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NMC Archive - Unusual Instruments on NMC Part 2
23 May 2019

This week on our NMC Archive series is part 2 of our blogs on unusual instruments on NMC! We hear from David Sawer, Dai Fujikura and Joe Cutler with their article for our Friends newsletter back in 2012!

 

From Morning to MidnightDavid Sawer: From Morning to Midnight 'Velodrome'

One of the scenes in my opera From Morning to Midnight depicts a bicycle race, although you see no cyclists onstage, just the spectators in the velodrome. I wanted to create the sensation of movement and speed, rather like the 'smudged' visual effect you see in Futurist paintings. The bicycle bell was my own (it is an F) - recorded and transposed onto a keyboard sampler to give a range of pitches and played live in the orchestra pit. The sound of the bicycle bell is unambiguous; in its normal context it is heard as a warning signal but here I used it to evoke a sense of joy.
 
 
 
 
 

Secret ForestDai Fujikura: Secret Forest

Okeanos Breeze is particularly special to me, because it was the first time I had ever written for Japanese traditional instruments. I had never seen and hardly ever even heard them until I went to a concert at the Darmstadt summer school when I was 20 years old. Since that summer I have been fascinated with writing for these instruments. A few years later I was delighted when Ensemble Okeanos asked me to write for them. The instrumentation of this piece wasn’t up to me, I was just asked to write for these particular instruments. Not only that, but the leader of the ensemble told me that she wanted to use some antique cymbals that she had bought from Hong Kong, and also the Ocean Drum. She demonstrated them to me (over the phone!) and I started writing. I remember that the piece came very smoothly and I had great fun studying the instruments. Both the sho and the koto suited me very well and inhabited my imagination very naturally. For instance, I usually hate vibrato, and the sho does not use vibrato. I also enjoy the sound of harsh attacks and they are very easy to achieve on the koto. Cutting Sky features koto and a viola, which is played only with plectrum to match the plucked sound of the koto. This work is in a way written for an imaginary instrument - the "super-koto", as the plectrum viola acts as a sort of extension of the koto.
 
The sho is a Japanese free reed instrument made of slender bamboo pipes, each of which has fitted into its base with metal free reed. Two of the pipes are silent - the instrument's sound is said to imitate the call of a phoenix and these aesthetically form two symmetrical wings.
 
The koto is the national instrument of Japan, made from kiri wood with 13 strings that are strung over 13 movable bridges. Players can adjust the string pitches by moving these bridges before playing, and use three finger picks (on thumb, index finger and middle finger) to pluck the strings.
 

Ping!Joe Cutler: Ping!

One of the starting points for Ping! was the jeté stroke in string playing where the bow is allowed to bounce on the string. Of course, that's something that is replicated in table tennis, for instance when a player bounces the ball on their bat or on the table before serving. One of the challenges in writing Ping! was finding ways to allow these two soundworlds to meet. In table tennis, all the sounds that are produced are percussive and short, with strong attacks and very little sustain so finding comparable equivalents in string playing was important. I focussed particularly on pizzicati, percussive sounds produced on the body of the instrument, harmonics with sharp attacks but little sustain etc. Amplifying both the string and table tennis players allowed them both to occupy the same acoustic space.
 
 

NoszferatuJoe Cutler: Drempel – Noszferatu

On the Noszferatu recording of Sikorski B the vibraphone played an important role in colouring the music. There is a recurring motif in the piece which appears often in the vibraphone part from about a minute into the piece onwards. Initially, our percussionist Dave Price played it on soft sticks but it felt a little flat. He suggested we tried his "magic sticks". These are metal sticks which blossom at their end into a spiral coil, rather like a whisk. These worked beautifully as they create tiny reverberating glissandi, which really added to the strange, unearthly effect I was looking for. In fact, the vibraphone starred quite considerably in the Noszferatu recording as we managed to accidently blow it up!
 

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