© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Tiny Desk Guide To Rare And Amazing Instruments

Have you ever strummed a cactus? What about plucking the Vietnamese đàn bâu or waving your arms to get music from a theremin? Over the years, the Tiny Desk has hosted more than a few distinctive instruments and their virtuosic performers. These fascinating performances underscore the idea that humankind cannot live by guitars, drums and bass alone!

Sō Percussion

Members of the Brooklyn-based quartet Sō Percussion prove you can make music on just about anything, such as the Dutch peppermint tin they borrowed from my desk or the barrel cactus they brought along with them. They also commandeered a stapler, a waste basket and our cherished NPR Music Emmy Award for music inspired by John Cage.

Vân-Ánh Võ

When Vietnamese musician and composer Vân-Ánh Võ visited the Tiny Desk, she insisted on playing a beloved piece of French piano music. But instead of a keyboard, she performed Erik Satie's Gnossienne No. 3 on the đàn bâu, Vietnam's traditional, single-stringed instrument. It features a kind of pitch-bending whammy bar — made from water buffalo horn — that gives the music a tripped-out feel.

Carolina Eyck

The slithery-sounding theremin is perhaps the only instrument you play by not touching it at all. It was featured in the film scores to Spellbound, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Ed Wood. Carolina Eyck, a reigning virtuoso, offered a quickie lesson in how to wave your hands and make the instrument sing.

Wu Man

Wu Man is the Jimi Hendrix of the pipa, the ancient Chinese lute-like instrument. Through blistering runs of plucking and strumming, she brings action-packed scenes of war and tranquil moonlit nights to life with a cinematic array of color and mood.

Mellotron Variations

The mellotron is a ramshackle 1960s-era contraption that is part keyboard, part tape machine. Ever since the Beatles featured it on "Strawberry Fields Forever," I've always loved its woozy sound – derived from actual loops of prerecorded tape spinning over play heads to "sample" flutes, reeds and strings. The group Mellotron Variations carted an original specimen up to the desk, along with a few new-fangled high-tech versions you can buy today.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.