It is an instrument that has reportedly driven some to madness. And Mayling Garcia is its master.
We’re talking about the glass armonica, of course, an 18th century invention of a particularly notorious member of the Hellfire Club—and one of the founding fathers, to boot—Mr. Benjamin Franklin.
The glass armonica is a friction idiophone, according to musicologists. That is to say it produces tones through friction. In this case a series of glass bowls of graduated size are bound to a central shaft and spun at a slow continuous speed by a rotating motor. In Franklin’s day, a foot pedal provided the energy to spin the contraption around and around. Today a small DC transformer provides power to the elusive-sounding, mysterious musical instrument.
After Franklin pioneered the use of a mechanical version of the musical machine, it became popular at art music recitals all over the East Coast and in Europe—up to a point.
By the middle of the 19th century, there were reports that the music produced by the glass armonica caused madness for both players and listeners. Modern researchers have produced a hypothesis regarding this spooky phenomenon.
It was lead poisoning, some say, as the bowls and the paint used in the manufacture of the instrument were historically lead based. Besides that odd feature of the musical interaction the instrument produces, the glass armonica is also noted for its ethereal tone. The sound is literally spaced, out as the human brain has a difficult time decoding sounds in the 1 to 4 kilohertz range, where the sound of the instrument is centered.
Albuquerque’s Mayling Garcia waded into that history and mythology to become proficient on the rare instrument. She’s appeared on some of the world’s top entertainment television shows.
She’ll return to the stage with a recital of Christmas music performed on an instrument that some have called maddening, while others, such as Franklin, termed the sound produced as “tones that are incredibly sweet.”
Weekly Alibi invited Mayling Garcia over to Alibi HQ to talk about her rare instrument, her music and a sound that ultimately defies description.
Weekly Alibi: Could you please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your musical instrument?
Mayling Garcia: When I was 28 years old, I spoke to God and I said, “I have a sister who went to Harvard [local comedian Goldie Garcia], help me figure out what I’m going to do with my life; help me seek out my potential.” And then I remembered I had the business card of a lady whom I saw perform on the glass armonica at Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. She was playing for tips. I noticed she had a lot of money in her tip jar. She had a massive variety of people, all ages, surrounding her while she played. I followed her and watched her play for three summers when I was between 21 and 23 years old.
What happened after that initial experience?
When I was 28, I decided it was time to something to do with my life. So I called the maker of the instrument and I bought a glass armonica made by Gerhard Finkenbeiner. When he was done with World War II—he had been a Nazi slave laborer—he became an expert in fabricated complex glass used in science. His work led him to a museum where he saw a glass armonica on exhibit, where he thought to himself that he’d like to solve the puzzle of the instrument and find out why it had been banned by 1830. He discovered the lead connection and started designing and manufacturing versions of the armonica that did not incorporate lead but rather gold.
How does the gold work on this instrument?
The 22-karat gold on the rims of some of the bowls mark sharps and flats; they’re like the black keys on the piano.
What’s the range of the glass armonica?
It goes from middle C at the top down two and a half octaves.
Is it a difficult instrument to learn and become proficient on?
One of the problems with the instrument is the length between notes. You have to drag your finger as quickly as possible to go from note to note, while trying to keep rhythm and tempo. The bells are much bigger than the piano keys. It’s also very breakable, being made out of glass.
And that combination makes for a really unearthly sound, que no?
Right. When Benjamin Franklin’s wife first heard him playing the glass armonica, she didn’t know what to think. She apparently though she had died and that the angels of the Lord were calling out to her. She wasn’t sure what to make of the sound, but it was Franklin’s favorite invention. The instrument was banned in Germany in 1830 because supposedly a baby died after hearing the glass armonica during a chamber performance. Historians say the instrument caused some sort of seizure.
I recall that before that incident, Mozart wrote K. 617 in 1791, an adagio and rondo for the instrument accompanied by flute, oboe, viola and cello.
You’re correct, and you may further recall that Mozart died a mere six months later.
Whoa. I wonder if there was a connection?
What we believe is that continuous exposure to the instrument may have caused lead poisoning in both Mozart and Beethoven. I’ve talked to experts on this subject and they are sure I have a valid hypothesis. Channel 7 did a story about my theory. So just a little thing I’m trying to do is set the history books right.
In the meantime, you’ve become a master of a very difficult instrument. How long have you been playing?
I’ve been playing now for 25 years. As I said, I got the instrument when I was 28, for my birthday. It came in a huge cardboard box, pre-assembled. I touched that box and told myself, “Your whole life is going to change.”
Any memorable performances in that time?
I’ve been on “Sabado Gigante” five times, including their Christmas broadcast. I’ve been on “America’s Got Talent” twice. I’m the most famous poor person in the world.
What’s your day job?
I’m a waitress at Perea’s New Mexican Restaurant. I’m also a pressed flower artist who has exhibited at the Contemporary Spanish Market in Santa Fe for 20 years.
Very cool. Could I hear what the instrument sounds like?
Sure, I’ll play “The Star Spangled Banner.”
[Mayling sits back, concentrates, activates the bowls and begins to play. The sound is violin-like but much sharper and almost dissonant from note to note. It sound like it is coming from very far away.The high notes fall right on the edge of human toleration but are still somehow compelling because they seem to float through the air. After the brief performance, Mayling sits back and smiles.]
Wow, that was amazing. Have you made any recordings?
No, I’ve never made any recordings of myself playing the glass armonica because there has been so much in the process of learning to play. Besides that, I had to learn music theory and how to market a very rare, mysterious musical instrument.
Tell me more.
When I approached Finkenbeiner in Germany about buying a glass armonica, he asked me what my musical background was. I told him I didn’t have one and he asked me if I knew how to read music. I said no. He asked me where I lived and I told him New Mexico. Initially, he told me that what I was attempting was impossible because there were no teachers nearby—all the players were on the East Coast or abroad—and because I didn’t know music theory.
What was your response?
I told him that [most of] the world has never seen it; but that the world is our oyster. He decided then to sell me a glass armonica and to give me lessons over the telephone. He sold me a glass armonica for $2500 and told me to get the music for “Silent Night” and to learn it by playing it over and over. He wanted me to play that song until I was blue in the face, just so I could get used to the sound. Eventually, he sent me instructional videos, too.
How has that all turned out?
It’s been an arduous journey. But I’ve learned to get a beautiful sound out of the glass armonica. As I progressed, I also decided to learn more about Benjamin Franklin. I took out stacks of books from the local library and researched his life. There still isn’t much history about the instrument, so it’s an ongoing study of mine. Over the years, I’ve learned how to play, but I’ve also learned how to speak knowledgeably about it in the program I do.
Tell me about that musical program, please.
It’s not just a concert. It’s a historical journey that includes videos of television performances.
For an old-school Chicano like me, the “Sabado Gigante” gigs sound excellent.
One hundred-and-twenty million people see that show every Saturday.
That’s huge. You’re a star and you just don’t know it.
Thanks, August. When I got off the stage, they did tell me that my performance was intimidating and beautiful at the same time.