Category Archives: Cimbalom

A Rough Guide to Slide Whistles

This week I’m performing Ligeti’s Violin Concerto with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The percussion part includes difficult passages for two tuned slide whistles. In addition to the finer points of tuned slide whistle, this article might also help to illustrate the sheer amount of collective effort it takes to put on an event like this. Dozens of musicians will play hundreds of thousands of notes during this concert. Even for me, the slide whistle part isn’t on my top 5 list of concerns. I also have tons of hard cimbalom notes to play. Aside from the musicians, there is also the administrative side of BMOP, raising the money to produce the event and handling all the logistics. All of that makes a few slide whistle notes being sort of in tune a relatively insignificant detail, yet several man hours went in to that task alone.

While spending an inordinate amount of time modifying a slide whistle, I often wondered “Does it really matter if these notes are in tune?” It would make my life a lot easier if it didn’t. But I remembered an experience I had 10 years ago playing Steve Mackey’s Eating Greens, which involves a comparably fussy part for tuned flexatone. I practiced flexatone for three hours to learn the feel of where the pitches were. At the first rehearsal, the conductor made me play the part with in unison with the violins, so in that case the practice paid off. Better safe than sorry.

The slide whistle is typically used as a non-pitched glissando sound effect, but Ligeti writes specific pitches in moving lines, and if that wasn’t enough, he also has the two slide whistlers in parallel fourths. Given that it is written for slide whistle, I seriously doubt the intention is for it to be perfectly in tune, but I at least want to be in the right ball park. So I could either practice the slide whistle until I become so familiar with it that I can navigate the intervals by feel alone, or construct some sort of tuning gauge. I went with the gauge.

This particular slide whistle worked well because of the L-shaped slide. It has a range of E4-C#6, not counting higher notes achievable through over-blowing.

The actual process of making the tuning slide was not difficult, but coming up with the design took some effort. I asked some of my crafty neighbors if they had any ideas, but their suggestions were far too complicated. I ended up with a simple design using a square dowel rod, double sided tape, and gaff tape.

I cut a length of the dowel equal to the length of the slide whistle, drilled a small hole in one end, and attached it to the slide. I also used to small bits of dowel to keep the moving dowel centered on the slide whistle. I attached the two small bits with double sided tape, then gaff taped them all together. I then marked the pitches with black sharpie on white gaff tape. The end of the dowel rod marks the pitch.

The cuts bits of dowel rod. I didn't end up needing the anchor nuts.

The cut bits of dowel rod. I didn’t end up needing the anchor nuts.

Dowels attached with unmarked tuning gauge.

Dowels attached with unmarked tuning gauge.

 

A few shots of the completed tuning gauge.

A few shots of the completed tuning gauge.

 

Making the tuning gauge was somewhat frustrating because the pitch changes dramatically depending on the dynamic. So I guess beware of that if you have to undertake this project.

It occurs to me that the ideal solution for tuned slide whistle would be for the body of the instrument to be transparent with the pitches etched directly on to it. The stopper inside the instrument could then act as the gauge. I was genuinely surprised to learn that Kolberg hasn’t thought of this already with a specially made “Ligeti Slide Whistle”.

I bought a few other slide whistles in preparation for this part. Here’s some info on those.

This one has by far the biggest range (D4-F#6 on the one I have. I’d be surprised that was consistent from instrument to instrument). It is also sounds a bit airy when played loud, as opposed to the Acme which has a more pure pitch.

This one sounds as cheap as it looks. The range is A5-F#6.

And here is a dog slide whistle. It has a one octave range of G4-G5.

 

Interview

Matt Mendez recently interviewed me for his excellent blog. Enjoy.

Do read some of his other articles while you are there. Some of the best music writing you’ll find online.

http://soundproofedblog.blogspot.com/2014/06/cimbalom-nick-tolle.html

Composing for Cimbalom

I’m deeply committed to expanding the repertoire for cimbalom, and I’m publishing this informal how-to guide in hopes that composers will be inspired to write for the instrument.

Pitch Layout and Range

The pitch layout of the cimbalom is unlike any other instrument. All cimbaloms have the same pitch layout, and vary only slightly in size. Some older instruments are on a much smaller scale and have a smaller pitch range, but these instruments most likely will not be encountered because they are unfit for professional performance situations.

