Category Archives: Projects

The Quest for the Holy Grail?

I can’t resist a good challenge. This one, seemingly, has remained unsolved for over a century. I am talking about the deep tolling “crystalline” bells of the Holy Grail temple in Richard Wagner’s opera, Parsifal.

Wagner himself, was never quite satisfied with solutions to this sound he heard in his head. The lowest bell being 20 semitones below the deepest in St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. A real church bell like this would be larger and deeper than any ever made, as far as I know. The closest would be the great Kremlin Tsar Bell, which was never really finished and was damaged by fire in 1737. The low E would have to be 8 metres in diameter and over 260 tonnes! For the opera leitmotif you’d need 4, of similar proportions, to produce the C3, G2, A2, E2 peal. Real bells like this are, of course, out of the question. Too big, too heavy, too expensive and too loud.

Wagner's grailmotif
Wagner’s original manuscript

One of the earlier sonic solutions, which was rejected upon testing circa 1882, was a set of Chinese tam-tam gongs, sourced from London. To help the perception of a clear resounding pitch, a piano / hammered dulcimer hybrid was concocted. This had 6 parallel strings for each of the four notes and was struck with a wide mallet. You can hear a later version of it on the 1926 recording conducted by Karl Muck. Steingraeber made various iterations of this Gralsklavier including a brand new one earlier this year.

Here is the combination of instruments used by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1914. Giant oversize tubular bells / chimes, a single gong (hiding there in the background, middle), and another of these piano dulcimer hybrids. Quite a wonderful newspaper drawing. I love the idea of playing percussion in hats and trench coats! Perhaps it was cold backstage.

Covent Garden Parsifal bells 1914
Covent Garden backstage bells 1914

By far the most grand solution to add the metallic and somewhat discordant bell like tone plus some low end woof to the harmonious piano dulcimer was the set of brewing vat resonated bell plates constructed at Bayreuth. Absolutely huge and requiring one player each! You can also just about make these out in the Karl Muck recording. I can’t help but think that this solution was arrived at by trial and error rather than applying the techniques of Helmholtz from his 1863 paper “On the sensations of tone”.

Giant barrel bells
Giant Barrels at Bayreuth 1927

It wasn’t long before electronics were getting in on the act. Smaller, grandfather clock like, metal tines with pick-ups and amplification have been used. Manipulated recordings (or “samples”) of actual bells have been used. Synthesisers have been used – including for quite some time as a favourite, the Mixtur Trautonium, one of the very first synthesisers. The latter was also a favourite of Alfred Hitchcock. He used it on the soundtrack to his film The Birds.

Hitchcock Trautonium
Alfred Hitchcock with the Mixtur-Trautonium

And yet, anything electronic or amplified and played through loudspeakers always meets with disapproval from at least one corner or other.  Even the (only slightly manipulated) recordings of the actual bells from St Sulpice in Paris as used this year for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival got a drubbing in the review press. I can see why. When the rest of the orchestra is real, live, organic and full of human interpretation, expression and inflection, accompanying sounds which are not do rather stick out as alien interlopers.

As my own experiments and minor successes in the realms of bass bell plates in various different metals and bass tubular chimes have been proceeding not unnoticed by the symphonic and operatic worlds, I have now been asked by 3 separate people to consider producing a good, acoustic percussion solution to the problem of these Holy Grail bells of Montsalvat. There are numerous technical issues to overcome to do with the physics of such instruments and the psycho-acoustic vagaries of the human ear and brain, not to mention logistical and practical considerations. Nonetheless, I have a handful of different ideas to go and test out. Some are a single instrument per note, some are combinations. Whether I can produce a solution which satisfies all discerning ears, who knows? Watch this space…

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Aquasonic – underwater music

Music? Underwater? Really? I was both intrigued and excited by the challenge of this. This was one of those things that perhaps had the risk of being, if you’ll pardon the pun, a total wash-out. On the other hand, it had the chance of being amazing. It was amazing.

Aquasonic Percussion Tank with Dea

I really enjoyed working with the Danish group, “Aquasonic”, and with the small, transatlantic team they’d put together to really get to grips with all the issues of making good sounds underwater. We had a mechanical (and usually robotic) instrument maker from Brooklyn, an underwater acoustics professor from Texas, a pioneer in the development of the world’s first musical instrument that actually produces sound directly from water – the Hydraulophone, a “normal, above water”, Danish acoustician, a New York producer who usually works with the likes of Cirque du Soleil and me, the metal percussion specialist who also has some form tuning unusual instruments and figuring out general stuff to do with vibrations and acoustics.

The Aquasonic project has been going on for quite a long time, making discoveries and incremental improvements all along the way. With this new team and concentrated effort though, I think we’ve really pushed things forwards a few great leaps. Firstly, lots of skype conference calls, emails, tests, experiments and simulations. Then, for me, further underwater testing of prototype ideas in a plastic tank with a hydrophone (underwater microphone) in my workshop in Bath. Then a 9 day trip to Aarhus to install, test, tune and troubleshoot new instruments of my creation and some 3rd party instruments too.

