Nowadays in the era of fast development of technology and globalization many of us feel the special need to preserve our traditions and national values. Every country in the world has its own national instruments that have throughout centuries gained sacred status and become symbols of a nation. Such are Finnish kantele, Russian gusli, Chinese guzheng, Arabic kanun etc. Did you know, however, that all these instruments altogether represent our common global music heritage and belong to one large family of multi string fretless instruments? In every country an instrument was developing in its own peculiar way, getting its shapes and adapting to specific cultural context, and is known under a variety of names. These days we get unique opportunities to study this heritage and share our common knowledge.
Our hope is to create a wider perspective of common global heritage. Currently, there is only a certain number of instruments presented so if you see something is missing or you would like to add some more information please get in touch.
Let's take a journey to the world of multi-string instruments where we will get to know their origins, history and other interesting facts!
Kantele is a Finnish member of Baltic psaltery family which origins dates back to 1000 or even 2000-3000 years ago. The earliest mention about the kantele in literary documents dates back only to the 16th century, but up to the 18th century there are no precise descriptions of the instrument. The first archaeological evidences were found during excavations in Novgorod - those were lyre-shaped (with a playing window) instruments with 5-9 strings from the ground layers of the 11th-13th centuries.
Mythological birth of kantele
Kantele is mentioned in 2 poems of Kalevala, Finnish national epic, where the main character Väinämöinen builds the first kantele out of a jawbone of a giant pike and its strings out of horse tail hair. He enchanted the entire mankind and the creation with his kantele playing. Once Väinämöinen lost his kantele made of pike bones in a battle and made a new one out of birch tree and strings out of hair of a young maiden.
Sound chamber carved from one piece of wood
The oldest kanteles were hollowed out of a single piece of wood and usually had 5 strings that were originally made of horsehair, later of copper and steel metal wire. There was no bridge to support the strings which were attached to wooden pegs at one end and to a metal rod at the other. The 5-string kantele was tuned to a major or minor pentachord (according to the five first notes of diatonic scale). The kantele player held the instrument in his lap or on a table, with the shorter side towards him and plucked the strings. Each string was played with a particular finger - usually the shortest string was played with the thumb of the right hand, and the forefinger of the left hand was used for the next shortest string.
Further development and the increase of strings amount
Around two hundred years ago the kantele underwent a major transformation when builders began to make instruments out of separate pieces of wood. Instead of a metal rod to which the strings were attached, each string now had its own tuning peg and at the other end the string was attached to a metal pin. In the mid 19th century there were kanteles with 10 to 14 strings and by the end of the 19th century the amount of strings increased up to 20-30. At this point playing style also changed. The instrument was turned so that the longest strings were closest to the player; the melody was always played by the right hand, and the accompanying chords by the left.
Small kanteles usually have less than 15 strings and are played by plucking the strings up with both hands or strumming with the plectrum while the left hand dampens unwanted strings. In addition of traditional small kantele's Koistinen Kantele introduced 2001 modern small kantele models with new features and design. Today both types are living next to each others.
Saarijärvi kantele has typically 18-21 strings and is played by damping unwanted strings with the left hand fingers while the right one strums the strings with a matchstick or a plectrum. The instrument is mainly used as an accompaniment for singing.
Kotikantele (home/diatonic kantele) is a big diatonic kantele (how many strings?) with no tuning mechanism or levers for separate strings. It is mainly used to perform traditional music. This is an ancestor instrument type for concert kantele. When performing, a player puts the kantele on the table and plucks strings up with both hands. The right hand usually plays the melody in the higher register while the left one plucks the bass and the chords.
The instrument that we now know as a concert kantele was developed in 1927 by Paul Salminen (1887-1949). A former student of St.Petersburg Conservatory and a trombonist at St.Petersburg Imperial Orchestra he came back to Helsinki permanently after the 1917 revolution and became a trombonist at Helsinki Philharmonic orchestra. Having being interested in various kantele types since his childhood, Salminen came up with an idea based on the concert harp pedals and applied it to the kantele - the result was the first concert model with a lever mechanism. The concert kantele had 36 strings and 7 levers that enabled to switch a tone half-step up or down. The changes affected all the range of the instrument.
Salminen's development became the turning point in the history of the kantele - it symbolized the transition of a folk kantele into a fully developed concert instrument. However, it was still a quiet instrument with the sound suitable for small rooms but not enough for concert halls.
