Have you ever strummed a cactus? What about plucking the Vietnamese đàn bâu or waving your arms to get music from a theremin? Over the years, the Tiny Desk has hosted more than a few distinctive instruments and their virtuosic performers. These fascinating performances underscore the idea that humankind cannot live by guitars, drums and bass alone!
Members of the Brooklyn-based quartet Sō Percussion prove you can make music on just about anything, such as the Dutch peppermint tin they borrowed from my desk or the barrel cactus they brought along with them. They also commandeered a stapler, a waste basket and our cherished NPR Music Emmy Award for music inspired by John Cage.
When Vietnamese musician and composer Vân-Ánh Võ visited the Tiny Desk, she insisted on playing a beloved piece of French piano music. But instead of a keyboard, she performed Erik Satie's Gnossienne No. 3 on the đàn bâu, Vietnam's traditional, single-stringed instrument. It features a kind of pitch-bending whammy bar — made from water buffalo horn — that gives the music a tripped-out feel.
The slithery-sounding theremin is perhaps the only instrument you play by not touching it at all. It was featured in the film scores to Spellbound, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Ed Wood. Carolina Eyck, a reigning virtuoso, offered a quickie lesson in how to wave your hands and make the instrument sing.
• Wu Man
Wu Man is the Jimi Hendrix of the pipa, the ancient Chinese lute-like instrument. Through blistering runs of plucking and strumming, she brings action-packed scenes of war and tranquil moonlit nights to life with a cinematic array of color and mood.
The mellotron is a ramshackle 1960s-era contraption that is part keyboard, part tape machine. Ever since the Beatles featured it on "Strawberry Fields Forever," I've always loved its woozy sound – derived from actual loops of prerecorded tape spinning over play heads to "sample" flutes, reeds and strings. The group Mellotron Variations carted an original specimen up to the desk, along with a few new-fangled high-tech versions you can buy today.