People Behind the Music

The once and future armonica

By Steve Meixell

Is the glass armonica half-empty or half-full? For two centuries, music history wavered on the question. The instrument rose, fell, virtually disappeared, then recently found rebirth with its beautiful tone.

This up-down-up would come as a shock to Benjamin Franklin, who invented the glass armonica in 1761. When he died in 1790, his beloved musical instrument had gained substantial popularity in small chamber settings, private homes and on tours. Several pieces were composed specifically for it by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Salieri. Many felt it would eclipse the harpsichord or fortepiano in use. But it had a quiet ethereal sound, unable to project in the larger performance halls soon to come. Then a bizarre PR problem also emerged: it was rumored that playing the glass armonica drove people mad and caused mysterious maladies, cramps, or breakdowns. While the amplification problem definitely limited its success, the mental health gossip was enough to halt the instrument’s rise completely.

Up until then, everyone had agreed -- the glass armonica sounded angelic, radiant, rapturous like a heavenly choir. It was reported in several newspapers when Ben Franklin shipped his new invention home from his diplomatic post in London (where he had created the instrument), he set it up in his Philadelphia attic while his wife Deborah was taking an afternoon nap downstairs. As he began to play, she awoke and, momentarily, actually thought she had died in her sleep because of the new celestial sounds around her.

Benjamin Franklin & his glass armonica.
Benjamin Franklin & his glass armonica.

Franklin was a master at taking random forces in nature (electrical lightning, ocean currents, waves of light, even water-filled glasses emitting sounds when rubbed a certain way), and then harnessing those forces, using pragmatic designs to control and enhance the energy involved. "Glass playing" had become a popular, yet imprecise and cumbersome entertainment. Filling numerous containers with exact levels of water to create various musical notes was tedious and had to be meticulously repeated/retuned for each set-up. So Franklin streamlined the process while expanding its possibilities.

He formed interlocking glasses graded by size (blown precisely to create exact musical pitches when rubbed, eliminating the need for any water inside), arranged them concentrically on a horizontal rod that was spun by a foot pedal, then added a damper to control the durations and placed the unit within an instrument case. After wetting one’s fingertips, the spinning glass surfaces could be delicately touched at varying angles. The resulting vibrations made gorgeous bell-like harmonies. Instead of playing only one or two glasses at a time, the musician could execute chords, using up to ten notes at once. The player sat at a keyboard-like structure: gone was leaning over a messy tableful of liquid-filled glass containers.

People loved the new sound -- it became all the rage throughout England, France, and Germany. Ben Franklin originally called his invention the "glassy-chord," but then decided to go with a variation of the Italian word for harmony, armonia, as the name instead.

From 1761 until the early nineteenth century, the glass armonica enjoyed a heyday. It was featured in cultured homes, often used as after-dinner entertainment at gatherings. Mozart wrote a second piece for it, Adagio for Solo Armonica. Marie Antoinette took lessons. George Washington saw it performed in 1765 at Bruton Parish Church in colonial Williamsburg. Listeners everywhere felt inspired and comforted by its divine reverie.

Then those rumors began. Some players reported dizziness, a kind of mental instability, and perhaps tinnitus. (Researchers since have discovered the glass vibrating notes on the armonica register between 1000 and 4000 hertz, in a range where the human ear can’t decipher the source of a sound, which might account for some disorientation.) But the real health culprit was probably the lead content of 18th century crystal -- up to a staggering 40% -- which caused some poisoning to occur.

The most famous glass armonica virtuosa, a blind young woman named Marianne Kirchgessner, toured for ten years throughout Europe to cheering audiences, including the Duchess of York, Goethe, and the King of Denmark. Then tragically she had nervous problems after being assaulted by Napoleon’s soldiers during a house invasion, and eventually succumbed at age thirty-nine, probably from pneumonia after a nasty winter tour. Word spread, however, that she had died from years of playing the world’s most beautiful and "dangerous" instrument. German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz publically warned of the glass armonica: "If you are suffering from any kind of nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it." Things turned even darker when, during a concert program, a mother holding a baby discovered her infant had died during the performance.

The instrument’s downward spiral was accelerated when Dr. Franz Mesmer, a renowned German physician, began using the glass armonica as eerie mood music in researching animal magnetism, hypnosis, and while trying to contact the dead in séances. (We can thank him for the term to "mesmerize.") He moved the glass armonica’s reputation from "inspirational, heavenly, divine" to "spooky and morbid" because of how he applied and twisted its sound.

