniversary.

Probably the largest musical instrument in the world and built right into Virginia’s Luray Caverns, this “cave organ” produces sound by tapping ancient stalactites with rubber mallets:

At the Treetop Walk Park in Kopfing (Austria), you can find giant megaphones built by a team of architecture students from the Estonian Academy of Arts.

Installed to enhance the sounds of nature, they represent a place of peace, healing and contemplation:

© Photo by Anne Rongas

And if you wanted to use nature as your musical instrument, why not take the opportunity of listening to the music plants make right in your home?

There are plenty of technical gadgets available now which help you to do just that. By measuring the electrical resistance of vegetable tissues and transducing it into a MIDI (Musical Instruments Digital Interface) signal, the MIDI signal then controls a synthesizer that produces the actual sound. For instance:

whereas the last provider also offers a professional version called “U1 PRO” enabling you to manage the musical parameters customizing the instrument of your choice, musical scale, base note, frequency, spatiality, chorus and reverberation. Simone explains it really well here:

To end on a lighter note or if you find this too technical or theoretical, you may want to have a look at the Vegetable Orchestra in Vienna instead.

For the past 18 years, the musicians of this orchestra have been purchasing local vegetables from the market, turning that produce into instruments and performing them in front of a live audience.

The vegetable scraps of course aren’t wasted. They’re made into soup, which is served to the audience at the end of each performance.

A very different version of Vienna’s normal New Year's Concert.




The Internet Archives: Interview of Leon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen)

Interview Theremin
1.29MB ∙ PDF file

A student of Leon Theremin, Clara Rockmore is widely regarded as the greatest theremin player to have ever lived. In a rare video recording you can see and hear her perform "The Swan" by Saint-Saëns, with accompaniment on piano by her sister Nadia Reisenberg.


The Internet Archives: The Waterphone Story.


Wikipedia: Waterphone.


Wikipedia: Lithophone.

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