by wjw on September 26, 2009

I’ve been off at Globalquerque, Albuquerque’s weekend festival of global music. One way of describing this kind of festival is to describe the music I was listening to. (I’ll probably get around to that later.)

Another is to just make a list of the weird and/or unusual instruments encountered for the first time.

The first was the hurdy gurdy, as played by Viva la Pepa!, a group that recreates French, Spanish, and Sephardic medieval and renaissance music.

This wasn’t my first exposure to to the hurdy gurdy, of course, but it was my first exposure to, as it were, hurdy gurdy theory.

According to gurdyist Juan Wijngaard, the hurdy gurdy got invented in the Middle Ages because “violins were boring.” Because when you bow a violin, you bow up, and then stop. And then you bow down, and then stop. And so forth. S0 what the hurdy-gurdy actually is, is a violin with a round rotating bow— although, because of the sympathetic strings in the design, it ends up sounding very like a bagpipe. (And Juan Wijngaard also plays the bagpipe, so there you go.)

Another new instrument, also deployed by Viva la Pepa!, was the tromba marina, or marine trumpet, also known as the “nun’s trumpet.” The name is misleading, as the tromba marina is actually a stringed instrument, seven or eight feet tall, with a single string and (in some cases) another sympathetic string. It sounds as trumpet-ish as a stringed instrument is ever likely to sound. It’s also called the “nun’s trumpet” because nuns were sometimes forbidden to play actual trumpets, and played the tromba marina instead. (The reasons were unspecified, but maybe playing trumpet made their cheeks blow out unbecomingly, or made them spit, or maybe they were just too noisy.)

By far the strangest instrument encountered was the nyckelharpa, pictured above. This is a Swedish instrument of medieval origin. It features sixteen strings, eight sympathetic strings, a whole lot of buttons, is hung around the neck like a guitar, and is played with a bow. In short, it’s the most diabolically complicated musical instrument created by mankind (that actually works).

It sounds like a tinny fiddle (those sympathetic strings, I imagine), but is a lot more flexible than a real violin.

If, that is, you’re insane enough to actually learn to play one.

Zora September 27, 2009 at 4:23 pm

My father had inherited his father's nyckelharpa. It was hung on the living-room wall of the house where I grew up.

I wonder what happened to it …

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