April 27, 2007

Musical Stones of Skiddaw

Musical_Stones.jpgJune 11th, 1785 found my 6 first music stones at the Tip end of North end of the long tongue.

This is an entry from the journal of Peter Crosthwaite, an inveterate inventor and curator of the local museum at Keswick in the Lake District of northern England - and first devotee of the musical stones of Skiddaw. These stones, which he refers to, are pieces of hornfels from the nearby Skiddaw mountain that produced a resonant ringing tone when struck, a tone that changed in pitch depending on the size of the stone.

In all probability, Crosthwaite was not the first person to observe this phenomenon, but he was the first to think of turning it into a musical instrument. In the six months following this journal entry, he threw himself into fossicking and "tuning" his finds (by chipping away at them) until he had enough to make a sixteen note stone xylophone. This instrument then became the main attraction in Crosthwaite's museum, and he would use it to literally drum up business; banging out a tune, accompanied by his daughter and an old woman on bass drum, gongs and barrel organ, whenever a coached arrived in town.

And that's as far as it went. Crosthwaite was an ingenious eccentric, but he wasn't a terribly good self-promoter (he once let someone else take the credit for a lifeboat he invented) and an average musician at best, so for the time being, the musical stones of Skiddaw remained little more than a local curiosity.

In 1827, however, another Keswick local, Joseph Richardson, set out to change all that. A stonemason by trade, Richardson was also a gifted musician with a capacity for truly monomaniacal obsession. For 13 years, he devoted himself to building a stone xylophone with a full eight-octave range. In the process, he almost drove his family to the poor house, but his efforts were ultimately rewarded. Within a decade of its completion, Richardson's lithophone was known throughout England and he was performing musical stone recitals of Handel and Mozart for Queen Victoria.

After wowing his countrymen, he toured the continent and was all set to conquer America, when tragedy struck - his youngest son, who had blossomed into a musical stone virtuoso, contracted pneumonia and died. Richardson cancelled the tour and never played the instrument again...

It thus lay dormant until 2005 when a new generation of enthusiasts took it out of mothballs for a performance at a local arts festival. Other performances have since been organised at the University of Leeds and the 2006 Liverpool Biennial. Hopefully, these will continue and this unique instrument will once again enjoy the fame that it basked in back in the time of Joseph Richardson.

(And, if you want to hear what the stones sound like, they have a MySpace page.)

Posted by Warren at April 27, 2007 12:14 AM | Instruments