Composer, electronic musician, improviser

Scott gets a Marxophone

Marxist-phone-what?  Heather’s parents got me a gen-u-ayn Marxophone (a fretless zither!) for my birthday.  (Thanks Jim and Karen!)  Imagine my surprise when they showed up with several boxes of fantastic electronic toys to dissect, the culmination of which was this fantastic instrument.  (I might add, I had never heard of nor seen one of these in my life!)  While it doesn’t plug in, this instrument has a lot to like.  I don’t know if it is the “invention of the century” as it was touted to be in the early 1900s, but it makes some really neat noises!

Now before you Tea Party faithful start commenting on the destruction of the American way of life at the hands of Marxophonists like myself, I assure you this instrument has nothing to do with THAT Marx, nor is the instrument itself a socialist (see picture of american bald eagle with flag below.)  We will leave the owner out of this discussion for now…

From the “Marxophone Homepage:”

The Marxophone was produced by the Marxochime Colony of New Troy, Michigan which was in business from about 1927 to 1972. Henry Charles Marx (1875-1947), the founder of the company, oversaw the production of the Marxophone. Marxophones were also produced earlier by the International Musical Corporation of Hoboken, New Jersey under 1912 Patent #1044553.

My instrument lived for a very long time in a box in someones attic, so it was extraordinarily dusty and out-of-tune when I got it: just the way I like it!  There’s nothing better than the “sands of time” method of tuning for curing what ails you (*$&%# equal temperament!)  You can see the instrument demonstrated on youtube (like everything else) so I won’t launch into a lengthy description of how the instrument is constructed and played.  However, I will post some picture details of the instrument itself along with some audio.

Below is the setup I used to record the marxophone.  The only thing missing is the Shure SM58 microphone that was resting over the instrument on the mixer.  This has become my favorite setup**: cheesy Dell D620 with PureDyne Linux using qjack and Ardour to record, and Audacity to edit; Behringer 1204FX mixer with USB AD/DA converter; Shure (mentioned above); and of course my trusty and stylish Panasonic headphones.  You can see the “Marxophone” plate which is supposed to be used to hold music cards.  Beneath this is a row of metal hammers on flexible metal arms.  When depressed and held, the flexibility causes the hammer to repeated strike the string in a sort of mandolinesque fashion.

Below is the chord tuning indication sticker below the leftmost 16 strings.  This sticker indicates the tuning of the four-string chords, C-G and F major triads and a D7 to round it out.  Note that the lowest note of the “G” chord is incorrectly notated as an A on the sticker even though it says “G” directly beneath it.  Awesome!  Also awesome is the chord spacing, the D7 especially.  Someone would have failed freshman theory…

And finally, here is a closeup of the American eagle emblem above the sound hole.  America loves Marx!

Finally, here is what you have been waiting for, some sound!  This recording is the instrument as I received it, tuned by countless years in an attic, and played in as normal a fashion as was able.

With the mic resting only centimeters above the instrument and directly behind the hammer apparatus, I was able to capture the fantastic mechanistic sound of the levers in action.  If you are like me, this sound is much more interesting than the typical hammer-on-string sound.

And finally, the instrument as it was intended to sound by Marx himself… or at least close.  It took 11 minutes to get to the point that this recording comes in: 1 chord “tuned” and 4 notes of a hexachord almost up to snuff.  I continue to attempt to tune the instrument, but by the time I get the G and A in tune, the C, D and E are fantastically flat.  I probably should have put a warning on this post for persons with perfect pitch…


** I have several Macbook Pros laying around with a MOTU traveler among other interfaces at my disposal.  The idea, though, of making great recordings/music with hardware that totals around $350 bucks and contains no proprietary software really tickles my… fancy.  Perhaps this all smacks of communist propaganda (again!) but working on-the-cheap gives me a warm feeling inside: it’s nice to know I don’t have to drop $4,000 on gear and software to make art.  I plan to post about this in the future.

Filed under: Current Projects, Miscellany, Phase 1

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Handmade instruments by Scott Petersen and Brian Kane at Artspace New Haven

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