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Gliding Tones on Whistle, Notes on Recorders: the Free Music Machine

Fri, December 02, 2022 9:41 AM | Anne Ocone (Administrator)

With the conservation and installation of Gliding Tones on Whistle, Notes on Recorders, the Percy Grainger Society fabricated 2 information panels which are now on display together with the free music machine in the dining room of the Percy Grainger Home and Studio.  What follows here is the text of the second panel as written by Dr. Paul Jackson, PGS Board President.

The Gliding Tones on Whistle, Notes on Recorders machine was constructed in February 1950. It is the only Free Music machine that remains intact in the Percy Grainger Home and Studio, the others either dismantled, lost, or transferred by the composer to the Grainger Museum in Melbourne, Australia. The only other complete machine in existence is the Kangaroo-Pouch machine, now in the collection of the Grainger Museum. As with many of the machines, the title on the original identification display cards was prefaced by the term ‘Cross-Grainger Experiments’ in recognition of the pivotal role that Burnett Cross played in the design of the machines.

‘It seems to me absurd to live in an age of flying and yet not be able to execute tonal glides and curves.’

In common with all of the Free Music machines, it incorporates a two-part design, a control mechanism and a sound producing element. Grainger drew on his early experiences as a recording artist with player pianos in the design of many of the machines, using paper rolls with slits and holes cut into them to play the various instruments. These comprised organ pipes, harmonium reeds, simple electronic oscillators, and, in the case of this machine, two recorders, and a slide, or swanee whistle. The recorders and whistle would have been connected to a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer by means of rubber tubes, which provided the necessary amount of air to produce a continuous sound. As the paper rolls passed over the holes of the recorders, emulating the fingers of a human player, different notes would have been produced. This made possible an approximation of a pitch glide as the recorders may have been tuned to realize fractional tones, smaller than the standard musical semitone. The slide whistle, the only part of the machine able to produce continuously gliding sounds, may have simply been controlled by hand by pulling and pushing the metal control lever.

‘Free Music demands a non-human performance. Like most true music, it is an emotional, not a cerebral, product and should pass direct from the imagination of the composer to the ear of the listener by way of delicately controlled musical machines.’

Prior to conservation, the machine was stowed away in the upper floors of the house, with many of the sound-producing elements removed. Through close examination of the three period photographs from the 1950s, and with clues drawn for Percy's day-books where he made short notes of his experiments, it was possible to identify the missing components. A rolling pin, visually matching the one in the period photograph, was found in the kitchen. The recorders were identified as those made by Arnold Dolmetsch, the noted English instrument maker with whom Grainger collaborated in the editing of a number of early music compositions in the 1930s and 1940s. The curious circular object at the side of the machine was also identified as a Blow-a-Tune, a child’s toy made by the American toy manufacturer Kenner in 1949. These instruments have been re-introduced into the machine to allow correct routing of the paper rolls and to complete the impression of how the machine may have operated.

It is unlikely that the Gliding Tones on Whistle, Notes on Recorders machine was particularly successful, as the tension required to ensure that the paper rolls stayed sufficiently close to the body of the recorders would have meant that the paper was liable to tearing and uneven flow, problems that Grainger experienced in many of the machines. But it remains a fascinating testament to Grainger’s dogged pursuit of his vision of Free Music, encapsulating his multi-faceted character as visionary composer, performer, artist, designer and inventor.

The conservation of Gliding Tones on Whistle, Notes on Recorders was supported through the NYSCA/GHHN Conservation Treatment Grant Program administered by Greater Hudson Heritage Network. This program is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.

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The Percy Grainger Society's programs are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.

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