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Mechanical singing bird, created circa 1890 and by Blaise Bontemps in Paris.

Recently restored by the House of Automata in Scotland.

December 11, 2012, 3:48pm

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Maximilian Plessner: “Antiphone” (1884)


November 13, 2012, 1:55pm

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Friedrich Kaufmann’s Trumpeter-Automaton (1810)


"A visible hand crank controlled two spiral springs, covered by the decorative shirt, powering two bellows and the spiral, wooden cylinder containing two sets of pegs. Four levers and two toothed segments transferred the motion of one of the sets of pegs to two rotating brass trumpets containing six pulsating reeds. The turning of the cylinder resulted in the movement of both sets of pegs, which determined the rhythm of the piece performed. The cylinders also controlled the movement of air from the bellows through the reeds. In 1812 Carl Maria von Weber traveled to the Kaufmanns’ workshop and was pleasantly surprised by the automaton, claiming that it possessed a ‘beautiful tone’…" (Myles W. Jackson, Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians, and Instrument Makers in Nineteenth-Century Germany)

May 13, 2012, 8:47pm

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19th-century chant notation from Tibet


"The MS belongs to the ‘Yang’ tradition, the most highly involved and regarded chant tradition in Tibetan music, and the only one to rely on a system of notation (Yang-Yig). The chant consists of smoothly effected rises and falls in intonation, which are represented by complex curved lines. The notation also frequently contains detailed instructions concerning in what spirit the music should be sung (e.g. flowing like a river, light like bird song) and the smallest modifications to be made to the voice in the utterance of a vowel. On the whole, Yang chants are sung at an extremely low pitch and at a lingering and subtly changing pace, allowing full expression of the chanted text. Such texts as these would have been used as a mnemonic device by the Master of Chant in a monastery in leading the monastery in the performance of a chant. This type of graphic notation of the melody line goes back to the 6th century. It records neither the rhythmic pattern nor duration of the notes."

Source: The Schøyen Collection

October 09, 2011, 8:10pm

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Hector Berlioz: “Lacrimosa” (excerpt)

From the album Grande messe des morts, op. 5 (1836)

More than any other composer of the 19th century, Hector Berlioz sought to free music from the suffocating conventions of stylistic propriety, whether they took the form of rationalistic reduction or appeals to expressive immediacy. Berlioz championed sensuousness and imagination against “good taste” and conventional technique. In his great Treatise on Orchestration, first published in 1844, he declared that

"Tout corps sonore mis en oeuvre par le compositeur est un instrument de musique. (Any sounding object employed by a composer is a musical instrument.)"

Elsewhere in the this text Berlioz spoke suggestively of using the “diverse sonorous elements” of the orchestra to “produce impressions sui generis, with or without an expressive purpose, and entirely independent of the three other musical forces” of melody, harmony, and rhythm. His intrepid musical imagination reached far beyond his time to inspire the later ideas of Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie, Varese’s “liberation of sound,” and beyond.

And indeed, in 1917, the first work Varese conducted after his arrival in the United States was none other than Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts, better known as his Requiem. This composition is an excellent example of Berlioz’s orchestral mastery—perhaps even a better one than his most famous work, the Symphonie Fantastique of 1830. The Requiem features such remarkable movements as the Domine Jesu Christe, in which the chorus is limited to a single, three-note motive, and the entire drama of the music is borne by the incredibly subtle unfolding of the orchestral fabric around this austere motivic cell.

The “Lacrimosa,” on the other hand, represents what we could call “heavy metal Berlioz.” This is the kind of movement that made him reviled as a composer of sheer volume and sensational effects. (The caricature below is an expression of this popular anti-Berlioz sentiment, which survives even today in certain quarters.) The first section is dominated by a single orchestral “riff” composed of four independent but interlocking parts: a quick upward movement on the low strings, followed by a three-note syncopated figure in the woodwinds, then punctuated by two chords in the high strings and the brass. In defiance of the conventional uses and associations of the different instrumental groups, Berlioz commands the parts of the orchestra as “machines bearing intelligence but subordinate to the action of an immense keyboard played by the conductor following the directions of the composer.”

