Contra Affairs – The Cult of Out-Sized Musical Instruments

When choosing a musical instrument to learn to play when the opportunity comes around at school, there are several factors which may influence a child. Primarily, this will be, “what are my mates choosing?” – leading to gaggles of violinists (is that the correct collective noun?). Others may be swayed by the flashy gleam of the brass section, others by the strange exoticism of the clarinet. However, there will always be those who are bewitched by the sheer size and heft of the cello, trombone and tuba, instruments which in most cases will tower above the prospective player but will offer the child the chance to swagger into the orchestra like a bazooka-wielding hero.

This child-like awe and wonder which the largest instruments of the orchestra inspire appears not to evaporate over time for some. Though somewhat limited in their every-day usage, the market for extraordinarily huge musical instruments is, seemingly, booming. Here are some to consider:

Subcontrabass Saxophone

Two octaves below a tenor saxophone and the daddy of the sax family, it wasn’t until 1999 that a working subcontrabass saxophone was constructed which was capable of anything but a lung-shaking rumble. Reaching as high as 9 feet 2 inches, a (sort-of) working model is akin to a Sarrusophone, though is used even less frequently.

Hyperbass Flute

Subcontrabass may crop up quite often in this article but here’s one stage further. Here, a flute measuring around the 49 feet mark, is surprisingly practical, with a dark, mellow sound and more easily transported, given the PVC possibilities. Commercial recordings of solo performances on the instrument are available, despite the lowest tone, at 16hz, being below that of ‘normal’ human hearing (around 20hz).

Contrabass Trumpet

Ok, so you get the gist – there’s a sub/contra version of a good many of your standard instrument. Here’s a last example, a contrabass trumpet, measuring around six and a half feet, it’s one of the more practical (to play) examples, though rarely employed in anything other than a rather novelty sense. Shame.

Pipe Organ

Built over a three period and completed in 1932, the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is the largest pipe organ ever built, containing seven manuals, 449 ranks, 337 registers, and 33,114 pipes. It weighs approximately 150 tons. Drawback – it hasn’t worked since 1944. The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Virginia, USA, eclipses even this, though uses natural cave formations to allow the rubber-hammered sound to resonate. The stalactites used cover three and a half acres.

The Earth Harp

The world’s largest string instrument, the Earth Harp has strings over a thousand feet long and essentially require the audience to be “inside” the instrument. Towering over the audience like cables on a suspension bridge, the manipulated strings emit a cello-like tone.

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