If in the first half of the 20th century the repertoire was mostly based on Finnish folk songs arrangements and national romanticism pieces, in 1980s composers started to write original music for kantele. In 1975 the kantele was introduced at Sibelius Academy first as a special subject at music education department, later in 1983 as a part of curricula at folk music department. In 1987 it entered soloist department when Ritva Koistinen joined teaching staff.
With the development of kantele education in 1980's there appeared a need to improve the quality of instruments. After Lauri Kellokumpu developed a new exact lever mechanism for concert kantele, his idea became the basis for modern instruments. In 1993 Hannu Koistinen introduced the first generation of modern professional concert kantele models. Innovations included higher string tension, bigger sound chamber size and louder sound. Modernized kanteles soon came into wide use by leading artists and a new generation of kantele students. In 1993 at blind test hold in Ikaalinen Koistinen concert kanteles got 1st and 2nd prize. Introduction of high quality built-in pickup systems in late 1990's solved the problem of kantele's audibility and opened new opportunities of playing on bigger venues and even with orchestras. Simultaneous development of both the instrument and kantele education helped to bring kantele outside folk and classical music genres.
Modern professional concert kanteles usually have 39 strings. There are several sound types and stringing available for different music genres. Brilliant upper register sound and deep and rich bass tone make the modern kantele so recognizable and unique among other instruments.
Concert kantele with a built-in microphone system finally fulfills a dream shared by Salminen and Koistinen about kantele as a versatile instrument which can be equally used in a variety of music genres.
The next significant step in the history of kantele happened in 1999 when the first fully developed electric kantele was introduced in Finland. The instrument with 39 strings was built by Hannu Koistinen of Koistinen Kantele and has 2 built-in pickup systems, piezo and magnetic, that enable a player to produce a wide variety of sounds from "clean", or natural kantele sound to the world of effects used on other electric instruments.
The invention of the electric kantele opened up a new page in the history of the instrument. The image of kantele has changed a lot since then. Modern design and powerful amplified sound open new doors to a musician. Now, when there is no longer a problem of poor audibility the kantele started to find its place in bands playing various music styles- from folk to pop, rock and jazz.
- Wing-shaped gusli
The origin of wing-shaped gusli dates back to the 11th century. Ancient instruments had 5-9 strings, but as the centuries passed by the amount of strings increased to 11 and more. The instrument that we now know as a modern wing-shaped gusli was developed in 1900 by O.Smolensky and N.Privalov. With its different stronger construction, high strings tension and bright, rich sound the instrument was supposed to be played in concert halls. Based on this model, the other types of wing-shaped gusli were developed such as piccolo and alto - for the use in ensemble playing. In late 1970s-1980s semi-tone levers were added to gusli that made it possible to perform music beyond diatonic scale.
- Helmet-shaped gusli
Helmet-shaped gusli has been known since 12th century and is believed to derive from the medieval psaltery. This type of gusli had up to 36 strings and was played by plucking. A musician performed with the instrument on the laps, but unlike psaltery keeping the wider side down. Helmet-shaped gusli was popular in 14th-15th centuries but gradually disappeared by the 20th and nowadays is rarely played.
-Rectangular (clavichord) gusli
Two types of rectangular gusli exist - chromatic and keyboard versions. The chromatic gusli was widely popular in Russian imperial circles in 1730s-1850s . Despite the lack of historical evidence, there are a few theories about the emergence of the instrument. It might have derived from the diatonic rectangular gusli that was known in the beginning of the 18th century and had 2 octaves range. Under profound influence of Western music this version later developed into a chromatic one with 4-5 octaves. On the other hand, the helmet-shape of the playing area suggests the connection with the helmet-shaped gusli type. The chromatic gusli occupies a very special place in the history of the instrument which made its way from traditional music idiom to the imperial circles. The strings of the chromatic gusli were made of bronze which allowed to produce very soft, intimate sound ideally suitable for chamber music environment.
By the 2nd half of the 19th century, with virtuosity and passionateness of romanticism and the dominance of piano chromatic gusli gradually went out of fashion and was almost forgotten. Instead, in the beginning of the 20th century a new "modernized" type was constructed with the steel strings and iron frame so the weight could well be up to 110-115 kg. Another profound change touched the range of gusli - instead of C major formed by the upper row of strings now there was A major to meet the needs of Russian folk orchestra that used mainly sharp keys.
