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Mountain Home Magazine

The Music of the Spheres

May 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon

Dennis James’ three-story “Painted Lady” home in Addison sports a small sign next to the doorbell. “In this spot, in 1879, nothing happened.” But something’s happening inside, and it’s musically significant.

In a sprawling home studio filled with arcane instruments, many whose sound is produced with glass, Dennis soaks his fingers “until they’re pruney” in a gold-plated butter dish filled with water. The dish is set into the casing for a set of nested crystal bowls on their side, slowly rotating on a rod. He lifts his hands, gently dribbles some water across the bowls, and begins to play, the tips of his long fingers raised, his eyes referencing music by Mozart. One could easily imagine the crystalline purity of the music he produces—comparable to nothing else—was sent to earth directly by angels.

The instrument is the glass armonica, named by its creator, Benjamin Franklin, from the Greek word for harmony. As Dennis explains later, its brightest sound is produced by the contact with the inside of each finger’s first knuckle joint. Like much of the music created by the interaction of glass and humans (think of making sounds with variously-filled wine glasses), it’s rubbed, mediated by water, and played somewhat like a keyboard. Dennis came to the glass armonica after intensive studies in classical organ.

In 1981, he was frustrated in his career as a concert organist by critics who alternately praised his performances and slammed his interest in a varied range of musical styles.

“I’m omnivorous [musically],” he explains. Determined to pursue even more variety, he began a many years’ search for someone to reproduce Franklin’s armonica. Once found in many upper-class late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century homes in Europe and America, glass armonicas were used to play the music of their time, with some notable composers, among them Mozart, composing music specifically for the instrument.

But after enjoying a period of popularity as a chamber instrument, the armonica suddenly came to be reviled as evil, music played on it described as opening a temporary gateway to hell. Instruments were destroyed, the shops that made them shuttered.

The seeming carnage may have begun with the 1808 death of the beautiful German virtuoso armonica player Marianne Kirchgessner. (She actually died of pneumonia.) Audience members fainted during concerts, claimed to be afflicted by spirits summoned by the instrument, and suffered mysterious symptoms or died after a performance, as did a few musicians. Modern physicians have identified many of their odd symptoms as mass hysteria and/or consequences of lead poisoning. Lead exposure was environmentally inescapable during that time. Did the lead in the crystal bowls tip the balance for performers in contact with it?

Dennis comes down solidly on the side of hysteria and expectation.

“I know if I was hit by a bus they’d say it was a fatal illness,” he says. “I find that so charmingly funny.” Nonetheless, after the armonica was declared a public health hazard, interest in this once-popular instrument declined suddenly and seemingly irrevocably. Dennis does get his own lead levels checked regularly.

Eventually, Dennis found Domenick Labino, a glass artist able to analyze the chemical composition of one of Ben Franklin’s broken crystal bowls and then replicate a set with handblown glass bowls of varying thicknesses. It took an additional year of relentless, unsuccessful practicing to get his armonica to play. Labino had added a coating to the glass which dampened the sound, a problem only discovered after Dennis accidentally wore through a section of the coating. After the rest was removed, Dennis picked up momentum and his musical work became increasingly interesting. Like several who have played the glass armonica across the centuries, he’s added a few innovations of his own, including a sewing machine motor that rotates the glasses on their spindle so he doesn’t need to accomplish that process with a treadle—a foot powered lever, like that seen on spinning wheels and on old sewing machines.

His career has spanned Europe and the United States, where he’s played with orchestras and rock bands, both onstage and backstage, sometimes composing original music for movie soundtracks. He’s performed with Linda Rondstadt, Dolly Parton, and Lucinda Williams, among others. Because it’s a difficult instrument to fly with, he keeps one in Europe, another here. Now in his seventies, his performance schedule keeps him busy and active.

“There’s a resurgence of interest in me,” he says. “Worldwide, people are taken with people doing interesting things.” Dennis’ interests, musical and otherwise, continue to expand. He’s made use of his proximity to Corning to take glassmaking classes at the Studio at the Corning Museum of Glass, and has created art glass he displays in his home. He acquires interesting instruments and then becomes expert at playing them, including the Cristal Baschet and the theremin, which is the first electronic instrument—both twentieth century inventions perhaps best known for their use in creating haunting sound effects in movies. He was, in fact, leaving to work with director Francis Coppola after our interview.

His current new love is the psalterio, a Biblical-era version of the harp. He’s taking lessons and explains that, “If you do things in the creative world, it’s like learning languages. Once you speak a second language, the third becomes easier.”

His musical collections include miniature pianos, instrumental oddities, sets of tuned glasses, and pump organs—all things that fall under the rubric of his business name: Musica Curiosa & Glass Musick. “Because I’m a musician and I’m curious,” he says. Is there a museum of his own collections in the future? Maybe, he says cautiously. But for the moment, he’s far too interested in performing, continuing to expand his musical knowledge, and occasionally teaching. “I teach my music students to play chess, because it’s so similar to playing fugues on the organ,” he says. “Then it becomes easier to teach baroque music.”

To hear Dennis play an operatic accompaniment in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and other performances, including those with Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Lucinda Williams, search for “Dennis James and glass armonica.” You can reach Dennis at [email protected] or at (607) 359-2622.

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