New instruments from Switzerland

In the high-precision land of the clock-makers, there’s a heightened sensibility about expanding the possibilities of musical instruments.

Thomas Meyer - 2018-08-09
New instruments from Switzerland - Hang® Bal
Hang® Bal
New instruments from Switzerland - Lucas Niggli with Paiste Setup
Lucas Niggli with Paiste Setup
New instruments from Switzerland - Wind-dynamic organ at the Bern Minster
Wind-dynamic organ at the Bern Minster
New instruments from Switzerland - CLEX – Contrabassclarinet extended
CLEX – Contrabassclarinet extended
New instruments from Switzerland - SABRE – Sensor Augmented Bass Clarinet
SABRE – Sensor Augmented Bass Clarinet

Musicians and instrument-makers have long worked in tandem to improve their instruments (in some cases, they’ve even been one and the same person). There were many new developments in the early 19th century, for example. Many of them were soon forgotten again, but a few were honed to perfection. Such new developments become fashionable from time to time, and this is especially the case today in Switzerland, the high-precision land of inventors and clock-makers. You just have to think of Bruno Spoerri’s electronic saxophone and computer-supported sound converters – or of the world-famous cymbals by the company Paiste in Nottwil.

Fredy Studer (Paiste Künstler) - Solo Drums

New instruments from Bern

These developments have received a real boost in recent decades. The universities of music have been playing an important role – especially with their recently founded research departments, which aim to unite music scholarship and practice. They have been busy researching into historical instruments and building modern copies, but they have also been conceiving new instruments altogether.

One excellent example is the wind-dynamic organ that has been under development at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB) since 1999. This organ allows you to regulate the air supply to the pipes by means of the player’s touch on the keys, and it means you can modulate the sound produced. This flexible manner of playing makes possible all kinds of fascinating sounds.* The Bern Minster has three prototypes of the organ.

NNOV-ORGAN-UM - Improvisation, Daniel Glaus

In the organ of the Biel City Church, the organ-builder Metzler from Dietikon has installed a fourth, wind-dynamic manual in addition to the existing three. Something similar is planned for the new organ for the main concert hall in Basel, the Stadtcasino. So there is obviously interest in such developments.


Low wind instruments are a popular subject of research

The wind-dynamic organ is a perfect example of putting into practice what musicians actually want. Its touch-sensitive keyboard brings the haptic, tactile aspect of instrumental playing into the foreground. The HKB was also responsible for the project “CLEX – Contrabass clarinet extended”. This new, “sensory-dynamic contrabass clarinet” has motor keys that are controlled mechatronically. “Sensors on the clarinet keys determine the position of the fingers, at which actuators open or close the flaps that have been programmed accordingly. This control mechanism enables you to program either the German or the French fingering system, while the manner in which it electronically captures the playing position means the mechanism can also be used to steer E-music devices. This opens up the possibility of multimedia applications”.**

Clarinettist Ernesto Molinari and the CLEX - Premiere from Michael Pelzel's "Gravity's Rainbow"


It’s not just creating new sounds that’s important – such as those explored on the instrument by Michael Pelzel in his work Gravity’s Rainbow – but also this interface between the actual instrument and the electronics. The interface can also enter into the body of the instrument and let us hear the unheard – as Matthias Ziegler achieves on his electronically amplified contrabass flute. But this interface also offers other new opportunities, including sound processing.

Introducing CLEX - Basel Sinfonietta ft. Ernesto Molinari

From 2010 to 2017, the Zurich University of the Arts developed the “SABRE – Sensor Augmented Bass Clarinet” in collaboration with the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology (ICST) and the clarinettist Matthias Müller (it seems to be the low-pitched instruments that have a lot of development potential). Here, sensors capture the air pressure in the mouth as well as the position and movement of the instrument; they are linked to a computer program and influence the processing of sounds and images. This means the music can be shaped on several levels and in surprising ways. And it’s not just the music, but also the visual aspect that can be steered in this manner – as is the case with the “wind controllers” of the EW-4 ensemble (the Electronic Wind Quartet, aka the Arte Quartet in their non-electronic formation).

Saxofonist Beat Kappeler from Ensemble EW-4 with «Blaswandlern»


Beyond high-tech and the concert hall

So there are unsuspected possibilities here that composers are happy to utilise. How long will it take, one wonders, for these instruments to establish themselves? Only once have I come across a street musician pulling out such a new-fangled instrument from his rucksack to play in front of delighted passers-by. This was the exotic-sounding “Hang”, which looks as old as it is in fact new. It was only in the year 2000 that Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer (of the PANArt Hang builders in Bern) presented this new variation on the well-known steel drums. It comprises two metal hemispheres that have been joined together. The “Hang” (which is Bernese dialect for “hand”) is played by hand, and has the dual function of a melody instrument and a percussion instrument. Its inventors say you mustn’t strike it too hard, because this distorts the sound. So it’s got more of a gentle, soft sound. Here, too, it seems, we find that current trends are in favour of a subtle, sensitive art of differentiation.

Hang® Bal

* Michael Eidenbenz, Daniel Glaus, Peter Kraut (publisher): Frischer Wind – Fresh Wind. Die Forschungsorgeln der Hochschule der Künste Bern – The Research Organs of Bern University of the Arts. Saarbrücken 2006, Pfau-Verlag.
** Ernesto Molinari, Jochen Seggelke, Daniel Debrunner, Daniel Heiniger, Simon Schnider: Contrabass Clarinet Unlimited. Eine sensorisch-dynamische Kontrabassklarinette; in dissonance 126, Juni 2014, pages 22–29