The Mysterious Voice of the One String Phonofiddle

The Mysterious Voice of the One String Phono Fiddle

The phonofiddle is not to be confused with the Stroh Violin. It is a relative in the same family, but has not got a violin fingerboard, rather a long flat fingerboard, and most notably, it only has one string.

At the beginning of the 20th Century these instruments were a bit of a fad. They were novelty instruments, they sounded strange and looked stranger. You would typically find them being played in the music halls of the day. The majority of them were produced by A.T. Howson in London at the end of the 19th Century. Few of them survive in a playable condition.

Initially the most striking thing is that they have no resonating body. How do they even project the sound? They use a sound producing diaphragm as found in an old phonograph. The sound is then projected through an attached metal horn, this gives it quite an evocative and interesting tone. Depending on the talent of the player it can sound like anything from a ‘thin’ violin, to an old 78 record, to a mosquito with a sore throat. The instrument can be played with any horse hair bow, a cello bow is possible, but a bit unwieldy for such a fragile instrument. A violin bow works fine. The fiddle sits between the knees and is played vertically, actually in a similar way to many bowed instruments from India, China and other parts of Asia.

You will not find many of these instruments left in the world. You may see old and damaged ones in museums around the globe, but it is a disappearing artifact. Since it was little more than a novelty instrument to begin with, there is also obviously no traditional repertoire for it. It is a tricky instrument to play, having only one string and a very small musical range of just over one octave. This severely limits the types of music it can produce.

‘The Mysterious Voice of the One String Phonofiddle’ is an album of music which aims to not only introduce the instrument to the curious quidnuncs of the public, but also to address some of the questions raised about musical styles and idioms. The album, by Makmed the Miller, contains fifteen tracks. Most of them are original pieces of work, some more or less improvisations, others ‘real’ tunes. The styles move between tunes of ‘the old world’ and the blips and bleeps of the post-situationist musical landscape in which we find ourselves today.

If you would like the opportunity to hear this album, you can purchase a CD from this blog. Please send an email to Makmed at

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The Shipping Forecast

The Shipping Forecast

Every night the entire nation of Britain fall into the envelope of sleep serenaded by the softly spoken cadences of The Shipping Forecast….a tiny transistor radio on their bedside table transmits the comforting voice of the BBC, telling them that worse things happen at sea, and otherwise everything is alright with the world.

This statement is somewhere between a truth and a lie.

It is true however that what is basically a weather forecast has become a cultural icon beloved of people all over the British Isles. In the midnight hour as the nation goes to bed it gently permeates the airwaves, warning the ships at sea, from ocean liners to tiny boats, just what the elements are going to throw at them during the night. But in a voice calm, steady and reassuring, regardless of the oncoming possibility of a storm. And the people of Britain, as they slip into a slumber, are reminded that they are an island nation, surrounded by the sea in all its capricious rage, beauty or even calm.

The different areas of the body of water which surrounds the island (indeed islands) of Britain have magical names, conjuring images of faraway places…Viking, Fair Isle, Biscay, Dogger, German Bight. One imagines a lonely yacht bobbing quietly on an empty horizon, with only seagulls for company, or a fishing boat struggling in the north sea against a squall, in torrential rain and wind.

The Shipping Forecast is always presented in a measured, formal and restful, almost serene, manner. This is the key as to why the locals love it so. Even the landlubbers are seduced by the gentle intonation.

The Shipping Forecast was a response to the terrible and regular loss of life at sea during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was initially the brainchild of one Captain Robert Fitzroy. He instigated the issuing of ship’s captains with instruments to collect data on wind, temperature and atmospheric pressure. He invented a ‘Fishery Barometer’ and had a hundred of them installed in harbours and lifeboat stations around Britain. He even went so far as to write rhyming couplets to help sailors understand the information they were getting…’When rise begins after low, squalls expect and clear blow.’ In 1925 the BBC began broadcasting it with their powerful transmitters, and has done ever since, (with the exception of during the second world war).

Because of the specific rhythms of the forecast, and for the way it inspires the imagination, despite being in essence very prosaic, it has often been compared to a performance of poetry. Literary scholars have made comparisons with Pinter! As spoken word it dovetails nicely with music.

