>the Silver Apples used and still use a homemade synthesizer "consisting of 12 oscillators and an assortment of sound filters, telegraph keys, radio parts, lab gear and a variety of second hand electronic junk." And in the spirit of the Silver Apples, more and more synth enthusiasts are turning to circuit bending, rewiring cheap electronic gadgetry to do things that it was never intended to, all in the name of science. Pity the music historian of the twenty-third century, reduced to tears by an effort to find just the right antique to perform primitive yet stirring twenty-first century compositions on. The audience won’t know the difference between a real Electronic Rap Pad and a clever reproduction, but she will, and she’ll wish we had stopped at plainsong.

Wet your finger and run it around the edge of a wine glass just right, and you can make a strange keening sound. Adjust the amount of wine in the glass, and you can change the pitch of the sound. That’s the principle behind an instrument developed by Benjamin Franklin, the glass harmonica; Franklin’s version eschewed the water, using a series of glass tubes of different diameters, but the principle is the same. The glass harmonica (alternately the "glass armonica") and its descendents — "the melodion,the eumelia, the clavicylindre, the transpornierharmonica, the sticcardo pastorate, the spirafina, the parnasse instrument, the glassharfe…, the uranion, the hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica" — enjoyed quite a vogue at the end of the eighteenth century, until the work of Franz Mesmer, who used the glass harmonica as background music in his fashionable mesmerism sessions, led people to associate the instrument with madness. But hundreds of works had been written for the glass harmonica. The composer Donizaetti scored an opera’s mad scene for it. What could music purists do when faced with demands for a keyboard glass harmonica for an authentic Mozart piece? People usually arranged the piece for a different instrument, but that often wouldn’t do. The dance of the sugarplum fairies wouldn’t be the same without the tinkling celesta. Early music enthusiasts giving historically informed performances can do all the research in the world, but if results from more modern artists are any guide, guesswork is always going to play a factor. The new gospel compilation Goodbye, Babylon asserts that Texas gospel singer Washington Philips is heard accompanying himself on the Dolceola; painstaking research by Dolceola enthusiasts (it’s a cousin of the Autoharp, apparently, and only obscure instrument fans have ever heard of it) shows that he was playing no such thing, although blues giant Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter apparently used one in a few sessions. And that’s for a commercially produced instrument used after the dawn of recorded music. Trying to reproduce the rattling sounds of Tom Waits’ Bone Machine or a Skeleton Key album would be nigh impossible, as the percussion is largely generated by a motley collection of random junk. There’s a thriving theremin community that’s been keeping that electronic instrument’s sound (the backbone of "Good Vibrations" and a thousand B-movie soundtracks) alive since Leon Theremin was kidnapped and forced to build listening devices for Lenin, but the electronic music pioneers the Silver Apples used and still use a homemade synthesizer "consisting of 12 oscillators and an assortment of sound filters, telegraph keys, radio parts, lab gear and a variety of second hand electronic junk." And in the spirit of the Silver Apples, more and more synth enthusiasts are turning to circuit bending, rewiring cheap electronic gadgetry to do things that it was never intended to, all in the name of science. Pity the music historian of the twenty-third century, reduced to tears by an effort to find just the right antique to perform primitive yet stirring twenty-first century compositions on. The audience won’t know the difference between a real Electronic Rap Pad and a clever reproduction, but she will, and she’ll wish we had stopped at plainsong.