Author Topic: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music  (Read 10786 times)

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Offline Grazioso

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"Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« on: May 28, 2011, 04:01:56 AM »
Classical music, like most genres, has its own standardized core of accepted and expected instruments, but sometimes something "odd" slips through the cracks: a resurrected instrument from a bygone age, an instrument associated mostly with other Western genres (folk, rock, jazz, etc.), an instrument used mostly by non-Western cultures, obscure oddities, etc. (See also Lethe's thread about electric guitar.)

Any examples? Here are a few:

Bayan: Gubaidulina "Seven Words"
Berimbau: Rosauro "Cadencia Para Berimbau"
Buccina: Respighi's Roman trilogies (though from what I gather, modern instruments are used in its place)
Flexatone: Daugherty Metropolis Symphony
Harmonica: Villa-Lobos concerto for harmonica, Milhaud "Suite Anglaise"
Harpsichord: works by numerous 20th and 21st-century composers (Poulenc, de Falla, Gorecki, Martinu, Carter, Schnittke, Kokkonen, etc.). In fact, it's so "normal" now, that I wonder if it should even be discussed in this context :)
Marimba: La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ and Saint-François d'Assise
Octobass: supposedly Wagner, Berlioz, Mahler, Strauss, et al. Anyone know which scores?
Saxophone: same situation as the harpsichord: peripheral but not exactly obscure
Shakuhachi: Takemitsu "Autumn", "November Steps"
Sitar: Shankar sitar concerto

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Offline The new erato

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #1 on: May 28, 2011, 05:21:06 AM »
Didgeridoo in Peter Sculthorpe's Requiem

snyprrr

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #2 on: May 28, 2011, 05:34:00 AM »
Skin flute was used in...

Offline not edward

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #3 on: May 28, 2011, 06:00:20 AM »
Skin flute was used in...
Nam June Paik's Young Penis Symphony.

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Offline Florestan

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #4 on: May 28, 2011, 07:40:28 AM »
Flexatone:

Khachaturian's Piano Concerto, slow movement: magical.
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Offline escher

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #5 on: May 28, 2011, 12:26:52 PM »
trautonium: Hindemith "Concertino for Trautonium and Strings"

Offline Archaic Torso of Apollo

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #6 on: May 29, 2011, 08:03:10 AM »
Is the ondes martenot "weird" enough for you? Messiaen certainly liked it.

Otherwise, Varese and Hindemith both used police sirens in a couple of works. Varese in fact used a bunch of strange instruments, including something called a "lion's roar".

For his 2nd Symphony, Benjamin Frankel requires chains to be dropped on a wooden box.

And of course, Conlon Nancarrow built his whole career out of the player piano.
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Offline Brian

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #7 on: May 29, 2011, 08:09:11 AM »
Varese in fact used a bunch of strange instruments, including something called a "lion's roar".

John Antill's Aussie ballet Corroboree includes a part, in the finale, for a bull-roarer, which makes a pretty mighty droning noise from the back of the orchestra, sounding rather a lot like an angry bull.

There is a Sousa march which calls for a Ford Model T to be started up onstage.

Offline Archaic Torso of Apollo

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #8 on: May 29, 2011, 08:11:25 AM »
I think George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique uses airplane propellers. Been a while since I heard it, though.

And then there's our old favorite, the wind machine - beloved of R. Strauss and Vaughan Williams  :)
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Offline jochanaan

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #9 on: May 29, 2011, 01:41:51 PM »
Bass oboe: Holst's The Planets, and several other English compositions.

Heckelphone: Strauss' Salome, Elektra and Alpine Symphony, Varèse's Amériques and Arcana, among others.

Vibraphone: Roy Harris' Symphony #3 and Shostakovich's Symphony #14, and probably others that I don't know about. :)

Rototoms: Leonard Bernstein's Mass (which, I believe, uses lots of other "weird" instruments).

And by all rights we should include the "Wagner tubas" in this discussion, since not many composers actually used them and they are only kept "alive" by frequent performances of works by Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss and by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. :)
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Offline Brian

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #10 on: May 29, 2011, 01:49:23 PM »
Bass oboe: Holst's The Planets, and several other English compositions.

Bass trumpet: Janacek's Sinfonietta

Rototoms: Leonard Bernstein's Mass (which, I believe, uses lots of other "weird" instruments).

That piece also utilizes a chorus line of kazoos!

