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24 September 2014
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Music for a glass man

If you were approached to write the music for a play about a man who believes he's turning into glass where would you start? Dr Neil Sorrell from the University of York's Music Department started with some wine glasses.


Turning into glass?

The Play

In The Glass Man the life of a young man falls apart after he learns he was adopted. He suffers a form of mental breakdown and begins to believe he's turning into glass.

The condition

The idea may sound far fetched but 'glass delusion' is a state of profound anxiety that was relatively common in the Middle Ages.

King Charles VI of France was a sufferer and had iron ribs sewn into his clothing to protect himself in case of a fall.

There are accounts of sufferers only being able to travel when packed in straw, or being unable to sit down because they believed their buttocks were glass and would break.

The condition is now associated with severe depression.

Music by Dr Neil Sorrell, senior lecturer in Music at the Univeristy of York, has featured in the afternoon play on Radio 4. Nothing unusual there you may think, but the play centres on a man suffering from a form of depression who believes he's turning into glass.

Neil Sorrell said he didn't really know where to start, but deciding to use glass for the composition, rather than ordinary instruments, helped him focus his mind.

"Because the character's going through all these mental states and there are lots of soliloquyas in it where they need music, I thought the obvious thing would be to make music from glass.

"It gives that strange effect where you're not really sure what the sound's coming from and it needs to be a bit different because of the character's mental state.

So how does one go about making music from glass? According to Neil, you start with your best tableware.

"There's the old trick everyone does of rubbing your finger round a wine glass to make it 'sing' and I have to admit that's one of the main sounds used, because it's very effective although you have to be careful it doesn't start to sound to like science fiction music.

audio Listen to some of Neil Sorrell's composition >
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"You can also gently hit the glasses with sticks to give a bit more attack, I ended up doing quite a bit of that.

"The really fun bit was visiting lots of glass makers, one in York said I should go to the glass maker at the University. I didn't know there was one! So I went to see the glass blower in the chemistry department and he produced all sorts of strange objects.

"I made sounds by tapping them with various things and borrowed a couple, the ones I could physically carry, and we experimented on getting more sounds from those."

The sounds produced by the glass things being rubbed, tapped and generally agitated were then recorded much like any other instrument.

"There were times when we were in the studio and I said 'this is starting to get a bit sci-fi'"

"I was sitting on the floor in the studio surrounded by various glass objects, getting notes from wineglasses and tapping these big chambers. There was a guy recording it all and turning each one into a little sample of the sound.

"I just worked out what sounds we had, and what notes, so we could build up chords and tunes."

So what does this glass music sound like? A conventional tune played on a weird instrument, or something altogether more unusual?

"If you can imagine people sitting around playing wine glasses... it does sound a bit weird and of course in the studio we can turn that into chords and sustain it for quite a while.

"There were times when we were in the studio and I said 'this is starting to get a bit sci-fi'. But at the same time I was told by the producer not to get too clever or experimental so it ended up with recognizable chords and tunes.

"If you actually played this on ordinary instruments it would sound extremely basic and almost banal. It's very simple stuff. But on the glass it's transformed and takes on a completely new character."

last updated: 05/12/05
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