dinsdag 2 januari 2018

Glass percussion?

The world of percussion is essentially a world of “sound”. This is of course so for all musical instruments, not just percussion instruments. It is however so that when it comes to percussion, sound is taken more at a base, barer level, perhaps because percussion and drums are not “chording” instruments. Drums and percussion tend to have rhythmical or atmospheric functions, thereby reaching more directly and less mediated our ears, our physique, with less cerebral intervention or “translation” required.

Such “bare” sounds can be enormously varied, just like all the sounds possible to produce by “touching” in several ways (striking, shaking, scraping, rubbing and otherwise), everything around us. Man kind has throughout history come up with many percussion instruments derived from materials in the natural environment, even if later more synthetic. The drum – a wooden frame with animal skin – is one of the world’s oldest instruments, found on different continents. Percussion instruments with wood – like tree logs or branches - being struck or scraped are also very old, and likewise with long histories on several continents.


Metal is a relatively later human “invention” and not a natural material as such, of course, yet the technique of making it has been developed early, so that metal instruments like bells or gongs have been present already 1000s of years Before Christ, such as in Ancient Egypt, parts of Africa and Asia. Metal bells came to play prominent roles in traditional South East Asian music - the word “gong” even simply means “drum” in China - but in time also in some parts of Africa, often as a time-keeper. The relatively “loud” and “clear” sound of metal bells gave it that “time-keeping” (or “clave”) function in some sub-Saharan African music, played alongside several drums. The Yoruba word for “bell” is Agogo, having also a meaning like “time” or “base”, besides bell. The Brazilian double bell of that name is indeed derived from the Yoruba, African bell of the same name.

Symbolism is also there among the Yoruba and other African peoples by associating the bell with the “head”, and the drums (after all made of animal hide and wood) with the body or corporal.

Metal church bells are now common throughout Europe and the Western world. It is not generally known that these are only used as such since about the 10th c. Before that, Early Christians used “wood bells” to alert or call the faithful, such as in Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe, while also the Basque Txalaparta in Northern Spain and SW France is associated with such earlier Christian times.


Metal dominates the Gamelan orchestra’s known from Indonesia. Gamelan are percussive pieces that may be an “acquired taste”, even for some liking mainly percussive music. It has a specific structure that is hard to grasp for the layperson, especially when more accustomed to “key beats” or “grooves”, being simplified inheritances from traditional, polyrhythmic sub-Saharan African music.

Interestingly, the hand drums that are also used in Gamelan register the beat, around which the metal instruments are structured. Kind of the opposite as in much of traditional African music, and derived music in the Americas. Think about the crucial “clave” bell structuring the rhythms in Afro-Cuban music. This shows an interesting cultural difference in sound preference. It probably is also the case, though, that availability determined the preference in part (metal or drum). This all resulted in international differences.

Africa can be called justly the most percussive and rhythmic continent, regarding its traditional music. Even that is overly simplified, but still has some truth to it. In Europe the emphasis is more on “harmony”, and in Asia more on “melody”. All traditional music all over the world, however, has aspects of harmony, melody, and rhythm, but with different proportions and interpretations.

One who will expect to hear African-like “call-and –response” patterns in traditional Gamelan or other Asian percussive music (including in India and the Arab world) will listen in vain. There is “rhythm” and beat, but interpreted differently. The same applies to the wooden Txalaparta instrument the Basques use. The rhythms tend to be “mono”, and originally not syncopated. A bit more “answering” rhythms and syncopation can be found in other parts of Spain, including in music with the castanets or guitars (Jota, Fandango, Flamenco). Historians tend to attribute this to an African influence from Moorish times (the Moors also had sub-Saharan African slaves who played music), or even earlier back to Egypt or Phoenician times, when African principles of rhythm might have reached Spain and other parts of Southern Europe.

Europe is not the most percussive instrument, though percussion play occasional roles in tradition European music, especially in certain countries. The already mentioned wooden castanets associated with Spain, is an example, being known in Spain from before Roman times, thought to have an origin in Ancient Egypt (see my blog post about it). Celtic music uses rhythm through frame drums (perhaps a North African influence).

Ned Sublette goes so far to argue that “drums” as such only came to Europe with the Moors, but also with the Turks. Turks originally had no drums in their culture, but had African slaves who did.