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Frida Kahlo

An extraordinary life and an extraordinary woman. Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City in 1907. Her instantly recognisable paintings, many of them self portraits of almost hallucinogenic intensity, have defied definition or categorisation. Sometimes called ‘naive style’ and Andre Breton included her among those painters who he considered to be surrealist. She rejected the label saying that her work did not reflect dreams, the subconscious or ‘sur’realism but simply her reality.

As a child she suffered health problems, polio in particular. But she overcame these weaknesses and by her teenage years was vigorously active and took up many sports including cycling, skating and even boxing and wrestling. Her father, a photographer, encouraged her in these extreme activities but also educated her in the finer aspects of photography, etching, painting and poetry. Her ambition was to study medicine and become a doctor. All those ambitions were dashed when she had a near-death and life changing accident at the age of eighteen. The bus she was travelling in had a collision with a streetcar. It was a serious crash. There were several fatalities and Frida herself suffered tremendous injuries. An iron rail impaled her pelvis, smashing the bone, fracturing also ribs, legs and collarbone. She was confined to bed . Unable to pursue her desire to attend medical college she constructed an easel which allowed her to sit in bed and paint. Her paintings became the vehicle for those things which her physical condition prevented her from doing, her journeys and exploration into the world and into herself. And although in time she was able, with difficulty, to leave her bed and slowly rebuild some sort of normal life, fate had set before her a path as an artist, a path which she walked with her usual customary intensity.

The self portraits continued but the paintings developed in new areas, taking on aspects of Mexican folk art and in fact Frida herself began wearing traditional Mexican dress, long skirts, an abundance of indigenous jewellery and unusual headdresses. Her work was also influenced by the celebrated mural painter Diego Rivera who she married in 1929. It was a curious and unlikely marriage, he was significantly older than her, verging on obese. She was small and light. Her parents called the match ‘a marriage between an elephant and a dove’. But there must have been a meeting of minds in some way. The marriage was a tempestuous one, both partners indulged in affairs, Frida with both men and women.

The 1930s saw her star in the ascendant. She was recognised internationally, her visit to New York was a sensation and she was considered to be like an exotic bird of paradise.

In the 1940s she produced much larger canvases and some of her most well known paintings, like ‘The Two Fridas’ and the ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Humming bird’. Eventually her health difficulties caught up with her. She spent ten years encased in the most uncomfortable corsets, having bone grafts to her spine and enduring other related physical hardships. Eventually she was again confined to bed, or was dependent on a wheelchair. She had her right leg amputated at the knee. In a life that was full of torment her last years were particularly tough. She anticipated her own imminent demise and took to drawing angels and skeletons in her diary. Her last drawing was of a black angel with the additional text ‘I joyfully await the exit’. Throughout her life the paintings were honest mirrors of her own world. There is darkness in there of course but a fantastic vibrant life full of colour, an intoxicating paradise abundant with creative force.

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Imagine if there was music that had been created in the 7th Century which still sounds harmonically avant garde today. As early as the 6th Century, Chinese court music came to Japan. The Japanese introduced the koto and the biwa (a kind of lute) and this music became Gagaku. This now very Japanese court music has remained unchanged in its eerie and mesmerising form ever since. It is considered to be the oldest and most highly sophisticated and artistic music of Japan, (just don’t remind them that in its roots it was originally Chinese.)


Someone once said ‘beauty walks a razor’s edge’. Our concept of beauty in art or in life is subjective of course but surely we recognise it in that moment when there is a fresh never before seen juxtaposition between the traditional and the razor’s edge of the unexpected, the danger and freshness of the new.

The music of Gagaku is positively haunting. It sounds ancient, as it of course is, but also simply confounds all the received wisdom of how beautiful music should be put together. It is the earliest polyphonic music in the world and seems to obey harmonic laws all of its own. For example a form called is at first appearance in the key of D. But the drone which underpins it is in E and A. Then the main emphasis of the melody line is E and F. This sets up a kind of implacable tension that just continues throughout the whole piece. This music would often be accompanied by a classical dance (bugaku).


Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra decided to attempt to recreate something in the Gagaku style but typically approached it using all the wrong instruments.

