Monday, November 19, 2007

Sorcha Dorcha Meets the Calliope

On Sunday, October 21, Sorcha Dorcha performed for the second time on the barge above, which is docked on the shores of Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood. This time we were part of the Grand Showboat Weekend sponsored by the Theater Museum and the Waterfront Museum’s Showboat ‘Round the Bend series, a continuation of the June event. Throughout the Grand Showboat Weekend visitors studied the gallery displays, listened to panel discussions, watched video clips, and heard various types of entertainment illustrating the role of the showboat in early 20th century American life.

Sorcha Dorcha played a 15-minute set of traditional Irish music. We also accompanied Paradizo Dance, a dance team that combines modern dance with acrobatics. The piece they performed was entitled Sleepers and can be viewed from the Gallery section of their website, where it's set to a very different accompaniment from our mix of slow aires, jigs, and reels.

Sorcha Dorcha and Paradizo Dance were not exactly representative of the entertainment of the showboat era. However, a reading and a temperance play illustrated the melodramatic style popular from that period as well as some turn-of-the-century attitudes and concerns, and a banjo player/singer gave historically correct renditions of some Stephen Foster songs.

Conrad Milster, Chief Steam Engineer at Pratt Institute, gave a lecture about the construction of calliopes and their use on showboats. He brought with him the steam calliope he had built for the year 2000 celebrations at Pratt.

For anyone unfamiliar with this odd invention, the calliope can be compared to a pipe organ which utilizes a piano keyboard to direct air through pipes tuned to the western musical scale. The steam calliope differs from the pipe organ in that steam is directed through boat whistles of various sizes. The steam builds and builds until it is released when someone strikes the keys. We learned that it's best to use both hands and play chords, depressing lots of keys, thereby creating a controlled release of steam. If just a single note is played, the sound is deafening!

A pianist played a few songs on the calliope to demonstrate its sound. The keyboard faced the steam whistles which, thankfully, were positioned on the gangplank outside the barge. Tuning the steam whistles seems to be tricky. Milster admitted that he was still working on that.

After that demonstration, the fact that steam calliopes on showboats could be heard offshore for 5 miles was entirely believable. The loud, gay sound of calliope music announced the arrival of the showboat and the promise of many evenings of revelry.

After the lecture/demo, folks from the audience including members of Sorcha Dorcha took turns at the keyboard. Here's Tyler, having a go at it...

If you’re interested in reading more about calliopes, the Mechanical Musical Digest's Calliope Home Page provides a great picture and links to many informative articles.

All in all, we had great fun! What a beautiful day to be at the water's edge, taking a step back in time to revisit the era of the calliope.

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
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