A detail from John Stump’s “Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz”
Humans are toolmakers. They also make music. This can be taken to absurd extremes. Given sufficient time and will, you can try making music out of almost anything. That doesn’t mean it won’t turn out weird. But you know me. I like the arts at the outer ends of the spectrum, the best and the worst. The stuff in the middle I leave to middle managers. Here are some fine impulses that have spun out of control.
Human voices have two registers, a “chest voice” for lower notes and a “head voice” up above. Unless you train to close it, there’s a gap in pitches between the two. The original purpose of forcing the voice to go back and forth at high volume was to allow guys in the Alps to shout between mountains. Tarzan’s yell in the movies is dedicated to this correct original purpose.
How it got turned to an attempt at artistic expression, as it has in a variety of cultures, is beyond me. The best yodelers can make it sound somewhat musical, but nobody can prevent it from also sounding a bit daft.
Household Items Used as Instruments
This insanity includes playing spoons to make intricate rhythmic accompaniment for folk music. No matter how well it’s done, it still sounds all clickety. In the early days of glass manufacturing, someone noticed that running a wet finger around the rim of a leaded-crystal glass produces a tone. Bigger and smaller glasses make lower and higher notes, and you can “tune” them by adding liquid. Benjamin Franklin mounted different-sized glass disks on a treadle and dubbed it an armonica. Wolfie Mozart, another aficionado of musical oddity, wrote pieces for it. Then there’s using a bow to play things besides what bows were made to play. Ok, I’ll grant that playing an electric guitar with a bow can sound cool, but what level of boredom produced the idea of playing the back of a saw held between the knees? Sure, you can play hymns and arias on a musical saw, but it will always sound like something better suited to cartoon soundtracks.
Instruments vs. Toys
The world has a wide variety of musical instruments. Some are exotic, like bagpipes or gamelan. Proper cultural context matters, and there are “real” instruments and toys. Kazoos were not designed for producing serious music, nor were slide whistles, nose flutes, or wiener whistles. However, all have been used by musicians with a taste for the bizarre.
A vuvuzela is what happens when you take a noisemaker blown at birthday parties or New Year’s Eve, super-size it, and tell South Africans it’s a symbol of national pride. If you fill a stadium full of plastic trumpet farters blasting away, you can’t even hear the bloody World Cup!
This source of annoyance is the intended use, though some can’t resist trying to make them more tuneful.
And Speaking of “Trumpets”…
There once was a man named Joseph Pujol, an artiste active from 1887-1914. When he was a boy he accidentally discovered he had an unusual level of voluntary control of the muscles of his anal sphincter. He could take in, and shove out liquids and air with varied intensity and duration, almost as if he had another mouth. So he developed a stage act in which he used his ability to fart with finesse.
Le Pétomane (the fartomaniac) blew out candles, and imitated the sounds of barnyard animals, cannons, and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. For his grand finale, he inserted a rubber tube back there and played “La Marseillaise” on an ocarina, thus creating two levels of musical inappropriateness simultaneously! His audiences included the Prince of Wales and Sigmund Freud. Edison made a film in 1900 that appears to be a try at recording his unique talent, but the current whereabouts of the wax cylinder is unknown. Only recordings made by others unsuccessfully attempting to imitate this, uh, skill have survived.