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Hear the Octobass, an Instrument (Almost) Too Big to Play

What’s nearly 12 feet tall, made of wood, and capable of producing a sound so low that most human beings can’t even hear it? That would be the octobass, the largest string instrument ever brought into existence. Though its curves and angles follow the familiar silhouette of its smaller stringed relatives (violins, violas, cellos, etc.), the octobass stands at a gargantuan 11 feet, 5 inches—so high, even a professional basketball player would have to stand on a platform to reach the instrument’s neck.

In addition to its recognizable shape, the octobass shares with other string instruments the same mechanisms for producing sound; a player holds down certain strings in a particular pattern to modify their pitch, then draws out the notes by plucking, strumming, or bowing those strings. However, whereas a violin can be scaled down to half- or three-quarter-size for a small child unable to stretch their fingers to reach all the frets, no aspiring octobass player can scale themselves up to accommodate the total distance of its fingerboard. Instead, the octobassist must become familiar with a series of levers attached to mechanisms that press the strings down, which they operate while simultaneously handling a bow that’s shorter, but much heavier than a typical bass bow. When legendary French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume constructed the original “octobasse” in 1850, it was considered a two-player instrument, with one musician assigned to the levers and another to the bow, both working to produce a single sound.

It tunes to two full octaves below a cello and one octave below a standard double bass or the lowest note on a piano, and its range extends down to a C note pitched at 16 hertz—lower than the normal human hearing range, which bottoms out at about 20 hertz. Colin Pearson, curator of the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, Arizona, explains the value of such an apparently un-musical instrument in a way that makes it seem like a very expensive science fair project: “It’s wonderful for demonstrating how sound waves work, and how a string vibrates. These strings are so large and so massive that the vibrations are slow enough for us to actually see them.”

Despite Vuillaume’s intention for the octobass to take its rightful place among other members of a traditional orchestra, modern uses of the instrument are few and far between, in part due to its scarcity. Vuillaume built three models of his massive invention, and today, only three playable replicas exist around the world: the one in Phoenix, another in Paris, and a third newly built in 2015, which debuted with an original composition for octobass and violin at Oslo’s Only Connect Festival of Sound. Nico Abondolo, principal bass player of the LA Chamber Orchestra and favored bassist of Hollywood composers like Hans Zimmer, says that his time experimenting with MIM’s octobass was “a surreal experience.”

While it holds a certain fascination, the octobass won’t be making a resurgence in popularity anytime soon. It is, however, perfectly suited for playing one song in particular: the theme song from 1975 thriller Jaws.

[h/t Open Culture]

Banner images via YouTube.

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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History
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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