fb-pixel Skip to main content

New England Phonographers Union cue the waterworks

The Boston Waterworks Museum.Linda Rosenthal

This Wednesday, the New England Phonographers Union — local musicians Matt Azevedo, Ernst Karel, and Jed Speare — takes over the Great Engines Hall at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum for the latest in a series of electroacoustic performances based on field recordings made at various Massachusetts Water Resources Authority sites and plants. (The performers have often worked with such real-world sound sources; Speare’s classic 1982 album “Cable Car Soundscapes’’ is a collage of sounds and stories from San Francisco’s famous cars — including a recital of conductor bell-ringing techniques that begs to be sampled.) The sounds might be avant-garde, but that intersection of water, engineering, and music hearkens back to ancient Greece, and the earliest known keyboard instrument: the hydraulis, or water-organ.

The hydraulis was invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria, a magnificent 2d century BC tinkerer (by all accounts) — he also invented the piston-based force pump. According to Vitruvius, the Roman architect, the hydraulis had its origin in a barbershop owned by Ctesibius’s father, where the young inventor had rigged up a retractable mirror attached to a series of pulleys and a counterweight. As the weight fell through a lead pipe, the sound of the air inside being pushed out inspired Ctesibius to come up with the organ. The hydraulis had a wind-chest filled and refilled by one of Ctesibius’s force pumps; the chest itself was submerged in water such that the water pressure maintained a constant and steady flow of air. Some later models added another aqueous feature, powering the pump with a water wheel. (None other than Archimedes is sometimes credited with making improvements to the instrument’s design.) For the time, the hydraulis was high technology indeed.


The hydraulis became a staple of grand entertainments in the Greek and Roman empires. The Roman poet Claudian praised the organist “whose light touch elicits thunder from those bronze pipes . . . arousing the laboring waters to song.” And it was partially by way of the hydraulis that Pythagoras formulated the basis of music theory (that, at least, according to the 15th-century Flemish composer Antoine Busnois, whose ornately ingenious motet “In hydraulis” praised Busnois’s contemporary Johannes Ockeghem as Pythagoras’s successor).

Wednesday’s performance, by contrast, will be built on a foundation of ambient industrial and environmental sounds. The hydraulis might seem several conceptual dimensions and epochs away. But what else was Ctesibius doing but finding music in the machinery of water management?


Non-Event presents the New England Phonographers Union, May 14 at 7 p.m. at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, 2450 Beacon St. Tickets $10. RSVP at info@waterworksmuseum.org or 617-277-0065; more information at www.nonevent.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.