About 3,000 years ago a clever Chinese artisan constructed an ingenious and pretty wind instrument. He could not have known, of course, that he had created the prototype of several different instumental categories, some of which would survive and become big commercial hits in the twentieth century -- but this is precisely what happened. He took a cup-shaped dried gourd, affixed a blow tube to its side, and stuck a number of tuned bamboo pipes into its lid, arranged by length in a three-quarter circle like organ pipes. This contraption was the first miniature reed organ ever built, and the ancient Chinese called it a Sheng, a mouth-organ. But even more important than the instrument itself was the discovery of the acoustical principle that made the bamboo pipes sound. Near the bottom of each pipe, inside the gourd air chamber, the artisan had cut a narrow rectangular slot and installed a thin bamboo sliver, slightly smaller than the slot, over the rectangle. The airstream entering the pipe from the gourd bowl caused the elastic sliver to vibrate freely in the slot without touching its edges, and thus was invented the free-swinging reed, a device that came to play an important role in the history of Western musical instruments. There were long delays, to be sure -- it was not until around 1785 that the first reed organ stops were constructed on this principle in Europe, and not until the middle of the nineteenth century were free-swinging reeds first used to develop harmonicas, harmoniums, and accordions. But the acoustical principle is still the same as in Chinese antiquity; only the materials are different -- the tone-producing tuned tongues are now made of fine steel.
Not so long ago -- until, perhaps, 1955 -- the free-swinging reed instruments were stepchildren, jesters, or toys to the world of serious music. Where would you hear a harmonium? In overseas missions and in small rural churches whose congregations could not afford a pipe organ. Accordions? Fine for amateurs, nightclub entertainers, variety shows, and small pop combos. And harmonicas? Same use, same limitations, same condescending audience attitudes when it came to accepting this funny little music maker into the sacred halls of classical music. There were, of course, some instances when master players tried (with small success) to transplant their harmonicas, figuratively speaking, from the Copacabana to Carnegie Hall. Larry Adler, John Sebastian, and two or three other virtuoso performers have repeatedly offered ambitious classical programs on the harmonica and have even commissioned top-flight serious composers to produce works for the instrument. But the critical acceptance of these efforts remained skeptical if sympathetic. The sound character of the instrument failed to satisfy musician's ears used to the sound of modern flutes, oboes, or clarinets. Also, many of the stylistic features demanded for Boroque, Viennese Classic, or Romantic repertoires seemed to be insufficiently met by even the best harmonica players, whose instruments and practice, in the view of sophisticated listeners, were confined to a small, specialized serious reperoire and the entertainment literature.
It is a strange coincidence, or if you like, a remarkable manifestation of historical justice, that a Chinese musician should have contributed more than any other performer to bringing this ancient instrument of China a few steps closer to final recognition in the world of serious Western music. He did so by fulfilling all artistic, stylistic, and musicianly postulates established for the other traditional instruments from Bach to Bloch and Bartok.
Cham-Ber Huang, forty-three and now an American citizen, was born and brought up in Shanghai. As a child he received only the most elementary music education in a harmonica school. From the age of ten on he was completely self-taught, but he mastered all the customary skills of theory, harmony, musical form, and orchestration by his own efforts. Between his eleventh and fourteenth years he played in a harmonica band and studied hard to develop his technique. Then he began teaching at the local Y.M.C.A., specializing in the classical repertoire. At sixteen he organized his own harmonica band of forty members, all of whom he had trained from scratch. By that time he had learned band conducting, arranging, and scoring, which he did for four to seven parts, using three different harmonica types for high, medium, and low range. When he was eighteen, his public performing career was launched, first on radio, then in recitals. Two years later his band had grown to 125 players (most of them his students), and it frequently entertained dignitaries or official guests in command performances with programs on the semi-popular side. The band also made a feature film with Huang as soloist.
In 1949 and 1950 he gave radio and recital performances in Hong Kong, England, and, finally, Germany, where he concluded his first contractual agreement with the Matthias Hohner Company, harmonica manufacturers, in Trossingen. These were the important years duing which the old diatonic harmonica (with benefit of hind-sight, no more than a musical toy) was gradually being replaced by the chromatic harmonica, a well-made musical instrument. During his teen-age years, before chromatic instruments became available in China, Huang had solved the inevitable musical problems by simultaneously playing two or even three diatonic harmonicas, one on top of the other. In this way he could negotiate the fast and complex figurations as they occurred in, for example, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. Although it took him almost two years to retrain himself on the chromatic harmonica, the skills acquired from the double- or triple-instrument stunt stood him in good stead; they permitted him to acquire technical virtuosities which -- to the best of my knowledge -- no other performer has yet been able to master.
Huang settled in New York in 1950, and began to travel all over the country making night-club and variety-show appearances to make a living. He also did arranging work for music publishers. But all his spare time went into experimentation with improvements on the mechanical-acoustical construction of his chosen instrument. He developed several new harmonica types -- for some of which he received inventor's patents -- including a multi-chord "Chordomonica" with two slides. His latest and most important invention took years to perfect, but it is likely to revolutionize the sound qualities of the harmonica and perhaps its acceptance in certain circles as well. the new instrument, first of all, has a larger tonal-volume than the standard harmonica, which might well free the instrument from its dependence (in the recital hall) on microphones and electronic amplification. It also produces a more resonant sound, one that can project over longer distances, especially with the tones of its lowest octave in the four-octave compass. Finally, the instrument has acoustically built-in means for controlling a wider range of tone colors. First production runs have been planned for the new harmonica at the Hohner factory in the near future.