The most commonly used percussion instruments include the hand drums the Conga’s, the Bongó, both from Afro-Cuban culture and with Congo region origins, as well as the Djembe from the Mande-speaking Guinea region in Africa. Wood blocks and bells, tambourines, scrapers and shakers are all quite widely spread though, as are the metal bar chimes. These latter, common instruments have diverse origins, with often a link with Africa, but often also a mixed creation over time. Several percussion instruments have been “invented” over time, but often based on existing, Afro-Cuban or African models, but also from elsewhere. The “wood block” – is known as instruments in parts of Africa, but is said to have Chinese origins. Rattles are known in several cultures world wide, so the origin is not always easy to pinpoint, as some Western instrument companies came to produce them.

Earthenware is also commonly used in musical instruments, on different continents, serving as the base (with an extra hole) of the traditional Udu instrument from the Igbo culture in Nigeria, Africa, while clay or stone is also used as resonator in several parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean region.

Stone is also struck in some cultures, resulting for instance in “lithophones”, while Vietnam is known for indigenous, stone-based musical instruments. Very small stones – pebbles – are used for “shaker instruments”, of course. Bamboo and gourd (calabash) have been used for musical instruments a long time now, in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Bamboo is not “wood” by the way, as it is a type of grass, as most may know.

Of course, in modern times, synthetic materials became used more and more, starting in the Western world, resulting in several plastic instruments, also percussive ones. Think of the “jamblock” a hard, plastic version of the mentioned woodblock (stronger and more durable), shakers, the modern “cabasa” shaker instrument, often made of plastic and metal beads, derived from the African Shekere shaker, made of gourd and seeds. Modern, plastic versions, you might say. Synthetic heads are of course also used for drums, instead of animal skin; while seeming – and often sounding – less “real”, these have the advantage that no animal had to die for it.

So, why I am discussing so much the “material” of percussion? Well, I mean it as some sort of overview of specifically percussion instruments. This overview led me to wondering? What about glass?


What about it? Well: why is it not so commonly used in percussion (produced nor played), not even in such later inventions? Wood, stone, plants and fruit, metal, plastic..

Not that it is absent. In wider music, many of us may have encountered street performers playing melodies on glasses, wine glasses especially, or bottles. Here glass is used more melodically, as a kind of xylophone, organ, or harp.

Some people created over time the “glass armonica”, and the “glass marimba”, somewhat broader used in Classical, mostly Western circles by now. Some experimented with glass resonators (a glass violin, for instance).

“Glass harps” are also quite well known by now. These consist of tuned bottles – filling it with water changes the pitch per bottle. The first glass harp was invented in 1741 by Irishman Richard Pockrich.


In percussion, however, glass never seemed to have become widespread or standard, unlike e.g. metal bells or cymbals.

In pop music, it can be heard on occasion, mostly as “novelty”. One step above “gimmick” at times, at other times adding musical value. It is different enough from metal bells to be interesting in a wider soundscape. It has an “airiness” – for lack of a better word – that metal cowbells don’t have. Metal sounds firm yet “closed” or “round”, or even “blunt” by comparison to glass.

I will look in the remainder of this post to the percussive use of glass or crystal. I know that some musicians used glass (e.g. bottles) melodically, simply replacing a marimba or organ pattern, with an original feel, due to the glass sound. The Dutch-language hit Hilversum III by Herman Van Veen is a good and nice example of it, but there are more pop songs with a melodical use of glass.


It’s time for a “sweeping statement”. I opine that there is one thing that the whole of man kind on this world can learn from percussion instruments: that is: enjoying the “small” things in life. Details that define and shape your mood. Hand drums added to a drum kit adding to rhythmic density, or a bell pattern at the right, groovy moment, or shakers, rattles, friction sounds, or scrapers that help determine the mood of song.

That is what being active with percussion taught me also: the importance of enjoying the small yet crucial details. More than other, chording instruments, having the all-encompassing burden of “directing” a piece. This “beauty of small things” extends in my experience even beyond music, to – for instance - a cute birdie, a cat climbing, a small decoration, details in nature, one of the spices in a meal, etcetera.

