Making Music, and History, With Glass

Handel's ``Water Music'' drifted through the halls of the National Geographic Society in a concert that would bring a smile to anyone who's ever made a glass hum by rubbing a finger around the rim.

Visitors to a recent preview of the new exhibit, ``A Touch of Glass,'' were greeted by musician Jamey Turner playing Bach, Beethoven, and other classics on an array of 60 brandy snifters.

Glass playing was once widely popular. Composers wrote music just for such instruments, Mr. Turner explained as he launched into a Mozart adagio for unaccompanied glass. But the exhibit, on display through Sept. 4 at the society's headquarters here, isn't limited to music. It touches on points throughout the 5,000-year history of glass.

``Glass is a supercooled liquid; it's not a solid,'' explains Gay Taylor, curator at the Museum of American Glass in Millville, N.J. ``Glass can be extremely strong and also very fragile. It can be as beautiful as a Tiffany vase and as functional as a Mason jar.''

Glass is the ``footprint of commerce,'' said society President Gilbert Grosvenor in opening the exhibition. Glass found in shipwrecks can be traced to its origin, allowing historians to learn patterns of ancient trade. Those who appreciate art can enjoy hundreds of brightly colored and delicately shaped items on loan from museums across the United States.

And the historically inclined can view a glass harmonica created by early American inventor-diplomat Benjamin Franklin, learn about development of eyeglasses beginning with the Romans' use of glass bowls to help magnify manuscripts, and follow other uses of glass from heavy walking sticks to fragile optical fibers.

Turner's concert was in a series of demonstrations planned during the exhibition. The glasses are partly filled with water and tuned with additions or deletions using a basting implement. He recalls a concert when someone sneaked up and dropped a goldfish into middle C. ``It became a B natural immediately,'' he says. ``I don't know how to tune a fish.... It has a different scale.''

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