Violent smart mobs

Self promo: My lecture on the glass harmonica

I’m currently working on a big story about Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica, one of my weirder obssessions. Two weeks ago I gave a lecture about it for the Trampoline Hall lecture series, run by the fab short-story writer Sheila Heti. At each of lecture night, she appoints a “secretary” from the audience who takes notes — and then she posts them on the McSweeney’s site:

Clive Thompson is the first speaker. He is impeccably dressed and looks a little like Miles from Murphy Brown. He played us some glass harmonica on CD. Benjamin Franklin invented it (the glass harmonica, not the CD). Imagine a lathe with glass bowls turning. The glass harmonica player “plays” it with unspeakably clean hands. When played well, the glass harmonica (the only truly American acoustic instrument) sounds (1) like the music of angels, (2) pleasing, and (3) inspiring, depending on who you talked to. Europe, in particular, was crazy about it. Of course, the backlash was swift. Rumors spread that listening to the glass harmonica would cause melancholy, fainting, spasms, etc.

The phone rings again. It is for Jason, who takes it in the other room. Here, the microphone stops working for a moment. A young woman — does she live here?! — fixes it and Clive continues.

In 1798, a young child died during a glass harmonica concert in Germany. Within 3 years, it vanished from the continent.Fast forward to the ’50s. A crazy organist named Powers Biggs wanted to bring the instrument back to America for a Mozart tribute concert. He failed — I think (Clive is talking really fast). In 1982, a German glassblower moved to West Newton — he brought the glass harmonica back with the help of Linda Ronstadt, a fan of the glass harmonica. In 1999, the glass blower went for a plane flight because he was a recreational pilot — and vanished. Thus, the last tragedy of this tragic instrument.

During Q&A, Clive says that the body count related to the glass harmonica makes it a weirder instrument than the theremin. Clive plays the guitar and the harmonica (which was named after the glass harmonica, and not vice-versa). Clive had considered telling us about the bazantar, another rare acoustic instrument from the Bay Area. It is not clear why he didn’t choose the bazantar. Clive emphasizes that neither in the making of nor in the playing of the glass harmonica can your hands be at all oily. There are a lot of physics involved, but I didn’t do well in physics in high school, so I won’t try paraphrasing Clive’s explanation. The glass harmonica is played best with the middle section of your finger. Clive cannot play the glass harmonica, but he is a Canadian national.

We take a break for drinks, knowledge absorption and jazz. Reid, sitting next to me, says admiringly of Clive, “I feel really dumb.” I talk to Aaron, who went to the same college as me. He tells me that Gabe, whose place this is, used to live near him when Aaron was five. Gabe is the one behind the bar, wearing a bright red shirt, mixing mean drinks. He also has killer sideburns. Killer.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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