Gayle Young’s Amaranth

Young01700Gayle Young (left) playing the Amaranth for Yoko Ono's Secret Piece in Judson Church, October 8, 2009, with Esther Lamneck (clarinet) and Madeleine Shapiro (cello).


Gayle Young demonstrates the wide range of sound that the Amaranth can produce ...



She tells her story:

The Amaranth is a 24-stringed instrument tuned with moveable bridges instead of frets. It’s my second instrument; the first one is a large microtonal percussion instrument (named Columbine after the wildflower; amaranth is also a wildflower).

The main influence on the design was my experience with instruments designed and built by Bill Colvig and Lou Harrison. James Tenney had earlier loaned me a Colvig/Harrison monochord that I used to tune the first version of my percussion instrument by ear. When I checked the tuning with a frequency counter while re-building and expanding the Columbine, I saw that most of the pitches were in tune, so I knew that the ancient method of tuning by dividing string lengths provides accurate results.

After I began playing concerts with the Columbine, Larry Polansky (who played psaltery in the premier concert) loaned me a Colvig/Harrison Transfer Harp with about 17 tunable strings that could produce almost any combination of pitches. I paired it with the Columbine for a few concerts, and soon decided to build my own stringed instrument to provide options beyond the pre-set Columbine tuning.

In preparation for the design I read about many types of stringed instrument, choosing aspects that I wanted to work with. In the end I designed the Amaranth as a fretless zither. Any instrument where the strings do not extend beyond the resonator is a zither, including the autoharp, dulcimer, Korean gayaguem, Norwegian langeleik, Sundanese kacapi, Japanese koto, and Chinese zheng. Like the Colvig/Harrison monochord, each Amaranth string is exactly 1000 millimeters long, so it is easy to calculate the string length needed to produce any pitch defined by a frequency ratio.

I designed a frame with a curved top so that I could bow individual strings, and I used guitar tuning pegs for quick, accurate and stable tuning. I made triangular bridges for the metal strings, and used a violin bridge for the bass strings. I built it with the help of my friends Peter Lenardon and Reinhard Reitzenstein in their wood-working shops where we figured out how to resolve many small details, such as how to make the curved wood-and-steel bridges that cover the width of the sound board.

With 24 strings, three of them double-bass strings, there are many options for tuning and for extended string playing. For Yoko Ono’s Secret Piece all the strings were tuned to F in one octave or another, and I played them with bows and percussion mallets, often bringing out natural overtones and noise components.

Gayle Young, July 10, 2014

Go here for the CD.

Go here for Nekabong.