An ancestor to our modern piano, the hammered dulcimer is classified as a “chordophone” – an instrument in which sound is produced by the vibration of strings stretched across a soundboard. Hammered dulcimers are played by striking the strings with wooden mallets or hammers to create a percussive ringing sound with plenty of sustain. The instrument originated in the Middle East around 900 AD and migrated in many shapes, sizes and tunings outwards to Asia and Europe. Today it is found all over the world.
My hammered dulcimer, made by Nick Blanton, has a trapezoidal shape with 74 strings stretched across 3 bridges. Among its unique features are pedal dampers -- two metal bars covered with felt and operated by a foot pedal to create short muted tones.
As I’ve grown musically, I’ve sought to explore the expressive possibilities that I hear in the hammered dulcimer. Producer Bobby Read and I set out to expand the instrument’s musical palette by using pedal dampers, different kinds of hammers and striking surfaces, and techniques like bending and plucking strings with picks and fingers and layering multiple parts. In pursuit of its identity as a melodic percussion instrument, we blended it with other members of its mallet family such as the xylophone and marimba to create ostinato patterns (repeated phrases that set up interesting layers underneath the melody) in many of the pieces.
I was born and raised in Miami, Florida. My father, a first-generation Italian, was my first and most important musical influence. He was a professional cartoonist who played jazz piano. At age eight I would join him for improvised duets before bedtime - with feet dangling I’d play the left-hand boogie part and listen to his wonderful improvisations. At age 14 I fell in love with early music when my mom took me to hear the New York Pro Musica. During high school, I played bassoon in the school orchestra and folk music on my own -- fingerpicking styles on the guitar and bluegrass on the banjo. When Celtic music hit America, I was at the jam sessions with guitar and mandolin in hand. I saw my first hammered dulcimer on the streets of Key West in 1980. I was completely captivated and quickly made it my principal instrument.
I listen to early music, Celtic music and the piano music of Chopin, Satie, Ravel and Bartok. I love world music, especially that of ancient Persia, India and the spiritual music of Gurdjieff/DeHartmann and the Sufis. I am studying with Shahriar Saleh, a master of the santur, the Persian equivalent to the hammered dulcimer. I also play recorder, Scottish and Northumbrian smallpipes, piano and hand drums. All of these sounds play a part in my musical journey.
1. Humours Of Rockstown / Paddy Lynn’s Delight / Ríl Roscomaín
A set of Irish reels. The first can be found in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection of 1050 Reels & Jigs, ed. by Patrick Sky. The second tune I adapted from the playing of accordionist Karen Tweed. I learned the last tune from uilleann piper Paul Levin. Hammered dulcimer, acoustic guitar, fiddle (Sara), Irish flute & bodhran.
2. Samhain Set: All Hallows Eve / The Seeker © Maggie Sansone
I began composing this on October 31, the day before Samhain (“sow-win” in Irish Gaelic), the Celtic New Year which marks the beginning of winter and the season of darkness. At Samhain, barriers between the spirit and concrete worlds dissolve and otherworldly spirits walk the earth. In “All Hallows Eve,” I play the E-bow, a hand-held electronic device that produces an ethereal bowed-string effect. “The Seeker” follows -- a ghostly march scored for chamber quintet to carry us to the end of a dark season and into the light. Hammered dulcimer, E-bow, flute, alto flute, bamboo flute, clarinet, bass clarinet & Celtic harp.
3. Bear Dance (Björndansen)
The Swedish “bear dance” is an athletic dance traditionally performed by a pair of men who act out the power and grace of the bear. I learned these tunes from Swedish fiddler Andrea Hoag who traces these two variants to Dalarna, Sweden's "folklore province.” In the deep woods of Dalarna, the bear is called “Twelve Men in the Woods.” Hammered dulcimer, acoustic guitar, fiddle (Andrea), clarinet, accordion, electric bass and percussion.
