Elbphilharmonie explains: The Instruments of the Silk Road

Short videos and descriptions of the kanun, the nay and the kemençe.

Elbphilharmonie explains: The kanun


With Salah Eddin Maraqa of the Ensemble Sarband

Name: Kanun  

Origin: Middle East (Iran, Armenia, Greece, North Africa)

Family of instruments: Stringed instrument (box zither)

Material: The kanun consists of a trapeziform wooden board with elaborate decoration, across which 63 to 84 strings are stretched.

Playing technique: The strings are plucked or struck with the help of two plectrums that the player sticks on his index fingers like thimbles. The plectrums themselves are generally made of horn or tortoiseshell (taken from tortoises or turtles that were already dead!). At the lower end of the trapeziform instrument there is a bridge mounted on animal hide, which lends the kanun its characteristic sound.

History: The instrument began to play an important role in Arab music in the 10th century. It was first brought to Europe in the 12th century, where it is said to have been the main instrument used by the Moors. The kanun is regarded as the predecessor of the European zither.

Special points: The strings can be shortened or lengthened further by turning small levers, which produces microtones.

Elbphilharmonie explains: The nay


With Mohamad Fityan of the Ensemble Sarband

Name: Arab nay

Material: Bamboo cane or reed

Origin: Arab peninsula, Central Asia, Turkey

Family of instruments: Wind instrument

Playing technique: The mouth is placed directly against the edge of the instrument without an intervening mouthpiece. In this way, only three-quarters of the air flows into the nay, creating its characteristic sound. The nay consists of nine sections, and usually has seven holes – six in the front and one at the back. To alter the pitch, the holes are covered not with the fingertips, but with the inside of the fingers.

History: The nay is found through the Arab peninsula and Central Asia, albeit with small local variations. Thus in addition to the Arab nay presented here there is also a Persian nay and a Turkish version. In some of these musical traditions the nay or ney is the only wind instrument used. Records show that the nay has been played for some 4,500 to 5,000 years, which makes it as old as the pyramids, and indeed one of the world's oldest musical instrument still in use.

Special points: Many nay players carry a whole suitcase of nays in different lengths around with them. Why? The instrument needs to be tuned specially, depending on which Oriental system of notes is to be played (Maqam or Dastgah), so it is made in different lengths: this enables the pitch and the intervals to be varied.

Elbphilharmonie explains: The classic kemençe


With Efstratios Psaradellis of the Ensemble Sarband

Name: Classic kemençe or politiki lyra

Material: Wood, metal strings and a bow made of wood, leather and horsehair                      

Origin: Constantinople

Family of instruments: Stringed instrument (lute)

Playing technique: The bow is drawn across the strings as with a violin. But there is one peculiarity: different notes are produced by pressing the fingernails against the strings from the side, unlike with most instruments, where the fingers are pressed on to the strings from above.

History: The earliest records of the kemençe are found in the writings of 11th century authors, most of them hailing from Central Asia. The pear-shaped politiki lyra was mostly used by Greek immigrants in Central Asia, and in Turkish classical music. By the mid-19th century the kemençe had advanced to become the principal stringed instrument in Ottoman music.

Special points: Up to mid-20th century, the kemençe had the reputation of a musical instrument played by the lower classes – e.g. at funfairs and even in night clubs. It was thanks to the well-known Turkish musician and composer Tanburî Cemil Bey (1873-1916), who used it in his own compositions, that it later became a highly-respected instrument for Turkish classical music.

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