NMC Archive - Unusual Instruments on NMC
28 March 2019

For our second blog in our NMC Archive series, we're delving into unsual instruments with a two-part blog. In this first part, Brian Elias and Jonathan Cole tell us about the unsual instruments they used in their music, and Julian Warburton, BCMG Percussionist and Professor of Percussion at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, tells us a bit more about percussion on Britten on Film.

Did I just hear a marimba?
Over the years, we’ve encountered a number of unusual additions to scoring where composers have either included the sound of a particular object to enhance the narrative in perhaps a quite literal way, or experimented with more unfamiliar instruments to create particular effects. Here’s a selection of composers and artists commenting on the inclusion of more unusual sounds in their work:

Brian Elias: Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya

Brian EliasI used large bell plates in my Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya because of the extraordinary depth of their sound. They are made from large rectangular sheets of metal, and are rather heavy; when the work was performed in Barcelona, an especially strong platform had to be built to accommodate the five plates I had specified. Therefore, I would not recommend their use without consulting the orchestral management! The range is from middle C down to low cello C, and the deepness of the sound and its resonance are very beguiling. Damping requires a great deal of effort, especially when several are ringing at the same time, and it is important to take this into account. I used the bell plates at the beginning of the work, when the poet is startled awake, and towards the end of the fourth song - both key moments in the piece that emphasise the darkness of the poet’s situation. The fifth song begins with lighter bells, a contrast made all the more dramatic by the dark tolling of the bell plates.


Jonathan Cole: NMC Songbook tss-k-haa

NMC Songbook

In tss-k-haa I wanted to create the impression of a spell being cast so had to find a sound which would work as an occasional counterpoint to the incantationary vocal writing whilst being itself unexpected and strange. When air is released from a balloon, the way the sound is created is very similar to our use of breath when producing vocal sounds, and yet because of the material of the balloon (rubber) and the size of the air hole the tight squeaks which emerge are of a different quality to the voice. The only real problem with writing for such an instrument is that many people presume it is a comic effect when a balloon is actually a very versatile and efficient percussion instrument - it can be used as a drum, its surface can be rubbed, it can be filled with water or small stones etc. I've found that when using balloon in other pieces such as ash relics the percussionist uses a screen to play behind so the audience doesn't start making comic associations with the instrument.

Julian Warburton: Britten on Film

Britten on Film When I first saw the instrument requirements for the Britten on Film recordings with BCMG, I knew I would have to do some substantial research before we started the project. Most of the instruments for the album were standard but the music for Coalface also required the following: chains; sandpaper; trip-gear; coconut shells, small cart on sandy asbestos; small drill; large drill; cup in bucket; rewinder; notched wood; hooter; metal sheet; and iron wheels.

It was clear to me that some of these sounds would have been from a sound effects library and added to Britten’s original recordings. However, I was determined to recreate most if not all the sounds acoustically for the recording. An arrangement was made for me to spend an afternoon in Britten’s study at Aldeburgh watching the original films armed with the scores. This was an unforgettable experience and at times quite eerie as I was watching film from the 1930’s next to the piano where much of the Britten repertoire was conceived.
On first hearing I knew the chains, sandpaper, whistle, coconut shells and metal sheet were relatively straight forward, but the ‘small cart on sandy asbestos’ would be a challenge. We couldn’t use asbestos so I spent a morning at the CBSO Centre experimenting with different floor coverings and trolleys. In the end I think Jackie Newbould and I decided on a mixture of fine gravel and pea shingle run over by a heavy metal trolley, which sounded great!
We had a large selection of cordless power tools available for the drill sounds but they all sounded too modern. A good sound was achieved by vibrating the head of each drill (without the bit attached) on the metal trolley for the small drill and I think the floor for the large drill. [Jackie says: the drill was my Dad’s – it’s almost an antique!]
The notched wood I made myself by cutting chunks from a piece of two-by-two pine to be played much like a guiro but with a snare drum stick.
I hate to say I failed with the trip-gear and rewinder - they were just too industrial and impossible to recreate live so Colin Matthews managed to find a sound effect and dubbed it on to the final edit.

If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!



All entries in chronological order
2 October 2018
28 August 2018
10 August 2018
17 July 2018
9 July 2018
18 April 2018
12 April 2018
28 March 2018
22 March 2018
12 March 2018