The advertisement in the paper said “Free Armonica Concert” Sunday afternoon at St. Michaels Episcopal Church in Riverside. Thinking with glee that I had caught the newspaper in a funny typo, I made an assumption that the “H” had been left off "harmonica." But then a thought hit me that a church is an awfully strange place for a Harmonica to be played. “The Old Rugged Cross” on a Harmonica? I thought not.
Just to be on the safe side I ran a google search on “Armonica” and was I surprised. There is such a musical instrument. It was invented by Benjamin Franklin and he was so taken with it he played it throughout his entire life. In England in 1761 he had heard wet fingers being rubbed on water-filled crystal wine glass rims to produce certain tones, which then were turned into music by rubbing them in the right sequence. Franklin took the idea back to America and developed the Armonica, not using the wine glasses but glass bowls instead. Basically, through holes in the center of the bowls, he threaded them onto a long metal spit and held the bowls apart by using corks. He then put this “spit” onto a rotisserie-type gadget that was rotated by means of a foot pedal. Armed with a bowl of water to keep his fingers wet, Franklin began massaging the glass rims, learning how to make music with his fingers and thus he became the world’s first Armonica player.
Luckily for us, there couldn’t have been more than 30 people in attendance, so instead of holding the concert in the Church sanctuary, we were moved to an all-purpose room, with folding chairs set almost within arms distance of this amazing musical instrument. But even better, the decision to move it from the sanctuary meant that we got to watch the musician, William Wilde Zeitler, assemble the instrument from scratch. All the pieces came in a huge trunk on wheels. A wooden table on which the instrument was to sit had to be assembled with screws and screwdrivers. Once up, the glass bowls on a spit (that is my description of what it looked like, not the musician’s!) were unwrapped from inside huge amount of big thick blankets and mounted on the cradles at each end of the table. In William’s Armonica, which he built himself, he had enough bowls to cover 3-1/2 octaves! The bowls that corresponded to the black keys on the piano had a gold rim on them.
Because it is 2010 and not 1761, the spit now turns by electricity, and mics and amplifiers were used. There also was a tiny little cassette which provided some harp accompaniment to certain tunes. (William was also the harp player.) Before the concert, he disappeared into the kitchen for a minute to wash his hands and he returned looking for the world like Ben Franklin, ruffled jacket and all.
Prior to to the concert I had done quite a bit of reading on the Armonica, and of course like everyone else I’d had a smidgeon of experience in making a wine glass emit a one-note tune. But none of this prepared me for what I heard. It ranged from a most delicate version of the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy (oh, how light on her feet she must have been!) to a short version of tunes by both Mozart and Beethoven - and then on to some ultra “new age” compositions by William himself that were simply stunning in their simplicity and beauty.
At the conclusion of the concert he graciously let the audience members have a go (supervised, of course) at making the armonica sing the way he did. Most were lucky to get a few squeaks of sound out of it. He also had some CDs for sale (which of course I just had to have.)
William travels around the world giving performances and has appeared on the History Channel. Luckily he's got a great video on YouTube, so you can join me in hearing and learning about what I was lucky enough to see in person today. I am already relishing my CD. It was such a good day!