Robert Dick’s Glissando Headjoint and Other Inventions

At this summer’s classical music concerts, you could of course find a healthy array of violins, trumpets and cellos. But amid the familiar strings and brass have sprouted some odd instruments and strange adaptations of standard ones.
Works by the quirky composer Harry Partch call for homemade percussion instruments that blend Asian and Western materials and designs.
Marc Ponthus attached a two-by-four to two pianos, allowing him to work both sustain pedals.
To create the required resonance for a Boulez sonata, for example, the pianist Marc Ponthus connected two grand pianos with a two-by-four, allowing him to work the sustain pedal of the second from his seat at the first.

At the same Manhattan concert — the opening program of the Mannes College the New School for Music’s new-music festival in June — the flutist and composer Robert Dick played works he wrote for a flute outfitted with what he calls a glissando headjoint, an extension of the mouthpiece that lets him shape his instrument’s lines by sliding from note to note, when that strikes him as desirable.

A few weeks later, in Los Angeles, the Partch Ensemble, named for the quirky composer and instrument inventor Harry Partch, performed “There Isn’t Time,” a new work by Victoria Bond for Partch’s homemade percussion, string and keyboard instruments.

Besides being outlandish blends of Asian and Western materials and designs, Partch’s instruments use their own tuning systems, with as many as 43 notes (rather than the standard 12) in an octave. At the American Festival of Microtonal Music, held annually in New York, you could do even better: one festival concert in May offered performances on a synthesizer tuned to a 53-note octave.

For lots of musicians, though, synthesizers are so last decade. In their place, laptops — especially MacBooks, with their glowing white Apples — have displaced them as cornucopias of timbre and texture.

The synthesizer’s antique predecessors — the ondes Martenot and the theremin — occasionally turn up too: at one of the Lincoln Center Festival’s “Varèse (R)evolution” concerts in July, the International Contemporary Ensemble used a pair of “cello theremins” in a performance of “Ecuatorial” (1934).

A few days later, at Symphony Space, the M. C. O. Chamber Artists played two works by Scott Munson with a solo line for the musical saw: a low-tech instrument that produces an eerie, quivering sound almost indistinguishable (at least when accompanied by an orchestra) from that of the theremin. In fact, the search for new timbres often bypasses technology entirely. The ensemble So Percussion, at a concert offered as part of the Look & Listen Festival in Chelsea in May, made a lot of music by crinkling paper and plastic wrap.

Earlier in the season the Kronos Quartet turned up at Zankel Hall with a set of Stroh instruments — eccentric-looking late-19th-century hybrids in which a violin, viola or cello’s natural sound is amplified by a brass horn (making it oddly whiny). And a competing new-music string quartet, Ethel, is fitted out like a rock band, with amplified instruments and sound-processing boxes and pedals of all kinds. The essential quartet sound is always there if the members want it — and often, they do — but they can charge into aural worlds that the Juilliard and the Emerson cannot.

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