Monday, March 04, 2013

Hurdy Gurdy! Børk! Børk! Børk!

After a very long wait I finally took possession of my new prized possession a couple of weeks ago, namely a hurdy gurdy. Now, before I go any further, let's dispel a few myths...

1) This is not a barrel organ, and I do not have a monkey.
2) No, I still haven't heard the song by Donovan, though I'm sure I will at some point.
3) I don't speak Swedish, but I do like the Muppets.

To help your understanding, here's a scene from Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, possibly my favourite bit of artwork ever, which just so happens to feature a gurdy. You'll find it to the right of the harp...

Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Please don't be concerned by the torture of poor benighted sinners at the hands of divers foule demons - just concentrate on the instrument.

So, now we've got those inevitable questions out of our systems, what is it like? Well, the instrument is basically a mechanical fiddle - you turn a handle which rotates a rosined wheel across several strings. You then change the pitch using keys on a keyboard, which operate tangents to press the strings. From all this you get a fiddle-type sound but with a continuous drone, a little like you get with a bagpipe.

The resulting noise is one that I've long been fond of and, like the drone of a set of pipes, consistently sends a little prickle up the spine when I hear it. Normally they cost a small fortune, but luckily I found a nearby craftsman and expert gurdyist who makes this little beauty for a much more affordable price.

On my first couple of attempts at learning to play I was slightly concerned at just how bad a noise I was making. Starting (as advised) with the right hand, I tried to learn the proper timing of the wheel turn. This ensures a rhythm can be kept and, by a quick flick of the wrist, a percussive buzz may be added if need be. Unfortunately it also results in half an hour of constant drone which was too much for my wife who, already feeling a little sick that day, proceeded to turn green and head rapidly to the bathroom.

I tried not to take this rather direct feedback negatively, concentrating instead on my four year old daughter Meredith's response, which was slightly hysterical fits of laughter whenever I brought the instrument out of its case. This, I reasoned, was vastly preferable - if I was destined to make the sort of noise that turns stomachs, I should at least provide amusement whilst doing it.

Anyway, that was over a week ago and I'm pleased to announce that I can carry a basic tune on my gurdy. Though I'm only just starting along the long road of learning a fairly difficult instrument, I can at least visualise a day where I manage to crank out something catchy without making anyone want to throw up.

So - here she is. Her name is Jenny and, if you're very lucky, one day you might hear me playing her...

'Jenny' - a Wren Hurdy Gurdy, by Neil Brook, 2013

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