By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
MIAMI, Okla. —
Dennis James' obsession started when he was 6 years old. During a visit to the Franklin Museum in 1956, he spotted a glass armonica and was transfixed.
"My parents joke with me that I must have stood in front of that thing for half an hour and stared at that thing," James said. "Something captivated me."
He didn't encounter the instrument again until college, when the mystery deepened. When preparing for a test to enter graduate studies at college, he was told that as long as he was a good player, he shouldn't worry about a written test.
"One of the guys even gave us the answer to one of the questions," James said. "He said that when they ask what the first American musical instrument is, it's the glass armonica. I asked what it sounded like, and no one knew."
Now James wants everyone to know. The featured player of the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Coleman Theatre will play his own glass armonica and other glass instruments during "Musica Curiosa" on Saturday and Sunday.
The program will feature several of James' glass instruments, including the armonica, a glass-cord and others. In one part, 35 volunteers will be assembled to make a glass instrument choir. A scene from a Beethoven theater piece will be featured, and James will talk about the history of the unique instruments.
Additionally, the silent movie "Long Pants" will be shown, featuring James on the theater's Mighty Wurlitzer organ.
Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, the armonica is based on the sound made when a moistened finger is rubbed across the rim of a wine glass. Franklin's instrument arranged a series of glass bowls stacked sideways, concentrically, on a spindle that is rotated by a pedal.
The arrangement allows a player to play 10 notes at a time -- a feat impossible with other arrangements.
The instrument has almost nothing in common with today's harmonica. James said the instrument was named by Franklin in honor of the Italian language -- "armonia" is Italian for "harmony."
"The Germans added the letter 'H,' and then somehow the word got transferred to the mouth organ," James said. "One of those strange little history things."
Glass instruments have become a part of James' musical life, he said. His collection is extensive and includes two armonicas, three grand harmonicons, two seraphims, an Irish glass harp, two zellophones and several glass flutes.
The instrument that James saw in the Franklin Museum in '56 was broken, he said.
"It had been in the family until 1956 and was with a woman in the fourth generation from Franklin," James said. "They had to get it out of the house, because children were taking spoons and breaking the bowls. There were only eight left."
Since that test, where no one knew what an armonica sounded like, James has become part of the instrument's revival and knows exactly what it sounds like. He plays an instrument that features the best re-creation of Franklin's specifications.
The armonica has an interesting history. The ethereal, ringing sound of the instrument became popular quickly and caught on across Europe. But into the 18th century, the instrument's sound was rumored to cause madness in players.
The instrument's amplification was also a challenge -- the instrument's sound could not fill large concert halls.
Thanks to modern amplification techniques and slight redesigns of the instrument, it can now be clearly heard. And James is considered one of the country's noted armonica players. He has been featured playing it and other glass instruments on albums co-produced by Linda Ronstadt and John Boylan. He has also been featured on film soundtracks and is scheduled to play for the U.S. premiere of "Written on Skin," a George Benjamin opera.
Want to go?
"Musica Curiosa" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Coleman Theatre in Miami. Tickets: $19, $16 for seniors, $13 for students and $9 for kids. Details: 918-540-2425.