Bells and whistles... and clocks: unusual instruments onstage

In this article, originally published in LSO Friends Insight, Jari Kallio talks about not-so-conventional instruments which have graced the Barbican stage... 

Tippett’s The Rose Lake asks a group of percussionists to perform on a collection of 39 individual rototoms, which are small drums each tuned to a certain pitch of the chromatic scale.

These drums occupy a large portion of the stage, their mysterious sound evoking the ever-changing colours of Lake Retba in Senegal (Tippett’s inspiration). 

You can see them in this video here – and the relief of the fantastic percussion section at the end of a performance of this challenging piece:


Over the years, LSO concerts have featured all kinds of unusual instruments, lending a unique element to performances. Ligeti’s operatic pandemonium Le grand macabre, performed by the LSO under Sir Simon Rattle in 2017, opens with a prelude written for twelve car horns.

Played by three percussionists, the car horns tackle a sort of toccata, a riveting mix of eloquent counterpoint and honky-tonk sound, to dazzling effect. Other notable instruments in the score include wind machine, cuckoo whistle, a siren, an alarm clock and a large wooden hammer.

Conn Sarrusophone c1850 credit Museum of Making MusicThat same hammer also makes an appearance in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. In the Finale, two massive hammer blows blast through the orchestral texture, sending shock waves to shake each and every listener. The sheer visual effect of LSO Principal Percussion Neil Percy flinging a huge hammer on-stage is quite impressive! Performed at the LSO season opening in 2016, Thomas Adès’ brilliant Asyla calls for a large orchestra featuring a bass oboe, a piccolo trumpet, a bag of metal knives and forks, a washboard, and water gongs. When played, water gongs are submerged into a bucket of water in order to achieve a glissando. The bass oboe is a rarely heard member of the oboe family with a most enchanting tone, and the piccolo trumpet (probably best known from Penny Lane by The Beatles) is pitched an octave higher than a standard trumpet, resulting in a very distinctive sound.

Another rare wind instrument is the sarrusophone (pictured). Originally developed for outdoor bands, it is used in Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole and the opera L’heure espagnole. In his other opera, L’enfant et les sotilèges, Ravel calls for the luthéal – a prepared piano with its timbre transformed into a cimbalom-like universe. All these rare instruments lend their sonorities to the marvellously rich sound palette of the LSO, adding yet another layer to the ravishing world of live concert experience.

Thank you to Jari Kallio who wrote this article for the LSO Friends Insight. 
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While we are unable to perform at the Barbican Centre and our other favourite venues around the world, we are determined to keep playing. 

Watch Tippett's The Rose Lake as part of our full-length concert, broadcast on Thursday 23 April, 7.30pm (BST). 
Find out more and watch the concert

Related reading and videos: 
Explore our schedule of past and future broadcasts
> Watch an extract from Ligeti Mysteries of the Macabre with Barbara Hannigan and Sir Simon Rattle 
> … and watch the complete Mysteries of the Macabre as part of our full-length concert, broadcast on Sunday 26 April, 7pm (BST)