Along with the modernized chromatic gusli the orchestras included also a keyboard gusli. This instrument was constructed in 1914 by N.Fomin and was supposed to provide an accompaniment role in folk orchestras. In order to play it, a musician presses the keys on the keyboard on the left side of the instrument, and with the right hand runs over the strings with the firm leather pick.
The modern guzheng playing has been very much influenced by western music; It is now common among the younger generation for the fingers of both hands to wear small plectrums to pluck the strings in order to play a variety of textures (right hand plays the melody, and the other one accompanies). As a matter of fact, to be able to play with a super speed and precision has become the necessary condition to win a competition nowadays. As a result of this new development, the guzheng playing appears (and sounds) like playing harp or piano. Therefore, the guzheng is sometimes also referred to as "Chinese harp" or "Chinese piano".
The essential difference between dulcimers of different countries is the way the instruments are made and tuned, this combination is what gives each member of the family a different voice. In late 17th century Western Europe, advances in the technology and popularity of keyboard instruments prompted a decline in the use of the dulcimer though, to this day, it maintains an important role in Eastern European folk music. In the Old World, the dulcimer experienced a strange revival in the year 1697 when a fellow by the name of Pantaleon Hebestreit invented an improved version of the medieval instrument and called it the pantaleon. It reportedly had 186 strings and was in evidence as late as 1767 when performances were given in England by George Noel on an instrument having 276 strings.
The length of the early jetigen was about 1 m. Its strings were made of a horse hair and the tuning bridges were carved out of animals' bones. The ancient instrument had 7 strings but as time passed by it was going through development and the amount of strings reached 13. Jetigen has a soft, deep, singing sound and is widely used in national orchestras as well as folk ensembles. The player plucks the strings with 4 fingers of the right hand while the left hand is used for bending.
Traditional kankles can be classified into three types according to the number of strings, playing technique and repertoire: northern east Aukstaitija, northern west Aukstaitija and Zemaitija; northern west Zemaitija and Suvalkija.
Depending on a type it belongs to, the number of strings on the kankles can vary from 5 to 13. The body of the kankles has a trapezoidal form and is carved from a single piece of linden, maple, ash or alder wood. The instrument's wider end is cut diagonally. A fir wood top decorated with four-pointed, five-pointed or six-pointed stars and other patterns is fastened to the body. A metal bar to which metal or catgut strings are anchored was set in the narrow end. Wooden pegs fitted in the wide end regulate the tension of the strings.
Traditional kankles is played with the fingers or with a pick made of wood, bone or feather.
In the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century during the national romantic movement the kankles became a symbol of national identity and recovery. A kanklist singing with the accompaniment of kankles was one of the most important symbols of that time which later resulted in further kankles culture spread in Lithuania.
In the first half of the 20th century with the development of kankles pedagogy and repertoire a process of instrument's modernization began. In 1940 the instrument was included into Lithuanian Conservatory curricula. Finally, in 1954 a 29-string kankles with semitone levers was created thus symbolizing the transition of a traditional instrument into a concert one. At the same time bass and contrabass kankles were constructed for the use in ensembles. This all led to the emergence of new original repertoire that explored a variety of playing techniques on the kankles.
Throughout the centuries, kannel has been going through many stages of development that resulted in increase of number of strings (up to 12) and also appearance of different models. Every now and then some extra strings, so called bourdon strings, were added - this helped to widen the melodic scheme and enriched the dynamics of playing style. In 18th-19th centuries under the influence of German and Austrian zithers a new type of kannel called simmel or simbel emerged. It was a diatonic instrument of trapezoid or half-trapezoid shape, with a body made of boards and metal pegs holding about 20 to 30 strings.
Rahvakannel is another type of kannel with bourdon strings that form 3-5 chords and 24-25 metal strings and is used both in solo and ensemble performances.
Harmony kannel (saatekannel, akordkannel, duurkannel) with strings grouped into major chords spread in Estonia in the end of the 19th century and was used to provide accompaniment.
Finally, in 1952 the first chromatic kannel with the range reaching almost 4 octaves was built by Väino Maala, symbolizing the transition of the folk instrument into a concert one. The strings on the chromatic kannel are placed under a slight angle so that on the right side of the instrument the strings corresponding to the "white" keys on piano are a little bit higher, on the left side vice versa. In the middle of the instrument the strings are approximately on the same level. In 1953 kannel was included into the curricula at Tallinn Music School. Since 1953 until 1990s chromatic kannels with 46 strings were manufactured by Tallinn Piano factory. After its production stopped, Otto Koistinen, a renown kantele builder from Finland undertook kannel development work which resulted in a number of construction improvements and sound characteristics. The first chromatic kannel was built by Koistinen in 1953. Kannel is nowadays a sophisticated concert instrument with up to 61 steel strings that produce beautiful and resonating sound, making it possible to play a wide repertoire from baroque to contemporary music.
The instrument also has special latches for each course called mandals that were added by Turks in the first half of the 20th century. These small levers which can be raised or lowered quickly by the performer while the instrument is being played, serve to change the pitch of a particular course slightly by altering the string lengths. Before that, the pitches were adjusted by pressing the fingers down the chords. If the Arabic music is based on quarter tone intonation and Armenian music employs half-tones, the Turkish "flavor" can have as many as the full 8 commas (octave division) to express microtonal subtleties. Thus, the Turkish kanun can have as many as 12 levers per course of strings. The Arabic version of Kanun may have up to 27 courses or 81 strings and fewer levers to change the pitch than their Turkish relatives.
In the 20th century the Turks created many new techniques like using all ten fingers for playing arpeggios.
With its 3,5 octaves range the kanun is used both as an accompanying and solo instrument that is characterized by its virtuosic nature.
In the 1930s V. Gudkov, a Karelan folklorist, built a chromatic kantele with 36 strings which could be used for performing both folk and classical works. During playing the kantele is held on the knees in a horizontal or in a slightly inclined position with the narrower side tilted towards a musician's chest. The instrument is played by plucking with the fingers of both hands. In following years other models of kantele were constructed, such as piccolo, alto, bass and even contrabass.
In 1936 the State ensemble "Kantele" was created under the leadership of V.P.Gudkov.
The sanjo kayagum, which is about 142 cm, is associated with folk music genres and thus is believed to have evolved in the 19th century with the emergence of sanjo music (improvisation based on scattered melodies). Unlike popkum, the sanjo kayagum has the soundboard of paulownia and has a harder wood such as chestnut for the sides and the back. The closer spacing of the strings and the shorter length of the sanjo kayagum facilitates the technique required for the faster passages of sanjo. The sanjo kayagum is now the most wide spread form of kayagum.
Kayagum is played by plucking and flicking the strings with the index and middle fingers, and the thumb of the right hand, while the left one presses down the strings to the left of the movable bridges producing various sound effects.While other Asian zithers such as the Chinese zheng, Japanese koto, Mongolian yatga, and Vietnamese dan tranh are played with the picks or plectra, the wide vibrato and pitch-bending characteristics of kayagum are achieved by pressing and pulling the string with the bare fingers.
All traditional kayagums use silk strings, although, since the late 20th century, the silk strings may be replaced with nylon strings.
Modern versions of the kayagum, which have a greater number of strings, often use nylon-wrapped steel strings, similar to those used for the Chinese guzheng. Brass strings have also been introduced to produce a louder sound, which is preferred for accompanying dance. To play modern music,kayagum with a greater number of strings have been developed, increasing the instrument's range. Kayagums are available with 13, 17, 18, 21, 22, or 25 strings, although instruments with more strings are also available on custom-made basis.
The 21 string kayagum is normally found in North Korea.
In 1940s and 1950s with the development of kokle playing and widening of the repertoire process of instrument's modernization began. Thus, appeared a concert kokle with a bigger range (25-33 strings) and half-tone levers first enabling a player to switch half-tone up, later the so-called double switches were invented that worked in both directions. In addition to that, a large family of kokle instruments was created, including piccolo, soprano, tenor, bass and even double-bass - to meet the needs of the folk instruments orchestra or kokle ensemble. Thus, this modernization gradually created a chromatic concert instrument that was adapting to the contemporary music culture. It was introduced to the music schools, colleges and conservatories. Nowadays some promising developments of concert kokle occur, and the instrument exists in parallel to the revived traditional kokles.
