Musicians in Glass Houses

"I love the sound of breaking glass" goes the refrain to the 1978 pop song of the same name written and sung by British rocker Nick Lowe. The tune climbed into the Top 10 in England but didn't receive much airplay in North America. That could account for why you're unlikely to hear members of the Glass Orchestra humming it. And even if they were to hum it, you can bet they'll never add it to their repertoire. Glass Orchestra members can't abide the sound of breaking glass -- they love the sound of making it sing. According to founding member Paul Hodge, "Exploring the music-making properties of glass" is something they've been doing since they got together in 1977 at Toronto's York University.

"As part of a music class, we had been incorporating glass into various compositions, and we realized there was quite a lot it could do," notes Hodge, who played clarinet at the time and was working toward a music degree in classical and contemporary composition. "In the summer of 1977, we created an installation at the university using music made on glass. It was very well received. That's when we decided to form an ensemble that would perform strictly on glass."

They began as an octet but soon stripped down to a quintet. Over the years, players have come and gone, making the group's lineup as fragile as the instruments. In the early Eighties the quintet became a quartet -- Hodge, Eric Cadesky, Richard Sacks, and Michael J. Baker. At first they interpreted the works of new-music composers -- John Cage, Steve Reich, Michael Nyman -- and occasionally performed one of their own pieces. These days they play only their own tunes -- or just improvise. "That doesn't mean we pluck strings on glass violins and cellos or blow glass clarinets," Hodge says emphatically.

Instead the ensemble uses found instruments -- fishbowls, wine glasses, vases, you name it -- and several custom-made creations they design themselves. The sounds that are produced fall into the basic categories of a conventional orchestra. Glass flutes and bottles approximate the warbling of woodwinds. Stemware and bowls filled with varying levels of water to create various tones are "bowed" (rubbed with wet fingers) to emulate the string section. Bowls and bells, which are struck with mallets, and tube drums, which are slapped with the palm of a hand, simulate percussion.

Blowing into an empty soda bottle was a source of constant amusement for many of us as kids, but glass as a serious means of music-making seems a rather odd choice for adults. Yet the tradition of glass instruments dates back to fourteenth-century Persia, when music glasses were first used, and to India during the same period, when the jaltharang (a series of tuned glass or porcelain bowls struck with mallets) was in vogue.

Benjamin Franklin, inspired by a recital he attended at which music magically radiated from the rims of glasses, invented the glass harmonica in 1761. A series of tuned glass bowls were arranged horizontally, with each bowl tucked next to the other on a revolving spindle controlled by a foot pedal. Touching the revolving rims lightly with moistened fingers would produce sounds --in effect, a chord.

Music written expressly for glass has a long history as well. In 1791 Mozart composed his Adagio and Rondo in C minor for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola, and cello. Beethoven, Naumann, and Hasse also added glass instruments to their traditional compositions.

More recently American composer Harry Partch, who invented many of his own musical gizmos, employed tuned liquor bottles and struck light bulbs with mallets. In the Sixties, Frederic Rzewski, a follower of new-music composers Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, used amplified plate glass in the group Musica Electronica Viva.

The Glass Orchestra is taking things a step further. They are the only ensemble to create and perform music exclusively with glass instruments. "When people come to our show they don't know what to expect," says Hodge. "They don't have premeditated notions of what things are supposed to sound like, so they give you their attention a little longer than they otherwise would."

That's not to say that the sounds are unpleasant. "We do strange things at times like scratching glass against glass -- which is like nails against a chalkboard -- but not too much," he adds. "We are really one of the quietest ensembles you will have ever heard. Most of the songs we play are reminiscent of world music. They're very rythmically based; there aren't a lot of recognizable melodies. Sometimes the effect is meditative; it takes you to a different place."

Composer Gustavo Matamoros, director of the Subtropics New Music Festival, marvels at the group's work and thinks others will too when the Glass Orchestra performs here on Friday as part of the fest. "This is music for the mind as well as the ear," Matamoros points out. "Sometimes it gives you a sense of serenity; at other times it provides stimulation. It promotes listening in a way that is completely unexpected."

At Friday's show four carpets will be laid out around a square on-stage. On the rugs will be metal stands with glass tubes hanging from them, plus scads of stemware, snifters, terrariums, and other glass objects strewn hither and yon. Candles will illuminate the procedings, their light reflected and refracted by the glass.

Well, that's what you'll see if all the instruments make it to their destination in one piece. Getting instruments transported safely from one gig to another makes the Glass Orchestra a tough band to take on tour. Although they have played in places as far away as Thailand, a performance outside their home of Toronto is rare. "One time while we were on tour in Taiwan, we were convinced that we had shipped the glass by air cargo," recalls Hodge. "And as we were standing around waiting for our luggage, out came a bunch of boxes with all our stuff in them. We had to do a lot of running around to department stores to get replacements."

(Capturing the pure, piercing sound of glass exactly right on a recording has been even more difficult. In 1989, after several years of preparation, the orchestra was finally able to harness the radical frequency ranges of glass and release the CD Human.)

This Friday expect to witness two sets, each lasting approximately a half-hour. Some of the works performed by the ensemble are written down, but most are improvised on the spot. "When we write our compositions, we just work through phrases and sounds we like," Hodge explains. "Often the score becomes more verbal. The piece rarely comes out exactly the same twice. It's almost like playing free jazz."

Just don't attend expecting to hear tinkly versions of familiar tunes. "We try to stay away from pop," notes Hodge. "It's just not what we do. We were all pretty much raised listening to and performing classical music. You wouldn't go to a symphony concert and ask the great violinist Yehudi Menhuin to play 'Feelings,' would you?"

The Glass Orchestra performs at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, March 20, at the Ambrosino Gallery, 3095 SW 39th Ave.; 445-2211. Tickets cost $20.

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Nina Korman
Contact: Nina Korman