Recently, I beguiled a few hours on my island by building a hurdy-gurdy.
For those of us whose only experience with the quaint musical instrument is the eponymous Donovan song, a hurdy-gurdy is a drone instrument, played by turning a crank which spins a rosined wheel over strings. The strings are moved with a series of levers or hammers to create the various tones. The rhythms are governed by how long you hold the lever and how hard you crank. It is not the weirdest of instruments I have ever seen. A recent visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ musical instrument collection yielded far more bizarre examples.
I am bemused that my instrument’s rustic folksiness is offset, as were many of the examples in Boston, by the almost rococo ornamentation of the casing. The outward aspect of the device says royal court while the sound is distinctly country dance. My version can play recognizable notes but is a shadow of the throaty warble of a true hurdy gurdy in full voice. Or maybe it is just me.
Building it, I couldn’t help but think of a family trip to Switzerland where we treated ourselves to a luncheon of traditional alpine food and entertainment. The food was cheese and potato heavy, as expected. The frivolity featured folk dances and of course alpenhorns (in miniature since the actual ones can sound for miles). But for me the most fascinating part was the music that was played on a strange assortment of household objects. There was a banner band, with different sized flags used to whoosh tunes. There were whistlers and spoon players. My favorite by far were the bowl players, who would set a coin rolling on edge down the side of a large wooden bowl and with skillful manipulation would produce a deep and eerie melody.
The first human instinct is always to make music. Something in the measured play of notes speaks to us at such a primal level that we turn any object at hand into a musical one. It may be akin to whistling past a graveyard – the ennobling force of a tune can lift even the most downtrodden heart. Was this the instinct that has led folks in New York or in Italy to come out on their balconies nightly and serenade another day, to let the world know that there is still breath in our lungs and spirit in our souls?
[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]