From this perspective, the difference of sound between glass and metal can make a crucial, and nice difference in some songs, also when used percussively.


A well-known example is Bob Marley & the Wailers’ song Jamming. I liked the use of the bottle in it; a bit rhythmically, but even more because it relates to the lyrics: a free, makeshift musical jam with everything available, that is what the “glass bottle” sound on Bob’s Jamming evokes for me.. Upon closer listening it gets even better: the combination as “call-and-response” with a block and cabasa shaker in the percussion is very nice in Jamming. A pity that – as I discussed in another blog post – the percussion is often too subdued in Bob Marley songs, probably because of Island’s commercial reasons.

I am a real reggae lover, and so I know a lot more about Reggae than Bob Marley alone. Indeed, there are more examples of “glass” use in Reggae. I cannot recall them all, but some songs come to my mind. The creative genius within Reggae and Jamaican music, producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, used bottle/glass sounds on several of his recordings, sometimes hidden in the mix, at his Black Ark Studio since the 1970s. Jamaican Roots Reggae artist Earl Zero used a glass sound on the nice Home Sweet Home song, also from the 1970s, so Perry was not the only one experimenting with it.

In fact, even before Reggae music arose in the 1968, in older Jamaican music genres, Ska, Rocksteady or Mento, bottles or glass were sometimes used, mostly rhythmically. The Ethiopians original Rocksteady tune The Whip (1967) being a notable example. The glass use is here – as mostly in Jamaican music – percussive, added to other more common percussion instruments in Reggae (shakers, scrapers, bells, drums, wood blocks etc.). I do not know of melodical use of glass in Reggae (as keyboard-like pattern), but maybe some one knows examples..

Even in later Reggae and Dancehall – from the 1980s up to now - I hear glass at times in the mix, sometimes with synth effects. Even in this digital age. Sometimes I hear it echoed in the more experimental Dub tunes. Some examples that come to my mind now are Chronixx’s “Ska-ish” song Rastaman Wheel Out (2014), and the Dancehall song Limb By Limb by Cutty Ranks, from the 1990s. The Black Uhuru classic Sponji Reggae (1981) has ”glass-like” sounds in it, but they are probably high-pitched bells. Glass sound is, however, probably “buried” in the mix of several, also recent Reggae and Dancehall Riddims, I failed to mention now, though bells are used much more often (and woodblocks, scrapers, hand drums a.o.).

The same applies to Funk and Hip-hop, where glass sounds often appear as “novelty”, but sometimes with a rhythmic function. Not in many songs though.

As a percussion instrument, though, the use of “glass” still remains relatively rare in popular music. As it was before.


An obvious question is.. why is this? This historical rarity or absence as musical instruments in general, or as percussion specifically.

To answer this question, one must know the history of glass and crystal: since when was it used and produced? In some parts of the world more than others? Was it expensive or hard to get by, when compared to e.g. metal or brass? The answer to the last question is simply yes. Metal was since long more and more cheaply available than glass. For this reason, the initial use of glass material was often as luxury, jewellery, as it was in Ancient Egypt. Musical use was first recorded much later, around the 14th c. in Persia (present-day Iran), involving glasses.

Glass cups and bottles as such, though, became first developed in Europe, as was a wider use of glass for all kinds of inventions. It led not only to glasses for wine or bottles, but also to the invention of mirrors, lenses (the first glasses, telescopes, microscopes), and even electronics. All things taken for granted in later modern times. This development of glass gave Europe a competitive edge over China, where it became used later than in Europe. Before that, China was more inventive and advanced.. yet..not hopping on the glass train set them behind Europe. Ironically, Chinese wear relatively (not just proportionally, duh) more often glasses, as myopia is more common among South East Asians than among Europeans (relatively, percentage-wise), for instance. The invention of lenses (through glass) could have been useful to them too before, with many Chinese having a less than optimal sighting sense.

Until a few years ago I did not know all this: I saw it in an insightful episode of the BBC knowledge quiz QI, then still presented by Stephen Fry. The surprised questions by the panelists showed that they did not know either about this crucial role of glass development in European advancement.

