The upcoming appearance of “Stomp” at Merrill Auditorium, presented this Wednesday and Thursday by Portland Ovations ( got me thinking about improvised instruments, such as trash cans and push brooms, and the human drive for making non-vocal music.

The voice can be a wonderful instrument in itself, but since the Stone Age, man seems to have sought something beyond. The earliest known musical instrument was a flute made of a hollow wing bone, which could hit higher notes than a boy soprano, perhaps to imitate the song of its previous owner.

It is a dead certainty, however, that the drum preceded it by millennia. The skin drum is probably the ancestor of all stringed instruments, when someone discovered that taut skin would amplify sounds such as that of a plucked bow string. The same is true of a hollow gourd, and that concept is still embodied in the Brazilian berimbau, which goes back into the mists of time in Africa.

Blown instruments, ram’s horns, conches, didgeridoos and even loud reeds like the ancestor of the bassoon were useful in communicating over long distances, but eventually became domesticated.

The drum had practical uses in communication, religious ceremonies and dance, but I like the idea of turning a weapon — the bow — into a music-maker.

There is, and apparently always has been, a deep fascination with making sound, as distinguished from noise, which is unwanted sound. The effort to control the sound has developed simultaneously with its origination.

The bird-bone flute, for example, had holes to control the pitch, and the inventor of the plucked string drum discovered that its pitch could be changed by altering the length of the string or the tension on the drumhead.

Found objects as musical instruments, as in “Stomp,” also have a long history. The popular Cajon of Latin American bands had its origin in bureau drawers played by Peruvian slaves when they were forbidden tribal drums. The same is true of the Caribbean steel drum. Slave owners were nervous about the sound of drums in the night, because they didn’t know what signals were being sent.

The urge to make new sounds has by no means died out, especially among indigenous peoples with limited resources. They can imitate classical instruments, making a hollow bamboo with a tied-on reed sound just like a saxophone.

More interesting are their inventions, both ancient and modern. I recently played a double-barreled flute made from a cow horn, usually associated with primitive trumpets. The two barrels, stemming from one mouthpiece, made it possible to sound chords on a single wind instrument.

Equally interesting was a single-stringed instrument with a skin and gourd sounding board. The pitch of the string was controlled by squeezing its bamboo supports.

My favorite was a sort of bull roarer that was nothing if not modern. The maker had stretched a goatskin over a gourd. Attached to the center of the skin was a long screen-door spring. Movement of the gourd created an uncanny roaring sound that could actually be altered by touching the spring to a hard object. The one I have now is relatively small, about 6 inches across the drumhead. A larger one could be spectacularly loud.

Modern composers have stretched traditional instruments to their limits and beyond. Rather than resort to electronics, it might be better musically to return to acoustic origins. There is still a lot to be heard from nature.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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