Offline not edward

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #11 on: May 29, 2011, 04:14:28 PM »
There's the Jew's harp in Ives' Holidays Symphony (also in at least one of Kagel's Stuecke die Windrose).
Also the ocarinas and plastic slide whistles in Ligeti's violin concerto.
Ustvolskaya's Composition No 2 and 5th symphony have a plywood cube played with wooden mallets.
Metronomes play a part in quite a few pieces, for example Norgard's 6th symphony.
"I don't at all mind actively disliking a piece of contemporary music, but in order to feel happy about it I must consciously understand why I dislike it. Otherwise it remains in my mind as unfinished business."
 -- Aaron Copland, The Pleasures of Music

eyeresist

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #12 on: May 29, 2011, 06:48:57 PM »
And then there's our old favorite, the wind machine - beloved of R. Strauss and Vaughan Williams  :)

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Offline CRCulver

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #13 on: May 29, 2011, 08:57:48 PM »
Arvo Part's Symphony No. 2 features rubber duckies.

Rebecca Saunders uses music boxes.

Olivier Messiaen's "Du canyon aux etoiles" has a wind machine.

Per Nørgård's Symphony No. 5 has the percussionist blow through two dog whistles to create beats.
« Last Edit: May 29, 2011, 08:59:50 PM by CRCulver »

Offline Archaic Torso of Apollo

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #14 on: May 29, 2011, 09:25:21 PM »
Olivier Messiaen's "Du canyon aux etoiles" has a wind machine.

That also features something called a "geophone," invented specifically by Messiaen to be used in that piece:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geophone_(percussion_instrument)
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Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #15 on: May 30, 2011, 01:19:06 AM »
Vibraphone: Roy Harris' Symphony #3 and Shostakovich's Symphony #14, and probably others that I don't know about. :)


Havergal Brian was the first to use them in classical music, in his opera The Tigers, the orchestration of which he completed at the end of 1920s. But as the full score was lost for almost 50 years, the fact was only discovered during the 1970s...
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Offline Luke

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #16 on: May 30, 2011, 01:42:47 AM »
Of course, it goes without saying, following on from the above, that Brian's Gothic, with its Bird Scare and Long Drum and Pedal clarinet and Basset Horns, should perhaps be mentioned...

Bass oboe: Holst's The Planets, and several other English compositions.

Yes, Tippett uses it in the Triple Concerto, along with a whole gamelan panoply of tuned gongs. Speaking of which - Harrison and Cage, anyone...? With their wonderful collections of tuned brake drums etc, with Harrison's own gamelan pieces... But then Cage leads on to all sorts of things, so maybe that avenue best left unopened here.

Vibraphone: Roy Harris' Symphony #3 and Shostakovich's Symphony #14, and probably others that I don't know about. :)

It's quite a common orchestral instrument now, really, I think.

Rototoms: Leonard Bernstein's Mass (which, I believe, uses lots of other "weird" instruments).

Another instrument Tippett laid quite a focus on in later years, this.

Bass trumpet: Janacek's Sinfonietta

Also the ocarinas and plastic slide whistles in Ligeti's violin concerto.

To link those two together, the use of the ocarina in Janacek's Riklada is the earliest I can think of. Scelsi uses a slide whistle in Anahit, and sistrums and various other weird things which I can't remember in Uaxuctum. Xenakis uses whistles and similar things in Oresteia; Kurtag uses fire alarms and klaxons in Grabstein fur Stephan; there's Gershwin with his tuned car horns in An American in Paris; and of course Varese's sirens go without saying.

Metronomes play a part in quite a few pieces, for example Norgard's 6th symphony.

And, again, I think the use of a pair of metronomes to open Ravel's L'heure espagnol is the earliest I am aware of.

George Benjamin's marvellous At First Light has a section in which he seems to have the orchestra competing to make the quietest, most delicate sounds possible. One of them is a newspaper being ripped in ever decreasing dynamic shadings. Another is a table tennis ball dropped in a drinking glass.

Among pieces which use party balloons, Maxwell Davies uses their rubbery squeak as a background to a commercial for condoms in his opera Resurrection.


Offline CRCulver

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #17 on: May 30, 2011, 01:55:39 AM »
Metronomes play a part in quite a few pieces, for example Norgard's 6th symphony.

Norgard's Sixth does not employ a metronome. You may be thinking of Terrains vagues, which shares a Chandos disc with the Symphony No. 6.

Offline Grazioso

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #18 on: May 30, 2011, 03:46:18 AM »
So, what, if anything, is the consensus on resorting to these types of unusual (for classical music) instruments? Gimmicky and distracting, publicity stunts, useful additions to the sonic palette, a natural progression towards inclusiveness and experimentation, a way to question or undermine tradition...?
There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact. --Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: "Weird" Instruments in Classical Music
« Reply #19 on: May 30, 2011, 05:09:43 AM »
Extending the sonic palette, I should say.
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato