A dozen wine glasses have taken Ed Stander to Montreal, Japan, Europe and the Great Wall of China.
“I was the first street performer to play on the Great Wall of China,” he said. “And while I didn’t get any pictures, about 10,000 Chinese did. Then I got kicked off because I was inciting a riot — well, a riot in China is any more than 10 people in the same place at one time. In my case, I had a lot more than 10 people.”
For more than 20 years, Stander, a professor of astronomy, geology and environmental science at the State University of New York in Cobleskill, has played glass harmonica. It’s not a popular instrument today — according to him, he’s one of “maybe a dozen” glass harmonica players in the world — although Benjamin Franklin invented a mechanical version in 1758. It also has had somewhat of a misunderstood history, having been banned in the 1800s because it was thought the high-frequency sounds were causing brain damage.
When Stander performs, it always draws attention. Along with the visually unique setup of glasses, the high-pitched, ethereal sounds produced are unlike any made by other instruments.
“I’ve been on television a couple of times, and at festivals all over the place,” he said, sitting in front of his 12-glass instrument in his home in Delmar. “It’s one of the nice things about it — since nobody else is playing it, you sort of have the world to yourself.”
Although his self-taught talent has taken him around the world, very rarely does he get the opportunity to perform in his hometown. Which is why he looks forward to events like First Night Saratoga, Saratoga Springs’ annual New Year’s Eve arts celebration that will include events scheduled at 35 different venues in downtown Saratoga Springs throughout the evening.
This year is the 15th annual First Night in Saratoga, and will mark Stander’s third time performing. He’ll alternate hourlong sets with blues guitarist L.B. Walker at the Saratoga Visitors Center throughout the night.
Something for everyone
First Night’s other featured performers are just as diverse, including everything from country (Aged in the Hills, Johnny Cash tribute Harold Ford and the Cash Band) to pop (singer Alana Sangiacomo) to blues and rock (Mikki Bakken, four-piece band Black Mountain Symphony). Things get going at the various venues at 6 p.m., with alternating hourlong live music sets lasting until midnight at some venues.
(For a complete schedule of performances, click here.
Nowadays, Stander, who spent many years as a street performer in Newfoundland when he first began playing the glasses, usually performs at festivals, many of them in Canada. At any given performance, he’ll play a mix of classical material from Mozart or Beethoven along with arrangements of traditional songs and his own original compositions for glass harmonica.
The 12-glass set, which is what he uses most frequently for traveling performances, works in the key of G or D, depending on if there’s water in some of the glasses, and spans a range of an octave and a half. This allows him to play just about any song he wants to, by rubbing his fingers along the edges of the glasses.
“If I can’t play the note, I’ll play around the note,” said Stander, who also plays banjo, concertina and hurdy gurdy among other instruments. “After 20 years, 12 glasses — I mean, that’s a year and a half per glass, so I’ve got a little practice in. I used to play eight hours a day, seven days a week, for most of the time.”
He can tune the glasses within a range of a note or two by filling them with water, but for the most part he buys them as close to being “in tune” as possible. Most of the tone comes from the size, shape and density of the glass. It took Stander about four months to assemble his 64-glass piano bar glass set, from selecting the glasses to their placement.
Stander got the idea to play glass harmonica after hearing a 1930s recording of Bruno Hoffmann playing the instrument. “On the back cover was a picture of the instrument,” Stander said, “and I said, ‘Well. Any damn fool could do that.’ ”
After a car crash left him on crutches for about a year, he began playing the glasses in earnest, assembling his instruments piece by piece.
“What I did was I wandered around auditioning glasses,” he said. “I lived in Newfoundland at the time, and I went to stores all over the place and I just asked the guys if I could play all their glasses — they usually said yes. So most of the glasses are empty — I buy them as close to being in tune as possible, and I add water only if necessary.”
In the 1700s, the glass harmonica was much more common, with pieces of music written for it by Mozart and Beethoven that Stander performs in his sets. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the instrument began to be used again after being banned, but it remains a rarity, which tends to pique audience interest when Stander performs today.
“People ask me whether other liquids work in the glasses — I usually tell them that, yeah, beer works, but only for a half an hour and then it goes flat,” he said.
“Most people just don’t believe it,” he continued. “A lot of people, especially more incredulous people, will stick their head underneath and see if there’s a tape recorder down there. I used to put a tape recorder underneath just so they would find something. A lot of people think it’s amplified, and I take the top off and show them that it’s not.”
The familiarity of the objects and people’s curiosity means that there is always an audience for Stander’s playing.
“The fun thing about it is that everyone’s tried it at least once at home, and they don’t understand how it works — that you can play it right away, rather than rubbing glasses for five minutes to get a sound,” he said. “It’s just practice.”
First Night Saratoga music schedule
The following is a schedule of all live music performances taking place at First Night Saratoga, arranged alphabetically by venue:
-- Adirondack Trust Bank (473 Broadway) — Edward T. Clifford — “The Human Jukebox,” 6, 8, 10 p.m.; Sonny and Perley, 7, 9, 11 p.m.
-- Caffé Lena (47 Phila St.) — Mike Agranoff, 6, 8, 10 p.m.; Professor Louie and the Crowmatix, 7, 9, 11 p.m.
