Sunday, February 7, 2010


aluminum cello

Pfretschner aluminum cello 1920's.
Jasha Heifetz and Efram Zimbalist played aluminum violins. Here is an interesting article about JH from 1942, recounting how he sold it for scrap metal in the war effort. (ends up this was patriotic theater as he later got it back).,4528270

As a child I was forced to play on a steel cello from the elementary school orchestra. Presumably the idea was that these instruments were indestructible. Its innards rattled and jangled in its ugly painted body and it shrieked and it howled and groaned. 
And I hated it. 
Not long afterwards I got a nice cello and forgot all about the steel one.
 I finished my studies and started to play concerts. Soon I found myself with a growing interest in contemporary music and improvisation with its expansion of sonoral colors and I began to perform on a posse of instruments. The 6 string Jensen electric cello, the Morin Choor, and other retuned instruments.
And with that, what began as a tiny needling recollection of that old metallic color grew into an obsession. I began to long for that razor-edged timbre especially in the higher harmonics. 
 The search began.
I wrote to the big commercial instrument chain, Lyon and Healy, thinking they might still produce such instruments, and would sell me one. No answer. I scanned the internet, writing to all big commercial instrument makers that supply the schools. Still no answer. 
Some years later I was browsing through one of my favorite shops, Palm Guitars,  a tiny bazaar crammed to the ceiling with instruments of all kinds from all epochs. The owner, Soren, is an expert on practically everything unimaginable and I'd spend hours picking through the heaps of amazing oddities. Once I found an original Stroh cello! (more on that later).  
When I asked about finding a metal cello for me he answered, "Oh I actually had one a few months ago. An actor came in and bought it for a theater piece; he cut a hole in the front to make room for a potted plant." 
I told some friends about my search and asked several to keep an eye out for me. Not long afterwards my sister Jane, got back to me with the news that there was an aluminum cello on Ebay. I didn't sleep for days... We put in a high bid and got it. I later went to meet it at JFK and brought it back to Holland to restore. Actually not much needed to be done- just fitting a sound post, new pegs and some touch ups. 
The sound is amazing with a big voice, deep bass, fast action, and those sharp edged highs. 
The mid range sounds a bit like a bowed sax, and made a good mix with Evan Parker.

photos from filming 192 speaker array Leiden, L Nakamura

dvd 13AL
F M Uitti and Yota Morimoto    

graphics Han Bennink