April 20, 2007

Alchemy's Greatest Failed Experiment

Avedis.jpgLike many who dabbled in alchemy back in the 17th century, Avedis dreamt of one day unlocking the secret of alchemic transmutation – the art of turning base metals into gold. In 1618, this Armenian artisan who lived in Constantinople, attempted to do it with a mixture of tin, copper and silver – and basically failed. The result of his efforts was an alloy with the colour and lustre of gold, but sadly it wasn’t the genuine article. When he struck a sheet of it with a hammer, however, he discovered something almost as “valuable” as gold – it produced a rich, musical crashing sound without breaking. He had created the raw material of the modern cymbal.

Pretty soon, Avedis was forging it into large concave disks whose reputation as noisemakers eventually reached the ears of the sultan of the day. The sultan immediately recognised their potential, not as musical instruments, but as sonic weapons that could be used to create cacophony on the battlefield and scare the wits out of any enemy.

With a lucrative military contract in his hands, Avedis adopted the name “Zildjian”, an Armenian corruption of the Turkish word for “cymbal maker”, and set up shop as the sole supplier of cymbals to the Turkish military. In time, the army realised that this “sonic weapon” could also serve a more benign purpose – accenting the beat in its marching bands. Zildjian’s cymbals thus became a bona fide musical instrument and found a place in a martial style called Janissary music. (Here is a sample mp3 of that music.)

By the late 18th century, this music had moved beyond the battlefield and parade ground, and janissary bands, or mehteran, were accompanying Turkish ambassadors on trips to European courts. When the Europeans heard this exotically discordant music, they were enraptured and one of the first “world music” crazes was borne. It was a craze that was even taken up prominent composers like Mozart, who incorporated Turkish themes and previously unheard Turkish instruments into their work. One of the most popular and distinctive of these instruments was the cymbal.

By the early 19th century, this exotic newcomer had gone from being a faddish oddity to an acceptable part of the classical orchestra. Since then, it has also comfortably found its way into the percussion sections of almost all modern styles of music and very little trace of its exotic and unusual past remains.

Through of all of this the Zildjian company has kept turning out its product and has, in the process, become the oldest popular musical instrument company in the world.

Posted by Warren at April 20, 2007 10:05 PM | Instruments