Ben's bowls
December 23, 2006 7:09 AM   Subscribe

At one time or another you've probably rubbed your finger along the rim of a glass to produce a note. In 1761 Ben Franklin took the idea further with the invention of the glass (h)armonica. The instrument enjoyed some popularity, but is believed to have caused health problems due to lead content in the glass. Performers complained of loss of feeling in their hands, some even suffered nervous breakdowns. People became very frightened of the armonica, and by 1830 it was all but extinct. But there's been some renewal of interest: they're being played, and they're being made. You can play a surprisingly good-sounding virtual version. Or listen to a charming rendition of a seasonally appropriate tune. [more links inside] Oh, and: [previously]
posted by flapjax at midnite (14 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Some more audio: Unaccompanied glass armonica played by Cecilia Brauer: Silent Night (excerpt) and We Three Kings (excerpt)

Here you'll find a list of sound sample links, all just short clips. (MP3).

Related: Here's someone who plays a set of glasses she calls the Glass Harp.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:11 AM on December 23, 2006

I'd assume the numbness would be caused by vibration -- if you're playing a high C (C6), the frequency is (in the modern equal temperament 440A scale) 1046.5 Hz.

Even lower notes are vibrating in the tens of times per second.
posted by eriko at 7:15 AM on December 23, 2006

There's a glass player that does the rounds of Renaissance Festivals here - Donal Hinely - who has a stunning array of Celtic and folk inspired glass music. And sometimes, even the Beatles make an appearance in a set.

During his performances he will also explain how you don't even need crystal glasses for this, as most folks think; any glass will do as long as it is a stemmed glass and has water in it! He punctuates this by proudly showing off his collection of fine stemware purchased at discriminating thrift stores nationwide.
posted by angeline at 7:25 AM on December 23, 2006

I wonder whether someone could accidentally (or on purpose) set up the sort of harmonic resonance that might crack/shatter the bowls. Not exactly Pete Townshend and his guitar, but might have made quite the impression at the time.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:29 AM on December 23, 2006

Completely spooky. I just read about this last night independently on a link following orgy I indulged in. Synchronicitytastic!

If you want to see one played in NYC, by ms Brauer: go here (Wed Mar 21st).
posted by lalochezia at 7:39 AM on December 23, 2006

Such a neat post. I'm a huge admirer of Ben Franklin, polymath, and love this musical instrument.

Odd instruments rock.

Thanks so much lalochezia for the NYC tip. I walk by The Graduate Center, Science & the Arts, 365 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, all the time and had no idea it was such a great place for seeing cool stuff.
posted by nickyskye at 8:02 AM on December 23, 2006

There's also William Zeitler, who has recorded a number of albums on the glass armonica. I first found out about the glass armonica from the History Channel special on Ben Franklin (Youtube link with some Christmas music for you).
posted by puritycontrol at 9:12 AM on December 23, 2006

At one time or another you've probably rubbed your finger along the rim of a glass to produce a note.

I think this is called a "rimjob" if I'm not mistaken. I do it every year at the dinner table with the relatives while we're waiting for the Christmas goose. Makes for quite a show especially if I can hit the high note just right. Some laugh at my performance but it can be dangerous, too. At 1046.5 Hz, it probably shattered Ben's bowls and wrecked 'em.
posted by hal9k at 9:14 AM on December 23, 2006

CD of music composed for glass harmonica by Beethoven, Mozart et al. Donizetti originally meant for Lucia di Lammermoor's famous mad scene to be accompanied by glass harmonica, but he quarreled with the player and rescored it for a flute.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:34 PM on December 23, 2006

I have heard Dean Shostak (one of your links) play the glass armonica in Williamsburg. It is a beautiful sounding instrument and he explains the history of it well.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:37 PM on December 23, 2006

puritycontrol , Great link. I could really see the armonica in action and hear it being played a number of ways. Thank you for that YouTube vid.

And then there's the beer bottle organ. Or for some eerie sounds, the Theremin.
posted by nickyskye at 7:00 PM on December 23, 2006

Hey, thanks to all y'all commenters for these various links! Great!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:16 PM on December 23, 2006

That sound sends me to Dreamtime (to reference a more recent post)...even if it's just a single wineglass. Exquisite.
posted by kozad at 8:19 PM on December 23, 2006

I've lately become a fan of the Hurdy Gurdy. Actually there's a cheap version you can build yourself.
posted by mazatec at 11:33 PM on December 26, 2006

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