Air Lute: A Short Historical Perspective
Largely ignored by music historians, the Air Lute has recently languished in near-obscurity. Once regarded as the preeminent nonexistent instrument in the “High” Renaissance, so known because of the use of hallucinogenic drugs often associated with virtuosic performance on the Air Lute, the Air Lute gradually fell out of favor. Bach wrote some of the last works for Air Lute including the famous “Air for the G String,” although these pieces are more often performed nowadays on the Air Classical Guitar.
With the Renaissance, the expression on the face of music changed. Also, the Ud changed into the Lute and the Air Ud metamorphosed into the Air Lute. The Air Ud could be very quickly and easily changed into an Air Lute, and at almost no cost. As a result, no Air Uds have survived from that period. This has lead to rampant speculation that Air Ud may never have existed in the first place, which is a patently absurd statement any way you look at it. After all, the modern descendents of the Air Ud are still played throughout the Middle East.
Because of it’s near indestructibility and ease of transport with regards to space and weight considerations, all Noblemen carried their Air Lutes with their entourage at all times. This, combined with the ease and speed with which most could learn the Air Lute, helped make the instrument the most popular and expressive instrument of all, sometimes called the “Queen of Imaginary Instruments.”
With the increasing complexity of music for Air Lute, a new finger technique developed employing the thumb and the first four fingers of the right hand. Owing to the relaxed nature of Air Lute, which had no soundboard to use as an anchor, the fifth finger and even the elbow were occasionally employed for added expression.
At this time the French introduced many of the ornaments to the technique which have survived even today and are apparent in the modern Air Electric Guitar. The earliest ornament is the “squint,” which involves a tightening of the face around the eyes, which may be closed, into a grotesque approximation of total concentration or severe abdominal pain.
Other very popular flourishes include the “nodding dashboard ornament,” wherein the head is bobbed in time with the music. For especially difficult passages, the squint often accompanies the N.D.O.
Contrary to popular belief, the “flaming tongue” ornament was not used in period. It was only recently pioneered by Andres Segovia, who used it to great advantage while performing before audiences of adoring young girls in Spain. This ornament proved so successful that it made the translation from Air Guitar to Actual Guitar and then to Really-An-Instrument-Honest Electric Guitar and may be seen in many heavy metal band performances today.
Other Air Instruments
While lute was the undisputed leader among imaginary instruments for solo work, the Air Viola da Gamba was the forerunner amongst nonexistent instruments for consort music. Wind instruments, such as the Air Recorder, never caught on because of the limited arm movements necessary to prevent the instrument from accidentally slipping from the hands and being smashed into little imaginary bits upon striking the floor.
After almost a century of great popularity, Air Viol began to lose ground to Air Violin because of the shift of focus from intimate settings to larger venues for musical performance. Since the Air Violin could be played standing and even while walking about, it allowed for greater visibility by an audience. The death knell for the Air Viol was the popularity of the early 17th century ornament called the “pelvic thrust.” This ornament simply could not be performed while tightly gripping an imaginary Viol between the knees without evoking laughter.
While the Air Lute also fell from favor in the 17th Century, the Air Sackbut has remained a potent force in the nonrealistic music world. The exact reasons remain unknown for its continued popularity — the instrument only involves continual movement of the slide from the first position to the sixth position and back again, ad infinitum, and the only ornament ever used is the “dancing eyebrow.”
Playing Air Sackbut
Exciting New Prospects
The ongoing invention of new real instruments inevitable leads to the creation of new nonreal instruments. One exciting new invention is Virtual Midi, which achieves a double removal from reality by being a nonexistant instrument used to imitate other nonexistant instruments. This allows an Air Lute player to perform on an Ethereal Keyboard and vice-versa without any further training.
Possibly most exciting of all is a new hybrid instrument recently come to light. In the movie “Tous les matins du monde,” the actor playing Ste. Colombe has pioneered a new area of musical endeavor. He essentially plays Air Viol, although he does so while actually holding a viol and bow! His mastery of Air Viol technique is apparent when his fingers and bow do not move with the music and fretting occurs with truly virtuosic randomness. There could be ample opportunities to apply this new and exciting concept to Air Lute, perhaps in a movie about John Dowland. It could really bring out the “lack” in Lachrimae.
The study of Air Lutes is a difficult one. Reconstruction of technique is problematic at best, but study of the instruments and attempts at historically-informed reproductions are made exceeding difficult by two problems. Firstly but not surprisingly, there is absolutely no iconographic evidence of any kind. No paintings, no sculpture, no drawings. Zip. Secondly, the unavailability of Air Lutes in museum collections for examination is shocking. In every instance when I found myself at an exhibition of early instruments, the Air Lutes were always represented by an empty stand bearing the note “Temporarily Unavailable for Viewing.”