Glass-ical Musick will be coming to Redding when armonica player Dennis James performs in Redding on Jan. 7. He will perform and educate audiences about his instrument, the glass armonica, which was originally designed by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th Century. James recently spoke with the Arts & Leisure editor about the armonica and his upcoming concert.
TinaMarie Craven: How did you become interested in the armonica?
Dennis James: I first became aware of glass musical instruments at the age of 6 while visiting the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I can still recall being completely mesmerized by the appearance of the original 1761 Benjamin Franklin armonica on display. From that point forward I had a gradually increasing fascination with anything referring to music made with glass. My first exposure to performed glass music resulted in genuine development when I obtained a copy of the LP recording of historical glass music repertoire by Bruno Hoffmann. His instrument was actually a set of table-mounted individual glasses of his own design and quite different from the Benjamin Franklin mechanized glass armonica. I found myself charmed and literally captivated by the exotic sounds of rim-rubbed glass even when played without historical technique. From that I’d vowed to someday learn to play the delicate music and, of course, to obtain such an instrument.
TC: How did you make it?
DJ: It was a 10-year process to build my first authentic historical-recreation glass armonica capable of duplicating the sound, all of the playing characteristics and the overall appearance characteristic of the 18th and early 19th Century original instruments. At the start of the project I was told by Hoffmann that the armonica as a performing instrument was basically unplayable. He told me that the legendary attributes of the instrument were actually just figments of historical imagination and an armonica could only be used essentially to drone simple sustained musical chords permissible only with minimal movement of the hand and fingers. I didn’t believe his opinions, leading to me deciding to prove him wrong. I thought, golly, somebody ought to really go after this! And I named myself! I initially worked my way through several experimental instruments being made here in the U.S. in the 1980s by Gerhard Finkenbeiner. These turned out to have quite varying construction difficulties and lacked the critical in-performance reliability.
By the beginning of 1991, I ended up with a lovely set of two concert armonicas custom-built for me by glass artist Erwin Eisch.
TC: How did you learn to play the armonica?
DJ: With no teachers of glass instruments available and with Hoffmann declining my request to study with him, I began my approach with thorough reading and research into the surviving historically published glass music materials. I then developed my personal performance techniques for each of the glass instruments I now play and confirmed the modern-day validity of their use by performing with the various other similarly inclined instrumentalists and ensembles on tour.
TC: How does glass music differ from other musical styles?
DJ: Actually, glass music may be thought of as the zelig of musical styles, in that it has been written for in every genre throughout Western music history since it was introduced in 1762. Classical, romantic, contemporary, symphonic, opera, ballet, chamber music, popular music, film scores … virtually everything.
TC: What can audiences in Redding expect from your upcoming performance?
DJ: I like to think they will obtain a thorough introduction to the history of glass music instruments and hear period-authentic repertoire presented in a most jovial and thoroughly entertaining manner. My “Glass-ical Musick” program in Redding will also include projected visual illustrations, and I am including an audience-participation segment wherein I will teach the attendees to play water-tuned musical glasses and then lead them in performing together in a sort of spontaneous “vitreous choir.”