Bell Labs: In praise of a one trick pony: the music box

July 2013

A music box has arrived from Poland. A turquoise and red metal cylinder with a winding handle on top. It plays a plonking loop of just three notes – but that’s plenty. I’m increasingly drawn to machines that just do one thing well, like the original Kindle eBook, or my can opener. This little musical can is called Katarynka, a Polish word approximating to barrel organ, and it’s the latest from Pawel Romanczuk’s group Male Instrumenty (‘small instruments’). Since forming seven years ago, inspired by the soundtracks to old Polish animated films, Male Instrumenty have been performing their own music on a host of toy pianos, Swanee whistles and Fisher Price synths, in the spirit of Pascal Comelade, Pierre Bastien and Jacques Tati. The music box has always been central to their instrumentation, so now Katarynka sits alongside the last music box I bought, from Muji: a wooden tribute to London town, where a tiny tube train circles Big Ben until the sentimental tune runs out of pluck.

Whether you turn a handle, wind up the clockwork, or simply ease open your jewellery box, the music box is the great equaliser – everyone can play it. A few years ago I enjoyed watching some of the UK’s most highly trained contemporary musicians gently shifting music boxes around the floor of Tate Modern for Chroma, a piece by composer Rebecca Saunders.

Stockhausen’s most popular piece is Tierkreis, twelve twinkling music box melodies written for the signs of the Zodiac. Every day at noon one of those tunes rings out from the 48-bell carillon above Cologne Town Hall. And for 310 euros you can still buy one of the original, Swiss-crafted Tierkreis music boxes. The sales pitch on the Stockhausen website is bewitching: “It is significant that even the pioneer of electronic music let himself be enchanted by the poetry and magic of these little boxes which, the moment they begin to sound, transform the world into a timeless fairy tale, and transform us into timeless children.”

There’s still a place for a box that does less, that simply plays a loop. Enter the Buddha Machine, the invention of the FM3 group in China: an adaptation of a looping box already used by Chinese taxi drivers and newspaper vendors, it plays half a dozen pre-recorded loops, offering control over pitch, volume and nothing else. My favourite is the one with recordings of Wu Na’s autumnal qin zither.

Before gramophones conquered the world, large, adult music boxes like the German Polyphon were popular: they held enormous, rotating discs, and are still available as antiques on eBay.

In 1908 Vienna a puppeteer called Richard Teschner, an associate of the painter Gustav Klimt, took some metal discs of brass band music and attacked them with an angle grinder, shearing off all the high notes. Teschner effectively remixed his Polyphon discs to leave only the low frequencies, sounding like a bass gamelan. Which was his exact intention, because Teschner’s exquisite Jugendstil shadow puppet theatre was directly inspired by Javanese wayang kulit puppets.

It takes me several days to realise that my Katarynka music box holds a three inch CD in its base. So the box is a form of packaging for Male Instrumenty’s new release, a 20 minute sequence of Penguin Café-esque pieces, all based around the little melodic loops within the music boxes themselves.

“The idea appeared due to the size of the metal can of the music box,” explains Romanczuk. “It’s almost the same size as a three inch CD. Because I'm looking for new ideas for publishing audio CDs, this was very interesting.” Not only did I miss the CD, but I had to have explained to me the joke in the group’s film, where the disc-tray pushes aside an apple. This is because Apple computers won’t play three inch albums. There’s always more going on than you think with a music box.