Skip

The Sound Da Vinci Invented, but Never Heard
November 18, 2013 10:34 AM   Subscribe

Leonardo Da Vinci is well known as a man who invented many things on paper that never found their way into three-dimensional reality. Some would later prove to be unworkable in reality. Others would later prove to be potentially life-saving. But not all of Da Vinci's inventions were of a practical nature. Consider his plans for the viola organista, a keyboard instrument containing a system of revolving wheels, strings and other machinery to create a kind of cello that can be played with a keyboard. Never constructed in Da Vinci's lifetime, the inventor himself could only imagine what it would actually sound like. We no longer have to imagine that. posted by saulgoodman (43 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
WANT!
Wow, the sounds from that thing are amazing. A one person string ensemble. That is some epic awesome in my book.
posted by daq at 10:41 AM on November 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow. That is an impressive piece of instrumentation, and it does indeed sound marvelous. Wondering how long before someone builds more and starts using them for soundtracks? Why pay a roomful of cellists, when you can pay one pianist to play the same thing...?
posted by caution live frogs at 10:45 AM on November 18, 2013


Cello teachers hate him!
posted by thelonius at 10:49 AM on November 18, 2013 [11 favorites]


Have these really not been made before? Back when I was listening to a ton of Phil Niblock, I frequently thought this sort of thing would be awesome for a drone musician, but (a.) was way too lazy/unknowledgable to make one, and (b.) just assumed they'd already been invented/made several times over.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 10:50 AM on November 18, 2013


It seems like a keyboard-based hurdy-gurdy, more than cello.
posted by kenko at 10:50 AM on November 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Really lovely. I hope he (or someone) plans on making some recordings with this thing.

(Also, Viola Organista is my new drag name.)
posted by mykescipark at 10:50 AM on November 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Though the sound is more refined than that of the typical hurdy-gurdy.
posted by kenko at 10:51 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


How it is made.
posted by Brent Parker at 10:55 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


LEonardo invented the mellotron -- figures.
posted by philip-random at 10:57 AM on November 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


It's an interesting novelty and an amazing technical achievement, but as an instrument it leaves things to be desired. The big problem is the attack. It doesn't have one. So it can't really substitute for a real violin/viola/cello. There's also no vibrato, obviously.

Frankly, anything it can do can be done better by a string ensemble, and they'll sound better.

I can't see anyone wanting to duplicate it, except for the novelty value.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:57 AM on November 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Have these really not been made before?

The rule in talking about any Da Vinci doodle is to proclaim it as an entirely original conception that sprang fully formed form his head and which has no relationship to anything anyone ever thought of before. In fact, and, indeed, as usual, he's tinkering around with well-known contraptions. In this case the organistrum and the hurdy-gurdy, both of which combine wheels that bow the strings with keyboards.
posted by yoink at 10:59 AM on November 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


a box and a stick and a string and a bear: "Have these really not been made before? "

The Wheelharp. Previously on Metafilter.
posted by adamrice at 11:04 AM on November 18, 2013 [2 favorites]




Two of my favorite things: early modern inventions that have "never been made before" and early musical instruments. Also, I love the case for the instrument as shown in the video.
posted by immlass at 11:11 AM on November 18, 2013


I guess my only concern is that this might be viral advertising for a new Hudson Hawk film.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:19 AM on November 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Someone should do some high-grade samples of this instrument. It's not likely to be reproduced in great numbers. Sonically, it's interesting, but agree with others that it lacks the attack dynamics of a stringed instrument.
posted by Vibrissae at 11:26 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love the fact that someone built it, but it’s more interesting than great sounding and doesn’t seem to have a lot of emotional range.
posted by bongo_x at 11:32 AM on November 18, 2013


Babbage meet Stradivarius.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:37 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why pay a roomful of cellists, when you can pay one pianist to play the same thing...?

