Harmonica surgery

I like to imagine that I have received a fairly broad exposure to music over the years.  I enjoy live music on a regular basis and listen to 6Music and even to Radio 3.  Despite this background, I constantly find myself exposed to new forms of music, new composers and even whole new instruments.  Music is truly (one of) the most generous of gift-givers.

As is my wont, I shall illustrate with a couple of examples from the last week – with the implicit promise that one of these will explain (or at least justify) the title.

We shall start, as discussions of music often do, with Bach (JS, for the avoidance of doubt).  I do enjoy the work of Herr Bach, but I’ve come to realise that I expose myself to new examples at a very cautious pace.  I started with the big choral works and have gradually moved on to the Cello Suites and Brandenburg concertos.   Last Thursday, the Britten Sinfonia and Jeremy Denk provided quite the Bach buffet with works both unadorned and arranged by Stravinsky and Webern.  All were fun, but the revelations were the two (as left by JSB) keyboard concertos (in A and E, but without the traditional four hour wait).  They may have been up-cycled from woodwind concertos (how have we allowed ourselves to lose the oboe d’amore from everyday life?  If not wanted in the concert hall, surely Ann Summers could find a use for it?) but in Jeremy’s hands were things of beauty.  Herr B (this constant changing of my reference to my subject is a bad habit – it weakens the ‘arc of coherence’ – and is called either monologophobia or synonymomania.  Notwithstanding S A Pinker’s excellent advice, it seems too intrinsic to my idiolect to easily discard, but I may try and slowly phase it out) has quite the extensive canon of work and given my historic rate of progress through it, I rather fear I may have to pass this project on to my (as yet purely virtual) descendants.

My second example will come from a rather different style of music supplied by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin on Tuesday night at the Art House cafe.  They brought quite the array of string instruments with them: including both a banjo and fiddle boasting five strings (one more than I was expecting, though apparently a banjo can go as high as six).  However, the newer instrument was the Dobro – which I believe to be a special case of the resonator guitar (in wood with a single cone and biscuit bridge: I feel peckish just typing that description).  This instrument looks like a cyborg-guitar, or perhaps a steam-punk’d one, and is played with picks and a slide. The picks can also be replaced with a (roughly) U-shaped device with a blue-light on one end which generates an effect not wholly unlike a theremin when brought close (or perhaps into contact with) the strings.  To make an entertaining evening of folk-inflected music, the many strings were augmented by some foot-stomping and liberal use of the harmonica.  Phillip came to the gig with at least ten harmonicas (probably more), which strongly suggests that not all harmonicas are created equal: presumably they have different tunings?!  I would also guess it is an instrument one would prefer not to share.  One of the harmonicas he admitted to surgically altering – by use of a soldering iron – to better replicate the sound of a squeeze-box.  I’d say this attempt was pretty successful and creates a much more portable option than the instrument it is impersonating.  Not only were the harmonicas played individually, but at times two seemed to be ‘in-play’ at once and their use was also combined with beat-boxing.  It would seem the humble harmonica provides a much broader range of musical options than I had imagined.  The only downside arises when travelling as under X-ray they are readily mistaken for items very firmly prohibited from an airplane: however, if you enjoy a full body cavity search feel free to travel with the old French harp (which is surely a calculated insult aimed firmly at our friends across La Manche).

Somewhere, I do have a mini-harmonica which I was given by Helen Arney for some historic piece of audience participation.  Perhaps it is time to take it more seriously as a concert instrument – or perhaps it would be better to remain on amicable terms with my neighbours.  On balance, I feel that discretion is the better part of valour and shall save my assault on the intricacies of the harmonica for when next I am stranded (alone) on a desert island.

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

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