by Seth Rogovoy
April 5, 1996 -- WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass.
Just about everyone at one time or another has discovered that given the right kind of glass -- a wine glass or crystal goblet, perhaps -- you can make a sound by running a moistened finger around the rim. This is the basic principle behind the glass armonica, an instrument created by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, in order to take advantage of the unique sonic possibilities inherent in crystal bowls.
For a brief time, after its introduction, the armonica -- or harmonica, as Franklin called it -- gained widespread popularity, and composers including Mozart and Beethoven even lent their composing talents to the instrument. By 1830, however, the novelty of the armonica had pretty much worn off. There are only a few Franklin-era instruments extant in museums, and now when you say "armonica" people assume you are referring to the mouth organ which appropriated the glass instrument's name for itself.
There are, however, a handful of musicians who are trying to revive interest in the armonica. Some, like Dennis James, perhaps the preeminent performer of "glass music" (as in crystal, not Philip), play the classical repertory. Others, including the Berkshires' own Yatri, are discovering original, new-age possibilities in this ancient-sounding vessel.
"When I first heard the sound of the armonica, it just did something to me in my bones, and I knew that I wanted to have one of my own," said Yatri, a former concert pianist from Canada who now lives in Lenox, in a recent phone interview.
"It had an ancient kind of haunting quality," said Yatri, who was first introduced to the music of glass by Eric Cadesky of Toronto's Glass Orchestra. "The sound was different. I hadn't heard anything like it before. It definitely appealed to a part of me that hadn't been awakened yet."
As Kathryn Root, Yatri toured and recorded with the Canadian chamber music ensemble Camerata for 10 years, and taught at the University of Western Ontario, Mount Allison University and at Indiana University, where she received her masters degree in piano performance.
Since 1991, however, Yatri has dedicated herself to improvising sound on the armonica. That year her instrument -- a one-of-a-kind reconstruction of Franklin's original design created by Massachusetts glass blower Gerhard Finkenbeiner and Canadian inventor Oscar Bookbinder -- was completed, and she and her husband, Peter Taussig, moved to Lenox.
The move was prompted in part by the desire to be closer to Kripalu, the healing and meditation center that the couple had been visiting for years. Yatri's music is inextricably tied to her work at Kripalu -- it was there where she developed her improvisational style, intended as an aid to relaxation and meditation.
"I feel like there is something about the sound," said Yatri about the unique, high, sustained pitches of the armonica. "The vibration itself continues into the bones or something. I now when I play it I go into an altered state. I'm very, very relaxed."
Her work at Kripalu led to many requests by guests that she make a recording of her improvisations so they could use them to aid in relaxation and meditation at home.
The result is the recently released "Crystal Spirit," a 47- minute CD or cassette recorded last summer by engineer Chris Brown in a studio beneath the chapel at Kripalu. The eight contemplative improvisations on the recording have a new-age feel not unlike the "ambient music" experiments pioneered by *Brian Eno in the 1970s. While the album is primarily a showcase for the armonica, Yatri also overdubbed some string-like accompaniment using a synthesizer in order to balance out the high pitches of the glass instrument.
Comparing her work on the armonica to her piano concertizing is like comparing apples and oranges, says Yatri. "It's a whole different side of me that's come alive with this instrument," she said. "For so many years I was so involved with the absolute perfection of playing classical music that now I prefer the freedom that comes with improvisation." As such, Yatri hasn't even tried her hand at playing any of the classical repertory for armonica. "There are people who specialize in that, but it doens't appeal to me."
Yatri is more interested in investigating the as yet untapped resources of the armonica. The instrument is typically played by moistening the player's hand with water and gently applying the fingers to the rim of the spinning bowls, which unlike in Franklin's days are now powered by electricity rather than pedal-power.
Yatri -- the name is Sanskrit for pilgrim and was given to her at Kripalu -- has been experimenting with other ways of gaining sound from the glass bowls. She taps them delicately with rubber-tipped mallets. She varies the tone by moistening her hand with alcohol instead of water, which produces a more muted sound. She has even been paying attention to the way her diet affects her playing. "If I have dairy sometimes I notice the next day a more strident tone," she said. "It's fascinating. There's so much to explore."
Next spring Boston is going to be the site of an international conference of glass-music players. "I'm really intrigued to see what people are doing with the sound," she said.
In the meantime, Yatri will continue to explore the sonic possibilities of the armonica, both for musical pleasure and for the practical and spiritual effects it seems to have on some. Her recording is available at the Kripalu gift shop or by writing to CrystalMusic, Box 2394, Lenox MA 01240.
(This article first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 5, 1996. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1996. All rights reserved.)
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