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 1.22.48 AM

Cimbalom Pitch Layout

The normal beating area of the string is between 1-2 inches away from the bridge. As one moves closer to or further from the bridge, sul ponticello and sul tasto effects are achieved.

The standard cimbalom range extends from C2-A6. Unlike its close relative, the hammered dulcimer, the cimbalom is completely chromatic and has no repeated notes. G5, A5, and B5 appear on the diagram to be repeated, but these strings and these strings only have two accessible bridges, and thus two acceptable beating spots. C2 has one large wound string, C#2 and D2 have two wound strings, and the next 1.3 octaves (up to F#3) have three wound strings. From G3 to the top of the range, the strings are unwound and each pitch has four strings. Some modern instruments have a range of A1-A6, but these lower notes should be avoided because such instruments are exceedingly rare, especially in the United States.

On the wound strings in the bass register, the beating areas are on the opposite sides of the instrument, with the C whole-tone scale on the right and the C# whole-tone scale on the left. This makes rapid passages in the bass register difficult to execute since the beating areas on each side of the instrument are 26-28 inches apart. Because of this, I try to keep each hand dedicated to one side of the instrument when playing in the bass register, if at all possible.

Damper Pedal

The cimbalom has a single pedal used for dampening. Like the piano, the dampers do not affect the high notes of the cimbalom. All pitches from G5-A6 are undampened with the exception of G#5. This is only worth noting because the pedal will not completely cut off the sound of the instrument by itself. Hand dampening must be used to dampen the aforementioned pitches. The sympathetic resonance and sustain of the cimbalom is comparable to that of a piano.

Single Staff or Grand Staff

Cimbalom music is sometimes written on a single staff and sometimes on a grand staff. It really depends on the specific musical passage. Obviously if the music stays primarily in the treble range, there is no use for a bass clef and vice versa.

This passage from Pierre Boulez’ Repons illustrates an effective use of grand staff cimbalom writing. Also notice the precise pedal notations.

Repons1

In this passage from later in the same piece, Boulez does away with the grand staff when it is no longer necessary.

Repons 2

Dividing Music Between Staves

Because of the bizarre layout of pitches on a cimbalom, it is difficult for a composer to guess which hand will play which note. Because of this, range should be the only factor in determining which pitch goes on which staff. Stravinsky employed the technique of separating the right and left hand on different staves and as a result, his cimbalom parts are difficult to read.

This example is from Stravinsky’s edition of Renard.

renard1

This is the same passage of music from my personal edition of the part with corrected staff distribution.

renard2

Four Mallets on Cimbalom

It is generally not possible to play with four mallets on cimbalom. Four mallet technique as we know it was developed on mallet keyboard instruments, which have a horizontal note layout. The cimbalom has a vertical layout. This renders the technique one might use on a marimba useless on cimbalom. That being said, some composers have found ways around this.

In this passage from Renard, Stravinsky asks the cimbalom player to play two adjacent notes with one stick.

renard3

The right hand alone would be used to play the Bb and G, since those strings are right next to each other. This type of writing is only seen in older cimbalom parts (see also Bartok’s First Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra) because cimbaloms were smaller in the early 20th century and this technique was easier to achieve. Stravinsky also learned to play cimbalom to some degree and composed his cimbalom parts at the instrument, so he verified that this technique was possible himself. I personally don’t like seeing this technique in music. It is a bit like playing two adjacent marimba bars with one mallet: it happens by accident sometimes but it is very difficult to do consistently.

The entire second movement of Alessandro Solbiati’s Quaderno d’immagini for solo cimbalom employs four soft timpani mallets. Notice however that the music is extremely slow, and that the performer has ample time to contort himself into the correct playing position.

solbiati

Stick Types

The standard cimbalom mallet is a small wooden shaft curving upward at the tip covered in either leather or cotton. Leather mallets are more common in Western Europe while cotton mallets are more common in America. There is not an enormous difference between the sounds of the two, so when writing for standard mallets, only the hardness and not the material should be indicated.

Composers have asked for various non-standard types of mallets over the years. György Kurtág often asks for fémver­­­ó, or metal covered mallets. In this passage from Scenes from a Novel, Kurtág pairs metal covered mallets with violin played col legno battuto.

kurtag

When writing for metal covered mallets, it is best to keep things below forte to avoid damaging the strings.

