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Tsimbls and Their Kin

by Josh Horowitz

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This article was originally published on the Jewish-music mailing list, and there was follow-up discussion on the list. You may search mailing list archives at any time, but to participate, you must join.

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... although, sadly I didn't get a chance to follow the earlier correspondence on this list about tsimbls (if anybody can send me the discussion I'd be really interested in hearing what's been going on) I just wanted to chip in about the comment that The Greek Sandouri below. I assumed you meant the Greek form rather than the Iranian, Indian or Bukharan santours when you write santour:

While there are similarities in tuning between the Greek Sandouri, the now-seldom-used-southern-Romanian, the Galitsian-Jewish-and-Gypsy and the Ukrainian-Jewish tunings, there are some typical differences, which mainly are found in the following parts of the instrument:

  1. The highest octave, which have different arrangements of the chromatic notes due to the specific placement of provisional (often moveable) bridges

  2. The relationship of the right discant side to the adjacent bass (i.e the area around middle c, which you strike on the right side of the middle bridge in relation to the bass strings which you find if you move directly to your right)

  3. The arrangement of the lowest bass strings

Although there were typical regional tendencies, there were also often personal adjustments which players made to suit their own personal needs.

One curiosity of the Jewish tsimbls (both Galitsian and Ukrainain) and the Romanian southern tuning is the placement of the G#/C# string below the G/C string on the discant area, which created the following tuning:

     c#  |  f#
      c   |  f
      b   |  e
     a#  |  d#
      a   |  d
      g   |  c
     g#  |  c#

Paul Gifford has heard from players of this tuning that it is used to facilitate the use of the A major chord in accompaniment, which seems to be a very good explanation, and might show us a lot about when the most common key in klezmer music shifted from G (for string-oriented music, because the violin's lowest string is G) to D (a key which most instrumental groups feel comfortable in) The A major chord, as the dominant chord of D, is good at establishing D as the tonal center, and is used also in Jewish modes.

Most sandouris, however, use a linear chromatic, as follows:

     c#  |  f#
      c   |  f
      b   |  e
     a#  |  d#
      a   |  d
     g#  |  c#         
        g   |  c

In Sandouris the bass note most commonly found directly to the right of the first C (middle C) is either G or F (just like the Hungarian and typical Romanian tunings.

In the Jewish tsimbl(s) and often in Ukrainian and Galitsian models, you commonly find a D or an E.

These are tendencies, not rules, however. My own tsimbl uses an octave tuning, meaning, to the right of my discant middle C is the bass C. This is perhaps more closely related to the Iranian system of tuning, though in terms of tension, it is optimal (sensitive tsimbl makers have been trying for centuries to get an even distribution of tension in every range of the instrument. Of course all that depends on the shape of the instrument as well as the materials of the strings, their density and elasticity, etc. etc.

Remember also, that probably before 1850, most tsimbls were tuned diatonically i.e. modally. My tuning on the CD, Bessarabian Symphony was a tuning which I developed according to the Jewish modes. I wanted to see what happened musically if I did that and the choices it gives you are indeed different than those you get with a chromatic tuning, which I use most of the time now.

I always recommend to people that they play a Hungarian/Romanian modern chromatic tuning, mainly because it's the most widespread tuning of the western world, but I prefer the Sandouri/Jewish family of tunings, but only because that's what I play. One of the cellist's of Budowitz, my group, is a virtouso on the Cymbalom as well. At first he had a good laugh when he tried my tuning, but now every time I unpack it and set it up, he can be found sitting quietly at it and gazing into it with a look of concentration while he slowly tries out different stickings, and every once in awhile you hear a "Ha!" coming from him, and I know he just found a possibility which was murder on his instrument, but butter on mine.

As to what the other Jewish tsimblists of the modern age are using: Zev Feldman uses a sandouri tuning, Kurt Björling uses a basic Jewish tuning with the G bass note to the right of the middle C, and Stuart Brotman uses a standard Hungarian/Romanian. Cor Van Sliedregt in Holland uses also a Sandouri tuning. Tim Meyen in Australia uses a Hungarian/Romanian. Joseph Moskowitz seemed to have used a Hungarian/Romanian, but I think the accompanists you hear on the early 78s typically used Jewish chromatic tunings popular back then.

If anyone is interested in having them made for them in Eastern Europe, I can arrange for it. There are 2 good craftsmen in Budapest, one of whom has made 3 instruments for me (including Cor Van Sliedregt's instrument). Export is difficult but not impossible. By the way, Kurt Björling makes excellent instruments in the US. And if you want to contact one of the world's most knowledgable people on tsimbl questions, contact Paul Gifford. I won't give his email out here, only because it breaks etiquette, but if you don't have it already, I can provide it.

To sum it up -- there are no rules to what the best tuning is, because the body adapts to what it's given, but you're better off getting a chromatic tuning so you can play everything.

Posted by Josh Horowitz to the Jewish-Music mailing list, 3 Jul, 1999.

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Contents copyright © 1999 by Josh Horowitz. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Page last revised 11 June, 2007.