4. Go to Berwick, Johnny
A popular Northumbrian pipe tune I first heard played by pipers Jerry O’Sullivan and Chris Orstead. In setting it on the hammered dulcimer with its unique organization of strings, I found that many new variations suggested themselves, aided by the use of various hammers and the muted sound of pedal dampers. Hammered dulcimer.
5. Farewell To Nigg © Duncan Johnstone
A four-part march written by Scottish composer and piper Duncan Johnstone. I first heard the tune played by pipers Sandy and Laurie Ross at the Hamish Moore School of Cauld Wind Pipes in Richmond, Vermont. Hammered dulcimer, acoustic guitar, fiddle (Bonnie), soprano saxophone & organ.
6. The Seas are Deep / Dervish © Maggie Sansone
These tunes both spring from the same musical scale. The first is a short but evocative melody attributed to the great Irish harper, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). I hear it as a cry from the soul. It blends four dulcimer parts: the melody, two tremolos, and a single bending string. For the next piece I improvised with the images of mesmerizing Sufi dancers, the Whirling Dervishes, in my mind. Thus seemingly distant cultures are linked by a musical scale and the pathos of the human heart! The shimmering tremolo throughout comes from my santur studies. Hammered dulcimer, xaphoon (one-octave bamboo saxophone), tabla & percussion.
7. The Flower Among Us All/Johnny Armstrong
Two tunes from Northumberland in the northwest of England. The first is a composite of several tunes --The Flower Among Us All, Sir John Fenwick’s Flower Among Us All, and Mary Scott -- melded over the years into one and followed by the beautiful air, Johnny Armstrong. It’s all performed in a chamber ensemble style with the rich harmonies of woodwinds and a lilting ostinato part on the kalimba (African thumb piano). Hammered dulcimer, clarinet, flute, piano, kalimba, fiddle (Bonnie) & Celtic harp.
8. Helen O’Grady / Drops of Brandy
Two slip jigs popular in Scotland. I heard the second tune played with some variations by piper Chris Orstead at the Northumbrian Pipers Convention in North Hero, Vermont which inspired a few variations of my own. As the tune progresses, the mesmerizing 9/8 rhythm of the slip jigs takes on an Afro-Celtic spirit with two dulcimers playing an ostinato part against the percussion. Hammered dulcimer, guitar, organ, piano, bells, mandolin, cittern, melodica (a hand-held mouth- blown keyboard – a cousin to the concertina), soprano saxophone, slit drums, mondo drums ( kick drum and two toms played with the hands), marimba, bodhran & Ashiko drum.
9. The Banks of the Barrow
Another musical find from O’Neill’s Music Of Ireland. This beautiful Irish air has a medieval quality to it. Hammered dulcimer, acoustic guitar, fiddle & viola (Bonnie), clarinet & frame drum.
10. The Traveler’s Dream © Maggie Sansone
An original composition written in five parts (also titled Dream of the Magi). I imagined the three kings, travelers in the night, moving steadily across the windswept desert sands on a journey of discovery. Hammered dulcimer, clarinet, bass clarinet, fiddle (Bonnie), Celtic harp & viola da gamba.
11. Lughnasa Set: The Green Fields of Woodford / Summertime / A Morning in Summer
A perfect set of jigs to celebrate the ancient Celtic summer festival of Lughnasa (loo-nah-sa). The first jig is from East Galway in Ireland, learned from the playing of flute player Jack Coen. The second is from Northumberland. The third, from O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, joins the dulcimer and its family of mallet-struck instruments in a sunny rhythmic accompaniment. Hammered dulcimer, Celtic harp, Irish flute, piccolo, piano, kalimba, wooden xylophone & marimba.
12. Gaelic Reels
I learned this set -- a bit of South Uist mouth music, a Cape Breton wedding reel and another Gaelic reel -- from the playing of piper Christopher Layer while attending the Hamish Moore Cauld Wind School of Piping. All three tunes use the standard Highland bagpipe scale. Hammered dulcimer, acoustic guitar, fiddle (Bonnie), soprano saxophone, accordion, bamboo flute, clarinet, bass clarinet & percussion including medieval snare drum, bodhran, dombek & tabla.