In his cimbalom concerto, Gramigna, Stefano Gervasoni asks for a multitude of standard and non-standard mallets.

gervasoni

Extended Techniques

Pizzicato is frequently used on cimbalom and is quite easy to execute even while holding mallets. It is also possible for one hand to pizz several pitches simultaneously assuming they are all within reach. Because of the note layout, there isn’t a standard intervallic reach, so check with a cimbalom player with your specific requests.

Glissandi are also frequently used in cimbalom repertoire. Chromatic glissandi are extremely difficult to execute and should be avoided. Most commonly, composers ask performers to gliss on a particular set of adjacent strings, resulting in a pitch collection specific to the cimbalom. The following example from Ju Ri Seo’s Etude illustrates this concept.

seo1

The glissandi in this passage use the notes on the left mid-treble range, and skip chromatic pitches that appear elsewhere on the instrument.

Harmonics are also possible on cimbalom. It is best to keep harmonics on strings that are not divided by a bridge (C2-B3, C#4, and Eb4). Harmonics are possible, but less effective, on lower bridge-divided strings. Starting at F5, the first overtone is barely possible, and will sound more like a muted string than a discernible pitch. As with any stringed instrument, harmonics closer to the start of the harmonic series produce the strongest sound on cimbalom. On the wound strings, it is easy enough to produce the first five overtones. Anything beyond that would be a bit of a challenge. The high overtones also tend to get drowned out by the resonance from the rest of the instrument. On the unwound strings that are not divided by a bridge, the higher overtones sound weaker than on the wound strings, but are still possible. On the bridge divided strings, it is best to stick to the first two overtones.

When notating harmonics on cimbalom, indicate which string the harmonic is played on, as well as the sounding pitch, as Gervasoni does in this example from Gramigna.

gervasoni2

Keep in mind that producing harmonics on cimbalom is by necessity a two handed technique. One hand stops the string and the other strikes it. This requires at least some preparation time. It is possible to prepare harmonics on the cimbalom by placing something like Blu-Tack on the strings, as Gervasoni requires in Epicadanza:

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 3.25.08 PM

Alternate Tuning

Proceed with caution when considering an alternate tuning for cimbalom. Changing the tuning can be a very time consuming process, and on a program with other cimbalom pieces in standard tuning this could cause quite a problem. Making adjustments to only a couple pitches is easy enough though. Cimbalom strings are extremely taut in their natural state, so tuning upward more than a quartertone should be avoided. For general tuning maintenance purposes, I wouldn’t want to tune my strings downward more than a major 2nd.  Also keep in mind that when tuning a pitch that shares a bridge with another pitch, both pitches will be affected. For example, tuning C4 down a quartertone will also tune G4 down a quartertone. This example, again from Ju Ri Seo’s Etude, represents an acceptable scordatura tuning, both in terms of execution and notation.

seo2

When composing for extended techniques on the cimbalom, a general rule of thumb is that anything you might consider writing for the inside of a piano is easier to execute on cimbalom. Also, new extended techniques for cimbalom are being invented all the time. Essentially every extended technique in Solbaiti’s Quaderno d’immagini and Otto Canti are used for the first time in those pieces, so one can be imaginative. And, if you are writing for cimbalom and I’ve glossed over an area that needs further explanation, please let me know.

Recommended Listening

Historic Cimbalom Repertoire

Modern Cimbalom Repertoire

Learning the Cimbalom

Repons cymbalum3

The cimbalom is a Hungarian instrument related to the hammered dulcimer that was invented in 1874 and is primarily known as a Roma folk instrument. It weighs about 200 pounds and requires at least two strong people to move it, so it is the only instrument I own that I can’t move by myself. Tuning the instrument can be a hassle (they’re tuning cimbaloms in hell, I always say). Things like cimbalom mallets and replacement strings are very difficult to find in the United States. The average American orchestra requires a cimbalom player once every 3-5 years or so. I’m frequently asked, given those circumstances, why I bothered learning the instrument to begin with.

