Hello everyone and welcome to yet another installment of “Inside and Out”. To those wondering if the pain will never end, fear not! This is a post rather different from the previous three, for it is not on a melodeon, nor even an accordion, but a Shruti box. It is also a short post, because it is late and I have to go to bed, and because the Shruti box is a simple instrument.
The Shruti box is related most closely to a harmonium – it is in effect a harmonium without the keyboard. Instead, it is operated through keyhole shutters, meaning that the player can hold notes without holding down a button. This makes it a natural instrument for droning and as such is very popular to sing to. Regular readers will recall from a previous post that a harmonium has bellows operated into the body. Remember?
Back in May, I was playing at Shepley Spring Festival with Marianne Neary and Friends (I was a friend. I was also playing solo, which was great fun). Her Shruti box had a slight problem (the set of one of the reeds had gone) and asked me to fix it, as resident tinkerer. I got out my ice-cream box full of tools (never underestimate the randomness of a fettler’s tool collection, the most useful components of which consist of randomly shaped bits of brass), but took some pictures as I went.
So, proceeding as normal, let us look at the outside. The outside of a Shruti box is… a box. Rather like a small wooden briefcase. On one side are the keyholes with their covers, on the other side is the hand bellows.
The Shruti box has two sets of bellows, one on each side, secured by catches. The idea is very similar to an organ’s reservoir – it is a pressure regulator. The weight of the reed pan pulls the nearer side of the box down, allowing air to excite the reeds. In order to top up the air, the bellows on the other side are pressed. If the airflow into the bellows is greater than the airflow out, then the bellows on the pan side move up, increasing the volume and therefore keeping the pressure constant. It is a beautifully simple device, and with a bit of care it is possible to create a constant drone.
Inside, it is again, very simple. There is one large leather valve on the hand bellows (left), to prevent air escaping from the chamber. On the other side there is the pan, nothing more. The reeds are brass, flat mounted and of long scale. They are mounted on individual plates with double rivets – obviously with this bellows setup, there is no need for them to work on the pull, only on the push. These plates are screwed and glued in to the pan. The chambers are rectangular and flat, with no tapering that I could find. The accuracy of the cut of the reeds was not great and one of the reeds was catching on the slot. This I fixed, but I’m worried that it won’t last, because the double rivet doesn’t allow the reed to rotate.
So all in all, one of the simplest instruments in the free reed family. But the sound… the sound is like caramel. Rich and expressive and beautiful. I love the sound of this box. This must be due to the brass reeds and the long scale – brass because the motion of the reed could be conceivably different, at the very least because the reed would have a different density, and long scale because it will respond quicker and will have a cleaner sound – no cumbersome weight on the end. Listen for yourself. Below is a clip of Marianne Neary singing, accompanied by Rebecca Burrell on flute and vocals and Patrick Beldon on Shruti Box. I’m filming – I don’t play in this one. Enjoy.
As always, more pictures for those interested are available here. I’m off to Chagstock in Devon to play with Marianne tomorrow morning. I’ll be back next week, where I should have enough time for one more post before going on my yearly festival jaunt.