By Megan Westberg | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
The first thing you have to understand about the bowed psaltery is that it takes the shape of a triangle. A rather acute isosceles triangle, in fact, strung elegantly with a minimum of 32 strings that sing with bright silvery voices. This instrument therefore demonstrates a decided scarcity of the grandiose curves and baroque flamboyance of the violin family of instruments, but that’s not to say it isn’t visually stunning in its own way. Beneficiaries of exotic, luxuriant tonewoods, exquisite inlay, and soundholes more intricately carved than a Goffriller rosette, these instruments can pack quite the visual punch. They’re also easy to play, affordable, and require the use of a bow. Also, as revealed by an innovative new project, somewhat astonishingly versatile.
It is considered a traditional instrument, and anyone within earshot can instantly hear why. Ask it to speak, and you could find yourself enchanted by its glimmering tone. Its immediate essence is sweet and lively, delicate and dancing and pure. But, as it turns out, scampering through ancient melodies for the recorder is far from all that can be done with this three-sided wonder. Take, for example, Nathan Davis’ recent recording Neutral Buoyant. It is beautiful, haunting, immersive. A meditative sound world to live in for a time and think about once you’ve left. It is also just about as far from the antediluvian music you might expect to hear from a bowed psaltery as you can imagine.
In Davis’ hands, the psaltery soars and twangs, pings and croons. Gentle and meditative at one moment, sharp and melancholy the next, the music on Neutral Buoyant reveals the bowed psaltery as an instrument capable of producing tones in surprisingly varied spectrums of texture and color, evoking fluid shapes and celestial voices moving together through a complex, slowly shifting soundscape. It is both of this world and somehow beyond it.
And yet Davis—a composer, percussionist, and trained violinist—was introduced to the bowed psaltery in its more “traditional” capacity on a boyhood trip to Mountain Home, Arkansas, where he discovered both the hammered dulcimer and the bowed psaltery. “I fell in love with the sounds of both at that point,” he says,” even though it took me decades to circle back and actually learn to play them and spend time with them.” The psaltery made quite an impression on the young Davis, who was struck with “the purity of the tone, and the ability to have multiple open strings ringing at once.”
“Of course,” he adds, “it has a medieval quality to it as well. And that’s very striking, along with the appearance of it. It has this kind of gothic shape.”
Davis reconnected with the bowed psaltery and made the initial recordings that would become Neutral Buoyant during the pandemic, when lockdown had rendered his Manhattan neighborhood awfully quiet. The psaltery is a quiet instrument, and its temperate presence was appealing. And so Davis began experimenting. Given his violin-playing background, the psaltery represented something familiar. “I delight in finding sounds in them,” he says. “I really have an affinity for that approach, the bow on a string.”
Davis applied a quarter-size violin bow and a variety of electromagnetic bows (e-bows, which activate the strings magnetically) and guitar slides to the psaltery as he explored its potential, using his curiosity as his guide. “There was a lot of experimentation. That’s a big part of my process, no matter what instrument I’m working with,” he says. His instincts and interests as a composer led him toward “this kind of focus on overtones and the gradual bloom of a note, a really central interesting factor, but this time the instrument itself guided me to very new territory. There was an unpredictability, especially about the e-bows, how a note was going to speak, how quickly, which overtones I was going to get. There’s a really delightful fragility to the sound that I just had to follow.”
Some of the tracks on Neutral Buoyant are acoustic, and on others, Davis used electronics, but, as he says, “There’s nothing synthesized; there’s nothing added.” So there is “some fragmenting, some repetition, some filtering” that Davis introduced after the fact, but all of the remarkable sounds on the album were born of the psaltery itself. “Certainly, I used tremolo,” says Davis, who adds, “The strings are so light that they respond very interestingly to pressure. I could play them with just the tiniest bit of pressure and speed and still get some sound, but also could get interesting results from overpressure.” Some of the buzzier effects were made acoustically by leaving objects on the instrument’s strings while he played, a knitting needle providing a kind of distortion of the instrument’s natural voice.
“The pins, which are the point at which you bow, don’t allow for too much range of access to the string,” says Davis of the instrument’s unique mode of sound production. “There’s about an inch at most, maybe 7/8 of an inch, so you’ve got kind of sul ponticello and then you get into the core of the sound. But there’s no way to produce a sul tasto kind of sound. So, finding that sweet spot and getting more colors without changing the placement of the bow very far on the string is a big challenge.”