Why build one of these things when a $200 laptop can simulate an entire orchestra.
posted by empath at 11:43 AM on November 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Agreed the sound's a bit lacking expressively, but it's fascinating to think someone dreamed of making this once, and now all this time later, here it is. I imagine there are probably some fairly simple modifications that could be made to finesse the possible range of sound and increase its expressive potential. But I just watched A Band Called Death on the Netflix the other day, so maybe I'm feeling a little extra love for the whole visionary creator trip at the moment.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:47 AM on November 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Not that building this wasn't incredibly cool, as a fan of history, technology and music. I just think the things utility as a functional instrument is past)
posted by empath at 11:49 AM on November 18, 2013


Criticizing it for the things the violin family can do that it can't is like criticizing a hammered dulcimer for not being able to use a trumpet mute. It's a different instrument. It's not trying to be a replacement.
posted by Foosnark at 12:01 PM on November 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


The sound Leonardo never heard.
posted by signal at 12:02 PM on November 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I guess my only concern is that this might be viral advertising for a new Hudson Hawk film.

You misspelled "hope".
posted by middleclasstool at 12:16 PM on November 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Chocolate pickle, are you sure there's no vibrato?
The link from Brent Parker talks about vibrato (is that a different instrument maker) and the fellow in the video seemed to be "milking" the note at the end of a phrase with finger pressure, although I wasn't watching/listening closely for vibrato when I watched.
posted by spbmp at 12:35 PM on November 18, 2013


ps. I think it sounds incredible, and don't think it makes sense to think of it as replacement-string-quartet. It's quite different.
posted by spbmp at 12:36 PM on November 18, 2013


It sounds more in the string quartet range than does the Wheelharp, (previously) but I think the mechanism is the same (horsehair-wrapped wheels striking key-depressed strings). It's very cool.

ETA: Of course NOW I see that adamrice added both of those links first.
posted by gauche at 12:42 PM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sounds awesome to me, although I wasn't a huge fan of the specific song he was playing.
posted by wierdo at 2:01 PM on November 18, 2013


There's a difference between vibrato and tremolo. Vibrato is a variation in pitch. Tremolo is a variation in amplitude.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:42 PM on November 18, 2013


This is so strange and beautiful. My brain can't seem to wrap itself around the idea that it's just one instrument being played. It puts me in mind of the glass armonica, another "weird" instrument that strains my brain a little.
posted by Solomon at 3:03 PM on November 18, 2013


Positively the worst Viola Organista player I have ever heard.
posted by Napierzaza at 3:10 PM on November 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


That's a gorgeous instrument. There's something fantastical about it - I could imagine a magical trickster character making their appearance while playing it.

It looks like you could develop it a little further with a couple of peddles to control vibrato and the sustain, and the attack is probably improvable with a more complex mechanism, but it sounds fascinating as is. The piano is the most interesting instrument to me, but the cello is one of my favourite sounds, so this is like the best of both worlds.
posted by lucidium at 4:32 PM on November 18, 2013


I don't think this thing sounds very good.

And it makes Leonardo da Vinci look like a loser.
posted by knoyers at 6:17 PM on November 18, 2013




I quite like how the pieces by Abel and Marais sound but am not as fond of the Forqueray. (I quite like that version for viola de gamba and basso continuo, though).
posted by mountmccabe at 6:44 PM on November 18, 2013


He never got to hear Optiganally Yours either. : (
posted by orme at 6:58 PM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]




Along these lines, back in the days of player pianos and calliopes, there was a mechanical music maker that incorporated a piano mechanism and violins, sometimes called a violina. Here's a closeup of the bowing and fingering mechanism a 3-violin model. Each violin was "fingered" on only one string, and bowed by rocking the whole violin in/out against the ring bow (and could even do vibratto this way); changing the speed of the ring bow changed the volume.
posted by adamrice at 2:57 PM on November 19, 2013


Leonardo’s instrument? No, it’s a reproduction of an obscure German contraption

Ooh, aren't we all such suckers then for enjoying a moment of wonder, unlike professor Steinherz there. You know, that guy might have had some interesting points to make, but the all-too-evident pleasure he takes in seeing himself as more sophisticated than those of us who might find this story interesting really makes him look petty and small-minded. But then, as a professor of musicology, I'm sure it's not often he gets a chance to be taken seriously as an authority outside of whatever small academic circle he gets to play big bully in (not musicologist-ist; some of my best friends have been musicologists), so I guess I can empathize. The powerless (or so some academic type once told me) often like to imagine they can see through the elaborate con games and plots of their betters in an attempt to feel more socially powerful and sophisticated, as if they're somehow better than the other rubes. It's kind of sad, but then, who am I to judge people who are just looking for some way to cope with the grinding misery of their total and utter insignificance in the grand scheme of things?
posted by saulgoodman at 6:34 PM on November 19, 2013


