Dean Shostak was just another musician before he discovered the magic of glass.
He played some piano, was proficient on the violin, and even crossed over from classical to fiddling.
“I was not your typical bluegrass musician who learns everything by ear,” he admits. “I would show up for jam sessions with sheet music, like a nerd.”
Perhaps it was that eccentric ear, as much as a curious mind, that led him to the armonica.
Shostak, a Newport News native, was playing violin as an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. In his quest for historical authenticity, he would spend hours researching the instrument’s role in colonial America, and how Thomas Jefferson would use it as an entry point to certain social circles.
In reading archival reviews and reports on 18th-century recitals, he began to run across ecstatic notices — “really hyperbolic stuff,” he says — about an instrument called the glass armonica. It was invented by Benjamin Franklin, enjoyed great popularity for a few decades, and then apparently disappeared from the culture in the 1830s.
The more he learned, the more fascinated he became, until he became consumed with the idea of reviving it.
“I thought, ‘How cool would it be to play an instrument that hadn’t been played in a really long time?’ ” Shostak says. “Even better, an instrument that had such a huge buzz about it back then.”
Today he is one of a small handful of American musicians who regularly play the armonica — a row of glass bowls on a spindle, rotated by foot pedal and lightly rubbed with wetted fingers. The high-pitched sound it creates is both eerie and beautiful, whether the material is a familiar favorite or an obscure work composed specifically for the instrument.
His home base is still Colonial Williamsburg, where he still has two more concerts scheduled before the end of the year. But he also travels, because if someone wants an armonica performance, there are only but so many people to call. A few years back he was featured on the Fox TV show “Sleepy Hollow,” which was set in the time period when the armonica was enjoying popularity; within the past month he has been featured on the BBC and on cable TV’s Great Big Story.
When he appeared on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” back in 2001, the iconic children’s host was cautioned not to shake Shostak’s hand, which had been treated in preparation for playing the armonica. Instead, Rogers and Shostak bowed politely when they met.
Franklin invented the instrument in the early 1760s. He had witnessed musicians in Europe spinning melodies by running their fingers over glasses of water, filled to different levels to create distinct pitches and tones. Intrigued, he experimented a bit until he came up with a series of glass bowls, placed from smallest to largest on a spindle and attached to a frame similar to that of a piano. By moistening his fingers and letting them glide lightly over the rims of the spinning glass, he created an ethereal sound.
According to The Franklin Institute, he was so taken with his new instrument that he wrote: “Of all my inventions, the glass armonica gives me the greatest personal satisfaction.” In 1762 he wrote to a friend that “its tones are incomparably sweet beyond any other.”
The instrument — expensive, fragile and unwieldy to transport — largely disappeared from American music by the middle of the 19th century, though it remained popular enough in Europe that composers such as Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces to feature it.
When Shostak first sought to learn the armonica in the early 1990s, his research led him to Boston glassblower named Gerhard Finkenbeiner, who agreed not only to craft an armonica, but to allow Shostak to pay for it in installments as he began to get bookings to play the instrument.
“It was the most generous thing anyone’s ever done for me,” Shostak says. “He had never seen me or heard of me, but he said to me, ‘Pay me as you’re paying off other bills.’ ”
Finkenbeiner planned to make a spindle turned by electric power, but Shostak asked him to craft a flywheel propelled by a foot pedal, to be authentic to Franklin’s design.
“I’m playing in Colonial Williamsburg,” Shostak says. “I didn’t want to be that guy.”
Shostak now owns three glass armonicas, all made at G Finkenbeiner Inc.outside of Boston. The original instrument made for him stays in his home, where its glass bowls are safe from harm. That’s the one he uses for studio recordings. A second instrument is his concert armonica, and the third is a backup.
“That first one, to me, is the defining sound of the glass armonica,” Shostak says. “I don’t want anything to happen to it.”
Finkenbeiner disappeared in 1999 while flying a small plane. Neither he nor the plane were ever found. The shop is now maintained by Tom Hessian, who began blowing glass for Finkenbeiner at age 15, and his wife.
Diane Hessian estimates that there are “a few hundred” functioning armonicas in the world. Most of them are in Europe and Australia. Several of the armonicas in the U.S. are owned by musicians with eclectic tastes and diverse collections. Neil Young has one. So does Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and Jonathan Davis of Korn.
The instrument’s colorful history and unique tones make it a curiosity for those who appreciate music history.
“We got a call a while back from someone who wanted to buy the one that we had in stock, right then and there,” Diane Hessian says. “I thought it was a prank call, because he sounded very strange. Then I got a call the next day from Delaware from a woman who told me, ‘That was the Sultan of Oman who called you, but I’m taking over the order now, and he wants the one you have.’ It was crazy. It turned out to be a wedding gift, going into a big collection of musical instruments. It would probably never get touched.”
She said they always figure one of these days the instrument will have a true revival in the U.S. Some music and theater types in California will take a liking to it, or it will be featured in a prime-time TV show. But for now, it remains more of a cherished oddity.
“This year, I think we sold two of them,” she says, estimating that it takes four months for the small shop to complete an armonica. “Some years, we might sell four to six at the most.”
The Oxford Companion to Music describes it as “an obsolete musical instrument,” and notes that it is sometimes called the hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica, using the Greek words for water, fingers and soul.
Shostak, 53, remains one of the most prominent players in the country. He loves the exposure that Colonial Williamsburg affords, not only for his playing but for the instrument itself. He has learned to be as much a storyteller as a musician, as part of CW’s educational mission.
“If you’re going to interpret at Colonial Williamsburg,” he says, “it’s not just an instrument. You’ve got to present the bigger picture and put it in historical context.”
He has added glass bells and a glass violin to the collection of instruments he can play at any given performance.
This time of year, he plays a lot of Christmas carols. His repertoire includes a lot of classical pieces. Owing to his adolescent training on the piano, he can improvise on the armonica. (The clear glass represents the white keys, and the gold rims the black keys.) On a whim, he wets his fingertips and spins out a verse of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World.”
But he prefers to stick to what he considers to be appropriate and accurate material.
“It’s nice to hear something you know on this, but I’m careful what I play,” he says. “I might show off for my friends, play a little ‘Greensleeves,’ or for kids, play something from the ‘Harry Potter’ movies. But not for an actual audience.
“I want people to like the armonica. I want them to hear it how it was meant to be played, and I want them to like it. I know how important it was to Ben Franklin, and how hard he worked on it. I always want to reflect that.”
Want to see him?
Dean Shostak will play concerts on his glass armonica at 1 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday at the Williamsburg Regional Library, 515 Scotland St. Admission is $12 online (crystalconcert.com) or $12 at the door. In 2018, he will be playing around Williamsburg at the library, and at the Hennage Auditorium in Colonial Williamsburg.
Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479 or on Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.
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