Playing a musical instrument with wet hands usually falls somewhere between a bad idea and a very bad idea indeed. The Cristal Baschet, however, requires its players to keep their hands wet at all times, and that’s hardly the only sense in which it’s an exceptional musical instrument. Have a listen to the performance above, Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1 by Marc Antoine Millon and Frédéric Bousquet, and you’ll understand at once how exceptional it sounds. Both ideally suited to Satie’s composition and like nothing else in the history of music — a history which may ultimately remember it as, among other things, one of the most French musical devices ever created.
“It was invented in France, so perhaps that’s why I have one,” says composer Marc Chouarain as he prepares to demonstrate his Cristal Baschet in the video above. “I put water on my finger and I have to put pressure on the glass rods, and the sound is amplified.” That amplification happens, like every other process within the instrument, without the involvement of electricity. Despite being fully acoustic, the Cristal Baschet produces sounds so loud and otherworldly that few could hear them without instinctively imagining a sci-fi movie to go along with the soundtrack.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Chouarain is a film composer, nor that the Cristal Baschet was invented in the early 1950s, when the cinematic visions of the future as we know them began to take shape. That era also saw the dawn of musique concrète (1964), with its use of recorded sounds as compositional elements, and the influence of the early Moog synthesizer, which would go on to change the sound of music forever. What influence the brothers Bernard and François Baschet expected of the Cristal Baschet when they invented it is unclear, but it has surely left more of a legacy than their other creations like the inflatable guitar and aluminum piano.
“Ravi Shankar, Damon Albarn (Gorillaz), Daft Punk, Radiohead, Tom Waits, and Manu Dibango are among the musical acts who have used the Cristal Baschet,” writes Colossal’s Andrew Lasane, citing the official Baschet Sound Structures Association brochure. The instrument also continues to get respect from adventurous film composers like Cliff Martinez, who tickles the glass rods in the video above. According to an interview at Vulture, Martinez first encountered the instrument when composing for the Steven Soderbergh remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. He seems to have become a serious Cristal Baschet fan since: the video’s notes mentions that he now “incorporates the instrument in all of his scores,” for more pictures by Soderbergh, as well as by Nicolas Winding Refn — another director of possessed of distinctive visions, and thus always in need of sounds to match.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.