Only since about the 18th c. did glass spread slowly world wide, reaching Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It remained relatively expensive for a long time, though. This may have caused why few “glass instruments” were developed in Asia (there are a few exceptions) alongside the “metal” gong focus, or, as in Africa, adding to drums or wood- and fruit-based percussion instruments. No glass was made in China, for instance, until the 19th c. This of course helps explains its limited role in music.

In The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), the film set in Botswana, Africa, the native African Khoi San people come across such a glass item (thrown from a plane), up to then unknown to them. At first it was seen as a handy hard and smooth object, but eventually disrupted their way of life in a bad way. Of course, metal would be likewise unknown for them at that stage. In more urban parts of Africa, glass in time became more common, although glass cups or bottles are still overall much less common and widespread than in Europe.


We go back to the sound as such. Pitched bottles mainly imitate organs, harps, or xylophone, yet with a different sound. The use of a bottle – they say a milk bottle – on Bob Marley’s Jamming is distinguishable from – say – a bell or metal percussion instrument.

How is that difference described online? I just now used the term “airy” (which gets a whole other meaning when used for wind instruments, by the way), Pockrich, the Irish inventor of the glass harp called his invention an “angelic organ”.

The website rareandstrangeinstruments.com speaks of a ”clear” sound, indeed as in the common expression “crystal clear”, also known in Dutch (kristalhelder). This website also adds that glass has a “delicate resonance” and “ fragile beauty”. This indeed sets it apart from metal bells, or other instruments of e.g. wood.

Glass can be touched at the rims, hit with a stick, but likewise, of course, scraped or blown into. The specific sound of glass nonetheless still comes through.

Scraped bottles are found probably among experimental musicians world-wide. I even heard of instruments made of potatoes, for instance. A bit more standardized, though, it is known in Spanish traditional music. The “botella de anis” is a makeshift instrument originally, as the decorated, accidented glass of these bottles used for liquor, are scraped by tradition during several festivities throughout Spain.

Other such once makeshift instruments – once just household items - that became more or less common in Spain include bones, saucepans, spoons, and mortars. Their use is mostly rhythmic and percussive, giving “rhythm” in certain types of Spanish folk genres a relatively prominent role. This is somewhat exceptional in European traditional music, where rhythm tends to be more relegated to the background, especially in Central Europe.


The more limited historical availability and access to glass might explain that metal is common for small percussion instruments, but glass rare. There is an obvious irony here, though. In modern Western societies, glass is all around us: mirrors, glasses, windows, cups and bottles, and of course in computer, tv, mobile phone and microwave screens. Glass is in electronics.

That it is so little used as percussion instrument is therefore somewhat strange.

Do I miss that sound? I personally like the use of glass in several songs I know: I like it in Bob Marley’s Jamming, Earl Zero’s Home Sweet Home, and also the melodic use in some pop and folk songs. The sound is indeed “clear” and with a “delicate resonance”.


As a percussionist I therefore began to use glass in my own compositions as well. I find all “sound” interesting, but in time sought something different and “new”. I primarily used olive oil bottles from Córdoba, Spain, that were empty, and placed them in a cardboard being the resonator. I filled most with varying degrees of water for a pitch change. I played it both with a wooden and a bamboo stick. The bamboo stick on the lid, giving an interesting “Udu” like feel, but with the glass sound. The olive oil bottles are relatively heavy and thick, so they are also in sound, rather than “light” as wine glasses sound. I am glad that gave it something unique. The milk bottle used on Jamming sounds a bit similar - sound-wise - though.

I also scraped a ribbed glass cup for a composition, once. In addition, it is an idea that I can play glass objects to jam sessions sometimes, to use it among other musicians, as I do now with more standard percussion instruments (hand drums, bells, jam and wood blocks etc.), that I also enjoy to play. Glass cups and bottles tend to be there anyway, haha.

It’s not that I am going to make “glass percussion” an obsessive life mission of mine now. I like all music and percussion, essentially, in its variety. I just happen to notice some disregard for the possibilities of glass sound in percussion, in recorded and composed music in general.

In addition, tellingly: as a percussionist I regularly have visited music instrument stores, and even specific percussion shops, and do not recall seeing any “glass” items between the bigger and smaller instruments.

Bob Marley’s song Jamming, for one, certainly proved that, despite all this, good use can be made of glass in percussion, beyond being just as gimmick or novelty.