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Warped glass

Colorado dronemakers explore an unusual instrument



Anyone who's ever run a moist finger around the rim of a wine glass knows just how alien a sound is produced. So alien, in fact, that an 18th-century German scholar reportedly declared of Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica (an elaborate instrument that expanded on the same concept): "If you are suffering from any nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it."

That reaction might charm generations acclimated to sounds even more pure and weird, summoned from the realms of the digital. But one can imagine how profoundly abstract the hum of the wine glass might have sounded to naïve ears, that near-perfect sine wave, seemingly not of this world but of some hidden, crystalline reality behind it.

So it's no coincidence that Marc Weidenbaum's "Junto" project takes its name from Ben Franklin's society of learned Philadelphians. Weidenbaum, who writes the popular San Francisco-based ambient, drone and experimental music blog Disquiet, is bringing his project to Denver, where local sound artists will perform and improvise on the glass harp — the technical name for entire arrays of wine glasses, each calibrated to produce a specific, ghostly pitch. (Disclosure: Weidenbaum is an occasional freelance writer for this paper.)

Denver's Disquiet Junto concert follows a similar event in Chicago, with future shows planned in San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and, potentially, London, as Weidenbaum brings his love for strange sounds across the country and beyond.

Junto began online, where Weidenbaum posts weekly compositional challenges with stringent restraints to provoke creative experimentation from his readers. These instructions have included everything from music composed solely of the sounds of ice cubes in a glass, to drones made to be palindromes, to taped silence amped up until it's no longer silence at all.

Though his blog launched in 1996, Weidenbaum remembers wondering if anyone would actually participate when he first posted a challenge this January. "I thought I might be throwing a party where no one shows up," he says wryly. "Fortunately, people did. ... Fifty or 60 musicians responded with tracks."

Now well past its 30th week, the project is even crossing cultural borders. "Some weeks now we have instructions for each project translated into as many as six or seven languages," says Weidenbaum, who lists Japanese, Turkish and Croatian among them.

The glass harp started out as the project's third weekly challenge. "[After] the first two, which were based on samples, I wanted to do one that was performed live," Weidenbaum explains. The response eventually led to the Chicago show.

"Disquiet Junto is an online community, but what's great is that it helps local communities coalesce as well," he says. "A number of musicians who played in Chicago, despite the fact that they are all based there, didn't know each other."

He hopes something similar will happen in Denver, where Colorado artists Offthesky, Radere, C. Reider, Pillow Garden, Ten and Tracer, and Cody Yantis, as well as New Hampshire-based Mysterybear, all will perform on electronically "expanded" glass harps.

"I don't think that Denver is necessarily a city that people really associate with [ambient and experimental] music, and it really says something about the community there that there are so many musicians who are available to play," says Weidenbaum. "I'm excited that maybe this concert will help draw collective attention to what they're doing."

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