The hurdy gurdy is some thousand years old, a sort of imploded and rosined-up bicycle that was used to make a single note last way long in the days before electricity. Its design, a wheel that turns against depressed strings housed inside a wooden box, is far more economical than its predecessor - an early viol de gamba with a bow of several furlongs in length that required several grown men or a team of oxen to play. By the Donovanian Era, however, it had been contained in a small crank case and employed a second bridge, called a "dog" but crafted from raccoon bones, that lifted against the spinning wheel to create a buzzing sound thought to be pleasant.
As musical instruments got better with time, the hurdy gurdy came to be seen as an instrument for poor people, and was called the "Bettlerleier," or "beggar's lyre" in 17th Century Germany. This was long before the European Union, however, and other countries were free to like it. The French decided there was something fancy about it, and Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi went so far as to compose for it.
In later years, the barrel organ, popularly played by street vendors with monkeys, came to be called by the same name, and, unrelatedly, popular singer Sting appeared on the 2004 Grammy telecast holding one, setting off a short-lived air-hurdy-gurdy craze.
Popular musicians other than Sting and Vivaldi have also worked with the hurdy gurdy, and TFGTSI is pleased to present an A-Z digest of some of the more notable vielists of the hurdy gurdy.
Arnold Dreyblatt is a modern seer of the 'gurd. His 1981 piece Nodal Excitation (first issued on India Navigation and rereleased in 1998 on Dexter's Cigar, a reissue label run by Jim O'Rourke and David Grubbs) was scored for two bass viols, midget upright pianoforte and portable pipe organ, and featured Greg Lewis on hurdy gurdy. Here's the last of the eight sections of the piece.
(Image: Georges de la Tour The Hurdy-Gurdy Player, 1631-1636)
Gunther's Grass brings the hurdy gurdy together with another ancient drone instrument, the khaen, a mouth organ from the Lao region of Thailand. The duo is a collaboration between Marcelo Radulovich and Christopher Adler. This track comes from the Trummerflora collective's compilation album Rubble 2, on Accretions
Hala Strana is Steven R. Smith, printmaker, instrument-builder and member of the Jewelled Antler collective. Along with the hurdy gurdy, he's been known to play guitar, bouzouki and fretted spike fiddle. His double CD Fielding, released in 2003, combines field recordings with his own playing to lovely, seamless effect.
Masaki Batoh is best known as the driving force behind the folky freakout band Ghost, but he recorded a couple of solo albums that were released together as Collected Works 1995-1996 on The Now Sound / Drag City. The disc is a mix of songs and layered instrumental tracks, sparser and more experimental than his work with his band but, as with Ghost, the hurdy gurdy is prominent throughout.
Jim O'Rourke made a highly recommended album for acoustic guitar and multiple hurdy gurdies in 1997 called Happy Days, released on John Fahey's label Revenant. Two years later, experimental music pioneer Phill Niblock released Touch Works, for Hurdy Gurdy and Voice, which included a track built from samples of O'Rourke's hurdy gurdy playing.
V. was a droney duo of Jeff Surak and Jamie Guggino. Between 1999 and 2001, they managed to release 11 albums, all of which are now available online. Surak now performs under the name Violet and runs the Zeromoon label (lots of free downloads there, as well as stuff for sale), and the Sonic Circuits Festival in Washington, DC. This track was recorded live at La Casa in 2002.
Stevie Wishart works in both the old and new music worlds. She has studied medieval bowed instruments at Oxford University, founded Sinfonye, a group that combines ancient music with improvisation. and recorded the complete works of Hildegard von Bingen. On the avant edge, she's worked with Machine for Making Sense, Lol Coxhill, Paul Dunmall and here with Fred Frith and Carla Kihlstedt, from the 2006 Intakt disc the compass, log and lead.
Zaar represent the French traditions of both hurdy gurdy music and progressive rock. The quartet features two former members of Satos (the brothers Michael and Yan Hazera) and two fellas with one name each - Pairbon on bass and Cosia on hurdy gurdy. They released their first album in 2002 and it was four years before their self-titled second, from which this track comes.
There's lots more info about the hurdy gurdy on the Causeway Music page, including pics of the ways its changed over the ages and more audio clips. Olympic Musical Instruments has a page on building your own hurdy gurdy. The same information would apply to building one for me, which can be sent in care of this fine radio station.