Glass armonica master explains unique history of unique instrument

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CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. (WROC) — The glass armonica is an instrument that Benjamin Franklin invented in 1761.

Playing it is Dennis James. He was in town to perform at the Lake Music Festival on July 19 at Finger Lakes Community College. He’s one of the few masters of the instrument.

Franklin was inspired when he saw a player of the “musical glasses,” individual wine glasses mounted on a table, and found the tone to be “sweet.”

“I always say that the bottom one is a cake cover.”

“He [Franklin] found the playing method too cumbersome, jumping from glass to glass,” said James. “So he had the idea to cut them together, and then make them turn. It was a dramatic improvement that made them so much easier to play, that it became a new instrument. And then he named it the armonica!”

The armonica is a series of glass bowls on a shaft that is played by wetting your fingers and pressing on the rotating bowls.

“These are all individual wine glasses and they get bigger. This is a red wine glass, this is a water glass, and this is a cereal bowl, and I always say that the bottom one is a cake cover,” James said. “Instead of me playing the wine glass and doing that with wet fingers, they’re already spinning, I kept them wet by dipping my fingers in water and transferring, and to play it I do keyboard-like moves. It’s the same idea except they’re already turning, and I can put my hands and play chords.”

James’ instrument is powered by a sewing machine motor, not a sewing machine crank. Franklin’s used a sewing machine treadle. A method that has its drawbacks for the modern player.

“And they ‘click’ and they ‘clack,’ and so the recording engineers go crazy with any clicks and clacks… So I ended up coming up with the electric motor. It’s a sewing machine motor, so it’s kind of close to the idea,” said James.

“I just stood there and was transfixed by this thing.”

According to James, there are only about 500 or 600 players who play the armonica, and only about five or six players at his level. His interest started at a very young age. Starting with a trip to the Benjamin Franklin Institute in Philadelphia when he was 6 years old.

“Family lore says that I went right up to this instrument, that was in a special showcase, right in the middle of the rotunda, and I wouldn’t leave,” James said. “They all went on to the rest of the exhibits and kept checking back up on me, but I just stood staring at 6 years old, and I couldn’t leave. Estimates range up to all the way to an hour that I just stood there and was transfixed by this thing.”

And his claim to fame?

“I was the first to take it seriously,” James said. “There were people attempting it… all through for 200 years.”

“I’m just going to do this and do it right, learn the original repertoire, learn the historical techniques, and take it on as a genuine musical idea,” James said.

He is also a professional organist, and in 1982 he decided to pursue the glass armonica when he had a break in his schedule. He finally had a playing version of the instrument in 1988. By 1991, he racked up 179 performances as a professional glass armonica player. Including a memorable debut performance.

“My very first professional experience was at the counselor general of Baccart Crystal in Paris, had a private opera house at his estate in Versailles, and he asked me to come play at his estate, and then he had the New York Philharmonic fly over to play with me, so I knew I was doing something pretty serious; no pressure at all.”

Just for us, he sat down with us and gave a masterclass to young students at Hochstein School of Music’s performance hall. James now says that the armonica is an instrument held in high esteem in the classical and chamber music world. He’s toured the world, taught to students of all ages, but the most rewarding part for him?

“Is playing it! Who knew that I was going to be able to do this?!”

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