Seattle Times

December 16, 2001

Thanks to Ben Franklin, it's through glass, musically

* Christmas concertgoers in Bellevue are in for a rare treat the next few days.
Call it an armonic convergence.

By Mike Lindblom
Seattle Times staff reporter

Anybody who has ever made a musical tone by rubbing the lip of a wine glass can appreciate the armonica, one of the most ethereal instruments ever created.

Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, it enchanted a generation of classical composers and upper-class music lovers in Europe and America. The armonica's tones, produced by glass bowls of graduated sizes, were reputed to mimic the angels, mesmerize helpless listeners and awaken the spirits of the departed.

A few decades later, the armonica nearly disappeared because of changing musical tastes and unfounded fears that it caused emotional maladies. But thanks to William Zeitler of Marysville and a few dozen other musicians around the world, it has been resurrected.

Zeitler's armonica is 44 glass bowls aligned on a slowly spinning rod, like a rotisserie. Each bowl yields one tone, reaching from middle C to higher notes. Larger bowls produce lower pitches. Some bowls are gold-rimmed, identifying them as the equivalents of the black keys of a piano.

To play them, he wets the bowls, and lays his fingers on the desired notes -- always rubbing below the first knuckle, because fingertips are too soft to produce the ideal friction. To locate the prime combination of rotational speed and finger pressure is a painstaking art.

Yet Zeitler seemed effortless as he played the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," "Jingle Bells," and "Stairway to Heaven" at a Belltown glass-blowing studio this week.

The notes sound softer than a bell, airier than a piano. Slight variations in friction cause endearing blemishes, like the voice of a nervous young soprano. The armonica fills a room but easily can be overpowered by deeper or louder instruments.

"It's just a stupendous piece of imagination," Zeitler said. "A beautiful think like this shouldn't be on the endangered-musical-instrument list."

Zeitler has recorded four compact discs of original music: "The Passionate Quest: A Romance of the Grail," "The Midwinter Phantasy," "Elegy for Atlantis" and "Songs from Earth." Armonicas are featured in New Age recordings for meditation or massage therapy. Zeitler has performed the Adagio in C for Glass Armonica by Mozart in concert at the University of Washington.

He will play two Christmas concerts at Bellevue's "Garden D'Lights" tomorrow and Sunday.

Franklin was inspired to create the armonica after he saw a musician play water-filled goblets. Franklin sought a similar effect in a device that would not require water and would be compact enough so he could play chords. He christened it the "armonica," and Italian word for harmony.

The armonica spread quickly in Europe, where Mozart, Beethoven and others wrote more than 300 compositions for it.

But before long it fell in to disrepute, its celestial sounds blamed for domestic violence, premature births and insanity. The instrument was banned in some German states, and fewer musicians were willing to play it.

A music instructor warned, "If you have been upset by harmful novels, false friends or perhaps a deceiving girl, then abstain from playing the armonica -- it will only upset you even more."

Psychiatrist Franz Mesmer of Vienna used the armonica to hypnotize his patients, fueling rumors that the armonica wielded unworldly powers. The instrument also had the practical disadvantage of being too fragile for transport on bumpy cobblestone roads.

Its demise was nearly complete by the mid-19th century, when the armonica and the harpsichord were drowned out by a new era of large concert halls and thousand-piece symphonies, Zeitler says.

The armonica's modern-day revival began in 1982 when Gerhard Finkenbeiner, a German immigrant in Waltham, Mass., began building armonicas using techniques and equipment from his job as a glass blower for technology companies. His company has produced 150 to 200 instruments to date and ships them around the globe.

An armonica sells for $5,000 to $30,000, with those of greater range or lower tones costing more because larger bowls take longer to build, said Shaun Conroy, a turner at Finkenbeiner's company. The quartz glass must be heated to around 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit before it can be shaped into a bowl.

Zeitler, 47, is a classical pianist and computer programmer who taught himself to play the armonica five years ago. His instrument combines Finkenbeiner bowls with a wooden table and other parts by Seattle artisans.

Zeitler is learning to sculpt glass so he can mold his own bowls, as in Franklin's time. Once that skill is mastered, his dream is to open a shop on the Tulalip Reservation, where he would teach glass-blowing techniques to others, perpetuating the heritage of the armonica.

Mike Lindham can be reached at 206-515-5631