Soundweaving – Singing Metal Discs
Epiphany 16

The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines music as, “That one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with a view to beauty of form and the expression of thought or feeling”. Music at its most basic is a form of communication that does not involve speaking or sight. At its most complex, music is an audible definition of heaven…or perhaps hell.

A famous example of the dilemma in defining music is John Cage’s composition titled quite simply 4’33”. The written score has three movements and directs the performer(s) to appear on stage, indicate by gesture or other means when the piece begins, then make no sound and only mark sections and the end by gesture. This has form and other important attributes of music, but no sound other than whatever ambient sounds may be heard in the room. Some argue this is not music because, for example, it contains no sounds that are conventionally considered “musical” and the composer and performer(s) exert no control over the organization of the sounds heard. Others argue it is music because the conventional definitions of musical sounds are unnecessarily and arbitrarily limited, and control over the organization of the sounds is achieved by the composer and performer(s) through their division of what is heard into specific sections.

Famed composer Beethoven once wrote of the coming age of mechanical inventions and industry: “Let us thank God for the promised steam cannons and for the already realized steam navigation.” To celebrate the inventions of trumpeter Johann Maelzel, he composed the piece “Wellington’s Victory”. It was not written for a symphony orchestra, however, but for Maelzel’s Panharmonicon. The Panharmonicon was Maelzel’s epiphany for a music box which used military band instruments with a powerful bellows, all inside in a case. The premier performance was at an 1813 charity concert program, along with marches played by Maelzel’s mechanical trumpeter.

The real bright idea for using mechanics to illustrate creation or parts of it goes back to the early Greeks who were obsessed with and created the concept of automata, automated or mechanized objects. Archytas of Tarentum is said to have carved a wooden pigeon in 400 BCE that was suspended from the end of a pivot. The pivot would rotate by steam or water which caused the pigeon to seem to fly. During the fifteenth century a town straddling the border between Belgium and France had only a carillon for musical enjoyment. The carillon player developed a wood cylinder with pins that would control the hammers which then struck the bells to make the music. Previously, the carillon player would have done this. The pin spacing determined which bells were struck which meant changing the cylinders or repositioning the pins for each new or different composition.
Snuff boxes, little pocket containers for holding the snuff or other objects had long been in use and it was not long before the carillon became smaller and used for personal enjoyment. As mechanical means always became reduced, the “comb mechanism” epiphany enabled music to be added to something as small as a snuff box. The comb was and is a strip of metal with individual strips or teeth tuned to a precise range of notes. The pins on the cylinder would strike or “pluck” the comb edge to sound individual notes to make a song. This pinned organ led to the bright ideas of the barrel organ, the player piano, and yes, the lovely music box.

It was not until 1796 that a Swiss watchmaker was able to fully develop a pleasing music box, however. During the sixteenth century an emperor had been entertained by a mechanical lute and the ancient Greek automated figures had joined with the musical concept to produce soldiers that would walk around and beat drums and “play” horns. When Beethoven made his statement quoted above, the world’s greatest music box was a large, elaborate French mantle clock that played five songs of Mozart and Haydn.

In 1796, Anton Favre replaced the internal bells of the pre-existing music box with metal strips which were pre-tuned. This provided a more accurate sound. By adding a clock-like spring driven mechanism the music box could be turned on and off. Removable cylinders would later provide variety of songs and within thirty years sectional combs replaced the one-piece comb. Suddenly music boxes had the potential for two hundred to over three hundred teeth and the note variety was almost three times the standard piano keyboard of eighty-eight keys. By the mid nineteenth century a key winding mechanism provided for never-ending play.

Thomas Edison’s bright idea of a recording talking machine, the gramophone, and the failed economies resulting from World War I all had effects on the singing musical disc known as the music box. However, their popularity has never really died and today they can be found in almost every town, both as objects of art and tourist souvenirs.

Perhaps the greatest epiphany we should take from the box that can produce the sounds of heaven and seem to be magical is this: There are neither limits on the imagination or potential of mankind. As Lincoln Steffens wrote in his 1932 book “This World Depression of Ours is Chock Full of Good News”: “That what is true of business and politics is gloriously true of the professions. The arts and crafts, the sciences, the sports. That the best picture has not yet been painted; the greatest poem is still unsung’ the mightiest novel remains to be written; the divinest music has not yet been conceived even by Bach. In science, probably ninety-nine percent of the knowable has yet to be discovered. We know only a few streaks about astronomy. We are only beginning to imagine the force and composition of the atom. Physics has not yet found any indivisible matter, or psychology a sensible soul.”

Last week at the Vienna Design Week hosted by MOME Laboratory, Hungarian design student Zsanett Szirmay took paper punch card patterns used to create embroidery designs on fabric as the pattern for laser-cut punch cards fed into a special music box. With composer Balint Tarkany-Kovacs who assisted with the development and mapping of each track, their “soundweaving” brought the music box into the twenty-first century combining science and ancient arts with aesthetic beauty.

Our only limitation is what we ourselves create and, speaking as an artist and creator, limits are the silliest of creations. Let us respect the music that another hears without trying to drown it out with our own. Let us create respect, compassion, and beauty with our own daily bright ideas. John Cage was the creator of something he called “indeterminacy music” or music that could be played in a number of different ways. With all due respect and having been a professional musician for several decades, I would remind Mr. Cage that, quite actually, all music could be played in any number of different ways. I do understand, though, his point and intent. The music box epiphany was another way to experience music. John Cage defined music as “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living”. What a glorious epiphany of thought!


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