In general, 13 strings of the same thickness are used, and mobile bridges called kotoji are arranged under the strings for tuning with the instrument tuned in accordance with the piece of music to be played. 180 cm long body of koto is made of paulownia wood (kiri). Originally the strings were made of silk, but nowadays nylon and tetron are more common. The koto is played with tsume, small plectra or picks, attached to three fingers on the right hand. In gagaku, traditional Japanese court music, the koto was played as part of an ensemble, after that, as an accompaniment for temple ballads, and actively came to be performed solo during the Edo period (1603-1868).
For a while, it was an official occupation for blind men, and was apparently limited to this group. Yatsuhashi Kengyo, a gifted blind man from Kyoto, is widely recognised as the founder of modern koto. Nowadays the Yamada School (Yamada-ryu) and The Ikuta School (Ikuta-ryu) are the two major schools that dominate the koto world. The koto actively features in ensembles with shamisen, a type of traditional Japanese lute, and shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute (and at one time also the kokyu, or Japanese fiddle).
During Meiji Period (1868-1912) Western music was introduced in Japan, and consequently the existing koto music did not fit in with the new spirit of modernism and fell out of use. Since then some serious attempts have been made to change or modernize the traditional system. Following the Taisho period (1912-1926), the 17 string bass koto, the 20 string, 25 string, and 30 string koto that further broadened the range, were also created. Miyagi Michio (1895-1956) was the first Japanese composer to combine Western and traditional koto music by using the diatonic scale instead of modes, triple instead of the customary duple meter, and a thicker, orchestral texture. He also modernized traditional kotos, experimenting with the number of strings and construction a lot which resulted in appearance of the most innovative instrument with 80 strings.
Krez is played on the lap with the semi-circle side turned upwards, the strap is placed around the neck or on the shoulder. Krez player plucks the strings up: right hand plays the melody, and the left one plucks basses.
Originally Yatga was played in the Western Mongolian and later on in the Central Asia as well as in the Eastern Mongolia. The type of Yatga used varies depending on whether it is used for folk, classical or traditional music, played for entertainment of children or as an accompaniment to folk songs and dances. Mongolians traditionally play three types of this zither, differentiated by their resonators or hollow bodies in which the sound is amplified: the master yatga; ikh gariing yatga, the national yatga; akhun ikh yatga, and the harp, called the bosoo yatga.
It was Nikolaus Weigel (1811-1878), a native of the Palatinate and subsequent resident of Munich, who conceived the stringing of the zither (1838) that converted it into a concert instrument. It was he who introduced the chromatic scale onto the fingerboard and arranged the accompaniment strings in the sequence of fifths. However, his reforms were not universally accepted until considerably later. Max Amberger, an instrument maker in Munich, fabricated the first concert zither in 1862 based on Weigel's revolutionary design. It is this instrument with its 5 melody strings (a, a, d, g, c) covering 29 frets along with 37 accompaniment strings that constitutes the concert zither. Based on its shape, there are also harp zither and psalteria zither - however, with all the differences all the types have 29 frets and 37-42 accompanying strings and can be tuned into "normal" or "Viennese" ways.
The older forms of the zither were limited to 2 or 3 key signatures and as a result were never taken seriously as concert instruments by the serious composers. But this late maturation of the zither did not prevent the creation of a body of classical music specifically composed for the instrument by virtuosi who had mastered its techniques. These composers, called the "Altmeister", flourished from 1870-1910 and by their creativity developed the full potential that lies within the compass of this instrument.
Even though the zither is primarily known as a folk music instrument, these days a big amount of young people in Germany find it suitable for performing classical music too. One of the leading Zither orchestras is the Zitherorchester Muenchen-Pasing.
The zither became world famous for the solo in "Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald" by Johann Strauss and the film music for "The third man" where it was performed by Anton Karas.
I would like to thank for their kind help and contribution into this project:
Liu Fang http://www.philmultic.com/ http://www.liufangmusic.net/
Mei Han http://www.mei-han.com/index.html
Viktoria Herencsar http://viktoriaherencsar.com/
Kristina Kupryte http://www.kristinakupryte.eu/
Cornelia Mayer http://www.zitherinthecity.com/index.htm
Valdis Muktupavels http://www.music.lv/mukti/valdis.htm
Kristi Myhling http://www.resonabilis.com/
Timo Väänänen http://yle.fi/radio1/musiikki/kanteleen_kielin/
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