Saturday, September 11, 2010

Surrounded by a raging pack of glockenspiels? (The Best Underrated Instruments, 4)

Today's instrument is the glockenspiel.

It's 6:19 a.m. and I'm thinking about "glockenspiels."

Each morning, I wake up, and each morning, something pops into my head that I can't quite account for. Today, it's the word "glockenspiel." But one day, it was the song "C'mon, C'mon" by Bronski Beat:

That's a song I woke up one morning, humming, for no apparent reason, just as one morning I woke up with a craving for chicken salad and one morning I woke up about 45 minutes late for work and thinking nothing.

I used to think maybe I had dreamed about these things, but then I realized that's crazy, because (a) who dreams about a minor (if catchy) reggae-pop-song from the 1980s? and (b) I remember all my dreams, and they mostly feature me solving minor mysteries in Disney World, with a pet alligator, like the time we realized that the person taking the mouse ears from the shop was a mad scientist living below the park, and that he was also planning on retrofitting them with broadcast devices that would make the wearer's thoughts audible to anyone within earshot. Poor guy, he was only doing that because he, himself, had once blurted out in eighth grade that he liked the head cheerleader, and been so embarrassed when everyone laughed that he'd dropped out of school to become a mad scientist. But me and Al still had to bring him in. Sometimes being a Disney Detective is tough work.

(If you think that sounds like a good TV show, write to whoever is in charge of Disney right now [I think it's Buzz Lightyear] and tell them to buy my idea. Thanks!)

Today, the thought of the morning was, and is, glockenspiel, and it occurred to me that other than the use of the word (and the instrument) in the song Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, I really know nothing about the glockenspiel. For all I knew, it could be a kind of chicken. That's our public schools for you: I know all about The Canterbury Tales, but nothing about whether I might, at any time, be surrounded by a raging pack of glockenspiels that I'd have to fend off through some unknown means.

Also, I never read The Canterbury Tales. I faked it. So that's a failing of the US Public School system, too, and we ought to scrap the whole works and just go back to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Because it's quiet at our house at 6 a.m., I had the time to do some research into what a glockenspiel might be and whether it's poisonous the way all spiders are (don't let "scientists" fool you. They'll tell you most spiders aren't dangerous or poisonous, but they've clearly been paid off and are in the pockets of Big Arachnid. And even if "scientists" weren't just lobbyists for black widows, who can trust them when they spend all their time playing Dance Dance Revolution and calling that an experiment?)

I went to Wikipedia first, because I wanted to see what the answers were not, and I was not disappointed by Wikipedia's page on the glockenspiel, which featured talk about a keyboard glockenspiel and pictured (among other instruments) a sousaphone. The page also claimed that glockenspiels are in all kinds of popular music, ranging from hip-hop to jazz. Why it pictured a sousaphone is beyond me, but at least I got the free misinformation out of the way.

For a more reliable source, I went anywhere, and ended up at the Vienna Symphonic Library. I don't know who runs that page, but the word "Vienna" was in it, and anything associated with Vienna is automatically smart and classy, so I'll take that as a good reference. That page said that there's three types of glockenspiels: Two are the kind almost nobody plays, and one is the kind nobody at all plays anymore.

The kind nobody plays at all anymore is what I'd say is the official glockenspiel, because it was first. It's a keyboard glockenspiel, played by hitting keys that then cause hammers to strike little bells or bars. The keyboard glockenspiel was invented in the 16th century, and most likely caused the first copyright infringement claim as the inventor of the piano (Buzz Lightyear, I think) sued the pants off the inventor of the glockenspiel (Buzz Glockenspiel, I'm pretty sure), but the joke was on Mr. Piano because according to what I remember making up about that era, pants weren't invented until the 17th century, so it was a hollow victory.

That Vienna Symphony library says that keyboard glockenspiels make an inferior sound, and the site has a clear preference for your more modern glockenspiels, including the "mallet-played glockenspiel" and "The glockenspiel that isn't even called a glockenspiel."

The popularity of the "Mallet-played glockenspiel" the Vienna library attributes to the greater clarity of tones and something called "nodal points," while I attribute the growth in popularity of that version to the fact that it's played with mallets. I'd have been much less opposed to piano lessons when I was a kid if I'd been allowed to use mallets to play it. Mallets make everything more fun to do.

The glockenspiel that isn't even called a glockenspiel is called a bell lyre, getting that name because it's shaped like a lyre but in place of the... strings? Is that what a lyre has? I don't know; Wikipedia claims that a lyre is a kind of a duck... so we'll go with strings... in place of strings, the bell lyre has... bells. It's a kind of upright glockenspiel that the library claims is popular in marching bands, but obviously we're using "popular" loosely since I've never heard of a bell lyre, and if I don't know about something, it's not popular. (Which, technically, makes Jerseylicious more popular than every book I was supposed to read in high school.)

True fact: Jerseylicious was based on The Marinator's Tale from The Canterbury Tales, especially this part:

Auf tim'd many a woman'd
Ask for cured meats, but they'd been
Left in th'sun too long themfelves,
Pouf'd hair and mafcara running.

The "cured meats" was a bawdy joke on the part of the author of the Canterbury Tales. (Buzz Lightyear.)

The Vienna Library wasn't the only source for information on the glockenspiel, of course. There's also the DSO Kids site, where you can hear what the glockenspiel sounds like, and learn that the name means "to play the bells." They weren't much for creativity in naming instruments back in the 16th century, were they?

More fun than that is the site that will tell you how to build your own glockenspiel, if that's the kind of thing you're into. When I first saw the site, I thought who would ever want to build their own glockenspiel, but then I thought wait, that's right, they're played with mallets, so now I'm kind of leaning towards building my own. The site will also let you play a virtual glockenspiel if you'd like. I spent about 20 minutes trying to play In A Gadda Da Vida on it, before remembering that I don't really know how that song goes.

Here's some glockenspiel songs for you:


Here, you rockenglockenspiel wannabees, is the ELECTRIC glockenspiel:

And here, you people who think that there is a job out there that can't be done better by machines, is a robot playing the glockenspiel:

Which means that all those futuristic apocalypse movies had it wrong. It's not a roving army of killer robots we'll be facing. It's a roving army of Killer Robot Marching Bands.

(And if you think that would make a great TV show, write to the head of Disney, too. I'm willing to bend on my artistic vision and have Al and I take a break from the mysteries to fight the Killer Robot Marching Bands.)

Previous Instruments:

1. Tuba

2. Harp.

3. Triangle

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