[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.
This is a good moment to explain that the vielle is a bowed instrument, like a violin or a cello, but the “bow” is actually a wheel. You turn the crank and the rosined wheel rubs against the cottoned strings, which produces vibrations, which are amplified by the instrument’s body.
The other strings on the vielle are called the chanterelles. I feel like chanterelle is the name of a French insect, which would nicely complete the animal theme, but it doesn’t. Alas. The chanterelles play the melody by means of a keyboard that requires gravity.
The best part of the day, though, was after the nightly concert when we all played Philip Glass’s Music in Parallel Motion on whichever instrument we thought we could play, so I brought out my vielle. My colleague, Wenhui Xie, turned the crank while I vain attempted to finger the right notes with two hands on the keyboard. That is, no doubt, the highlight of my young vielle-playing career. I’m looking forward to new opportunities to do crazy things with my instrument – yes, I am planning on writing lots of music for the vielle once I get a little better at it!