Classical glass
Publication Date: Friday Mar 8, 1996

Classical glass

Musician Dennis James has mastered playing the glass armonica and other exotic instruments

by Erik Espe

The musical instruments Dennis James plays are beyond passe. They're history.

Palo Alto resident Dennis James is one of the world's foremost authorities on once-popular musical instruments forgotten for decades, sometimes centuries.

There's the seraphin, a set of individual music glasses; the glass armonica, a selection of glass bowls of decreasing size mounted on a rotating spindle; the cristal, an instrument that looks like a piano turned inside out.

Then there's the Theremin, a strange electronic instrument invented by young Russian physicist Leon Theremin in 1920. With an antenna that picks up hand movements, the Theremin is played without touching the instrument. A performer uses hand motions to create notes, which are picked up by a broadcast field. As hands enter the field and move, eerie, spacey notes are emitted from the black box.

Revered in the 1920s, the instrument was relegated to 1950s science fiction movie soundtracks, then faded away. The Beach Boys revived it briefly for their spacey, "Good Vibrations" songs.

Last year, a highly acclaimed documentary about Theremin and his eponymous instrument made the rounds of the local art houses.

Now, James is packing concert halls with the Theremin, and his collection of three other exotic instruments.

"I play instruments from the past," the upbeat Palo Alto resident says. "I find these things still have a use. The things that caused them to go out of fashion are no longer applicable."

The seraphin and glass armonica faded away because some believed their haunting, glass-produced notes could put people into a trance, even drive them insane. The Theremin became associated with 1950s science fiction movies.

Now, thanks in great part to James, old instruments are getting a second chance at life. Crowds are flocking to his concerts to hear centuries-old sounds that are fresh again.

On March 10, James will bring his odd assortment of instruments to St Mark's Episcopal Church for a 4 p.m. concert titled "Musica Curiosa: Echoes of Forgotten Instruments."

Dennis James first fell in love with odd instruments as a child, when he visited a Philadelphia museum and admired the original glass armonica, invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin. But it would be years before James would play his own music on glass. First, he learned how to play the organ from one of that instrument's great masters, Leonard MacClain, remembered for the dramatic music he contributed to the 1930s radio serial "Inner Sanctum."

When MacClain suffered a heart attack before one of his concerts, he had his 16-year-old pupil James fill in for him. The overwhelmingly positive response put James on the international touring circuit.

James went on to play a pivotal role in the revival of the silent film. In 1987, he began his ongoing engagement as a touring, solo organ player for the German Film Museum in Munich, Germany, performing with restored silent German classics. You also may have heard James perform on the organ at the Stanford Theatre in downtown Palo Alto, where he's one of the house organists.

His home on Middlefield Road, built in the early 1900s, is packed with furniture and memorabilia from the '20s, from old paintings to the instruments he plays.

"I live the way I make my living," he says, "collecting objects for use. I call it 'retrograde culture,' going back in time, finding moments when things failed or vanished from tastes, then reestablishing them."

One could say James started playing alternative instruments in 1981. He was at a friend's house, and suddenly had the urge to play music on a set of wine glasses.

"We pulled wine glasses out of a cabinet, and I played 'Happy Birthday' on glasses," he remembers. Ten years later, James had collected an assortment of wine glasses he picked up at garage sales and shops, all perfectly tuned to each play a single note.

He built his own seraphim, a set of individual musical glasses, mastered the instrument and suddenly found himself in demand as a concert artist playing something other than an organ.

"I went from no concerts to 21 the year I started to play them professionally," he says.

People have been playing music on glasses for more than 500 years, but the music caught on the strongest in 1761 when Benjamin Franklin invented the armonica, a desk-like case that lines up glass bowls suspended on a spindle. It creates the same sound as a seraphim but the bowls are already perfectly tuned. (The tuning of glasses on a seraphim normally has to be carefully adjusted by pouring a certain amount of water into each glass.)

Mozart created pieces strictly with the armonica in mind. He composed "Adagio in C for Solo Armonica" and the "Adagio and Rondo in C Concertante Quintet with Armonica" shortly before his death, ensuring the instrument a lasting legacy.

But in the early part of the 19th century, an Austrian hypnotist claimed he could cure people with nervous disorders by putting them into a trance with an armonica. An anti-armonica movement then claimed that insanity could be brought on by the instrument, sparking all-out bans of Franklin's invention.

It survives, but just barely. James says he is one of four people in the world who can play it.

As for the other instruments, there is at least one other person in the world today who can play the Theremin.

After James decided he wanted to learn how to play the obscure instrument, he cracked open a New York City phone book and found the number of Clara Rockmore, who was legendary in the 1920s for her skill at playing the Theremin. Rockmore used to pack concert halls before the instrument's use in science fiction movies killed its credibility as a serious instrument.

"The thing that killed it was its use in Hollywood movies," James says. "It became a sound effect."

James plays the strange black box by waving his hands in front of it, raising notes by lifting his fingers. The sound isn't as soothing as his glass-playing, but it's unique. One can immediately recognize it from those old B movies, and from a portion of the Beach Boys' classic "Good Vibrations."

In a similar vein as the Theremin is the cristal, another glass instrument, built in 1954. With a satellite-like shape and a giant dish-like speaker hanging from its side, it definitely looks like something out of the 1950s. The sound is a combination of the seraphin and a cello, at other times like a steel drum. The instrument is still used frequently in movie soundtracks.

James has other odd instruments, too--ones he won't be using in the local concert, including 1888's ducletone, a Scottish instrument with tuning forks that are hit by piano hammers. It was later replaced by the similar sounding, but much louder, celeste. Another one of his instruments, the clavichord, sounds just like a harpischord, only not as loud. The harpsichord wiped it out.

In less than five years, James has carved a new niche for his music career. In addition to touring with his glass instruments, he recently toured with the silent Russian film classic "Alita: Queen of Mars," performing music on the Theremin. He's also a member of Linda Ronstadt's band.

He says the greatest thing about playing exotic instruments is being one of the few who know how to play them.

"When you're the only one who's doing it, you're the world's best when you start," he says.

Musica Curiosa: Echoes of Forgotten Instruments

When: 4 p.m., Sunday, March 10

Where: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto

Cost: $8

Information: 326-3800 or 321-4422 

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