Man, that's a really uncharitable reading of a professor correcting the historical record. It's kind of his job.
posted by empath at 7:25 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


kmz's link and onward:

It may be noted that in this (polish spoken) intro video, the name "Geigenwerk" (addressing the 18th-c. German invention, which seems close to the instrument we can see here. And which for 18th-c. musicologists isn't quite as "obscure" as one might think, see below) is actually being mentioned (can't speak Polish, don't know the context, but the builder of the instrument seems aware of it. He also mentions the clavichord at one point. Perhaps the "Leonardo" hype was what the press made of it…).

The thought of producing a keyboard instrument that offered sustain, like the organ, and (at least some) variation of the tone, like bowed string instruments, has fascinated musicians for a long while, as we learn from the fact that Leonardo already in the 16th century kept himself busy with this concept. The "need" for some such solution got aesthetically more urgent during the second half of the 18th century, especially in Germany with the so-called "empfindsam" music style of the school of C.P.E. Bach. At that time German musicians, instrument makers and intellectuals all were invested in discussing what to do, how to do it, and what to prefer, in order to arrive at a better "sensitive" keyboard instrument.

The Geigenwerk, a mechanized stringed keyboard instrument principally not unlike a hurdy-gurdy (as someone pointed out above) was one of many ideas for such a sustained, sensitive instrument discussed at the time. Other examples are a specialized organ stop that could be varied in loudness without afflicting the pitch too much (Johann Andreas Stein in Augsburg made a keyboard instrument with such a stop in the 1770s, but no example survives) and to some degree the (traditional) clavichord. The clavichord has no full sustain, and it is a very soft, domestic instrument, but the player can in fact influence the decay of the tone after the touch and play vibrato. Other newly invented instruments are compromises that favor "loud and soft" but drop the requirement of a prolonged sustain: I'm talking about the various early forms of the piano.

The problem of one or the other instrument's success in such an environment is more complex than a mere matter of technical feasibility. One of the main problems was economics. This can be shown using the example of Bartolomeo Cristofori. Cristofori was not only a talented instrument maker and a driven inventor, he was also full-time sponsored by Ferdinando de Medici. His task was to invent instruments. He did a great job at this; today he is seen as the inventor of the first functioning piano (hammer-against-string) action, and it is a very well worked-out principle indeed.
The reason that the piano didn't catch on right away is partly the inherent conservativeness of art worlds*, partly that other instrument builders not directly were aware of Cristofori, and that the first internationally circulated report was not detailed enough to allow for copying his action. First and foremost, though, an action of that refinement, requiring many carefully crafted moving wooden parts to be made to very close standards, was way too complex to make in the hope of selling it at the required price.
By extrapolation one can assume the same to be true of the Geigenwerk, which if it would function at a level shown in these videos would likely have been a smash hit across Europe.

*"Conservative" in relationship to the standards one is used to, that is. As exemplified in the comment above: "I don't think this thing sounds very good. And it makes Leonardo da Vinci look like a loser." See also Howard S. Becker Art Worlds
posted by Namlit at 9:54 AM on November 23, 2013


Man, that's a really uncharitable reading of a professor correcting the historical record. It's kind of his job.

The guy literally describes all of the people he's "correcting" as suckers in one quote. That's pretty uncharitable, too, especially when his argument amounts to noting some similarities between this guy's self-built instrument and another instrument from the 1600s that no longer exists in the present day and then effectively on that basis accuses this pianist of being a fraud (with no evidence of fraudulent intent whatsoever).

I think you're mistaken about who's being uncharitable.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:28 PM on November 28, 2013


The guy literally describes all of the people he's "correcting" as suckers in one quote.

He 'literally' says the opposite of that. And he also never calls the guy a fraud. I don't know what you are reading.
posted by empath at 12:05 AM on November 29, 2013


« Older Glitch is Dead, Long Live Glitch!   |   Flipping the Other Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post