Sacbuts and Birotrons

The shadow history of musical instruments.


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Salon Staff
June 14, 2007 8:40PM (UTC)

It wasn't destiny that caused musical instruments like the piano, guitar and violin to become so commonplace but, rather, a mix of luck, technical innovation and influential support. A little extra money here, a sympathetic composer there, and we could be living in a world of lute lessons and Birotron recitals. The latter instrument is the subject of a great story by Paul Collins in the new music-themed issue of the Believer that shows just how much fortuity and contingency are involved in getting a new musical instrument off the ground.

A keyboard that uses loops of eight-track tape to generate its sound, the Birotron, named after its inventor, Dave Biro, found an early supporter in '70s rock keyboard maestro Rick Wakeman, who used the unwieldy machine on recordings with Yes. But recurring technical problems resulted in the instrument's falling out of favor. There are only four known Birotrons in existence today, making it, as Collins writes, "the rarest rock instrument ever made." You can listen to a sound clip of the Birotron here.

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Learning about the ill-fated Birotron got me thinking about other instruments whose sound was muffled by the passing of time. Johannes Stroh thought he had a good idea back in 1899 when he attached a metal horn to a violin in an effort to amplify the stringed instrument's sound, but his Stroh violin fell out of favor once modern microphone technology allowed stringed instruments to be recorded at a satisfactory volume. The rusty, eerie wail of the Stroh violin was resurrected by Tom Waits on his 2002 albums "Alice" and "Blood Money."

The Weissenborn came along just a little bit after the Stroh violin but met a similarly unfortunate fate. Hermann C. Weissenborn's lap steel guitar gained some popularity around the time of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, which, for a brief time, kicked off a Hawaiian music craze that the gentle, moaning sound of the Weissenborn was well suited to capitalize on. But when Hawaiian music went back to being a niche market, sales of the instrument plummeted. In the past decade or so, roots-rock musician Ben Harper has played a key role in a mini-Weissenborn resurgence, taking the instrument to Hendrixian heights its creator could never have imagined.

Going farther back, the Renaissance saw the advent of wonderfully named, and now largely forgotten, instruments like the shawm, the sacbut and the zink -- precursors to modern woodwind and brass instruments. This site has brief histories and MP3 files of these instruments and others from the time, including the rackett, bladder pipe and serpent.

It's hard to imagine the guitar and the clarinet going the way of the Stroh violin or the Birotron, but there is a community of inventors out there working on what might be the instruments of tomorrow. Will the pop stars of 2025 be shaking to the sounds of the daxophone and video octavox? Might we see the rise of robot-controlled musical devices like the TibetBot? Or will the sound of the future come from the hyperviolin's combination of old and new technology?

We can look to the example of Bartolomeo Cristofori for just how difficult these things are to predict. Around 1700, the Italian instrument maker designed a musical instrument that, legend says, was greeted with scorn by prominent musical figures like C.P.E. Bach and something more than scorn from organ maker Gottfried Silbermann, who is said to have taken an ax to a model of Cristofori's instrument. Lucky for Cristofori, other people liked his invention, the piano, a little more than those two did.

-- David Marchese

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