The traditional court instruments have been supplanted as follows…

Traditional                                               Fish

Sho (wooden mouth organ)                  Accordion

Hichiriki                                                    Chinese oboe (suona)

Ryuteki (transverse flute)                       Block flute

Wagon (Japanese zither)                        Box harp

Taiko (large standing drum)                   African Bass Drum

Shiko (small gong)                                   Tibetan hand cymbals

The Forgotten Fish version was also decorated with percussion which plundered the vast kitchen of orchestra member Milu Ling. The result was a piece of music called ‘Radio Gagaku’. Utterly unauthentic but nonetheless having a distinctive unique ‘gagaku’ quality.

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Kingdom Of Not

elven-kabanElven Kaban, the contrabass player with Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra, asked me one day during a rehearsal if we could include some jazz in our repertoire. It was a reasonable request. We had been busy deconstructing all kinds of musical stuff..klezmer, Japanese gagaku music, Lebanese tunes, Breton folk, Prokofiev… so why not a piece from the rich canon of jazz? We looked at different possibilities. The open, spare compositions of Ornette Coleman from the 1960’s were interesting in their melodic perversity and quirkiness, but we were more keen to take on a tune from the great Sun Ra’s bandbook. I always felt there was some kind of artistic link across time and space between Forgotten Fish and Sun Ra’s Arkestra …… the mixture of old tunes and experimental noise, the willingness to incorporate multi-cultural influences (he wrote a tune called ‘India’ a decade before Coltrane would arrive there), the theatrical element of the band, with their pyramid hats and glittery spacewear, the use of props and dancers, the notion that he himself came from Saturn, the use of strange ethnic instruments in the jazz mainstream. Sun Ra was born in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama. As a young man he had a more or less normal life as a struggling musician, pianist, composer and aspiring band leader. In 1940 he had an ‘out of body’ (or ‘out of mind’) experience, which apparently took him to Saturn. It changed the whole arc of his artistic and spiritual life, and his attitude towards music.

sunramainIn our search for a suitable Sun Ra tune for our orchestra to cover, we decided not to take on one of his strange excursions into space, electro-noise or the heliocentric ethno universe. Quite the opposite, we chose a rather traditional but very swinging riff-oriented tune which we discovered on his first major album ‘Supersonic Sounds’. Released in 1957, it was not one of his better known records. It contained the usual wide range of material, including the aforementioned ‘India’, and also a little gem of a piece called ‘Kingdom of Not’. As with a lot of Sun Ra’s work we can only speculate as to the meaning of the title. Our version with Forgotten Fish was included on the album ‘If I Had a Hi Fi’. In order to fit it in with the baby pianos, a stalwart and much used instrument in our band, I had to transpose it into the key of F sharp minor, not a very friendly key for Elven Kaban and his contrabass, I’m afraid.

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Marc Riboud


France 1959. Construction du paquebot "FRANCE". St Nazaire.

Marc Riboud has sadly passed away on the 30th august 2016, at the age of 93.

One of the truly great photographers of the 20th Century, he travelled the world, particularly in those giant lands of the eastern communist bloc, the Soviet Union and Red China. It would be wrong to think of him as a news photographer or a war photographer, although he was certainly present at many historic moments. He is primarily a fine art man. His eye for composition and geometry leap out at you from his pictures, (Cartier-Bresson called him a born surveyor). It comes as no surprise to learn that he studied as a mechanical engineer.

Much of his work is instantly familiar. Some works became famous, legendary. Zazou painting the Eiffel Tower is shocking, beautiful, brilliantly composed, graceful, humorous, all at once. The painter himself like a balletic Buster Keaton suspended in an iron triangle in the ether above Paris. Another unforgettable iconic image was the young girl putting flowers in to the rifle barrels of the soldiers at the 1967 march on the Pentagon.

Paris, France, 1953.

Paris, France, 1953.

He spent several months in the U.S.S.R. and visited China many times over a thirty year period. He also documented the Viet Nam war from both sides of the conflict. Although he did cover overtly political events like the trial of Klaus Barbie and the Watergate hearings, he was really more interested in capturing the intensity of everyday human life. His work in China brilliantly shows this essential quality of his work.




