Apr. 3rd, 2013

korintomichi: (Dune)
Just back from a trip to the Cotswolds. On the way to Chedworth Roman villa we spotted a sign for The Museum of Mechanical Music. Both glanced across at each other and instantly decided that we'd like to visit that. So we did. And it was completely brilliant.

You first enter via a shop which has a few twee musical boxes in the window, a bunch of clocks and some cool 'build your own' gadget kits. The tours were guided so we had to hang around until the appointed time (actually we didn't, we went to the local pub for a swift half), after which we were ushered into a room, whereupon our guide introduced us to the mechanical musical marvels within. The tour was supposed to last an hour, we were in there for nearly two. We received a detailed explanation about the design and construction of the machines, then heard each of them play.

First we were shown the cylinder musical boxes. These are gorgeously constructed boxes with a pinned cylinder inside. Some of the more complex cylinders had up to 10,000 pins, each designed to trigger a particular note as the cylinder turned. They had been restored by the museum to provide pitch perfect tunes at the exact tempo for the piece.

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The more sophisticated boxes had a range of sounds, from music combs to snare drums to reed organs and saucer bells. Each could play 10 or so tunes - a full programme of classical music.

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The tune cards list the tunes available on each cylinder. Some of the boxes would allow a repeat function but if you missed the track you liked, you'd have to wait for the cylinder to turn full circle before you could hear it again. Mendelssohn's Wedding March seemed to be particularly popular.

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There were a number of barrel organs and disc players.

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Next we saw this polyphon.

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An early jukebox, you wind it up, name your tune (from a choice of 10 discs) and put a coin in the slot (and literally hear the penny drop). The machine selects the metal disc and raises it up to playing position. This polyphon played the most sublime version of Bach's Ave Maria – it was just gorgeous. It's available to buy for a 'mere' £15,000. If I had a spare £15,000 kicking about I would buy it.

Later instruments worked on a weight system. This is a weight driven barrel piano orchestrion, coin operated, with mandolin attachment, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, and triangle.
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This has a magnetic device which could detect whether whatever 'coin' had been dropped into the slot was made of nickel and therefore whether it really was money.

We saw some of the Edison phonograph cylinders and some gramophones. You can see the Edison phonograph in the background of the polyphon picture. The bell moves along the cylinder itself. The cylinders are incredibly brittle and hideously expensive. It's no surprise that records became more popular as they were easy to produce and store.

There were also a number of gramophones. This beauty has the most outrageous horn – it's effectively made from papier mache but covered with snakeskin to form a smooth exterior.
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The sound is rich and mellow. Volume control for gramophones was literally to put a sock in it (hence the phrase), although in this case you'd probably need to use a woolly jumper. It used bamboo 'needles', which could be sharpened using a cutter, rather than conventional steel needles. This had the effect of the discs wearing down the needle rather than the other way round, which helped preserve the discs. Unfortunately someone had put Glenn Miller's In the Mood disc onto a gramophone which used steel needles and wrecked the disc. Oh, and the chair underneath the desk? Sit on it and a pin drops, activating the mechanism to play a tune. You'd never lose at musical chairs!

Finally we were shown the player pianos. These included a gorgeous 100 year old Steinway. In the early 20th Century a technique was developed whereby composers and famous pianists could 'record' their playing using electrical signals generated by each key press pushing a rod into a pool of mercury at the base of the piano which was linked to a device that created a marked out roll of sheet music which could then be perforated and played on other player pianos, accurately representing the playing of the music. The museum had rolls from many composers playing their own compositions. It's a reproduction, rather than a recording; as C commented, really early MIDI. We heard several minutes from Grieg's Piano Concerto played Olga Samaroff, one of the few female pianists around at the time (she was the first female to play Carnegie Hall). It was so good we didn't make a single Morecambe and Wise joke.

This was a little beauty.
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It was over 80 years old. The museum had a number of scrolls available for it to play (as it did with all the instruments). We chose Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. That's Rhapsody in Blue as played by Gershwin. Apparently the piano part is so difficult he had to play a duet with himself, recording it twice. We heard the piece all the way through. It was just marvellous.

We'd thoroughly recommend a visit to the place if you like old things or mechanical things or musical things or all of those things. It's not just a museum, there are skilled craftsmen who restore these instruments. Many were available for purchase. You are even allowed to have a go at 'playing' some of the instruments yourself – C managed to play us a merry tune on this:

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