-- The Cupcake Lab (517 Broadway, rear of building) — Mikki Bakken, 7, 8, 9 p.m.
-- DiVinyl Revolution Records (433 Broadway) — Tim and Aaron, 6, 8, 10 p.m.; Mike Campese, 7, 9, 11 p.m.
-- Downstreet Marketplace (454 Broadway) — Flipsydz Doowop, 6, 8, 10 p.m.; Betsy and the ByeGons, 7, 9 11 p.m.
-- Empire State College Meeting Room 1 (1 Union Avenue) — Jeffrey Jene, 7, 9, 11 p.m.
-- Empire State College Meeting Room 2 (1 Union Avenue) — Courtly Music Unlimited, 6, 8 p.m.
-- Empire State College Rotunda (1 Union Avenue) — Black Mountain Symphony, 6, 7, 8 p.m.; Captain Squeeze and the Zydeco Moshers, 9, 10, 11 p.m.
-- First Baptist Church (45 Washington St.) — Hair of the Dog, 6, 7, 8 p.m.; Kevin McKrell’s Train of Fools, 9, 10, 11 p.m.
-- Hampton Inn (25 Lake Avenue) — GTOs, 7, 8, 9 p.m.
-- Hilton Garden Inn (125 S. Broadway) — Heavenly Echoes Gospel Singers, 6, 7, 8 p.m.; Mark Tolstrup and Dale Haskell, 9, 10, 11 p.m.
-- Lake Avenue Elementary Auditorium (126 Lake Avenue) — Melvin the Magnificent, 6, 7 p.m.; “The Spirit of Johnny Cash” Harold Ford and the Cash Band, 8, 9, 10 p.m.
-- Lake Avenue Elementary Gym No. 1 (126 Lake Avenue) — The Zucchini Brothers, 6, 7, 8 p.m.; Juggling Josh, 9, 10 p.m.
-- NBT Bank (295 Broadway) — Fairview Avenue, 6, 7, 8 p.m.; Red Haired Strangers, 9, 10, 11 p.m.
-- New York State Military Museum (the Armory) (61 Lake Avenue) — Maggie Doherty and Zac Rossi, 6 p.m.; Michael Jerling, 7, 9 p.m.; Chris Carey, 8 p.m.
-- Presbyterian New England Congregational Church Hall (24 Circular Street) — Lee Shaw Trio, 6, 7, 8 p.m.; Ernie Williams Band, 9, 10, 11 p.m.
-- Saratoga Arts Dee Sarno Theater (320 Broadway) — Shape Shifting Shepherds, 8 p.m.; Chef of the Pasture, 9, 10, 11 p.m.
-- Saratoga Arts Gallery (320 Broadway) — Callen Sisters, 6, 8, 10 p.m.; Mamalama, 7, 9, 11 p.m.
-- Saratoga City Music Hall (above City Hall) — Saratoga City Ballet presents Act II of “The Nutcracker,” 6, 7 p.m.; Bluz House Rockers, 9, 10, 11 p.m.
-- Saratoga Downtowner Motor Inn (413 Broadway) — Lyl Harper, 7, 8, 9 p.m.
-- Saratoga Hilton Broadway Room (534 Broadway) — Moody McCarthy, 6, 7, 8, 9 p.m.; The Heddy Brothers, 7:30, 8:30, 9:30 p.m.
-- Saratoga Hilton Gallery (534 Broadway) — Alana Sangiacomo, 6:30, 7:30, 8:30, 9:30 p.m.
-- Saratoga Springs City Center Main Hall (522 Broadway) — GTOs, 6 p.m.; Fort Salem Theater presents The Singing Anchors, 7, 9 p.m.; Funk Evolution, 8, 10, 11 p.m.
-- Saratoga Springs City Center Meeting Room 1 (522 Broadway) — Matthew Carefully with interactive art, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 p.m.
-- Saratoga Springs Post Office (475 Broadway) — Aged in the Hills, 6, 7, 8 p.m.; Tern Rounders, 9, 10, 11 p.m.
-- Saratoga Springs Public Library (49 Henry St.) — John Kirk and Trish Miller, 6, 8 p.m.; Rick Bolton and the Dwyer Sisters, 7, 9 p.m.; Matt McCabe, 10 p.m.; Maggie Doherty and Zac Rossi, 11 p.m.
-- Saratoga Springs Yoga (8 Phila St.) — Josh Blum, 6, 7, 8, 9 p.m.
-- Saratoga Visitors Center (297 Broadway) — Ed Stander, 6, 8, 10 p.m.; L.B. Walker, 7, 9, 11 p.m.
-- St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (149 Lake Avenue) — Revamped, 6, 7, 8 p.m.; Mop and Bucket Company, 9, 10 p.m.
-- St. Peter’s Church (241 Broadway) — Saratoga Springs Youth Orchestra, 6, 7 p.m.; Racing City Chorus, 8, 9 p.m.; Saratoga Soundtrack Chorus, 10, 11 p.m.
-- St. Peter’s Parish Center (241 Broadway) — Ramblin Jug Stompers, 6, 7, 8 p.m.; Fighting 86’s, 9, 10, 11 p.m.