THE ICELANDIC LITHOPHONE
by Elias Davidsson
Experimental Musical Instruments (Journal), September 1998
A unique combination of geological and meteorological factors have contributed to the formation of stones that produce clear musical pitches when hit or struck. Such stones, although quite rare, have been found in as widely located countries as China, Venezuela, Togo and Iceland. After a short historical and geographical review of this unusual instrument, the recently discovered and developed Icelandic Lithophone and its musical application will be described.
HISTORICAL AND GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
Ringing stones are called litho phones . Lithophones have been known since antiquity in China, Korea, Samoa and Vietnam. They have been found in more primitive forms in black Africa (north of Togo and northern Nigeria), Central America and in a few locations in Europe such as Greece, Sardinia, the Swiss Alps and England.
The oldest known lithophones are from Vietnam. They were discovered by Georges Condominas in 1949 in Annam. They are now stored at the Musée de l’homme in Paris and were described and discussed in several scholarly articles, including the authoritative article by A. Schaeffner in Revue de musicologie, XXXIlIe année, July 1951: "Une importante découverte archéologique: le lithophone de Ndut lieng krak." These ten ancient Vietnamese lithophones were clearly tuned by flaking, reportedly a technique of stone-age man, and yield two sonorous pentatonic scales. Their size is impressive: From 65 to 100 cm in length, from 10 to 15 cm in width and up to 6 cm thick. They weigh between 5 and 11 kg each.1 Other lithophones from the neolithic period are stored in the Horniman Museum, London.2
Stone chimes (ch’ing or qing) are among the most ancient and valued instruments of the Chinese. These L-shaped stone slabs are suspended in a large frame and struck on their long side with wooden mallets or padded sticks. They are a tuned instrument.
Sonorous stones can be found in various places around the world. In Ethiopia, stone chimes are used as church bells in certain places. In the Kabre region of northern Togo every family has its own lithophone, usually played by the young boys. J.H. Kwabena Nketia describes these in his book The Music of Africa:
"The shape and size of the stones vary considerably. In the Kabre region of northern Togo, the instrument consists of four or five flat stones that are arranged in star formation on the ground or on a bed of straw. The musician hits them with two stone strikers; the striker that is held in the right hand usually plays the tune, while the other punctuates the musical phrases or taps out the rhythm on the largest stone, which has the deepest or most neutral sound."
"Giant lithophones exist in Northern Nigeria, chiefly in the regions of Kano and Jos. These lithophones are composed mostly of groups of rocks that have been found in natural formation. The music they produce is still used in some villages for initiation and circumcision ceremonies or for certain religious ceremonies. As in northern Togo, there is a similar relationship between the lithophone and farming ... "
"In Kusarha, near northern Cameroon, the lithophone is used as a means of communication with the spirits whose voices can be heard echoing from the caverns in the rocks...3
Some of the most remarkable lithophones in existence are to be found in the English Lake District. A set of sixteen musical stones embracing two diatonic octaves and one note is in the Fitz Park Museum, Keswick. These stones were discovered in 1785 in the bed of the river Greta and on the nearby mountain of Skiddaw. In the same museum is kept a "rock harmonica" invented and developed by Messrs Richardson and Sons from rocks dug out of Skiddaw. This instrument comprises five chromatic octaves of stone slabs measuring 15 to 93 cm in length. The slabs lie over a soundbox and are insulated at the nodal points on ropes of straw. It is reported that Mr. Richardson played classical music on his instrument.4
THE STORY OF THE "ICELANDIC LITHOPHONE"
The instrument referred here to as "Icelandic Lithophone" is in fact a loose set of ringing stones (lithophones), disposed at will on wooden lathes and/or on resonance boxes. As their disposition is arbitrary, it is not possible to speak about a specific instrument. Each disposition of a set of lithophones can be regarded as a unique variety of that instrument. There is no "standard" Icelandic Lithophone. The name "Icelandic Lithophone," in singular, refers here therefore to the specific manner in which ringing stones found in Iceland are used and disposed. The two main characteristics of the Icelandic Lithophone are a) that the stones are not tampered with (neither chiseled nor flaked) and thus do not follow a prescribed scale or system, and b) that their quantity and variety permits their use for real musical performance.