My obsession with collecting recordings led me to the music of György Kurtág. One day during undergrad when I was perusing the old Virgin Megastore on Newbury and Mass Ave in Boston, I picked up a CD that included a work of his for baritone, string trio, and percussion, since I was always looking for new chamber music to play. The score proved impossible to acquire back in 2003, but the music was amazing. Brutally expressive yet introverted, and not losing its stoic dignity. I bought all the Kurtág records I could find, and unfortunately learned that he had no other chamber works for percussion, but myriad pieces for cimbalom.

In 2007 I began studying with Frank Epstein at the New England Conservatory, and for my first lesson he asked me to make a list of things I wanted to accomplish that year. I wrote down things I considered to be realistic, like various auditions that I wanted to take (I didn’t end up taking any of them) and on a whim, at the end of the list I added “learn cimbalom?” I was almost embarrassed to even mention it, but when I did, Frank lit up and was very in to the idea. To be honest, if Frank was anything less than totally supportive in that initial expression of interest, I never would have bothered.

Frank later introduced me to the only other cimbalom player in New England (that I know of), Richard Grimes, who helped me find an instrument to rent and showed me the ropes. In the beginning of 2008, an extraordinary coincidence led me to a cimbalom for sale about three miles from my house in Jamaica Plain. I have no idea how many cimbaloms are in the United States, but I’d be surprised if it was more than two hundred, and the number of professional quality instruments in great condition is probably somewhere around twenty-five. The number of those instruments for sale ranges between zero and two at any given moment. So being able to hop in my car and check out one of these instruments after a ten minute drive at the exact moment I needed to purchase an instrument is quite miraculous.

Humble Beginnings

Humble Beginnings

The reason why there are so few cimbalom players in the United States, aside from the scarcity of instruments and the even bleaker scarcity of work, is that the pitch layout makes no sense. Although the cimbalom has close instrumental relatives in most cultures on Earth, knowing how to play one or another of them will do you no good whatsoever in learning the cimbalom. I suppose percussionists might have the slightest advantage over other instrumentalists in as much as we are used to hitting things with sticks. So my strategy in learning the cimbalom was mostly just to repurpose the old books I used when learning how to play xylophone and marimba, and to import my general performance practices to my new instrument.

The biggest hurdle I faced after learning where all the pitches are is that the technique required by traditional cimbalom sticks does not work for me at all. Most cimbalom sticks require one to play with the thumbs facing up. Percussionists might know this as the “French” timpani technique. While a lot of percussionists have success with this grip, my left hand has never been able to do it.

cimb1

I don’t like this.

Furthermore, it seems logical to me that the most successful technique in holding any type of stick or mallet is the one that most closely resembles one’s snare drum grip. When playing snare drum, each hand holds one stick, and the only concern is to play on a single large surface as efficiently as possible. That technique should lend itself well to situations with additional considerations. In my experience, the farther away a technique is from snare drum technique, the more likely it is to be nonsense.

Not nonsense.

Not nonsense.

Because of the way cimbalom sticks are designed, it is not possible to hold traditional sticks with my preferred snare drum style grip with the top of the hand facing up. In 2009 I finally found someone that makes adjustable sticks that allowed my to use my favored technique.

After a couple years of practicing cimbalom, I still wasn’t able to do much, and I was pretty discouraged. The opportunity of a lifetime came in March, 2009, when I was given the chance to play Pierre Boulez’ Repons that September at the Lucerne Festival Academy. I’m convinced it is the most difficult piece in the cimbalom repertoire.

Thank you, Mr. Boulez.

Thank you, Mr. Boulez.

So, I had six months to learn a ridiculously difficult part by rote. I didn’t nail every aspect of the piece in the performance, but it went pretty well. You can watch it here.

After learning Repons, things got a lot easier. Since then, I’ve been able to play a lot of the standard rep for the instrument with some of the world’s top orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Montreal Symphony. Without a doubt, the performances I’ve had on cimbalom have been the highlights of my career.

The opportunities open to me as a cimbalom player would be completely closed if I had remained what I was in 2007: a slightly better than average new music percussionist with a tenuous orchestral background. I’m definitely not advising everyone reading this to go out and do what I did, but the more general insight here is that in the cutthroat world of the music business, the more you can diversity your portfolio, the better off you’ll be. But, of course, I didn’t have any of that in mind to begin with. I just wanted to play Kurtág.