[Editor's Note: On Monday we had Nissim Schaul give a demonstration of a hurdy-gurdy. I asked him to write about the instrment. (Fortunately he didn't have to travel with this instrument on a plane.)]
I brought my hurdy-gurdy with me to Music10 entirely in order to proselytize for the instrument. I’m not the best spokesman, since I’m still a bit of a beginner, but a few days ago, I got to give a half-hour to talk about the instrument in front of lots of other composers. I was excited!
So, to start with, I’m not talking about an organ-grinder. It’s unfortunate that in English, two instruments have one name on account of the crank. But a monkey could never play the vielle à roue (I’ll use the French word from here on out, since I’ve been learning the French version of the instrument.) It’s actually a pretty complicated instrument – lots of moving parts. First, most famously, are the drones (the bourdons – the bumblebees). My student instrument has four drone strings, though many vielles have 6-8, not to mention the ringing sympathetic strings. One of my four drones is special, called the chien (the dog). Most of the strings are on a stable bridge, but the chien’s bridge moves, meaning that it buzzes when hit hard. That allows a vielleur to add a rhythmic aspect to an instrument that otherwise is quite static.