Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sonorous stones

In one of my earliest posts here I talked about the wide range of landscapes on show at the Royal Academy's 2005 exhibition China: The Three Emperors, but I didn't mention one of the most memorable exhibits, dating from 1764: a set of sixteen sonorous stones, hung from a gold-lacquered frame three and a half metres high.  According to the catalogue 'sonorous stones made of dark green nephrite, such as those in this chime, were reserved for Grand Sacrifices performed at the Altar of Heaven and the Altar of Land and Grain, whereas the sonorous stones used in other state rites were made of limestone.'  Examples of these stone chimes (bianqing) exist going back thousands of years - the earliest were made of marble.  Similar instruments have been constructed in many different countries: rock gongs in Kenya, stone church bells in Ethiopia, castanets made of basaltic lava in Hawaii and the rarely heard Mongolian lithophone known as the shuluun tsargel.  In England a rock harmonicon, built by the Richardson family, was played in front of Queen Victoria in 1848 and she was apparently so impressed she requested two further performances.  A photograph of Neddy Dick with his rock instrument features in Rob Young's Electric Eden (see my previous post) and it can be seen on Mike Adcock's excellent website, which I am drawing on here.

From a landscape perspective, I am particularly interested in the way certain locations provide particularly musical rocks.  This was the case in England, where 'in the eighteenth century rocks found on the river bed in Skiddaw in the Lake District were found to possess a particularly sonorous quality.  Peter Crosthwaite, who had opened his own museum in Keswick assembled a set of musical stones in 1785, some of which were already in perfect tune, the rest he tuned himself by chipping away at the stone.  In the years following a number of people began to make musical instruments using the stone, known as hornfels or spotted schist, meticulously tuning them by cutting them into different length slabs and laying them horizontally.'  One of these was the Richardsons' rock harmonicon and another was commissioned by John Ruskin (now in the museum at Coniston - see below).

Carl Orff used a lithophone in his opera Antigonae (1949) and lists many contemporary sound artists and musicians who have made use of stone - from Sigur Rós to Stephan Micus (see clip below). There are also examples of stone instruments being made and sited in the landscape as musical sculptures, like Paul Fuchs' Garden of Sound in the Italian village of Boccheggiano.  Lithophones have been constructed using agate, marble, basalt and sonorous stones “gathered from the shores of Lake Superior”. Terje Isungset, who recently played his ice instruments here in London,has also performed on blocks of Norwegian granite. It would be good to know more about performances using stone that have taken place outside, like John Luther Adams' Inuksuit which I discussed here previously (there is a Youtube clip where you can see stones being rubbed together).  And it would also be nice to know more about cases where rock forms have been played directly in situ - an ancient practice, as evinced by the marks of use on stalactites found near prehistoric cave paintings in the Dordogne.  However, on his website Mike Adcock points out that 'in many parts of the world there is sometimes a reticence about talking about ringing stones, possibly because of their sacred quality, and even their whereabouts remains a local secret.'


Anonymous said...

This video "is not available in my country!"

Plinius said...

Sorry about that. The CD is on ECM: 'The Music Of Stones
Stephan Micus: shakuhachi, tin whistle, stone chimes, resonating stones, voice
Elmar Daucher, Günther Federer, Nobuko Micus: resonating stones
ECM 1384 CD/MC 837750-2/4'