The bowed psaltery is typically a one-string-at-a-time kind of endeavor, single gossamer tones strung amiably together. But by employing more than one bow at a time, a player can weave a more sonically rich tapestry. Though this may require a creative approach. Davis uses a bow in both hands—sometimes two bows in one hand when playing a dyad on the same side of the bridge. “Because of the placement of the bridges, when I’m trying to connect notes together, there’s a bit of choreography that has to go into maneuvering my arms and my bow,” he says. So what does he do? He often plays it flat and moves his body, arms, and bows around the instrument to “connect those notes really seamlessly. Because I can, in a way that’s not possible on a violin, and that’s a thing that’s really exciting about it.”
So the bowed psaltery is an instrument that responds well to adventurous impulses, whether your interests stride boldly down new musical corniches like Davis’ or gently meander into a local maker’s shop in search of an unusual instrument to add to a collection. Instrument maker James Jones, a violinist himself who made Davis a custom “cello” psaltery that’s four feet long, says in terms of the basics, “It is extremely easy to play. The only thing you have to do is develop a little bow technique, because the instrument is fixed-tuned, and you don’t have to worry about putting your fingers in the proper position to get the correct pitch.” Thus one’s technical barriers, as a string player, for entry to the sound world of the psaltery are particularly low.
Oddly enough, the instrument, as it’s arranged, is most akin to a piano: consider the strings on the right side of the psaltery (as you’re facing it) as the white keys, the strings on the left, the black. It is, therefore, easiest to play in C. Changing notes requires moving the bow from one string to another. Jones marvels at players who manage, in one down bow, to hit two or three notes. “The bow literally floats across the pins,” he says. But usually, bowing technique is pretty routine for a trained string player. “Fundamentally, you have a down bow and an up bow, a long stroke and short stroke. But I also use a bouncy stroke,” he says. “In other words, you’re hitting the string and you’re not continuing the draw, and that enables you to play faster passages.”
Though, like Davis, there are players who make use of more than one bow at a time, it’s still fairly unusual, according to Jones. The bowed psaltery is primarily a melody instrument, suited to solo musical escapades or small ensemble work with guitars and other bowed psalteries, generally speaking, playing folk songs “with relatively simple melodies.” A string player with really any experience at all is going to sound good right away, especially in a traditional setting.
Speaking of that: don’t be fooled by its persistent label. Though it may look it, the bowed psaltery is not actually ancient. In its current form, that is. Its modern incarnation is resolutely of the 20th century. Its antecedents were ancient, of various shapes, and generally disposed toward the role of a plucked instrument. And they went on that way, slowly ambling throughout world, for many, many centuries. Right up until the early part of the last one, when this melodious triangle was developed over the course of several decades primarily in Germany. According to a rather extensive account of the instrument’s history by Appalachian Strings, German violin maker George Kelischek, working in Georgia in 1959, is credited with finally introducing the shape that the bowed psaltery takes today.
And that shape, as you now well know, is triangular—with a variety of sizes and numbers of strings—and ornamented, at times, extravagantly with inlay. Jones’ most popular model is chromatic and two and a half octaves, though he does make them in larger sizes. “As people embraced the instrument,” he says, “they demanded more notes. And deeper notes. It’s an instrument that’s high pitched. You can make instruments that are larger and have more range . . . but what you’ve got is a bowed psaltery that’s not as easy to play.”
“The limiting factor,” he says, “is the length of your arm.” He uses only solid wood, and for the soundboard chooses tonewoods that affect each instrument’s voice. “Cedar tends to be a little darker, a little softer. The redwood is midway. Spruce tends to be a little brighter. But they’re all quite resonant.” The sides and back, which run thick, can be made of all sorts of decorative wood, from lacewood to curly and birdseye maple. Though some makers use plain steel strings, Jones has moved to wound–electric guitar strings for a fuller tone.
Which leads him to the subject that most applies to the string player: the bow. “A violin bow is just too big,” says Jones, who offers horsehair-strung psaltery bows 15 inches long, curved in a pronounced Baroque fashion, and considerably lighter than a violin bow. This is thus not an instrument that will easily accommodate the playing tool you already have, unless, like Davis, you have a fractional size available. But if your collection is already expanding to include a bowed psaltery, destined to spend its life as the gently geometric companion to your violin, viola, cello, or bass, why not also welcome its own tonal colleague? Given the instrument’s ready attitude toward experimentation, there’s no telling what you might discover together.