The Lost Art of Playing Glass

(ethereal vibratory music) - [Dean] The glass armonica, really had this effect on people who heard it. I mean, they were saying it was the most beautiful sound they'd ever heard. And there were a lot of beautiful sounds in the 18th century. But you know, there was something different in the sound of the armonica. I wanted to give people that come to Williamsburg an experience that they wouldn't get anywhere else. (twangy music) - [Chris] I'm Chris Funk. I'm a musician in a band called The Decemberists, and I'm on a journey looking for the most surprising and extraordinary people in music. My next stop takes me to Williamsburg, Virginia. There, I will meet one of the last true masters of an enchanting instrument, forgotten by time. (ethereal vibratory music) I've traveled to Virginia and stepped back into history, to meet a musician who's perfected a rather unusual medium, glass. - My name is Dean Shostak, here in Williamsberg, where I live. And I play the glass harmonica, but I also play a number of other glass instruments, too, like this Cristal baschet. - [Chris] Dean has spent years mastering the skills necessary to play this family of glass instruments, all of which originated with the glass armonica, an instrument with a very unexpected creator. (banjo playing) (ethereal vibratory music) - [Dean] The glass armonica was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. He had seen somebody play on the wine glasses in a concert, and he got the idea that he could actually use glass in an entirely different way. You could actually make them rotate with a fly wheel you're working with your foot. And with wet fingers, you could play it very much like a keyboard. (laughing) - Almost had it. (enchanting music) Obviously, you don't tune this instrument. - No, that's the one nice thing, everybody has to tune to me. First thing you need to do is get your hands really clean. And that takes a high calcium content in the water, which they happen to have here at this theater. So, I've got these jugs; I literally actually bring the water from the theater back to my house, to have the same water to play with all the time. The skin absorbs moisture, and so you really want your hands to start wrinkling up a little bit, too. The condition of the skin on your fingers is really what produces the sounds. (ethereal vibratory music) - [Chris] And those mesmerizing sounds produced by skin on glass are not limited to the glass armonica or the Cristal baschet. The technique has led to some truly bizarre instruments. (trumpeting) Wow. (trumpeting) (hornlike vibrating) - [Dean] I've heard the argument made that, you know, we've gone as far as we can with acoustic instruments. (trumpeting) If you think about glass music as a still unexplored musical frontier, it's pretty exciting to think what instruments we could try in glass. You know, but we don't know until we make these instruments what they're gonna be like. (ethereal vibratory music) I think we should know about the glass armonica, because it's truly the first American instrument, you know, aside from the Native American instruments already here. I absolutely had to teach myself how to play. My only sources were reading what Franklin wrote and these other guys back in the time. It is new every day. Every time I sit down and play the armonica, it is a fresh experience and a challenge each time. (ethereal vibratory music)