MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

David Jaffe: The Space Between Us

JaffeDavid Aaron Jaffe

Recommended event in Seattle: David A. Jaffe’s The Space Between Us on Saturday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space.

Jaffe is a San Francisco-based composer and performer with a special interest in computer music innovation (Silicon Valley Breakdown); he’s also a software developer and writer.

The Space Between Us, commissioned by the San Francisco Other Minds Festival and dedicated to Jaffe’s mentor, the legendary Henry Brant, receives its Seattle premiere. The work mixes acoustic instruments with “robotic percussion instruments” created by sound sculptor and maverick composer Trimpin.

Jaffe offers this background:

“It combines the remarkable ‘radiodrum’ 3D controller, which Seattle percussionist Andrew Schloss has pioneered, with Trimpin’s transformations of funky pre-war instruments I inherited from spatial music pioneer (and Pulitzer Prize-winner) Henry Brant, as well as eight string players distributed throughout the hall.”

Jaffe explains that Brant died before he could realize a collaboration he had been planning with Trimpin: “I was in Santa Barbara packing up for shipment the instruments that he left me in his will, and I got the idea of approaching Trimpin to see if he would be interested in doing a piece with these instruments in honor of Brant. He was enthusiastic so, at the very last minute, while standing at the UPS counter, I changed the destination address and sent the instruments directly to Trimpin….”

More info on the work, including reviews, can be found here.

The program will also include Jaffe’s virtuoso fiddle showpiece Cluck Old Hen Variations, “which sounds like what Paganini might have written if he were from Kentucky,” and Impossible Animals for computer voices, “in which the brain of a bird is transplanted into a wildly-gifted computer-generated soprano.”

The all-woman Lafayette String Quartet — for whom Jaffe has written several quartets — will additionally perform Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9 and English composer Rebecca Clarke’s Poem.

Filed under: instruments, new music

Da Vinci’s Viola Organista

Sketch from Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus

Sketches from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus


Just ran across This Is Colossal‘s report on the Polish pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki’s realization of one of tne wildly imaginative hybrids Leonardo da Vinci dreamed up in his notebooks. Sketches for this “viola organista” – a mating of the principles of stringed and keyboard instruments – are found in da Vinci’s massive collection of sketches known as the Codex Atlanticus.

Zubrzycki demonstrated his new version of this invention at the recent International Royal Cracow Piano Festival. The Colossal‘s story links to this more-detailed account at The History Blog of the background of the viola organista and attempts to realize it, including this early one:

Almost a hundred years [after the da Vinci sketches] in 1575, church organist Hans Hyden of Nuremberg created the first functional bowed keyboard instrument operated by a foot-treadle. He used gut strings (later switched to metal when the gut strings failed to say in tune) and five or six parchment-wrapped wheels which, when turned by the treadle and a hand-crank at the far end operated by a helper, would be drawn against individual strings determined by which keys were played. Hyden claimed his instrument could produce crescendos, diminuendos, vibrato and sustain notes indefinitely solely through finger pressure on the keys. He even said it could duplicate the voice of a drunk man.

He called it a Geigenwerk (meaning “fiddle organ”) which is the German translation of da Vinci’s name for it, but although some sources imply or claim he based his design on da Vinci’s, I have serious doubts about that. Leonardo was hugely famous in his lifetime and after, but it was for his art, not his notebooks. Bequeathed to his friend and apprentice Francesco Melzi, the notebooks were sold off piecemeal by the Melzi family after Francesco’s death in 1579. Pages were scattered to courts and collectors all over Europe. Some of Leonardo’s notes on painting were published in 1651, but the bulk of the notebooks only made it into print in the 19th century. I don’t see how Hyden could have had had access to them.

None of Hyden’s Geigenwerks — he’s reputed to have built as many as 32 of them although only two are thoroughly documented — have survived. The details of its operation and the sole surviving illustration of the instrument have come down to us from German composer and music theorist Michael Praetorius who included one of Hyden’s original pamphlets describing the machine and a woodcut of it in the appendix to the second volume of his Syntagma Musicum, published as the Theatrum Instrumentorum seu Sciagraphia in 1620.

Hat tip: Benjamin Lukoff (Twitter @lukobe)

Filed under: da Vinci, instruments, music news

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