So, Aquasonic is now 5 musicians, each with their own large custom-built aquarium – the largest ones clocking in at around 1600 litres. They play (and sing – more on that later) underwater as an ensemble. The audience gets to keep their feet on dry land – the music is picked up by hydrophones, amplified, and relayed through loudspeakers. The musicians have in-ear monitors so they can hear each other. This may be more important than you think. Visual cueing is not so easy with the strange refractive effects looking outwards from inside the big glass water-filled tanks.

Aquasonic group photo

The first big improvement was sourcing and using better quality hydrophones. We were all still very worried about standing wave reflections in the tanks (the wavelengths of sound in water are much longer than in air – the aquaria are very small spaces acoustically speaking) and attenuation issues, not to mention the de-tuning effect of the mass-load of the water on the instruments due to strong coupling because of close acoustic impedances. Musical instruments barely “notice” the air around them, but they really can’t ignore the water if they are in it. The second big improvement came from our acoustician – put the hydrophones right into the corners of the tanks. You get a boundary effect which naturally boosts gain and you also get a fairly nice constant overall amplitude (from summing the mics together) as you move the instruments around within the tanks. Before this breakthrough, it was looking worryingly like we woulShuffling singing bowlsd need spot hydrophones, very precisely placed, on every single instrument (and, in the percussion tank, there are 20 to 30 individual instruments). Standing wave issues, for the most part, were not actually a problem. Though we did spend a good amount of time fine-tuning the position of the 15 or so Singing Bowls to balance their timbres and resonance.

There are major issues with volume and sustain of almost all musical instruments underwater. You can forget wind instruments straight away, though Laila Skovmand and her protege Nanna Bech have mastered an inhale-exhale maintain-a-bubble-in-the-mouth underwater singing technique. Struck and plucked instruments almost all behave as dipoles and front and back sound waves cancel much more readily in the non-compressible water than they do in air. Most instruments have to be massive to have a chance or they need to have a continuing energy input – e.g. from bowing or rubbing.

Gongs work quite well – especially the tuned types, with nipples and collars. Higher overtones tend to be attenuated and pitches shift down by varying amounts. Singing Bowls work surprisingly well, especially larger ones. I did a little re-tuning work on Aquasonic’s extensive collection. Only one bowl broke as a result of the (really quite delicate and tentative) re-hammering. I found that larger Bell Plates were good too, but their aspect ratio needed to change under the water – detuning of the overtone frequencies is not linear. They drop about a fifth overall, but the higher tones drop more than the lower ones. Through the generosity of a local glass workshop (Nyholm Cantrel Glass) we had access to equipment necessary for careful tuning of both ceramic tiles and glass bowls from a custom underwater Glass Armonica – Andy Cavatorta’s Crystallophone.

tuning glass bowls

I spent quite a bit of time in my own workshop trying to get Aluminium Harps (or instruments using the same principal) to work as I thought that they could be good under the water. Getting the right friction was a problem though. It still may work with a glass instrument, but time ran out there and I didn’t get to try it. As a by-product though, I came up with what I later dubbed the “SETIphone” as it rather resembles something you might use to contact little green men from outer space. Using (lacquered to mitigate rusting) rebar clamped in the middle on a frame with a cymbal as a sound radiator you can create quasi-pitched industrial sounds by striking or stridulating the bars.

There was a quest for something to perform a hi-hat function. Normal hi-hats and cymbal stacks just don’t do in water what they do in air. The cymbals are too light and there is too much suction between them. For drummers who have trouble with air-lock, you should try water-lock, it is orders of magnitude worse. We didn’t need foot pedal action, just a short, dry (but not too dry!) sound to propel beats along. We had a “bass drum” from a strategically damped Gong Ageng and a “snare” from a Darbuka (about the only actual drum that works underwater – though I did have high hopes for boo-bams). My best prototype was a cup chime with a triangle stacked on it. The evolution of this, which was more satisfactory, was a larger but still quite heavy cymbal with a triangle stacked over the cup and 6 pairs of tambourine jingles riveted around the periphery. The stacked triangle provided crunch while the jingles added hiss. Each one alone wasn’t enough but the combination was about right.

With the improvements in the hydrophone technique, cup chimes and triangles were found to be much more resonant than early tests had suggested, so we threw some more of those in as stand-alone instruments. The SETIphone actually became overwhelmingly loud and lighter beaters had to be employed!

With the new, expanded and somewhat more hi-fi sound palette, Laila is composing new material. Full length concerts will start happening in mid 2016. There were some short teaser previews at the SPOT festival in Aarhus this May. I was blown away by the video from it, even though it is still at the embryonic stage. I can’t imagine what will develop after another year.

 

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