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).

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

 

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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.

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