Bottles, knitting needles and tin foil – the unexpected instruments of Hamlet

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Brett Dean’s score for new opera Hamlet (currently on Tour around the country) is strikingly rich and multi-layered. The evocative sound world is created through some unusual instrumentation, particularly in the percussion section.

Here, Principal Percussionist Cameron Sinclair tells us more about how some of the opera’s distinctive sounds were created.

Principal Percussionist Cameron Sinclair playing the Marimba. The Marimba originated in Guatemala and is used widely in contemporary scores. Photo: Sam Stephenson.

A bespoke vibraphone

Photo: Cameron Sinclair

In the left of the picture above you can see the Vibraphone set up for Hamlet.

Brett Dean had the quarter-tone tubes just above the keyboard made specially in Berlin (we’re looking after them really carefully Brett, honest!). It’s quite a bizarre experience playing them because they fill in all the gaps we’re not usually used to hearing in between the fixed-pitch keyboard notes. They add a fascinating colour to the strings as they creep down in quarter tones too – a kind of ghostly, sickly, noise.

The picture is taken from behind the tam-tam (not to be confused with the tom-toms, just beyond). Most people would know it as a gong, but rather than a sort of majestic ‘dinner is served’ sort of noise, Brett gets us to drag a rubber ball across it, which creates a kind of other-worldly screeching noise. He does this with the bass drum too, which gives off very weird harmonics and threatening groans.

Vintage knitting needles

Photo: Cameron Sinclair

Under the cymbals you can also see my vintage knitting needles that I sourced from a second-hand shop in Lewes on the morning of the first rehearsal. Brett has us playing cymbals with them, including the lowest cymbal which is called a sizzle, as it has rivets in it that rattle for a while after it’s been struck.

Fluttering foil

Photo: Cameron Sinclair

Above you can see the all-important tin-foil, waved with precision and musicality (!) to produce a gentle fluttering sound – appearing in the orchestra pit and high above the auditorium in the satellite groups of musicians.

Here too (tricky to see against the black of the piano) is the spring coil, which is exactly what it says – a car spare-part. I can’t vouch for which make of car it came from, but it produces a surprisingly tuneful noise when struck with a metal stick and goes brilliantly with the clangourous pedal noises our harpist is asked to make. Also a tubular bell, triangles and, above the spring-coil, a mark-tree – suspended metal rods of different sizes that make a shimmering sound.

Church bells, bottles and rattling teeth

Photo: Cameron Sinclair

Above you can see one of our bell plates (a large piece of tuned steel that sounds much more like a huge church bell than conventional tubular bells), a bottle (Brett asks for them to be struck with sticks – we haven’t shattered any so far…) and various other things including a vibraslap (furthest left on the tray). In the bad old days, this instrument was made from an asses jawbone (yes, really), with loose teeth that rattled when the instrument was struck. We have a much more humane (and less breakable) solution, with a wooden chamber filled with metal teeth that rattle when the wooden ball is struck with your hand.

You can see Hamlet this autumn as part of Glyndebourne Tour, with performances in Norwich, Milton Keynes and Plymouth. Find out more.

You can also watch the Festival 2017 production of Hamlet on BBC iPlayer until 21 November.