The Hurdy Gurdy

 

I’ve been wrestling with the challenge of introducing the hurdy-gurdy to blog readers. I’ve lived with and around the instrument for most of my adult life, and simply don’t know where to start.

I first saw the instrument in 1972 in the collection of a music store just outside of Washington DC.  It looked much like the guitar shaped instrument pictured below.  The store owner was happy to take it to a back room and let me examine it – at the time there was little written about the instrument and even less recorded, and it took research in the Library of Congress to get an idea of what the instrument was and how it was played.

A while after that (1989) I traveled to London to study instrument building in the Early Woodwind program at the London College of Furniture.  I met Sam Palmer, who was a maker and player of the instrument and a student in the stringed instrument division of the school.  Through his associates in the band Blowzabella and through my friend Mac McCreary, I was introduced to the contemporary folk music associated with the instrument.

Here’s the deal: while most Americans have never heard of the instrument, It has been among the most popular instruments of the last 1000 years. Europeans get this – they don’t think that history started in 1776, and they have the advantage of being surrounded by surviving instruments and folk traditions that reflect this long history.

Organ_grinder_with_monkey

This is not a Hurdy Gurdy

This is a great picture of an organ grinder, monkey, and barrel organ.  Not a Hurdy-Gurdy.  Although confused in the last century, particularly in popular culture, the two instruments have nothing to do with each other.  Not even the monkey.

Another confusing reference is Donovan’s song, Hurdy Gurdy Man.  The song is vague and does not really describe any existing instrument, but on the other hand, it’s a great song.

So, what IS a Hurdy Gurdy?

The hurdy gurdy that most people play today is a style that became popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and was manufactured traditionally in France until the early 1900s.  It experienced a revival in the 1970s, along with many other folk traditions, and is now built by several excellent makers in Europe and the US.

It is a stringed musical instrument, played using the keys that you can see in the first illustration above. These keys touch the melody strings (instead of your finger-tips) which allows you to play melodies.

louvet_drehleier

  • It is a drone instrument.  This means that in addition to the melody strings, there are drone strings that (not surprisingly) produce a drone to back up the melody.
  • The strings are not plucked or bowed, but made to sound by rubbing against a wheel that is treated with rosin, much like a bow.  This produces a constant sound, much like a quieter version of a bagpipe, where the drones and the melody strings sound all the time.
  • Perhaps the most distinctive part of the hurdy gurdy is a “buzzing bridge”.  One of the drone strings goes over a specially shaped bridge that buzzes when the wheel is sped up slightly. this allows the player to create a complex percussive accompaniment to the tune being played, and is one of the features that makes modern hurdy gurdy music so compelling.

To get a better idea of what the instrument can do, listen to it’s master players.

YouTube has some amazing performances, like Gregory Jolivet above .  A more traditional example of hurdy gurdy playing can be found on the album Musiques pour vielle à roue en Auvergne et Bourbonnais by Patrick Bouffard.  Follow the link to hear clips of the album on Amazon – all of the tracks are exceptional so start at the top and work your way down.

I’ll list some more of my favorites in a future post.  After you listen, add a comment and let me know what you think –  Like it? hate it?  If you have a favorite, be sure to add it in the comments below.

 

 

 

I stood on a Star Trek transporter and nothing happened

Back in the 60’s my uncle Jerry was a science fiction writer. He had some fame in the 50s as a novelist, and became involved in the motion picture industry. I suspect his career was unfairly stunted by his involvement with HP Lovecraft’s gothic horror novel “The Color out of Space” for Shepperton Studios. The film was released in the US as “Die Monster, Die”, Die,_Monster,_Die!and features the last performance of Boris Karloff. It is also rumored to contain massive amounts of acting under the influence of LSD. As such, it resembles Hertzog’s “Heart of Glass” as much as it does a HP Lovecraft story – not well received at the time, but increasingly well regarded as a cult classic in modern times (rotten tomatos, 71% and rising).

In any case, he was a friend of Gene Roddenberry, and was one of the first science fiction authors tapped to write screenplays for a concept that had just been greenlighted called Star Trek. His first contribution to the canon was “The Corbomite Maneuver”, which was the first (non-pilot) episode filmed, although it was shown out of order (#3) when the series launched. The episode is famed for other reasons as well – the first appearance of Clint Howard (Rons brother, the member of the family everyone thought was going places) as a child actor playing the role of Balok, captain of the mighty Fesarius.

What this meant for me was that when my family visited Uncle Jerry in the spring of 1966, he arranged for us to tour the set, and watch the filming of an episode. We had no idea what the show would become, really we had no idea what it was even about since it had not been broadcast yet. Still, as a science fiction fan, I was excited to see the inside of a real tv show – and a science fiction one at that. We were not allowed to take pictures – in retrospect a great shame, but understandable at the time.

Mudd’s Women was being filmed the day we visited, (the second episode filmed) and we saw one scene being filmed – where a miner of lithium crystals (not yet dilithium) and one of the women have a fight – I remember a line about “Women’s cooking”.
We were introduced to William Shatner, and Leonard Nimoy, who were in costume and waiting for their scene. Both were polite, with Shatner distracted by a conversation about his motorcycle. Nimoy complained to Jerry about his ears not fitting. We shook hands and moved on.

We toured the set, and I was struck by the setcraft – boulders made of paper mache and tin foil, covered with spray texturing. There were several sections, each containing sets. In one we walked up a wooden ramp to the side of a large structure walled in surplus cardboard boxes, and walked through a door onto the bridge of the Enterprise. I was struck by the difference between the outside and the inside – with nothing better to compare it too, the control panels and tiered bridge were impressive, even with the inexpensive materials and repurposed elements. We looked around freely, and I sat in the captain’s chair (this probably made Jerry nervous, but no one was around to see). We then toured other sets – the transporter room stays in my memory. We stood on the transporters, but of course had no idea how they would be used in the show.

That captain’s chair is now on display in Paul Allen’s science fiction museum, housed in a building by Frank Gehry. My cousin Ed and I visited it not too long ago. Ed had been with us on the tour that year and so it was a homecoming for us both. I’m told that Paul has never actually sat in the chair – it is a museum artifact now, so I’ve done something that one of the richest men in the world can’t do. (or is at least smart enough not to do).

In the late 90s I came across a Star Trek action figure of Balok, which I sent to Jerry along with a comment on how Jerry had obtained pop culture immortality. I’m told he kept it displayed in his office till he passed in 2002.

Euphonia is back

The previous blog by this name was perhaps better looking, but not well funded.  This means that it died due to neglect and due to changing priorities and interests.  It is now back, with some of the better articles reprised, some new material added, and a new focus on electronic music, modular synthesis, and general instrument making.  I think.