Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tromba Marina

I had the good fortune to visit the Cité de la Musique in Paris quite recently and spent a criminally short period of time moving through its permanent collection of musical instruments in the Musée de la Musique.

A multilingual headphone and console setup allows you to dial into a multitude of recordings of the actual instruments on display as well as sync up with several interesting short video documentaries covering subjects ranging from the history of the contemporary orchestra, lutherie and brass instruments through to indigenous tribal music performances and the more modern Avant-garde incorporating all manner of electronic and computer-based music synthesis.

The collection includes many ornate early keyboard instruments,
 including this rather ingenious 'portable' harpsichord.
Amongst the variety of stringed instruments  once holding pride of place in the orchestra are various Viola da Gamba, this strange monstrosity (below, left) and the even stranger and very scary sounding Octobass (below, right)
At nearly 3 and a half meters in height it requires a certain degree of elevation for the player and further assistance from a series of levers and pedals to fret the instrument. Typically a second player is responsible for bowing.

Speaking of awkward stretches there was also a 'gymnasium for the hands' designed to stretch, strengthen and otherwise contort the hands of the most accomplished piano soloists as well, I assume, a horde of wannabees?
Further treats lay in the modern electronic music section of the collection which included a Theremin and Ondes Martenot.
Ondes keyboard (left) and Palme diffuseur or speaker (right) with sympathetic strings. Edgard Varèse's Ionisation gongs can be seen in the background.

Still very much recognizable as musical instruments, Ondiolines, early Moog synthesizers and EMS VC3 synthesizers eventually give way to the hardware of the consoles of Musique concrète and the synthesizers of music academia.

Pierre Henry console (left) and Gmebaphone (right)

In spite of all of the above and  a rather fascinating 'World Music' exhibition, the true highlight for me was the discovery of the Tromba Marina.

The Marine Trumpet (also known as the Nun's Trumpet - women were not allowed to play actual trumpets in the church in Germany in the 1600's) is essentially a bowed monochord. It is fretted by lightly touching the nodal points on the string to excite its natural harmonics. A specially constructed bridge that is allowed to move and vibrate freely against the instrument's soundboard produces a buzzing sound with each bow movement making a sound not dissimilar to a trumpet.

The instrument eventually fell out of favor in the 1800's. Small numbers still exist due to revivalists and enthusiasts and - thanks to the Musée de la Musique. And no, no Dulcitones in sight.