Saturday, January 17, 2009

Farsings of Farses

After a vigorous evening of running around Brooklyn in 10° air (seeing Adam & Dave's Bloodline at Bar Matchless - one compelling song out of the four I heard; trotting over to the larger, yet somehow more intimate Glasslands for The Pictish Trail, another fine Fence collective performer, with Viking Moses; maintaining the farsing spirit with a 2am second dinner of top-notch falafel at North 7th Street’s Oasis), the following late morning called for something milder. At the top of the stack, Now Make We Merthe, is a 1968 collection of "medieval carols" on the semi-legendary Argo record label. The title of this entry makes its appearance in the liner notes, where it makes sense in context, and the collection is still in print on CD, so information about it is not hard to come by.

Glancing over the expected instrument credits (psaltery, lute and the like), my attention was caught by the "heckelphone." This, interestingly, reveals itself to be not an "early music" instrument at all, but an innovation by the German instrument making Heckel family in 1904, from when it has been used by composers as (relatively) diverse as Richard Strauss, Edgard Varèse and Paul Hindemith. There are no more than 100 heckelphone players in the world (corresponding with the number of instruments that actually exist), and my heart leapt as I found (via wikipedia) that the early 21st century cultural compass has room for a North American Heckelphone Society whose inaugural meeting was in 2001 at the determinedly ecumenical Riverside Church.

How the heckelphone was chosen for this recording is anyone’s guess but presumably more purist arrangements would have called for a couple of the more characteristically medieval double-reed shawm (which came in many sizes), and the heckelphone offered a match with the higher register oboe that neither the cor anglais nor bassoon could quite provide.

The wikipedia heckelphone entry mentions that of 150 ever made, only 100 are known to still exist. Though time is never kind to exquisitely crafted obscurities, I fell into a more specific speculation. Having spent the afternoon reading W.G. Sebald’s quietly devasting Austerlitz which very slowly reveals itself to be about the fate of a Czech Jewish family in the 1940s, I began to envision the heckelphones of Mitteleuropäische Jewish musicians not so much smashed in pogroms, as moldering past the point of salvage in the meticulously cataloged SS warehouses that held the possessions of the "evacuated."

The world being now so stuffed with ubiquitously available information and resources, I was hardly surprised but certainly impressed by this photo blog which follows the itinerary of Sebald’s books, mainly by the Borgesian trick of retaking the photographs with which the narratives themselves are punctuated - I tip my hat!

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