Concerto for Pencilina and Sewer Flute

Wacky instruments often resemble bad plumbing, but all are welcome in the eclectic light orchestra of experimental music

Inventor Bradford Reed playing his pencilina
Inventor Bradford Reed playing his pencilina Wikimedia Commons

Listen! The halls are alive with the sound of hardware. And contraptions like Car Horn Organs, Photon Clarinets, Pneumaphones and Gravikords. In workshops across the country, mad musical inventors are thumbing their noses at eons of musical tradition, tuning up mutant instruments and making music that can be merely weird, but is more often whimsical, even mystifying. Such experimenting is as old as music itself; instruments have come and gone and come again.

In 1761, Ben Franklin invented his glass harmonica, 37 glass bowls played by rubbing wet fingers on the rims. The glass harmonica enthralled Europe, but by the early 1800s it had vanished from concert halls. Today, however, glass instruments are coming back. In the 1930s, the Theremin — one of the first electronic instruments — was played by 700 professionals; within a few years, alas, it had all but disappeared. Perhaps you haven’t heard of the Theremin, but you have heard it. You just didn't recognize it as anything from this part of the solar system. Its eerie, oooh-weee-ooooo musical-saw-like sounds accompanied the science-fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still and the Beach Boys' classic tune "Good Vibrations."

Many of today's new instruments are as much sculptures as they are music makers; one is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's permanent collection. Some innovators, like Peter Schickele, design their creations to be a "scherzo," Italian for "joke." Others shun whimsy and view their experiments as a means of questioning the line between "music" and "noise." A few visionaries have turned their instrument-making into careers, and one of them hit the jackpot. In 1997, an inventor named Trimpin (he refuses to divulge his first name) won a $280,000 MacArthur Fellowship.

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