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Dead medium: The Flame Organ; The Burning Harmonica; the Chemical Harmonica; Kastner's Pyrophone
From: (Richard Kadrey)
Source(s): Experimental Musical Instruments Volume 10 #1, Sept. 1994.


Introductory Notes by Bart Hopkin

Here is how to make flame sing: obtain a glass tube, one or two inches in diameter, open at both ends, and perhaps two or three feet long. Light a propane torch or similar burner, and insert the nozzle about one fourth of the way into the open lower end of the tube. If conditions are right, you will hear the tone will begin == not abruptly, but with a growing volume.

Gather together a tuned set of such tubes, develop the mechanisms to shut the flames on and off in a controlled manner, and you will have created a flame organ.

The sounds of such an arrangement, according to people who have worked with flame tones, are highly varied. The system can be refined so as to dependably produce clear, steady tones at the frequency of the tube's fundamental. Or the mechanism can be adjusted to bring out harmonics. On the other hand, you can take a less controlling approach, and let the system come forth with a menagerie of whoops, shrieks and moans. One consistent characteristic: the attacks are not sharp; rather, each tone grows as the resonance establishes itself.

The earliest references to "burning harmonica" or "chemical harmonica" come to us from the late 1700s. A century later the physicist Georges Fredric Eugene Kastner published *Les flammes chantantes* (Paris, 1875), a description of his fire organ, the pyrophone. A photograph of this instrument appeared in Kenneth Peacock's article on color organs in Experimental Musical Instruments, Volume VII #2, September 1991.

It appears as a moderately large console containing a small keyboard, with ten glass pipes rising from it. Later references to fire music generally take Kastner's pyrophone as a starting point.

Of modern fire organs there are not many. One has been created by engineers at the Tokyo Gas Company. It is fully functional and played regularly in public. In the following pages you will read about three more, created by contemporary artists-in-fire.


Published information on flame organs is rather scarce. Most references are brief. Following are a few sources that touch on the topic.

Bragg, William: World of Sound (Dover, 1920; 2nd ed. 1968).

Hauch (?): Article in Kopenhagen (phys. chem. naturh. und math.), Abhandl. aus der neuen Sammlung der Wissenschaften, ubersetz von D.P. Scheel und C.F. Degen, Kopenhagen, 1798, Vol 1, 1st part, p. 55.

Kastner, Georges Fredric Eugene: Les flammes chantantes (Paris, 1875).

Rayleigh, Lord: Theory of Sound (1877).

Sachs, Curt: Reallexicon der Musikinstrumente (Berlin 1913).

Richard Kadrey (