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Christina Kubisch, "Armonica"

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Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1763, the glass harmonica is quite different than today’s mouth harmonica.  Sound is created by the movement of wet fingers along the rims of more than two dozen glass discs, arranged horizontally and moved using a foot-pedal.  Apparently, playing the glass harmonica became a hip activity no doubt because of the enigmatic sounds its produces, compared at the time to heavenly voices, perhaps also the cause of “serious nervous breakdowns among its mostly female players.” 


Those who’ve heard people playing music with glass (not at all uncommon today), or anyone who’s worked a wet finger around the top of a water glass, will be familiar with the building blocks of a glass harmonica’s sound: steely, constant drones often touched by the sense of rushing or anxious velocity.  Perhaps the way that the discs are arranged, or the fact that they are discs and not more concave shapes, produces, in the glass harmonica, a profoundly resonant exaggeration of the sounds produced by a wet water glass rim.  The overtones created by concurrent drones are comparable to those of a gong or large metal disc, minus the moment of striking impact and the variable of decay.  Imagine sounds with the up-front urgency of sine-wave tones or tuning forks (the sound source for Kubisch’s first release on Semishigure), but made strange and irregular by an obscured ringing, the glistening and wavering of vibrating metal. 

Not part (from what I can tell) of one of the installation works for which Kubisch is most famous, Armonica is almost one hour of glass harmonica recordings, unaltered by the artist.  The silences and short fades that cut the hour into intervals give evidence to a kind of sectioning or arrangement by Kubisch, a compositional intent that is nearly lost to the sense of awe directed at the instrument itself.  It’s immediately hard to believe the sounds are non-manipulated until the noise of the player’s foot comes sneaking through like a message from the other side…the familiar one. 

The higher-pitched discs sound at first like violins in a Conrad drone formation, tactile in their suggestion of movement, but soon lifting to the front of the sound field with the nervous constancies of pure tones, encompassing and impossible to let ride in the background.  Lower-pitched discs operate within a distanced ringing similar to tuning fork notes, but always possess some form of minute, rhythmic imperfection, perhaps due to the finger’s revolution around the rim.  When layered, these tiny undulations, like absent thought patterns, create bizarre, spatially-disorienting effects in conjunction with the more absolute sounds of the higher, rushing drones.  The effect reminds me frequently of a more subtle version of the warm, warbly antique synth sound that Boards of Canada use so often.  Kubisch’s piece, in contrast, is numbing and unforgiving; it’s closer in overall feel to the work of Phil Niblock, despite the frequency of the breaks in the sound’s forward momentum.  I feel the recognizable sensations of mind-suspension combined with a very real gravity and heavy placement here.  Something about these sounds I have not pinned down makes them seem utterly alien but at the same time so so present.  It’s driving me a bit (more) crazy, feeling like I could make more than a few friends with some 18th century harmonica-playing spinster freaks.  Thank you, Christina Kubisch.     


Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 November 2005 01:54  


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