By Ali Mignone stage manager for Strings Music Festival

Two of the shows at Strings this week—Tuesday’s family concert at 5:30pm and Wednesday’s classical chamber music at 7pm—feature an unusual instrument called the cimbalom. In its concert case, the cimbalom looks a little like a cousin to a piano. Except that the cimbalom is sort of rectangular and has an open top that allows the musician to play the strings directly with mallets, instead of the piano’s familiar keyboard.

In musical terms, the cimbalom is a type of hammered dulcimer. Hammered dulcimers are folk instruments found in cultures all over the world, and they’re usually sized to be held for playing. The cimbalom, with its legged case, is the largest version of these instruments and is intended for the concert stage. As the national instrument of Hungary, the cimbalom features prominently in works by Hungarian composers.

I hadn’t heard of the cimbalom before, so when it turned out to be featured this week on the Strings Festival stage, I started to wonder what other unusual instruments might be out there. It turns out that there are approximately one zillion musical instruments that are not part of a typical western music orchestral roster. Unfortunately, column space limits me to just these few:

Octobass: said to be the largest string instrument ever made, this gigantic double bass has three strings. The first octobass, built in 1850, is 3.4 meters tall; it’s so big that it has levers and foot pedals to manage the strings, and is often played by two people – one to run the bow and one to run the levers and pedals. Its specialty is playing extremely low notes, some of them outside the range of human hearing.


Theremin: an early electronic instrument that looks like a transistor radio on a stick, the theremin is played by dipping the hands into and out of two invisible electromagnetic fields. Not only does it look weird itself, it also makes the musician look like a looney. The theremin was invented by a Soviet scientist studying proximity sensors in the 1920s, and although newer electronic instruments are easier to play, none of them matches the theremin’s especially creepy sound.

Pyrophone organ: this internal combustion instrument is also known as the “fire/explosion organ.” That should be enough to nullify any insurance policy right there. The pyrophone uses controlled explosions to produce tones and is usually powered by propane. I hear that playing one is just like playing a pipe organ. Except for the fire. And the explosions.


But why play these weird instruments at all? They seem unwieldy, impossibly fragile and perhaps even downright dangerous. (I’m looking at you, pyrophone.) Composers and musicians choose these instruments because of the unique sounds they make.

With its bright and energetic sound and a very fast tremolo, the cimbalom is often used by western composers to introduce a “foreign” sound. The octobass is said to produce tones so low that you can feel them vibrating your skeleton, but you can’t hear them at all. And nothing says creepy alien invasion quite like the wobbly, other-worldly tones of the theremin.

Music is emotion (and mathematics, according to my college music theory professor in a class that made me hate life), and if an instrument can produce the particular feeling needed for a piece by virtue of its unique acoustic resonance, then that is the right one for the composition. Regardless of whether or not it’s part of the western orchestral pantheon.

And maybe, regardless of whether or not it requires you to keep a fire extinguisher nearby while playing it.


Upcoming events:

Tickets available at (970) 879-5056 and www.stringsmusicfestival.com.

Ali Mignone stage manages for Strings Music Festival, among other things. When she’s not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley and blogging at thequirkyquill.com.


Posted on June 29, 2016
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