Saturday, May 18, 2024

Contra Affairs – The Cult of Out-Sized Musical Instruments

When choosing a musical instrument to learn to play when the opportunity comes around at school, there are several factors which may influence a child. Primarily, this will be, “What are my mates choosing?” – leading to gaggles of violinists, much to the chagrin of their families. Others may be swayed by the flashy gleam of the brass section, others by the strange exoticism of the clarinet (like me – a terrible choice and one I still regret). However, there will always be those who are bewitched by the sheer size and heft of the cello, trombone and tuba, instruments which in most cases will tower above the prospective player but will offer the child the chance to swagger into the orchestra like a bazooka-wielding hero.

This child-like awe and wonder which the largest instruments of the orchestra inspire appears not to evaporate over time for some. Though somewhat limited in their everyday usage, the market for extraordinarily huge musical instruments is, seemingly, booming. Here are some to consider:

Cimbasso

Evolving from the Renaissance-period serpent, the cimbasso came to be used in Italian opera during the 19th century, adding some heft and depth where the tones of a tuba were deemed too pedestrian. Puccini and Verdi were fans, the four to six valves generally offering more agility in the orchestra, giving more of a feel of the trombone than the tuba, which Verdi was somewhat irrationally opposed to. The cimbasso has enjoyed a somewhat unexpected comeback in recent years, its ease of use and doomy tones lending itself perfectly to game and film soundtracks, taking the place of the lazy digital foghorn blast. They can be heard on everything from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean‘ to ‘Call of Duty‘ and were a favourite of Tommy Johnson, whose tuba melody for ‘Jaws‘ remains one of the most recognisable themes in cinema.

Subcontrabass Saxophone

Two octaves below a tenor saxophone and the daddy of the sax family, it wasn’t until 1999 that a working subcontrabass saxophone was constructed which was capable of anything but a lung-shaking rumble. Reaching as high as 9 feet 2 inches, a (sort-of) working model is akin to a sarrusophone, though it is used even less frequently, in part due to its $20,000 price tag. The instrument’s lowest note, at 25.95 Hz, is only just within the limits of human hearing.

Contrabass Sarrusophone

Somewhere between a contrabass sax and a contrabass bassoon lives the contrabass sarrusophone. Looking like the plumbing from a Victorian kitchen, its four-foot size and balanced by being comparatively light and therefore easy to transport. Used very occasionally in classical pieces during the 19th century it is now little more than a curio, though it does just about work as an alternative to its sax relatives.

Hyperbass Flute

Subcontrabass may occasionally crop up in this article but here’s one stage further. Here, a flute measuring around the 49 feet mark, is surprisingly practical, with a dark, mellow sound and more easily transported, given the PVC possibilities. Commercial recordings of solo performances on the instrument are available, despite the lowest tone, at 16hz, being below that of ‘normal’ human hearing (around 20hz).

Contrabass Trumpet

Ok, so you get the gist – there’s a sub/contra version of many of your standard instruments. Here’s a last example, a contrabass trumpet, measuring around six and a half feet, it’s one of the more practical (to play) examples, though rarely employed in anything other than a rather novelty sense. Shame.

Octobass

Lest brass and woodwind take all the prizes for gigantism, consider the octobass. Operating at an octave below the double bass, it is an extraordinary thing to behold, at over 11 feet tall and with three thick strings which require pedals and levers operated by the musician’s feet to coax any sound out of. Only a handful exist in the world, to the relief of trees everywhere.

The Earth Harp

The world’s largest string instrument, the Earth Harp has strings over a thousand feet long and essentially require the audience to be “inside” the instrument. Towering over the audience like cables on a suspension bridge, the manipulated strings emit a cello-like tone. Makes Jean-Michel Jarre look restrained.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ

There are other instruments such as the Singing Ringing Tree and the Sea Organ which posture as contenders but they cannot be played by a musician and simply sit there and make sounds as the elements affect the structure. The Great Stalacpipe Organ is another matter entirely. Found within the Luray Caverns of Virginia, this massive subterranean lithophone is comprised of 37 stalactites covering 3.5 acres that produce surprisingly soft and melodic tones when tapped with rubber-tipped mallets.

Superhorn

Of all musical instruments, the alphorn seems to be the one which inspires people to continually attempt to outdo one another. You’d think even a standard alphorn would be big enough for most but there you go. The current, debated record is held by superhorn, the pride of Switzerland and, as they’re quick to point out, completely playable. At 14 metres (around 46 feet) you can experience the beauty in the wooden flesh, book here

Daz Lawrence 

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