My own small moment of contact with Marc Riboud came about when as a member of Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra, we were looking for an image for the cover of our CD album, ‘The Bicycle Lesson’. Leafing through a portfolio of his 1960’s Chinese work, we came upon a subtle but arresting shot taken in a back street of Peking in the mid ’60s. I wrote to him to ask how he would feel about a slightly off-kilter absurd orchestra using his beautiful image on their new album. I also sent him some recordings. He was very gracious in his reply, diplomatically didn’t comment on the music, and said we could use his work as we wished, for free. He didn’t even complain when we took the sacrilegious step of cropping the image to fit the CD format. What a guy.

fenêtres d'antiquairecd-bicyle-lessin

As a kind of a post script to this, I later looked for that little back street on one of my travels in (what was now called ) Beijing. I was unable to find it. Many of the charming old ‘hutong’ of the Chinese capital have been demolished to make way for high rise tower blocks. The future. Fortunately we at least still have the massive back catalogue of Marc Riboud’s work to inform, educate and beguile us.

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George Gurdjieff

He was a remarkable, complicated, brilliant, infuriating and inspiring man. His life’s work was to synthesise a philosophy for the perfection of human consciousness, bringing together Sufism, esoteric gnosticism, fakirism, shamanism, and incorporating all aspects of intellectual thought, art, music, dance and physical endeavour. But it was more than just a philosophy, it was a practical guide through the rigours and difficulties of human physical, mental and emotional existence. A blueprint or manual for the evolution of the spirit.

He was born in the 1870s in Kars, which was then part of the Russian empire, a town on the border between what we would now call Turkey and Armenia. It seemed to be in a permanent state of flux, a gateway for all kinds of cultural inroads, and most of the time seemed to be inundated with invasions from its many neighbouring countries and areas. So the young Gurdjieff was exposed very early on in his life to the mysteries of the outside world. He went off in pursuit of more journeys into the unknown.

By his thirties he had travelled extensively all over Asia, and in Russia, skilfully avoiding wars, and managing to gain access to esoteric communities, monasteries, and dervish brotherhoods from Armenia to Bokhara, from Egypt to Tashkent. He was a man of some personal power and charisma. He attracted a large following of ‘pupils’ who travelled with him on his sometimes perilous journeys in obscure regions of Asia and the orient. Eventually he settled in France where he set up a school to pass on his vast knowledge which he had absorbed over a lifetime of searching. The school proved to be difficult in the extreme for both him and his students. As a teacher he was oblique, one moment very demanding, the next playful. He would pile hardship upon hardship to his faithful devotees, but then he would just as easily overwhelm them with cognac so that they would lose their ‘inhibitions’ (he believed that the vast majority of humans were little more than robots, fast asleep in their lives. His calling was to ‘wake them up’).

The Gurdjieff School didn’t really work out. He called his coterie of followers ‘idiots’ but in his own inimitable affectionate way. He was disappointed in them. If he had had any hair on his head he would have torn it out. He disbanded the school, deciding that he would spend the remaining years of his life writing a great book which would not only clearly set out his spiritual theories but would also outlast him. His teachings would be able to continue, even after the teacher had gone. This book took some years to materialise. Eventually the great massive tome ‘Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson’ was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. It wasn’t the great illuminating success that Gurdjieff hoped for. If anything it obfuscated his teachings, the great knowledge became lost in a fog of allusions, metaphors, wordplays, tall stories, impenetrable parables, and at fifteen hundred inscrutable pages, it is a dense, opaque and sometimes harrowing read. If you persevere with it, it will suddenly expose little gems, pearls of understanding, moments of epiphany. It will never be voted ‘book of the month’ and yet over time, with effort from the reader it can be deeply inspiring.

Gurdjieff also composed music. Although he was more or less Armenian by birth, his father was partly Greek. The earliest recordings of Gurdjieff’s music were only made later in his life, when he was in France. They are composed on a harmonium. Is this because it happened to be the instrument which was to hand? Was it his intention to produce music which adhered to the European tempered scale or was it by chance? The music he heard in his youth would have been micro-tonal music played on the old oriental instruments of that time and region. One would think that this ancient and beautiful music of Turkey and Armenia would have been the closest to his heart. The European harmonium, with it’s twelve tone chromatic system is not capable of playing the nuanced ‘maqam’ or mode of Asia minor. Anyway, his recorded harmonium work, although some of it is clearly improvisation, does show the warm, and profoundly compassionate nature of the man.


This is an improvisation based upon one of Gurdjieff’s improvisations.

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