Jón Leifs is probably the first Icelandic composer who introduced stones into his compositions. His use of stones was however limited to the provision of a special percussive effect in an orchestral setting.
In the summer of 1982 this author discovered during an excursion at the Whale Fjord, an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, several sonorous stones of various pitch. This discovery spurred the author to undertake systematic searches for such stones. Such searches resulted in the collection of over one hundred ringing stones with a range of almost three octaves. Most stones were found in the Reykjavik area, some in the Snaefell peninsula.
The Icelandic Lithophone was publicly introduced for the first time at the Nordic House in Reykjavik in the autumn of 1982.5 Dr. Orthulf Prunner and the author improvised on two sets of lithophones while two brothers, Haukur and Hörður, showed mobile body art after having been painted by [artist] Myriam Bat Yosef. This unusual event was reported with illustrations in the weekly magazine Vikan.
Since then, numerous opportunities presented themselves for public performance on lithophones. In most cases the music was improvised, sometimes by the author alone, sometimes with one, two or three additional performers.6 The improvisations always took place in the framework of another event: In the intermission of a trade unions’ conference, for the opening of an exhibition, in a religious service (Lutheran Mass), in a wedding ceremony (see photograph) or as an item of a varied cultural program.
The author has since then presented the Icelandic Lithophone at various locations in Germany and Switzerland. On November 29, 1996 the author was invited to present the instrument in the framework of an International Organ Festival at Oviedo, Spain. The program alternated between works for organ and the Icelandic Lithophone. For this occasion, the author composed and notated two works, a short prelude for Icelandic Lithophones and "Unequal Dance" for organ and Icelandic Lithophone, the latter work being dedicated to the author’s friend and organizer of the festival, [organist] Antonio D. Corveiras, who performed this work brilliantly.7 The concert included a solo improvisation by the author as well as a [threesome] improvisation with the participation of Mr. Corveiras and one of his pupils, Emilio Huerta, on Icelandic Lithophones (see photograph of improvisation with the participation of Mr. Corveiras, Mr. Huerta and the author)
Most Icelandic lithophones are basaltic, isotropic stones which, as a result of climatic changes, have split into thin slices or slabs. The stones range from 15 to 50 cm in length, and 6 to 15 mm in thickness. They widely differ in their form although most are oblong. They yield a great diversity in timbre and pitch. The surface of most stones is rugged (see photograph).
In order to sound clearly, each stone should ideally rest only on its two nodal points (located about one quarter from each end of the stone). The author has found that the most effective manner for placing these stones is either transversally on two parallel wooden lathes covered with isolation strips or above a specially conceived resonating box, but isolated through pads on which the nodal points rest (see photographs below)
The last method is only effective for low-pitched stones. The author has developed two types of resonating boxes, an elaborate one8, designed for six stones and a simple one for single stones. To make the lithophones sound, they are either hit or stroked. After many experiments, the author found that small, rather hard, mallets (such as Balter no. 5) or elongated pebbles, are the most effective to produce a clearly pitched sound. The sound is strong and incisive, it carries a great distance but is of extremely short duration. A continuous "tenuto" sound can however be obtained by stroking the rugged surface of the stone with another stone or pebble. Depending on the consistency, the mass of the stroking pebble and the pressure applied, various sound colors can be obtained.
The pitch of the Icelandic lithophones – as found until today – appears to range across three octaves from written A (110 Hz) up to written b" flat (around 900 Hz). Their real pitch lies in fact one or two octaves higher than written (it’s a little hard to distinguish which octave the tone is falling in), a phenomenon similar to that of the xylophone. The stones show a diversity of timbre, from a wooden-like tone to a clearly metallic tone.
