New Music Box Music: Tom Sora’s 20 Tones

Usually the image of a music box conjures up the tinkling of pleasant little melodies. It might be something simple, such as a bit of Mozart, or Stephen Foster, or Brahms’ “Lullaby.” But those 20 diatonic tones can be used any number of ways — as German composer Tom Sora ably demonstrates.

Sora composed nine works for a 20-tone music box, and managed to take this extremely limited instrument to new and exciting places sonically.

Consider: the twenty notes on the music box are all part of a C-major scale, spanning 2 and a half octaves. In other words, just the white keys on a piano starting at middle C and going up twenty notes. So no black keys, which means no modulation (moving to other keys), no complex harmonies (within an octave), and no sharp dissonances to add spice.

Further, the mechanism of the music box hits the bars in a uniform fashion. So there’s no way to get the expressiveness of a piano, with accented notes, contrasts in volume, or shaping of phrases through subtle differences in how keys are struck.

There’s also a limit on tempo. The music box is cranked at a uniform rate, feeding the punched paper through at a fairly constant speed. So expressive variants of tempo — slow rubatos and sudden tempo changes simply can’t happen.

And yet within those severe limits of notes, intonation, and volume, Tom Sora has managed to create works that are exciting and inspired, such as the one featured in the video below.

New music for old instruments indeed!

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