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Leather Alchemy - Grainger Museum

 success fail Aug SEP Oct 30 2013 2014 2015 24 captures 23 Feb 2011 - 30 Sep 2014 About this capture COLLECTED BY Organization: University of Melbourne University of Melbourne

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Organization URL:[www.unimelb.edu]

Founded in 1853, the University of Melbourne is widely renowned for its teaching, research achievements and its social and economic contributions to the city of Melbourne and to the state of Victoria. It is consistently ranked among the leading universities in the world.

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Garry Greenwood's Leather Alchemy

Mountain Harp

The prototype for this set of instruments was the African mbira, often (incorrectly) titled ‘thumb piano’. The instrument consisted of a leather bowl enclosing a bridge made of a piece of dowel, the ‘keys’ consisting of bamboo pieces taken from a placemat, typical of the ever-inventive creator. Although some sounds resulted, Greenwood believed that covering the bowl with vellum would make a better sound chamber; however, there were many tension problems and only a dull thud was the result.

Determined to find a variation of the mbira, Greenwood then turned the bowl upside down, threaded a string through the vellum and enclosed it in a cardboard tube, attaching the string to a peg at the top of the tube. His thinking was that when the bamboo keys were played the string might vibrate sympathetically, but too many of the keys did not produce a good tone. He did notice, though, that if the tension of the strings were tightened, some of the previously non-productive keys could emit a convincing sound; therefore, he reasoned that if two or three strings were attached, it might be possible for all to sound ‘in symphony’.

The result of his thinking was an instrument he called the Little Mountain Harp. Starting with a base of an inverted bowl on four legs, six strings were threaded through a leather-coated PVC tube and then tied to wooden pegs (hand-carved by Greenwood) at the top of the tube.

It was thought that the instrument would be performed with a player holding it in two hands while plucking the strings. Unfortunately the piece was not user-friendly. The tube wobbled and the pegs had no real purchase within the tube. From this experiment, Greenwood learned two things: first, the pegs needed to be of a better quality because if they were wound too tightly they simply unwound. And second, while the PVC provided strength, it was too thin to give the pegs any grip. Thus he decided to use a piece of solid dowel for the next instrument.

For this, Greenwood bought twelve viola pegs which he placed in holes bored into the top of the dowel. The holes were then enlarged with a reamer (a tool with a papered blade), but during construction he found there was still a problem with the tension of the strings as well as the pegs. Greenwood completed this instrument but he was already working on the technology for a much larger Mountain Harp. With this piece the artist switched the pegs with gears, using fifth-string banjo pegs. These were inserted on the side of the harp’s neck in two spiral formations, to which were attached ten guitar and two banjo strings; all extremely light so as not to put too much pressure on the vellum at the instrument’s base.

A major innovation was a ‘ruffle’ made of brass that Greenwood carved complete with twelve holes for the strings. The ruffle fits around the neck of the instrument with holes acting as a ‘take-off’ point for the strings, thus serving the same purpose as a nut of a conventional stringed instrument.

The base of the Mountain Harp is an inverted buffalo hide bowl with four claw-like legs. Later he used cast bronze bowls. The undersurface of the bowl is covered with vellum that has been soaked and stretched then pulled up around the lower edge of the bowl.

The border is secured by two rows of wooden shoemaker’s nails, while black wax thread is tightly bound between the nails, further securing the vellum against the bowl. The total effect is that of an astonishing piece of visual art. It is also a musical instrument with the ability to produce a huge range of sounds depending, as with many of Greenwood’s pieces, on whether it is bowed or plucked, played as a percussion instrument or, indeed, used in whatever manner an imaginative musician might devise.

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Date created:
16 December 2008
Last modified:
19 May 2011 13:46:16
Authoriser:
Director, Grainger Museum
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