Maenad: Introducing the verrophone
To celebrate the release of Orchestral Tools’ latest Creative Soundpack, we sat down with Philipp Marguerre—the musician behind the samples, and one of a handful of professional verrophone players—to talk about this unique instrument’s primitive origins, and how the verrophone is stepping out of its traditional setting to influence contemporary composers and producers.
Glass harps are a group of instruments shrouded in mystery. Since the first instrument’s invention in the 1700s, they have been referenced throughout history with names such as the glass harmonica, glass harmonium, musical glasses, and even the ghost fiddle. These instruments have slowly developed over time, evolving through different names, structural variations, and playing techniques. Some were more effective than others, as Philipp explains:
"The first glass harp instruments emerged around 1740"
“The first glass harp instruments emerged around 1740. It was then called ‘musical glasses’, and an instrument was simply an arrangement of glasses on a table. Percussionists would call the glass harp an idiophone—a self-sounding, self-ringing instrument. Over the years, each player would arrange the glasses in a different way: filling them with water, or grinding the glasses to find the right note. Most musicians would play it by rubbing their fingers over the rim of the glasses, although, there was one musician who used violin bows to go over the glasses. He couldn’t play many glasses at the same time. Not a great idea.”
"Well-known composers began to experiment with this new, unfamiliar sound"
As word spread about the musical glasses, musicians and well-known composers began to experiment with this new, unfamiliar sound.
“Even the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, he played the glasses. He played 26 glasses in the Haymarket Theatre, London. He said that anything that can be played on the violin can be played on these glasses. There were no reviews or critics at this concert so we don’t really know what it sounded like—he might have been booted off stage, we don’t know.”
The allure of the glass harp wasn’t just piquing the interest of the world’s musical community. It began to grab the attention of one of the world’s most famous inventors, who used his creative ingenuity to influence the glass harp’s development.
"Benjamin Franklin heard a musical glasses player in England, while he was in London. As an inventor, he thought it would be more convenient to sit down in front of the instrument."
“At the end of the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin heard a musical glasses player in England, while he was in London. As an inventor, he thought it would be more convenient to sit down in front of the instrument. He already knew about metal glockenspiels; so he created a glass harp in a different way—he called it the glass harmonica. It was made from glass bowls on a spindle, and with a foot pedal he would turn these spindles; the bowls would turn away from the player and they would just have to lay their hands on top of them.”
Around the year 1830, interest in glass harps began to dip, plunging the instrument into obscurity, only for it to be revived again in the early 1900s. The second wave of the glass harp’s evolution was about to begin.
“The name glass harp came up in around 1919 when Bruno Hoffmann revived the glass music business by constructing musical glasses and giving his instrument the name glass harfe—in English, the glass harp. The instrument that I play is called a verrophone. It is made from glass tubes housed in a horizontal wooden frame. They all have the same diameter because the length varies.”
"A slight misunderstanding caused his instrument to take a new, innovative direction."
The verrophone is the most recent incarnation of the glass harp—and the instrument sampled for Maenad—invented by Sascha Reckert, a now close friend of Philipp. Taking a leaf from Franklin’s book, Sascha became fascinated by the sound of the glass harp and began working to create his own instrument. In a twist of fate, a slight misunderstanding caused his instrument to take a new, innovative direction:
“Sascha had heard about the glass harp in 1983 whilst working on a project for a play, and decided to build one of his own. He went on to buy a book about the instrument written by Bruno Hoffman, but Hoffman never really described what the instrument actually looked like. Sascha had to create his instrument from the vision in his mind. This resulted in the creation of the verrophone.”
"It was the otherworldly, unearthly tone that intrigued me"
The instrument’s unique sound seems to bewitch almost anyone that hears it, and Philipp also began to fall under its spell.
“It was the otherworldly, unearthly tone that intrigued me. You don’t really know where the sound is coming from. When you press a key on the piano, that’s it, you can’t do anything with the note anymore. You can pretend to do a crescendo, or play louder or softer, but with a glass harp, while you play, you have more possibilities to change that note, much like other melodic instruments such as a flute or string instrument.”
Philipp’s first experience of playing the instrument professionally came unexpectedly, thanks to his good friend Sascha. A nerve-racking experience that set him on his path to becoming a professional glass harp player.
“Sascha was staying at my place for a month. He would sit in the middle of the room, behind the chair, doing his work. After two weeks he said to me, “OK, we’re going to play at the Semperoper in Dresden: Here’s the music, quickly learn this piece.” He taught me a bit, and it was very exciting as this instrument was very new to me. I was also nervous as I had to play in the Semperoper after only two weeks of practice. In the first year of concerts, I was still very nervous, my heart was beating a lot every time I would play, but, of course, over the years my nerves got better.”
"What does Philipp consider to be the main differences between the varying glass harps?"
After mastering the instrument and developing his own playing style, what does Philipp consider to be the main differences between the varying glass harps?
“The verrophone is much louder, richer, and responds much faster. In a live setting, if you are twenty feet away it’s hard to hear a glass harmonica, it has to be amplified greatly. A glass harmonica does have a certain charm when it is played solo in a room with not many listeners, such as with chamber music, but as soon as it is accompanied by many other instruments it becomes difficult to hear.”
"If a piece is ghostly, otherworldly, crazy or strange, the verrophone is often used."
The verrophone’s otherworldly voice is what sets it apart from other orchestral instruments. Its unique sound is often used to convey mysterious and supernatural happenings, as Philipp explains:
“The verrophone is often used to reflect colors and angelic scenes. If a piece is ghostly, otherworldly, crazy or strange, the verrophone is often used. In the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss, there is a scene where the female protagonist begins to go mad. The glass harp is used to accompany her in this scene.”
As the sound of the glass harp begins to weave its way back into the modern musical world, it has started to break free from its classical roots, giving Philipp new opportunities to showcase the verrophone’s sound to a different audience:
“I’ve just had an invitation from a Belgian film-maker—he works together with a Croatian composer who is based in Munich. They asked me to create some music using the verrophone. It’s exciting because we don’t often get to do these projects, I’m usually playing in a more classical setting. This movie is about a statue that is loved by a woman, and the coldness and iciness of the statue is reflected beautifully by the sound of the verrophone.”
“I have noticed the verrophone being used more and more in films. It might only be a small motif, but it is being used more. It’s great for us as players because these pieces might need to be played in a concert, on a real stage, or the composer might decide that they want to record the real instrument.”
"What I like about these Orchestral Tools samples is that they’ve been recorded with all the sounds that come with the playing"
“What I like about these Orchestral Tools samples is that they’ve been recorded with all the sounds that come with the playing. Sometimes the instrument can sound like you’re cleaning the windows if the tone doesn’t respond properly when you first touch it. You can’t always create perfect, otherworldly sounds. These samples have recreated the sounds to sound like they do in reality.”
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