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September 21, 2014: Mechanical Organs

Andante (K616) for Mechanical Organ W.A. Mozart (1756–1791)

Fugue in Gm J.A. Reinken (1643–1722)

An ‘automaton’ is a mechanical device (no electronics!) that generally does something humans would normally do. The word first appears in Homer in the 5th century B.C.E. (referring to automatically opening doors), and the ancient Greeks were quite adept at designing and building machines, including siphons, a fire engine, a rudimentary pipe organ, the ‘aeolipile’ — a simple steam turbine, and the ‘Antikythera mechanism’ — a mechanical analog computer used to predict eclipses and other astronomical phenomena.

During the Dark Ages in the West when everyone was struggling just to survive, the Arabic world kept interest in automata alive (and so much other learning in general). With the Renaissance interest in them revived — ferinstance, da Vinci. But they remained occasional curiosities until Frederick the Great in the 18th century, who had a real passion for them. (That, and the ever improving technology in machining made them increasingly easier to construct.) With the King’s interest, automata went viral: We have ‘The Flute Player’, invented by the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737. He also constructed the ‘Digesting Duck’, a mechanical duck that gave the false illusion of eating and then, well, um… And in 1769, a chess-playing machine called ‘the Turk’, created by Wolfgang von Kempelen, made the rounds of the courts of Europe purporting to be an automaton — a fraud however, as it concealed a human player inside. Other 18th century automaton makers include the prolific Frenchman Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a Swiss mechanic, who created an automaton capable of drawing four pictures and writing three poems, and Belgian-born John Joseph Merlin who created the ‘Silver Swan’ automaton.

And of course inventors automated musical instruments, and composers of the day availed themselves of the opportunity for an easy buck (or gulden as the case may be) — even Beethoven wrote an eminently forgettable piece for mechanical orchestra. The organ, however, already being mechanical, was a natural for adding a player mechanism. Handel, Haydn, W.F. Bach (J.S.’s eldest) all wrote for the mechanical organ. As did Mozart — the composer of this morning’s prelude.

New Book: Musical Gematria

I’ve just completed a book on ‘musical gematria’ — near as I can tell, the first on the topic. And what might ‘musical gematria’ be, you ask? My blurb from the back cover explains:

Musical Gematria In modern times we are accustomed to one set of characters for writing words (the alphabet ‘A’ through ‘Z’) and another for writing numbers (the digits ‘0’ through ‘9’). The ancient Greeks and Hebrews, however, used the alphabet for both words and numbers. So their numbers looked like strange words, and their words looked like strange numbers. And every word naturally had a numeric value. The study of these numeric values of words is called ‘gematria’ (”geh-MAY-tree-uh”).

The ancients put gematria to use: they apparently used numeric values of the names of Greek gods as dimensions in the Parthenon. And Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages studied the meanings of the numeric values of the Hebrew names of God.

This book presents a way of doing ‘musical gematria’ that takes words or phrases in general and names in particular, and generates graceful and musically useful themes. It uses an elegant method that honors the ancient traditions of gematria while incorporating modern insights.

ISBN: 978-1-940630-02-1
40 pages. $US 9.95.

You can order it from Amazon (Click here)

Or, if you order it directly from me I can autograph it for you. (Click here).

Glass Armonica News: ‘Serene Universe’ is in the news!

Portugal has a TV channel called RTP1 — essentially their BBC, and one of the most watched channels in the country. On their Sunday morning program “Bom dia Portugal” (“Good morning Portugal”) on October 20, the host Miguel Gonçalves gave a glowing 3-minute review of Serene Universe — a DVD for which I did the film score. Miguel Gonçalves is also the National Coordinator of the Planetary Society for Portugal

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. Serene Universe is a DVD consisting of magnificent high definition photos from space, starting with Earth and making you to the edges of the Universe. William composed the orchestral soundtrack that accompanies these extraordinary images.

You can see the RTP1 review on YouTube (Portuguese with English subtitles):

Link to Serene Universe review on Portugal’s RTP1 on YouTube

Serene Universe is also being screened at the Science Exchange as part of the 2014 Adelaide Fringe festival, one of the largest arts festivals in Australia. Every year they program a series of performances and films to engage people in science, and next spring Serene Universe will screened three times. Their website is, although nothing about Serene Universe is on their website as of this blog.

More about Serene Universe itself, and how to get the DVD and/or Video on Demand version, can be found here:

And Serene Universe has its own Facebook page.

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