Songs for Glass Island: An entire concert on instruments made of glass

Victoria’s Experimental Music Unit — Paul Walde, Tina Pearson and George Tzanetakis — collaborating with Camille Norment, an American-Norwegian artist, are presenting to audiences in Victoria and Vancouver a performance called Songs for Glass Island. Equal parts experimental music and sound art, Songs for Glass Island will see the four performers surrounded by, and interacting with, a sprawling assortment of glass objects and instruments —some of which were devised by the musicians themselves.

Five of the instruments that will be played by Victoria's Experimental Music Unit with Camille Norment

Camille Norment (centre) with Experimental Music Unit members Paul Walde (left), George Tzanetakis and Tina Pearson (right). (Hollis Roberts)

Starting tonight, a group of experimental musicians in B.C. will give a series of performances using instruments and objects made solely from glass.

The project sees three musicians from Victoria's Experimental Music Unit — Paul Walde, Tina Pearson and George Tzanetakis — collaborating with Camille Norment, an American-Norwegian artist known for her skills on the glass armonica (more on that strange instrument later).

Currently, they are experimenting with the various tones, harmonics and frequencies can be produced from glass, and the results will be presented to audiences in Victoria and Vancouver in the form of a performance called Songs for Glass Island.

Equal parts experimental music and sound art, Songs for Glass Island will see the four performers surrounded by, and interacting with, a sprawling assortment of glass objects and instruments —some of which were devised by the musicians themselves.

"Glass is a crazy thing," says Tina Pearson of the Experimental Music Unit. "It creates a really mesmerizing sound world."

The musicians described for CBC Arts five types of glass instruments they will be using, or even creating, for the show:

1. Glass flutes

A Japanese musician performs with a traditional "shinobue" transverse flute made out of glass. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

These will include a premade Hall crystal flute and a custom-built replica of a kaval, a wooden flute traditionally played in areas such as Bulgaria, Turkey and northern Greece. The latter was created by a scientific glass blower who created holes in a glass tube — in the precise spots you'd find them on a wooden kaval — by melting the glass. Musician George Tzanetakis describes the sound as similar to a wooden kaval, but "more clear."

2. Glass sheets 

(Paul Walde)

The musicians will have three repurposed sheets of glass of varying sizes at their disposal. All of them will be equipped with a contact microphone, a special type of microphone that captures audio signals created by solid objects, to amplify sounds when the sheets are rubbed or struck. One of the sheets, repurposed from a patio table, will be circular and mounted horizontally to be played as a giant "turntable." Musician Paul Walde will walk around it using a drumstick as a "stylus" to create what he describes as a "crystalline screeching sound."

3. Broken glass

(Paul Walde)

"We're looking at making as many different textures as we can find, and that's our palette," Pearson says. Part of that palette will be created with broken glass, which can be manipulated and made to vibrate in various ways. Musicians could, for example, put broken glass in a goblet and swish it around, or simply grate pieces of glass together.

4. Glass armonica

Camille Norment's glass armonica. (Magne Risnes)

This will be the ensemble's most, er, conventional instrument. Probably Benjamin Franklin's niftiest invention —sorry, bifocals — the glass armonica (spelling is correct — no "h") is essentially a series of concentric glass bowls on a rotating rod. The performer touches the moving glass with wet fingers, releasing a chorus of spectral tones.

Mozart wrote a song for it, and it makes an appearance on Tom Waits' "Rainbirds." Its popularity waned in the 19th century, due in part to an eerie rumour that it causes insanity. "Reading into the history, I fell in love with it," says armonica player Camille Norment. "It has a very potent, visceral sound."

5. Glass harp

(Paul Walde)

A precursor to the glass armonica, a glass harp isn't an instrument per se — it's literally a collection of crystal wine glasses (6 to 12, in this case) filled with varying amounts of water. Traditionally, the glasses are rubbed with a wet finger to produce harmonics. In addition to the glass harp, the musicians will also use large glass vessels — such as bowls and vases — which operate on a similar principle. A large glass vessel sounds curiously similar to a cello.

Songs from Glass Island shows at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria on April 7, 7 p.m., and on April 8, 1 p.m. It also shows in Vancouver on April 9, 7 p.m., hosted by theContemporary Art Gallery at Pyatt Hall, VSO School of Music. $16 from https://www.picatic.com/CAGglass.

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