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Berlin Music Instrument Museum

April 12, 2010

Hello

I’m in Berlin. While not eating more than my fair share of Gummi Bears or trying to navigate my way through the complicated bureaucracy of the Berlin tertiary school system, I like to take advantage of some of the benefits of being a student in Germany. Namely, free museum visits on Thursday evenings. One of my recent trips was to the Berlin Music Instrument Museum, and I’d like to share some of the interesting instruments I observed there. The descriptions are a combination of notes I made while at the museum and further independent research.

Aeolian Harp

Aeolian Harp

Taking its name from the Greek god of wind, Aeolus, the aeolian harp (or wind harp) is an ancient string instrument which is sounded by exposure to air currents. The device consists of a sounding board with strings of varying thicknesses that are tuned to the same fundamental pitch. The harp was commonly placed near an open window so that the strings would resonate from the blowing wind, the driving mechanism being the Kármán vortex street effect.

This unique design causes a similarly unique sound, with fluctuating timbre and loudness determined by the differing overtones of the individual strings and the unpredictable movement of the wind. This characteristic sound has been assigned mystic qualities in the past with one of the German names, Geisterharf, literally meaning “spirits’ harp”.

The Aeolian harp is also considered a symbol for inspiration (or afflatus) in both the poetic and religious realms. The word afflatus, which can be traced back to Cicero’s figurative usage, means literally (more or less) “to be blown into by a divine wind”. This connection to the Aeolian harp is not only for figurative reason of divine inspiration, but also because of its relation to wind and the wind god Aeolus.

Examples of the harps inspiration can be found in works by prominent literary and musical figures since ancient times.

(ex. Homer, Goethe, Shakespeare, Robert Schuman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herny Cowell…)

Stockgeige

Stockgeige

These instruments, made around the Biedermeier period, are great examples of German craftsmanship and “insane-practicality”.

Made mainly for fun, these curiosities allowed a hiker to bring an instrument along with to play music in nature. Stockgeige, meaning “cane-violin”, is a collapsible walking stick containing a violin and bow on the inside. Becoming a seemingly regular fashion accessory, a similar instrument was also available in earlier times, the Stockflöte, literally “cane-flute”.

Also having an effect of literature, the poet Ludwig Uhland mentions the walking stick flute in his poem “Das Schifflein” (The Little Boat):

“…

Von seinem Wanderstabe

Schraubt jener Stift und Habe,

Und mischt mit Flötentönen

Sich in des Hornes Dröhnen.

…”

 

(poorly translated by me):

From his walking cane

He takes out what’s contained

And mixes the flute’s tone

With the horn’s drone

Mighty Wurlitzer

Mighty Wurlitzer Overview

 

This mammoth of an organ is the largest of its kind in Europe. It was purchased by the uncle of the Siemens Conglomerate founder, and now resides in the Berlin Musical Instrument Museum. Built in the good ol’ US of A (North Tonawanda, NY), the organ has over 1200 pipes and 200 registers. Not only does it have the traditional horn and wind instrument sounds, this bad boy has a fully equipped percussion section including marimba and glockenspiel.

Wurlitzer Keyboard

The guts of the beast are housed behind Plexiglas windows so that museum visitors can see the inner workings of the instrument.

I was lucky enough to hear a performance on the organ during my visit in the gallery. Watching the various bells and whistles (literally) blowing along with the hammering of the drums and cymbals was like witnessing some sort of Willy-Wonka-Rube-Goldberg-musical carnival.

To say the least I was entertained.

Electronic Instruments

The museum doesn’t only house ancient oddities and enormous organs, but also some more contemporary electronic instruments that I was slightly surprised to recognize.

Electronic Music Studios VCS 3 Mark II

VCS 3

            This thing just looks like fun. The VCS means “voltage controlled studio” and the 3 represents the 3 oscillators it has. This acronym, however, isn’t long enough to include the other functions: ring modulator, noise generator, two input amplifiers, envelope generator, voltage controlled spring reverb generator and a joystick controller. Which altogether would be one hell of an acronym. (VCS 3 RMNG2IAEGVCSRGJC Mark II ???) Used by both Pink Floyd and Brian Eno, and since I’m in Germany I guess I’m obligated to say Tangerine Dream, this one is definitely a coveted cult classic. I unfortunately was not allowed to play with it or hear any psychedelic ambience.

Mixtur-Trautonium

Mixtur-trautonium

 

            Developed from one of the Berlin’s (and the world’s) earliest electronic music instruments, the monophonic Trautonium, the Mixtur-Trautonium is a synthesizer that produces tones by means of subharmonic synthesis. Controlled by two metal wires acting as variable resistors, the pitch of  two oscillators can be controlled with the hands, similar to the Electro-Theremin or “The Box”  (popularized by the Beach Boy’s “Good Vibrations”) The process of subharmonic synthesis in the Mixtur-Trautonium, explained to me in German, more or less functions like this:

One root tone is divided into 4 subharmonics (integer divisions of the root tone’s pitch), and the 4 new tones are then altered by the various signal-processing devices in the machine, and finally remixed. This allows rich and complex chords and tones to be developed from only one input source.

Oskar Sala was the force behind the invention of the Mixtur-Trautonium and also one of the only people who could actually play it well. It was famously used to make the menacing bird sounds in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds”. After seeing this subharmonic synth in the museum I came across this great article discussing both the instrument and Oskar Scala, I’d recommend you reading it in addition to this recording of one of Sala’s performances.

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