A German caricature of Berlioz from 1846

Played 225 time(s).

March 11, 2011, 12:11pm

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Grandville: “A steam concert,” from Un autre monde (1844)


December 10, 2010, 12:34pm

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The Jankó keyboard


Invented by the Hungarian pianist Paul von Jankó in 1882, the Jankó keyboard was intended to rationalize keyboard playing by making all transpositions of a given scale follow the same spatial pattern. (It is thus comparable to the Dvorak keyboard for typing, introduced 50 years later.) Jankó’s invention never caught on, though the idea lives on in modern forms such as the Chromatone.

This image is the frontispiece to Jankó’s 1886 treatise Eine neue Klaviatur (“A New Keyboard”), which can be downloaded from Virtual Laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

October 05, 2010, 11:07am

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"The mouth organ"


J. K. Huysmans, A rebours (Against the Grain), 1884

For Francis Schwartz

He made his way to the dining-room, where there was a cupboard built into one of the walls containing a row of little barrels, resting side-by-side on tiny sandalwood stands and each broached at the bottom with a silver spigot.

This collection of liqueur casks he called his mouth organ.

A rod could be connected to all the spigots, enabling them to be turned by one and the same movement, so that once the apparatus was in position it was only necessary to press a button concealed in the wainscoting to open all the conduits simultaneously and so fill with liqueur the minute cups underneath the taps.

The organ was then open.  The stops labelled ‘flute’, ‘horn’, and ‘vox angelica’ were pulled out, ready for use.  Des Esseintes would drink a drop here, another there, playing intense symphonies to himself, and providing his palate with sensations analogous to those which music dispenses to the ear.

Indeed, each and every liqueur, in his opinion, corresponded in taste with the sound of a particular instrument.  Dry curaçao, for instance, was like the clarinet with its piercing, velvety note; kümmel like the oboe with its sonorous, nasal timbre; crème de menthe and anisette like the flute, at once sweet and tart, soft and shrill.  Then to complete the orchestra there was kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky raising the roof of the mouth with the blare of their cornets and trombones; marc-brandy matching the tubas with its deafening din; while peals of thunder came from the cymbal and the bass drum, which arak and mastic were banging and beating with all their might.

He considered that this analogy could be pushed still further and that string quartets might play under the palatial arch, with the violin represented by an old brandy, choice and heady, biting and delicate; with the viola simulated by rum, which was stronger, heavier, and quieter; with vespetro as poignant, drawn-out, sad and tender as a violoncello; and with the double-bass a fine old bitter, full-bodied, solid, and dark.  One might even form a quintet, if this were thought desirable, by adding a fifth instrument, the harp, imitated to near perfection by the vibrant savour, the clear, sharp, silvery note of dry cumin.

The similarity did not end there, for the music of liqueuers had its own scheme of interrelated tones; thus, to quote only one example, Benedictine represents, so to speak, the minor key corresponding to the major key of those alcohols which wine-merchants’ scores indicate by the name of green Chartreuse.

Once these principles had been established, and thanks to a series of erudite experiments, he had been able to perform upon his tongue silent melodies and mute funeral marches; to hear inside his mouth crème de menthe solosand rum-and-vespetro duets.

He even succeeded in transferring specific pieces of music to his palate, following the composer step by step, rendering his intentions, his effects, his shades of expression, by mixing or contrasting related liqueurs, by subtle approximations and cunning combinations.

At other times he would compose melodies of his own, executing pastorals with the sweet blackcurrant liqueur that filled his throat with the warbling song of a nightingale; or with the delicious cacaochouva that hummed sugary bergerets like the Romances of Estelle and the 'Ah! vous-dirai-je, maman' of olden days.

But tonight Des Esseintes had no wish to listen to the taste of music; he confined himself to removing one note from the keyboard of his organ, carrying off a tiny cup which he had filled with genuine Irish whisky.

March 10, 2010, 9:54am

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