Load of old Rubbish

Hello hypothetical readers, how are you? I missed last weekend’s update due to walking induced distraction. I was hiking parts of the Lake District and Peak District as a break from revision, which was welcome. The below shows where I was.

Other news from my life includes my new favourite ceilidh band lineup – me on melodeon with electric guitar, bass, drum kit and professional jazz saxophonist. Yesterday I played a short ceilidh with Tim Whitehead, Mike Outram, Matt Ridley and Milo Fell (plus a whistle player called Bob for the first few sets) for the 50th Birthday gig for Tony Woods. Tremendous fun. If there are any videos going I will post some snippets here.

Enough of that though, you are reading this not because you want to look at my holiday snaps, but because you are anxious to know my latest ponderings on life and its applicability to bisonoric, diatonic, button accordions.

My last post was on the limitations that instruments impose, arguing that it is these limitations which characterise instruments. As a related followup I thought that I would post about a fantastic programme screened last December, Scrapheap Orchestra on the BBC.

The premise of the programme was simple. A load of musical instrument makers take a trip to a scrapyard and attempt to build an entire orchestra out of nothing but discarded material, culminating in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. A simple task? Not really.

Every maker had huge difficulties in replicating the sound of the instruments of the professionals (worth many thousands of pounds). Most notable perhaps was the violin maker, Robert Cain (who teaches a friend of mine at Newark School of Violin Making). The violin is a very complex instrument acoustically and the sound is bound up in how the instrument is made. To recreate the sound without the traditional construction is exceptionally difficult, yet that is what the maker tried to do. He reasoned that there was no point building out of reclaimed wood, as he could already build a violin out of wood, and for this I salute him. And I believe that he created some individual and not-unattractive instruments (left). Shame about the sound really.

As I mentioned last time, many of the challenges facing musical instrument designers come from the musicians. This project was no exception. Many of the musicians were rather unenthusiastic about the whole project and one wonders what was done to induce them to take part. Many of the musicians however were open to trying out the attempts, which was good to see.

A few weeks ago I attended a talk by Daniel Bangham in my department (perks of being at Cambridge, there had to be some somewhere). He made the oboes and bassoons for the project and gave an enlightening talk about the challenges that he faced, especially since he is a clarinet maker and didn’t even own a bassoon reamer. I got to hold his instruments (I didn’t play them, because I don’t play double reeds. Yet.) and thought that they were wonderful. Not only did they sound impressive, but the keywork was fantastic, made out of old cutlery, windscreen wiper blades and the like. His approach to the project was that of an artisan trying to create instruments that would be acceptable to the musicians in as many respects as possible and by and large, he succeeded.

To me though, the most interesting participant in the project was the percussion maker, Paul Jefferies. He was in the enviable position of also being one of the musicians for the performance. This gave him more freedom to experiment and this was most clearly seen on his cymbals. He soon found that he wouldn’t be able to get the right sound from bits of metal that he found on the scrapyard and so decided to really analyse the sound from a cymbal and break it down into its constituent parts. He decided that the sound was made up of the “crash”, the “sizzle” and the “bell” and rather than trying to find scrap which gave all three sounds, decided to split it up. You’ll have to watch the video to find out his solution!

This programme then was an admirable illustration of why musical instruments are complex things and why musicians are complex people. And after it was finished I started to regret not going to Newark instead of Cambridge. I love musical instruments, I love innovation. And if you do too then you will love this programme.

The whole of the programme is on YouTube, courtesy of Musical Contexts and may be watched in full here. I leave you however with the full audio from the final concert. Enjoy.

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