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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #298
Zenon A. Bagbee
David Gunn

The calliope, a steam-powered instrument fitted with microtonal brass whistles and an artificially intelligent keyboard, has been at odds with the classical musical intelligentsia ever since its inception 146 years ago today, likewise a Saturday. Its inventor, J.C. Stoddard, of Worcester, Massachusetts, said his intent was less about "providing musical pleasure" than it was about drawing attention to itself. It did the latter in a big way, but not merely because a digitally dexterous player could hurl the sound up to 12 miles away and permanently alter the gender of earthworms within a 25-acre radius. More importantly, Stoddard's calliope was the first musical instrument to achieve a fully controlled power of self-propelled flight. I say "fully controlled" -- actually, the flights were nothing if not haphazard. Depending on how hard the keys were thunked, which whistles were initiated and how thick the troposphere immediately to the west of the calliope was, the ponderous craft might head off in any direction at a speed of up to 22 knots. Landings -- or "cessations of supra-ground activity" -- were equally unpremeditated, and often resulted in the unexpected flattening of bystanders ... or, really, understanders. Stoddard originally called his invention the Betty, after a deft dirigiblist who disappeared over Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. But then he read in Lark A. Clobberworm's textbook, "Calliope's Calamities," that the eponymous muse of Greek epic poetry and plagues, pestilences and cataclysms was also the mother of Orpheus by a locomotive whistle, a whistle not unlike the constituents of his clangorous steam machine. That clinched it for J.C., and the lower-case calliope was born.

The first master of the calliope was Zenon A. Bagbee, coincidentally the brother-in-law of future aeronaut Orville Wright. As a youth, Zenon had played the skirls in the Band of the Confederacy. The skirls -- a scandalous progeny of the bagpipes, an elevator camshaft and an oil well gate valve -- was the noisiest instrument of its day, and did much to repel, and sometimes even deafen, Union troops during Civil War skirmishes. Unfortunately, the instrument was in Richmond, Virginia, for pipe casing repairs on April 3, 1965, and was burned along with the rest of the city. No other skirls was ever built.

After the War, Bagbee, craving loud music like a pandemonium junky, sought out Stoddard and his calliope. Capitalizing on his short-lived but memorable musical notoriety, he convinced the Worcesterian to let him try out one of his skirly fandangos on the steam whistle machine. Stoddard agreed. And on February 3, 1901, 34 months before his brother-in-law would imitate him, Bagbee achieved the first recorded instance of "self-propelled flight in a heavier-than-air object bigger than a breadbox." The tune that provoked the craft to supra-ground activity was the Cockaigne Overture, a popular piece of the day by Edward Elgar. Bagbee took the already buoyant melodies and cranked them up several notches with microtonal filigree. The result was that he was soon dividing his calliope time between playing and piloting. While he was a natural on the first, he was no more than a dilettante at the latter task. When the ship's heading appeared dead wrong, he tended to overcompensate his corrective measures. No matter he couldn't have accurately steered anyway, Bagbee at least felt better trying. And whatever he did had the would-be Betty on an intercept course with Boston Harbor. As the great, noisy craft passed loudly over Faneuil Hall, it was leaking notes faster than a eunuch's prophylactic. It hooted, it warbled, it coughed, it flatulated. And then it abruptly ceased its "supra-ground activity."

Today, strict heavier-than-air navigation laws for bigger-than-breadbox objects prohibit the calliope from assuming its former glory in the sky. Aside from being the official instrument of the intraworld whiskers six-draw tournament, it has been relegated to circus parades, river steamships and similar low-profile ground-shackling activities.

Zenon A. Bagbee, on the other hand, continues to prosper to this day. When his turn-of-the-century cronies began to kick buckets, head off to happy hunting grounds and otherwise engage in discontinuations of the human condition, he rearranged the letters in his name, hooked up with Otto Lummer's bi-nosal warrior ancestor, and moved to the New Hampshire desert to recontextualize as a musical shaman with an affinity for microwhistling brass tonals.

Now today's 298th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar would be an excellent opportunity to showcase the world’s greatest microtonal calliope music, but I suspect that another musical agenda is already on tap and this grossly overlooked oeuvre of tune will have to wait for another day, probably a day without Damian or Kalvos.