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Pyrophonia: Music on Fire

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"Flaming" and "on fire" are words used all the time for musicians who are "burning it up," or playing with talent and fervor. The phrases are usually not meant to be taken literally. But the universal human fascination with fire and music is sometimes combined into instruments that are literally on fire. And they come in all shapes and sizes, like these ten. Warning: these projects are dangerous, and should be left to professionals.

1. Flamebone or Frankenhorn

Jonathon Crawford (who goes by the handle Pyro) added fire to his trombone, with what appears to be an acetylene torch. Scott was inspired to make his own "Flamebone" (pictured) by connecting a torch and an air compressor to his horn.

It has a 21 foot range with the fireball, and a concussion wave of 150 feet. It can be difficult to play since it has a recoil.

Does it need to be said that this can be dangerous, and should never be tried inside?

2. Tubatron

Animator David Silverman is best known as the director of The Simpsons Movie and many episodes of the TV show. But he is also a musician. He plays the Tubatron, or flaming Sousaphone. The instrument is rigged with a propane tank that feeds flames Silverman can control. You can see him perform every year at Burning Man, or at YouTube.

3. Flaming Tuba

The Sousaphone is not alone as far as fire-belching bass horns go. This gentleman plays a flaming tuba on the street in Bratislava, Slovakia. I haven't found any information on him, but he's been recorded on video many times.

4. Pyrophone

The word pyrophone literally means "fire sound." The instrument is a series of pipes like an organ or calliope, but the sound is made by applying combustion to the pipes, usually with propane or gasoline. The pyrophone is, essentially, the dangerous opposite of the hydraulophone. Early pyrophones of the 18th and 19th centuries resembled pipe organs, although they worked like steam calliopes powered by internal combustion generators. Modern pyrophones are more likely to be homemade experiments in explosion technology, as you can see in this video performance. Nathan Stodola designed the pyrophone pictured here, which he named the Thermoacoustic Organ, or Fire Organ. The heat is provided by propane, and the pipes are cooled with liquid nitrogen. The cooling allows the pipes to be played and then replayed sooner than other pyrophones. Watch Stodola's Fire Organ in action in this video.

5. The Pyrophone Juggernaut

The Pyrophone Juggernaut is a fire organ played by directing the flames of a blowtorch into the various pipes. See a performance on video. Image by Flickr user John Goodridge.

6. L'Orgue à Feu

French sculptor Michel Moglia built the L'Orgue à Feu in 1989. This fire organ is 7 meters long and 9 meters high! It plays on 200 stainless steel tubes of different sizes. You can witness a performance of this instrument at YouTube. Image by Thierry Nava.

7. Fire Horn

Ariel Schlesinger noticed that a can of butane to refill lighters was cheaper than a can of compressed air. That gave him the idea to fuel an air horn with a butane canister to produce a Fire Horn. Not only is it an economical way to power the horn, but also have a pyrotechnic show to go along with it. Does that sound dangerous to you? Schlesinger has a video of the flaming horn at his site.

8. Ruben's Tube

The Ruben's Tube, or standing wave flame tube, began as an experiment to show the relationship between sound and pressure. A tube with holes is filled with flammable gas, and a speaker is attached. The pressure from sound waves causes the flames to spike. The Ruben's Tube was invented in 1904 by German physicist Heinrich Rubens. While physics students learn from the experiment, most of us think "Light show!" You can see how music affects the flames in this video. If you'd like to make your own Ruben's Tube, instructions are available online.

9. Syzygryd

Syzygryd is a collaborative musical instrument made for Burning Man 2010. The three musicians use computerized controls set equidistant around a 60-foot diameter circle. They can see each other, but they are too far apart to talk -however, they can monitor each other's input on a screen. The music they play controls a sculpture in the center of the circle, "a huge metal tornado of cubes," which displays lights synchronized with the music and shoots out flames. Syzygryd can also play preprogrammed music without live musicians. Image by Flickr user Michael Broxton.

Syzygryd proved to be very popular at Burning Man, with many participants wanting to take a turn playing it. Even non-musicians can make music, as the instrument is tuned to create working chords no matter what data is fed into it, but the controllers do produce unique melodies.

10. Musical Flamethrower

As a final note, here's a musical instrument made from a collection of flamethrowers of differing lengths. I don't know who made it, but this demonstration was recorded at the Preston Riversway Festival in Preston, Lancashire, England this past July.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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