Tuesday 2 December 2008

Larry Karp on music boxes

I recently added another blog to the blogroll, that of American crime writer Larry Karp, who is also published by Poisoned Pen Press in the US.

An exchange of emails with Larry reminded me of an enjoyable evening I spent at the home he and his wife have, perched above the sea at Seattle, whilst I attended the Left Coast Crime convention last year. The Karps hosted a party for PPP authors and I learned that Larry is not only a crime novelist and a successful medical practioner, but also someone with a lifelong interest in musical boxes. He puts his vast knowledge of his favourite subject to excellent use in novels such as The Music Box Murders (1999) and shared these thoughts on his great enthusiasm with me the other day:

‘ Antique music boxes manufactured in Switzerland during the early and mid-nineteenth century interest me on many levels. For one thing, they're not "music machines;" they're real musical instruments that play themselves. They may sometimes com across as bell-like or harp-like, but their sound is unique. The hardened tuned steel comb is the actual instrument, an advanced version of the African kalimba, or "thumb piano." The steel pins in the rotating brass cylinder hold the musical arrangement, being set to pluck particular notes at just the right time. The flattened steel spring is the power source, the revolving air brake is the speed control, and the wooden case is the amplifier. Batteries not included.

These instruments were invented, then produced, by Swiss watch and clockmakers, and the precision of their engineering - all done before the advent of power tools - is astonishing. Let cylinder pins or comb teeth be set as little as a thousandth of an inch wrong, and the music might be ruined.

Most impressive of all, music boxes are musical time capsules. What we hear on them is the popular music of their day, what people were humming in their homes and on the streets - folk tunes, music-hall tunes, and best of all, operatic arias and overtures. Rossini is well-represented, as are Mozart, Verdi, Bellini, and Donizetti. But you'll also hear selections from operas never performed in our time, sometimes by composers long forgotten.’


Cornflower said...


Nan said...

This was so interesting - a subject I've never given any thought to before. Thank you. I wonder if they are still made, and if they play what is 'popular' now. Think of the Rehab song on a music box. :<)

Martin Edwards said...

I'd never thought much about music boxes prior to meeting Larry either, but you're right, they are very appealing. I think some are made now, though their hey-day is long gone.

Anonymous said...

Nan, music boxes are still being made in Switzerland, and in a number of Asian countries, but they are mass-produced and very unimpressive, compared to the individually-crafted instruments by early-mid 19th century Swiss clockmakers. They do feature current popular tunes, but mostly from musicals. I doubt you'd find anything remotely resembling The Rehab Song on any music box.

Janet Rudolph said...

Absolutely fascinating. We were lucky to have Larry Karp stop by for an At Home, but we missed the music boxes. Thanks.