Armonica: Riverside Man Has the Touch

Press Enterprise, Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Page B1

Performer plays instrument invented by Ben Franklin

By Lauren Pond
The Press Enterprise RIVERSIDE - Ask William Zeitler to play Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," and the Riverside musician just has to wet his fingers.

He skillfully maneuvered his slippery hands along a series of rotating glasses known as a glass armonica. The music produced sounds as dainty as fairies would.

Zeitler, 51, is the only full-time glass armonica player in the world, he said. He has researched and found less than a dozen people who play the rare, expensive instrument.

Since he first discovered the armonica - an invention of Benjamin Franklin - about 10 years ago, Zeitler has composed and performed music and tried to spread armonica awareness. He said the instrument fascinates him.

"I'd like to get this off of the endangered musical instrument list," he said. The 3 1/2-foot-long and 1-foot-wide armonica sits in the parlor of the Riverside house where Zeitler rents a room. Sun glints off its 44 glasses, neatly aligned along an electric, rotating spindle.

The concentric glasses are tuned and fit partially inside one another, almost like a set of wooden Russian nesting dolls. Large glasses carry low pitches and small glasses carry high pitches.

To play the glass armonica, Zeitler touches the glasses with different parts of his wet fingers, almost like a bow to a violin, he said. Coats of boat varnish protect the instrument's wooden base from dripping water.

"It's the wet-finger-around-the-wineglass idea," he said.

Zeitler said he tries to create peaceful, spiritual music.

"Forget for a minute that you haven't paid the gas bill yet and just chill and go to this special and happy place," Zeitler said.

The glass armonica has an extensive pedigree, starting with Franklin, who invented it after he attended a concert in which a musician played water-tuned wine glasses, Zeitler said.

He said he had to build most of the instrument himself. He bought the glasses from a Massachusetts maker, who is now dead.

When Zeitler was five, his parents purchased a piano, and he started taking lessons. Though his family moved frequently, Zeitler said his parents couldn't keep him away from the piano bench.

To help pay tuition at California Institute of the Arts, where he earned his bachelor of fine arts degree, Zeitler built instruments and tuned pianos. He eventually stumbled across a recording of music Mozart had written for the glass armonica.

Zeitler said he thought:" 'This is beautiful. I am going to do this.'"

Zeitler said one of his early piano teachers, Jack Reynolds, was his largest inspiration. He pursued the glass armonica largely because of a mindset Reynolds gave him, he said. "He just really taught me that if you're a creative person, you're going to have to create your own life," Zeitler said.

Road to Success

It has been a rocky road to success. He moved from Seattle to California knowing no one the Golden State. Early in his armonica career, Zeitler performed in .a shopping mall and sold one CD the entire day, he said. At the stand next to his, a man was selling dancing cardboard dogs.

Zeitler now has five CDs on sale and averages 20 performances a month, with extra work during the winter holidays, he said. Things can get hectic.

"Being a professional musician is not for wimps," he said.

One of his regular venues is Downtown Disney, where listeners often give him business cards and invite him to other events. Zeitler appeared earlier this summer on The History Channel's "Modern Marvels." "He is the master of this instrument," said Zeitler's manager, Keith Richmond. Richmond has been booking Zeitler's performances and marketing his music for about two years.

Zeitler is on a quest to produce more armonicas.

He has been working with Cal-Glass for Research Inc. in Costa Mesa to come up with a glass-manufacturing process. He wants to find other companies to make additional instrument parts.

Zeitler plans to be a general contractor of armonica production and estimated that one instrument would carry at least a five-figure price tag.

The musician is also in the middle of writing what he said will be the first book about the glass armonica and musical glasses. He pours through sometimes centuries-old texts to garner information, mostly in foreign languages. Massive French, German and Latin dictionaries sit on his desk and help him decipher his sources.

One tattered French text - carefully protected in a cardboard sheath - is from 1803, the year before Napoleon declared himself emperor of France. "I lurk on the Internet waiting for these things to show up," Zeitler said.

A Franklin Fan

Zeitler's performances help keep the glass armonica alive, said Barnes Bradshaw, who hired Zeitler to play earlier this summer at the opening of the Ben Franklin exhibit at the Missouri History Museum.

"You hate to see something disappear," Bradshaw said. "It's more than just sound waves (in) the air."

Ben Franklin also fascinates Zeitler. Among other memorabilia, a Franklin bobble-head doll and action figure sit atop Zeitler's bookcase. Zeitler said he even made a "pilgrimage" to Philadelphia to see Franklin's glass armonica.

Franklin invented the lightening rod and bifocals, among other things. He came up with the glass armonica on the side, Zeitler said. "What he thinks of in a couple days, it takes me a whole lifetime to explore," Zeitler said.

Reach Lauren Pond at 951-368-9583 or