Written by By Geno Lampariello, CNN
From the 17th to the 20th centuries, musical instruments were as much utilitarian as expressive — known simply as “musical instruments.”
For many, they provided protection against dangerous environments or the sea — and even pleasure. Yet when they were first crafted, they carried with them one of the most turbulent relationships between art and technology ever written about.
Karl Holmstrom Bailer’s “Ephemeral: Instruments of the Great Swamps,” a recently-launched book by academic Daniel Chase Smith, aims to capture the history of the instruments of the flooded Great Swamp Area of Florida, one of the largest in the world.
Joseph Grant, “Ivory drum: Shoreings … Wolverines, Sticks, and Washkoks in the Great Swamp and Echo Highlands,” 1825-27. Credit: The Smithsonian Institution
The swamp area, which spans roughly 120 square miles of cypress, oyster, and coral forest, was formed in the 1600s after the silt-filled creek from the adjacent swamps drained. This subsidence from canal construction has continued for centuries, leaving the swamp and the area’s forests floundering for water. As a result, other, even more dangerous, animals, such as large turtles and the huge raccoon, have also relocated to the swamp area to drink and hunt.
Despite being historically isolated, the swamp and surrounding region is still a tourist attraction, drawing 250,000 visitors a year. And, to increase tourism, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is working to prepare the swamps for the eventual flooding that may follow.
Chase Smith notes the loss of some naturally-formed ecological protections from the swamps, suggesting that the swamps are on track to be leveled for years, perhaps decades, to come. The book’s first part focuses on one of the most important — and perhaps the most symbolically important — instruments in the swamp, a kind of palm reed flute from the 1700s.
Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty delivering a play in 1899 Credit: National Museum of American History
Other instruments that rise to the top of the list include a “throbbing timpani drum” made in the 1700s, and a musical instrument that looked remarkably like a human hand.
The hand, or wanky stick, dates back to 1645 and is covered in a dark purple and red material, not unlike the black fingernails characteristic of patients in an asylum.
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“When I started researching, I was interested in this idea of human hands as metaphor, as an icon of the human race,” Smith says. “That idea recurred in many of the instruments I came across.”
Wacky and wonderful instruments of yesteryear
Although the banjo was widely sold as a musical instrument, 19th-century American author Lewis Carroll doesn’t give the instrument much credit. He believes it was a tool to indicate that “things go wrong” and that “in the future, as things go wrong, some people will want to construct more or less new things.”
Perhaps this is not far off-base: in the 2008 New York Times, Brian Snyder notes that American inventor John B. Russell “specialized in segway prototypes and never built any living things.” Yet this does not deter today’s makers, who seem more than happy to build things in front of a camera — and to sell them online to collectors, willing to pay thousands of dollars for these works of art.
Art show transforms to music for the past
The musical instruments featured in the book are often very unusual — or at least difficult to find.
“I started with a photograph of a really spectacular timpani drum,” Smith says. “But I don’t think anyone has heard of them.”
A women’s dance piece by Julius Cesar in 1913 Credit: National Museum of American History
As the materials used to construct musical instruments change, so does their history. Many instruments have tended to remain unchanged for centuries; others are considered models or boundaries for later instruments, sometimes set in stone. Yet in the 17th century, lute players relied on a “timbrette” made from strips of wood that acted like a length of string. The sound of this instrument is to be separated out as chords by the players who pick them up — a sound the evolution of the lute line resembles in its symmetrical structure and a relatively rare creation.
“Ephemeral” delves deeply into a relatively obscure topic, one that has long occupied the minds of enthusiasts, academics, and collectors alike. Perhaps as the swamp area does, the musical instruments of Florida’s swamp areas may eventually catch up.