Despite all this, the major cause of its downfall was mechanical. It simply lacked volume. In the Classical and Romance eras of the 1800s, symphonies and concert halls swelled in size, overwhelming the quiet vibrations of the glass armonica. It was drowned out. Piano became king.

The instrument not only fell out of favor, it literally became a museum piece. Within a century, no one even recalled how to play it anymore.

The 20th century, however, brought new circumstances. Audio recording and microphone amplification entered the scene. Scientific and medical research proved health wasn’t threatened by non-leaded glass. At universities, musicology became a popular field, replete with bringing back "antique" or original instruments for authenticity. And the advent of film and television had composers suddenly scrambling for new musical effects to fill screens everywhere. All these factors spelled resurrection for the glass armonica as a mood tone.

It began with a trickle. In 1919, Richard Strauss included the armonica in his Die Frau ohne Schatten. (Gradually, other operas made use of the instrument’s easy conveyance of high drama: danger, spirits from beyond, heavenly guidance or foreboding.) From 1929 through mid-century, Bruno Hoffman reintroduced water-filled wineglasses as "glass harps." He performed regularly on radio, phonographs, and television. People again fell in love with the sound.

Then a young German glassblower named Gerhard Finkenbeiner saw an old glass armonica in a museum. Transfixed, he vowed to build one himself someday. First he had to survive the Nazi regime. After the war, he migrated to France where he blew glass for infrared detectors. Eventually he immigrated to Massachusetts to specialize in scientific and industrial glass design for clients like IBM, MIT, and Raytheon. A music lover, in his spare time he made glass bells, chimes, carillons. At work, when he trimmed the ends of the quartz vacuum tubes on various jobs, he saved them because they reminded him of the glass armonica cups he had seen in that museum display from his youth. At home, he began to experiment, learning how to shave and tune the cups so they produced precise pitches. Soon he was compiling his own version of Ben Franklin’s invention, modernized for the Twentieth Century. He added an electric motor to turn the spindle and chose fused quartz instead of crystal. Slowly, as the music industry rediscovered the glass armonica, it forged a path to Gerhard Finkenbeiner’s door in Waltham, Massachusetts. He began custom-building eight to ten of the instruments per year.

Soon William Zeitler was playing armonica on the west coast. Dennis James led the charge from Corning, New York and then commenced the first glass music studies program at Rutgers University. Dean Shostak performed colonial, celtic, and classical works on glass armonica in Virginia. Tom Waits featured Richard Gibbs’ armonica on Swordfishtrombones, named by Spin magazine as the 2nd greatest album of all time.

Which brings us to composer Eric Harry in Toronto, Ontario. As a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston during the late 1970s, Harry was a jazz pianist by training. He was also a lover of musical innovation, audio technology, and new sound-sourcing. Among his search for variations, he experimented with glass instruments, and became skilled playing water-filled glasses.

After graduation, he wanted to break into film scoring, and was asked to write a demo score for an IMAX film on humpback whales. "Water seemed like a good theme for whale music, and I already knew how to make water sing," Eric Harry said recently. "I built an elaborate stand with twelve rotating tables for glass instruments so I could overlay and play notes much more rapidly. The IMAX project didn’t work out, but I had this great demo tape now. I sent it to several Los Angeles composers, including Jack Nitzsche." (An arranger with Phil Spector in the Sixties, Nitzsche had worked with the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, and became an Academy Award-nominated film scorer for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Exorcist.) Nitzsche responded quickly with a 2 page handwritten letter to Harry.

"I have been looking for over ten years for someone to do exactly what you do," Nitzsche wrote. "I haven't been able to find an instrument let alone someone who plays one. Because of this, I have been very limited in trying to write any music other than very simple and slow moving… this opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Since Cuckoo's Nest, I have also used glasses in The Exorcist and Cruising, but once again in a very limited way...one glass at a time...with a click track...and I am the only one to play them."

"I have always loved glass music and had almost given up on using it on any future projects...and here comes your tape. At my very next opportunity to use glass music, I will call on you and hope to sometime do a score using the glasses as a lead instrument rather than for color or simply because they sound unique."

