Sounds of a Glass Armonica

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Toronto Star
Published at : 03 Jan 2021
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Composer William Zeitler plays a glass armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. For more on this fascinating story read the full article here on the Toronto Star: http://on.thestar.com/2jmXp0E. Or read an excerpt of Joe Fiorito's article below:

Rare instrument makes an eerie Toronto debut: Fiorita

The mad scene, in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” will feature a rare glass armonica performance by William Zeitler.

The second thing you learn, when you learn to drink wine, is how much fun it is to run a wet finger along the rim of the glass in order to make an eerie musical sound.

The third thing you learn is that, if you run your wet finger around the rim of a glass half-full, it will produce a different sound than that of a glass that is full.

The first thing you learn? If you have to ask, you have never had a glass. Now, let the curtain rise on Lucia di Lammermoor.

I will, as usual, explain:

The Canadian Opera Company is mounting a production of Donizetti’s masterwork; during the performance, eerie music plays as Lucia goes mad.

That music was written for a rare and peculiar instrument; the dull call it a bowl organ; snobs call it a hydrocrystalophone; you and I will call it what its inventor, Ben Franklin, called it.

The glass armonica.

Franklin, who could not refrain from inventing things, was in England in 1761 when he saw a fellow playing glasses filled with water; intrigued, he had some glass bowls made, large and small; these he mounted on a spindle, and he used a treadle to make them spin. Then he wet his fingers, and Bob was his uncle.

Enter William Zeitler. He is from California, and has been brought here for the Lucia. We met the other day, at the Four Seasons Centre. He led me backstage to a rehearsal hall. We talked as we walked.

He said, “The music for the mad scene was composed for the armonica; it has an other-worldly sound, but that first player was a pain in the neck, according to the story, so it’s usually played on the flute.” And, of course, there are more flutes than armonicas in the world.

The rehearsal hall looks like a high school gym without the basketball nets. The armonica sat off to the side on its own table; squint, and it looks like bubbles; you want to hold your breath.

Zeitler, a trusting soul, left me alone for a moment, saying, “I’m going to find some dihydromonoxide.”

Water, to you.

He needed to wash his hands. His fingers must be oil-free when he plays. “You want your hands squeaky-clean. I use lava soap; four out of five armonica players agree.” That’s a joke. There are only five or six armonica players in the world.

He returned with a bowl of water and set it down. Water, fingertips; rosin, bow; same thing.

Zeitler’s first instrument was the piano, but as soon as he heard the armonica, he was hooked. He had one made 15 years ago in Waltham, Mass., by the late and legendary Gerhard Finkenbeiner.

Zeitler’s instrument has 44 bowls, some of which are rimmed with gold to indicate the equivalent of what would be, on the piano, black keys.

The set of bowls is worth $36,000. He travels with them in a special nesting case; the rest of the instrument — spindle, brackets etc. — accompanies him as excess baggage.

He then turned on an electrical device which set the spindle spinning, wet his fingers and began to play the mad scene from the opera. The music is haunting; if I say it is mesmerizing, I’m not kidding.

Mesmer; look him up.

Zeitler has recorded 10 CDs, eight of which are his own music; the other two contain music written for the instrument by Mozart and others.

When he finished with the mad scene, I, cheekily, asked him to play “Stairway To Heaven.” He, cheekily, obliged.

Jimmy Page, but better.

“Lucia di Lammermoor?” That’s Italian for “I love Lucy.” No, it isn’t. But you should go and see the opera, if only to hear Mr. Zeitler rock his bowls.
Benjamin franklinglass armonicaWilliam Zeitler

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