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A tiny, travelling pair with an oversize, ethnic sound...click on photo for closer look...

Toe Music...

By John Townley, August, 2016

After the guitar w/concocted double foot-drum combo worked so wonderfully in the studio (see pix bottom of page here), very tight and flexible, now the polyphalangic clarinet version.

Click for ad-hoc cell phone video

This particular likely late 1920s (Alexandre Paris, no serial #) 5-piece metal clarinet (possibly by Henri Selmer's brother, but more likely a German stencil) skirls and birls better than the more high-line metals. The tiny, amazingly aggressive Bontempi Concertino 32 keyboard from Italy early 1980s ($20 on eBay, lucky find!) has a direct-circuit sound of its own from before imitative digital synthesizers took over (tried the same experiment with a more modern Yamaha, it's not even close, no cutting edge). Put them together and you get sort of rangier (3 octaves) and more flexible bagpipes (with mid-stream changeable drones like Uilleann pipes), or maybe something in the way of an Indian shehnai-esque solo with shifting drones, lots of possibilities.  


Still very tentative, it's just a proof of concept, as this ad-hoc construction is only a couple of weeks old, and in the video clearly still struggling to focus accurately on both instruments (and the cell phone camera!). Had to adapt the keyboard (eventually for “foot picks” made from popsickle sticks, similar to the added key extensions velcroed-on for ease of access), but it sounds startlingly huge live, as the small built-in speaker actually puts out at close to the clarinet's own volume range, louder with a separate amp or bluetooth speakers. This could have been done more predictably, with much more difficulty and expense, using a narrower-range electric organ foot pedalboard and amplifier (did that, way back, here), but it would kind of defeat the independent, acoustical portability of this fetching little arrangement, 2 1/2 octaves easily packed and tucked under your arm ready to travel.

But the reason for heading this direction to begin with is that it seems no one, anywhere that I can find, does piping styles on clarinet and it's made for it (or the metal ones are, anyway)...seems few stylistically much north of the Mediterranean yet want a piece of this as an intensely variable and wide-range folk instrument it's evolved to in more southern climes. Dozens of different varieties of bagpipes and fiddles, physically and stylistically, even multiple squeezeboxes, from the Med to the Arctic, but no clarinet playing along. Perhaps that's because even where it is popular, it's relatively recent. Interestingly, whereas the older, simpler Albert system is preferred in Balkan and Levantine folk styles (and even in early jazz), the Boehm system seems the better option for piping styles...selective strokes over all or part of those extra trill keys make available all sorts of instant ornamentation.

Note: on the Bontempi Concertino 32 box pic (click on the top photo for a closer look), it’s promoted as being “safe and hygienic” – apparently it was sold as a school instrument to substitute for the mouth-blown melodic...part of a fascinating evolution of analogue synths with unique voices like Vox and Farfisa (owned by Bontempi) to the more imitative digital like Yamaha, this baby one  pretty muchat the transfer point...

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