Nitzsche was true to his word. The first film project turned out to be Cutter’s Way, starring Jeff Bridges. Nitzsche asked Eric Harry to flex his glass muscles and add strength to the score. (The composer also used a zither, a saw, and added Eric Harry on flamenco guitar too.) Though the film credits and some internet chatter list Eric as playing the "glass harmonica," he actually was still playing his inventive twelve rotating tables of water-filled glasses. After the sessions, he wanted to delve further into the sound.

Eric Harry setting up for the Cutter's Way session
Eric Harry setting up for the Cutter's Way session

Back home in Toronto, Eric was flipping through television channels one evening when he saw a segment on Ripley’s Believe It or Not featuring Ben Franklin’s old glass armonica and a guy in Massachusetts named Finkenbeiner who was building them again. Eric phoned him the next day and introduced himself.

"Oh, I know you," Finkenbeiner said. "You’re the guy playing on those great movies."

Eric purchased his first small armonica from Finkenbeiner and quickly taught himself the nuances. Soon he was hired by composer Ry Cooder to help score the Jack Nicholson film The Border in Los Angeles, working with Sam Samudio (Sam the Sham) on organ, John Hiatt on guitar, Flaco Jimenez on accordion, and Jim Keltner on drums.

The scale was about to expand. While creating his own successful commercial music company in Canada, Eric was commissioned to write a ballet score for the Toronto Dance Theatre emphasizing glass instruments. He stayed in touch with Finkenbeiner, invited him for a visit, and learned more about the intricacies of Ben Franklin’s invention.

The next step? Eric Harry decided to build the world’s largest armonica on his own, consisting of sixty-six bowls, increasing its range from C2 up to F7. "I worked with Toronto glassblower Len Chodirker over five years," Eric said. "Now I’m perfecting the final mechanics. You need a silent DC motor with variable speeds and a pedal controlling it. The speed of rotation is critical. Quite slow on the low bowls, and faster the higher you go up the instrument. To tune the bowls, you can grind the rims to raise the pitch, or grind the stem to lower the pitch. It’s difficult -- lots of shattered bowls to get it right. Anyway, quartz produces the most pure sound. In my opinion, however, it lacks the musical overtones of silica. Silica glass was the material Benjamin Franklin used. All told, this new armonica is seven feet long and brings a whole new tone and octave range."

Amid all this, Eric Harry was busy on other fronts too. He composed, performed, and recorded 8 CDs of his own piano pieces, inspired by Lizst, Debussy, and Chopin (especially Leopold Godowsky’s arrangements of Chopin’s études). To make his compositions available to a wider audience, Eric launched his first iTunes stream, which he gradually built into Calm Radio as he added other artists and channels to his offering. Now rivaling Pandora and Spotify, Calm Radio took off internationally, with nearly 400 instrumental, folk, jazz, classical, ambient, and nature channels geared to enhancing the listener’s workplace, focus, meditation, sleep, and overall mindfulness.

"Pretty soon Calm Radio evolved into a venue to help people de-stress and find a more healthy and positive atmosphere through music," he explained.

So what does Ben Franklin’s musical invention in 1761, its eventual downfall and slow rebirth, Eric Harry’s mastery of glass instruments at Berklee, Finkenbeiner’s remanufacturing of the armonica in the 1980s, Eric’s decision to build the largest armonica in the world, and the growth of Calm Radio all have in common? Something full circle.

Asked if he plans to get back into the profitable world of film scoring with his state-of-the-art armonica, Eric answered:

"No, but I definitely want to compose more with the instrument. Not commercially. Experimentally. In a new classical, peaceful way -- much like I’m playing viola da gamba now, from a real passion for the sound. It’s the same when I wrote all the piano solos. Composing next for the glass armonica and streaming it on Calm Radio will be ideal for the listener -- it’s relaxing, transcendent music. It’s exactly why Ben Franklin invented the instrument and loved it so much in the first place. I’ll probably even put a version of armonica on our sleep channels too. Because I want people to wake up in the morning hearing it and, just like Franklin’s wife Deborah, think they’re in heaven. Proverbially speaking of course."

Eric Harry seems dedicated and content at the same time. "Someone wondered recently if I’d experienced any side effects from the glass armonica and I said yes, it’s been utterly soothing, organic, and pure like a sine wave, very therapeutic really. And that’s how I want my music and life to be."

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© 2018 Steve Meixell

Glass Armonica an Amazing Musical Instrument https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdtLK9pAh5k

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