Tunes from a Strange Land
Q: What is that? A: This is a hurdy gurdy, a string instrument that works like a mechanical fiddle. Mine has four strings, which are bowed by a wheel, which I turn with a crank. The strings are stopped with keys, which serve the function of a fiddler's left hand on the fingerboard of a fiddle, to get different notes. Q: No, I meant what's that? A: That's my electronic tuner. Q: Where's it from? A: Korg Electronics. Oh, the hurdy gurdy was very popular all over medieval and renaissance Europe. In most countries, it died out in recent centuries, when drone accompaniment went out of fashion and chords came in. In France in the 1700's, the nobility adopted it, took it out of the wild, put lots of inlay and carved froufrou on it, and used it for genteel indoor music. In Hungary, however, it remained an instrument of the common country folk until the present day. Mine was made in Hungary by Balazs Nagy. If you get one from him, tell him I sent you. Q: But didn't Donovan invent the hurdy gurdy in the 60's? He did that song, hurdy gurdy man. A: Um, yeah. Most good things, including hurdy gurdies, protests, and sex, were invented in the 1960's. Q: But how come I've never seen this before? I mean, I know all about all different kinds of instruments. I know about guitars, and keyboards, and, uh, guitars, and I even saw a sitar once, but I've never seen this before in like my whole entire life! A: Well, now you've seen everything. Q: I get it, it's like a cross between a sitar and and autoharp. A: No. It's like a cross between a tromba marina and a nyckelharpa. Q: It must be Scottish, since it sounds like bagpipes. A: I hate to break it to you, but bagpipes aren't just Scottish. They're everywhere! Or at least they were, back when drones were in fashion. Like so much else, including lutes, perfume, and monotheism, bagpipes started in the Middle East and spread all over Europe from there. Scotland is one of the places bagpipes have survived. Q: Where do you find music for this instrument? A: I play some traditional Hungarian and French tunes meant for hurdy gurdy, but any tune that works with a drone will do. Medieval and renaissance tunes don't usually specify an instrument. Folk tunes from traditions that use drones, or at least don't require certain chord or key changes, also work well. That includes tunes from places as diverse as Turkey, Croatia, England, and Sweden. I also write my own music using concepts from these various traditions. Q: I love this traditional Seltic music! A: Um, yeah. Then you'll like my CD. It's all Seltic music. Q: Would you please go play over there? A: I would, but the people over there told me to come play over here.