Saturday, 19 December 2009

Self-playing harps

Resonant Chamber by Animusic.

YouTube browsing can lead in strange directions. I was looking into the origins of the Diva song from The Fifth Element; as explained in Who is the Opera Singer in the Film Fifth Element?, the Diva Plavalaguna is played by French actress Maïwenn Le Besco and voiced over, with minimal instrumental overdubbing by operatic soprano Inva Mula-Tchako. This track, based on Il Dolce Suono (the "mad scene") from Lucia di Lammermoor, is on YouTube isolated from the movie. This led me in turn to the version of Il Dolce Suono by Vitas, the Latvian-born Vitaliy Vladasovich Grachyov - see official site - who is best known for his remarkable use of falsetto register (he is not a "yarbleless like eunuch", as Alex from A Clockwork Orange would put it). The duo of violinists with Vitas on Il Dolce Suono are Вибрация (Vibration), who specialise in modernised classical tracks, especially Vivaldi, and at Зима, their take on Vivaldi's Winter, I found the above weird animation in the related videos.

In the video I found - now removed due to copyright - it was a bit of an enigma: the sole upload by user pskovmail, it's completely uncredited, the poster merely saying "Супер-музыка супер клип! Наслаждайтесь!" ("Super-music, super clip! Enjoy!"). The imagined instrument is beautiful and ingenious, but sinister too: its Giger-style claw-like 'fingers' have no actuators, so it presumably is part-magical. Given the Russian origin of the clip, I suspect that it might represent the Wonderful Self-Playing Harp in the Russian folktale of Prince Astrach. Astrach gains the harp by killing the evil Коще́й Бессме́ртный (Koschei the Deathless), who has concealed his soul in a hard-to-find egg. See The Story of the Most Wonderful and Noble Self-Playing Harp as retold in The Russian garland:

As soon as he arrived and told her that he had found the egg, the Princess said : "Now fear nothing; come with me straight to Kashtshei." And when they appeared before him, Kashtshei jumped up, and would have killed Prince Astrach ; but the Prince instantly took the egg in his hand and fell to crushing it gradually. Then Kashtshei began to cry and roar aloud, and said to the Tsarevna Darisa : " Was it not out of love that I told you where my death was? And is this the return you make?" So saying he seized his sword from the wall to slay the Tsarevna ; but at the same moment Astrach, the King's son, crushed the egg, and Kashtshei fell dead upon the ground like a sheaf of corn.

Then the Tsarevna Darisa led Astrach into the palace, where was the Self -playing Harp, and said to him: "The Harp is now thine take it; but in return for it, conduct me back to my home." So Prince Astrach took up the Harp, and it played so gloriously that he was struck dumb with amazement at its sounds, as well as its workmanship of the purest Eastern crystal and gold strings. After gazing at it for a long time, Prince Astrach left the palace, and mounting his gallant steed with Darisa, set out upon his return. First he carried the Tsarevna back to her parents, and afterwards went on his way to Egypt, to Tsar Afor, and gave the Self-playing Harp to his betrothed, the Tsarevna Osida. Then they placed the Harp on the table, and it fell to playing the most beautiful and merry tunes.

Self-playing harps feature elsewhere in folklore, as in the ballad The Twa Sisters and its many variants, in Jack in the Beanstalk, and in Celtic mythology the Harp of Dagda (in some versions self-playing). There were real ones too: notably the Wurlitzer Automatic Harp (se the Mechanical Music Digest and The Harps of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company.

I turned out, however, to be completely wrong. But I'll keep the original speculation for the nice directions it led. The animation wasn't Russian at all, but a piece called Resonant Chamber from Animusic, a US company specialising entirely in DVDs of music produced by fanciful animated instruments (there's a nice multi-view, showing what each component instrument does). There are many other clips on their YouTube channel: Pipe Dream and Aqua Harp are other particularly good ones.

Addendum 2: Clare just got an e-mail that Mr Know-it-all instantly spotted as a hoax:

Read this first, then watch.


Turn your sound on for this.

This is almost unbelievable. See how all of the balls wind up in catcher cones.

This incredible machine was built as a collaborative effort between the Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of Engineering at the University of Iowa ... Amazingly, 97% of the machines components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation Equipment of Bancroft , Iowa ...Yes, farm equipment!

It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment, calibration, and tuning before filming this video but as you can see it was WELL worth the effort. It is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University and is already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian.

The accompanying clip was Animation's Pipe Dream, minus the Animation credit. I didn't realise, however, how ubiquitous the e-mail is: enough to be mentioned on a number of debunking sites such as Snopes. Needless to say, the Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of Engineering at the University of Iowa do not exist. The discussion at The Blog of Phyz - Fooling our elders... - is enlightening if depressing; I know well the syndrome described, where the person who spots a hoax becomes cast as the bad guy:

The person who sends the hoax is regarded as a happy-go-lucky victim with a positive outlook on life, but the person who responds with the truth is regarded as a curmudgeonly killjoy.

In this case, however, the hoax is doing down a remarkable piece of work. As the Hoaxslayer entry says:

There is no need to malign this fantastic animation by tacking on a foolish and totally fictitious cover story. Such clever work speaks for itself and needs no embellishment. Moreover, the real creators of the animation deserve credit for their genius. If you receive this email forward, please let the sender know the true origin of the "farm machine music" video.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. I listened/watched several times, under the spell of your original speculation, and am glad you've left that in place :-)