Cham-Ber Huang gave his first New York recital in 1953 at Town Hall. He played an all-classical program: a Bach suite for flute and orchestra, an oboe concerto by Handel, Milhaud's Second Violin Concerto, and Copland's "Billy the Kid", arranged by Huang for harmonica with the composer's permission. This performance, as well as later ones, was well enough received by the critics, although comments were not free of the usual condescension. The implication seems always to be: "what a musician this man would be if he had only chosen the violin or piano as his instrument!" This attitude Huang finds the hardest of all to take, because it combines willing acceptance of him as an artist with rejection of the instrument he has worked so long and hard to master and perfect.
Another severe handicap for Huang and other players of the instrument is the lack of serious original compositions for the harmonica. This forces the master players to arrange classical repertoire for their instrument, usually works selected from the violin and woodwind literature. And this procedure, is, of course, frowned upon by the cognoscenti today, when any instrumental transcription is held to be in poor style and taste. But the situation seems to be improving. Impressed by the virtuosity and musical competence of high-ranking performers, some greatly respected classical composers have written larger concert works for the harmonica, among them Alexander Tcherepnin, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Darius Milhaud, Malcolm Arnold, and Robert Russell Bennett. Most of these works were, no doubt, written on commission from the instrumentalists themselves, but today a composer of somewhat lesser stature may be quite willing to write for the harmonica without a substantial advance payment. (Needless to say, in practically every case the solo harmonica part has to be rewritten by the player because there are hardly any composers who know how to write correctly for this instrument.)
In one respect, Huang is a freak instrumentalist because of an innocent assembly error, decades ago, at the Hohner plant: the first diatonic harmonica he got as a boy in Shanghai had the top and bottom plates installed in reverse. Thus, he began playing the instrument upside-down, bass on the right, treble on the left. He has played this way ever since, to the amazement of his colleagues when they see him play for the first time. Huang found this inverse playing technique an advantage in teaching because his students can watch him as if looking in a mirror. He also has, in his studio, a small electronic organ console which he likes to play from the back, standing up and leaning across the top to the keyboard, because in this way he gets an inverted keyboard with the bass on his right. Such independence of established techniques has proved useful rather than handicapping; in a similar way he has developed three harmonica blowing positions, rather than the customary one: center, and left and right corners of the mouth. By means of these and other unorthodox playing methods -- probably unique with him -- he is able to execute correct trills and other Baroque ornaments which his colleagues are unable to master. Another advantage of his inverted playing is there is never any interference with "handcupping" of the lower notes; the cupping hand never gets near the slide button. (The Hohner factory, though, is still paying the price for their one assembly mistake: whenever they build another master instrument for Huang -- as they do quite frequently -- it has to be a special construction job with left and right inverted.)**
As a teacher, Cham-Ber Huang seems to be equally inventive in the service of his instrument. Apart from the textbooks and practice records he has published and in addition to his work at the Turtle Bay Music School in New York, he has developed a long-distance teaching method via tape recorder which permits him to instruct and supervise, from his New York studio, dozens of students in Europe and East Asia. (If this ever catches on in other music fields, a revolution of musical education could be in the making. Just imagine a future in which a qualified student could receive lessons from one of our greatest instrumentalists or singers though thousands of miles separate the two.)
Those who would like to know more about the potential of the harmonica in the field of serious music should turn to two discs recorded by Huang with Mogens Ellegaard, the remarkable Danish accordion virtuoso. These two men, both playing instruments of the free-swinging reed type, have succeeded in producing completely integrated and blended sonorities for Baroque and later works to a degree that has rarely been achieved by other instrumental combinations. The records (Insignia 301 and 302), though not widely distributed, are well worth owning for their purely musical values and the new light cast upon the music (Couperin, Bach, Telemann, and others) by the blended reed sonorities.
One wonders whether Cham-Ber Huang's life-long dream might come true sometime soon: that his latest harmonica invention will place the instrument where, in his opinion, it now deserves to be -- in concert halls, all over the world. It is apparently already well established in the homes (and hearts) of enthusiastic amateurs everywhere: the Hohner firm, the world's largest purveyor of this much-maligned music-maker, sells approximately 20 million harmonicas each year and estimates that, in America alone, 40 million people have at one time or another in their lives owned one. In terms of an artist such as Huang, the dream of the harmonica in the concert hall -- after 3,000 years -- begins to make a lot of sense.
**D.Wilson's note: It should be pointed out that since Cham-Ber Huang is right-handed, he prefers the chromatic slide button on the right end, as is the normal convention. So, since he plays with the harmonica itself upside-down, simply turning the harmonica over doesn't solve the problem. His instruments must be manufactured with the slides reversed, so the harmonica is upside-down, but with the slide button still remaining on the right end.