The fundamental note of a lithophone stone can be perceived with most clarity when hit at its extremities. By hitting the stones at other locations overtones, mostly inharmonic, can be obtained. It is also possible to enhance the fundamental note by using softer mallets. Some stones provide two or three simultaneous pitches. The dynamic range of Icelandic Lithophones is quite impressive, from a very soft pianississimo to an appreciable forte. Even the softest sounds are clearly perceived.
As the Icelandic lithophones are not tuned to any scale but played as they are, and as they vary in substance and timbre, they are not suited for playing tonal music. The author has not developed until now any standardized placement of the lithophones. The number of stones and their physical disposition can change from performance to performance. For performances the stones are placed loosely on wooden lathes (duly isolated) and on resonating boxes. But for informal or home use, they sometimes are just placed on a carpet, outside on the lawn.
Playing the Icelandic Lithophone does not require musical training, only a keen and attentive ear. The author has observed small children enjoying playing for long stretches of time on Icelandic Lithophones.
After introducing to five junior college students with no musical background some basic playing and improvisation techniques for about half an hour, these youngsters were left to their own devices for two hours. Subsequently they performed for their friends and for this author two highly successful collective improvisations, each of them using a set of 8-10 stones.
In the hands of a sensitive musician, a set of Icelandic Lithophones can become an instrument of great expressive quality. It is ideally suited for solo or group improvisations.
As the Icelandic Lithophone is not a standardized instrument – each stone being unique in form, pitch and timbre – and as they are not tuned to any particular scale, notation for this instrument is problematic. As yet no ideal solution has been found to this problem.9
Playing the Icelandic Lithophone in its natural surrounding, where the stones are found, can be an unforgettable experience. The Icelandic Lithophone played in closed or semi-closed built areas can bring life into a drab city neighborhood. To stroke the rugged surfaces various stones can also be an intimate, reflective, meditative, even therapeutic experience. When approached with respect, each stone reveals a unique personality. Sometimes an occult power seems to emanate from the stones, as if they were carrying a message from bygone times and attempting to address our deepest roots.
Notation for stroking the lithophone
1. Heinrich Husmann: "Das neuentdeckte Steinzeitlithophon," Musikforschung 1952 (Nr. 5, S. 47-).
2. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1980 (under Lithophone)
3. J. H. Kwabena Nketia: The Music of Africa, Victor Gollancz Ltd. London, 1986
4. The New Grove, ibid. For more on lithophones from the English Lake District, see also "The Till Family Rock Band", in Experimental Musical lnstruments, Volume VII #5, April 1992.
5. “Gjörningur í Norræna húsinu”, Tíminn, 14 November 1982 (in Icelandic), at http://timarit.is/view_page_init.jsp?pageId=4019738
6. „Listatrimm Stúdentaleikhússins sumarid '83", Thjódviljinn, 28 May 1983 (in Icelandic), at http://timarit.is/view_page_init.jsp?pageId=2887600; “Tónleikar með gítar og steinaspili á Húsafelli”, Morgunbladid, 22 August 1997 (in Icelandic), at http://www.mbl.is/greinasafn/grein/349530/?item_num=103&dags=1997-08-22; “Furðuverk sem sjaldan heyrast á tónleikum", Morgunbladid, 22 January 1999 (in Icelandic), at http://www.mbl.is/greinasafn/grein/444638/?item_num=87&dags=1999-01-22
7. "Unequal Dance" for Icelandic Lithophone (or xylophone) (ISBN 9979-889-28-4). It is about eight minutes long and presents a challenge for the organist. It can be obtained from the author for $10 including postage [contact the author through his website: www.tonar-og-steinar.com]
8. For each stone a separate compartment is allocated, the bottom of which can be lowered or lifted to ensure optimal volume of air. To allow for the varying size of the stones, the position of the resting pads can also be adjusted. [See picture]
9. After the publication of this article, the author composed and notated a piece for Solo Lithophone (“From Babylon’s Songs”), which was performed in 1999 at a concert of contemporary music in Reykjavik, Iceland [Listen HERE]. For that composition, the following notation was developed for some of the unique features of stroking the stones.