Published: August 31, 1999

The Perfect Instrument

“Hmmm, yes . . . the perfect musical instrument, the perfect one, yes, hmmm, what would that be?” He sat, musing, head lowered with his left hand raised to his chin, his eyes abstracted. Stirring, with a sense of resolution, he took down a piece of parchment, dipped his quill, and began to write. He muttered to himself as the words took shape on the page.

“Loud, yes; it must be loud. Nothing quiet; we want people to hear it. In fact, we’ll make it impossible to lower the volume; that’ll help. It’ll have to have a real edge to the sound, so it’ll be impossible to ignore. And none of these fancy chromatic scales; something basic and folksy. Simple harmony too, as simple as possible.”

He paused, and dipped the quill in the maroon liquid in the flask before him, then returned to the page. “I think . . . yes, just one single note as harmony, and a single scale. But not your typical scale—we’ll make it different. Sharpen this note hear, flatten that one there—keep ‘em on their toes, give ’em something to argue about!” A short, sharp smile creased his face momentarily.

He sat back for a moment, deep in thought. “So many of these instruments, they’re nothing! You blow, you move the keys, move a bow, you get a sound. Let’s make this one a challenge: no direct contact between the player and the sound; we’ll have him blow into a bag and control it with his arm! Won’t that just fit the bill! And he’ll have to blow, and blow, and blow.”

“And if we fit it out with reeds, we can use a natural substance like cane, so reeds will be hand-cut and assembled, every one just a little bit different! Just the difference in the cane itself will assure that! Think of the fun people can have, squeezing and trimming and poking, just trying to get it tuned.

“And as long as they’re blowing and blowing, we may as well make use of all the breath—and the moisture in the breath! We’ll make sure the reeds react to moisture—swelling, getting sharper, OR flatter, depending on the reed, constantly changing! It’ll be something to hear, I tell you!

“And, by G-,” here, he sat up and paused, and swallowed, continuing more slowly. “We’ll give ’em four cane reeds, all changing at different rates. Let’s see ’em tune that!” with a low, deep chuckle. “And the moisture will keep pouring in, and the reeds will mold, and the bags will rot … Hmm, give ’em something to raise their hopes, something to seal the bag and take away the moisture—but make it smell real bad!”

Here, he bent forward to record his thoughts on the parchment before him, first wiping away the clot of ink that had collected while he paused . . .

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