Opera Philadelphia

Renew your Academy Series package for the 2024-2025 Season Current subscribers, click "more" to renew your Academy Series Package.

Typewriters, the armonica, and pebbles: The unique instruments of Written on Skin

By Opera Philadelphia

There are some unusual additions to the orchestra in Opera Philadelphia’s production of Written on Skin. Composer George Benjamin uses an array of unique instruments to channel the past, suggest a supernatural presence, and enhance the musical storytelling. 

This is a technique many opera composers employ, writes Maria Ryan, a musicology doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvaniaas it allows them to create specific dramatic effects through music. Ryan describes these sometimes rare or historical instruments and how they factor into the score in a program note for Written on Skin 

The glass harmonica played by Friedrich Kern in the opera. Credit: Opera Philadelphia

One instrument will be right at home – the glass harmonica, also known as the armonica, invented by Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin. The rotating glass bowls create an “otherworldly, piercing sound,” Ryan writes. “The instrument has long been associated with madness.” 

Also in the Written on Skin orchestra are a mandolin, more common to folk bands, and a bass viol, which looks like a cello but has strings made of animal gut that Ryan says result in a softer, earthier sound. 

There are also some unconventional percussive instruments, including a typewriter, pebbles, and tabla, a pair of South Asian hand drums. 

Read more about these instruments and the music of Written on Skin here.

Leave your comment below.

Chat with Guest Services