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What's a "Hurdy-Gurdy"?

(Audio fades up—psaltery and hurdy-gurdy playing)

RANDY: Several years ago I produced a feature here on KSMU profiling Mark Roark-Chartier, a local designer and builder of organs, harpsichords and other instruments, mostly of a historical nature. Recently Mark brought a hurdy-gurdy and a psaltery he constructed to our studios... he even let me play the hurdy-gurdy in the little duet you’re hearing right now. Mark studied in the early-music program, the “Collegium Musicum,” at University of California-Riverside. But his interest in early instruments predated his college career.

MARK ROARK CHARTIER: When I was taking piano lessons at 8 or 9 years old, my piano teacher had me play a piece originally written for harpsichord. And about that time Zuckermann ( came out with the early harpsichord kits. And my dad and I considered putting one together—about 10 years after that, my dream was fulfilled with I bought the kit. By the same token, as good as they are, I always wanted to design and build from scratch.

RANDY: That harpsichord, built from a kit, set Mark Roark Chartier off on a career and a life devoted to proclaiming the glories of ancient musical instruments—and making them accessible to a wider audience that knows nothing about them. He has designed and built a number of instruments...

MARK: Four harpsichords, two clavichords, the positive organ, the big restoration of the “flute-playing clock”... I’ve built, in all, three psalteries and one hurdy-gurdy.

RANDY: The mechanical “flute-clock” was the basis of our original feature about Mark here on KSMU. As for the portable positive organ, Mark and classical guitarist John Waldo played a series of duet recitals a few years ago, and recorded a CD called “Positively Beautiful” (available at or

(AUDIO: excerpt from GASPAR SANZ: Pavanas, played on positive organ)

RANDY: In designing and building things like hurdy-gurdys and psalteries, mark has had to rely on ancient manuscripts, and sometimes just depictions of these ancient instruments in works of art.

MARK: The hurdy-gurdy has gut strings and a wooden wheel coated with rosin. That wheel is turned by a crank. On one or sometimes several of the strings, there’s a primitive “keyboard” that acts upon those strings by means of little wooden blades. So as long as you turn the crank, the melody strings are continually sounding, as are the “drones.” So in a certain way, it’s the string version of the bagpipe.

RANDY: So-called “organ grinders” play something called a “barrel organ,” which is often mistaken for the hurdy-gurdy. Here is what Mark’s authentically-constructed hurdy-gurdy sounds like.

(AUDIO: Mark plays a tune on the hurdy-gurdy)

RANDY: The tune called “New Britain,” used in the hymn “Amazing Grace.” As for the psaltery, its descendants are the harpsichord, played via a keyboard, and the dulcimer, which it somewhat resembles.

(AUDIO: Mark plays a tune on the psaltery)

RANDY: Mark Roark Chartier utilizes the finger-picking technique which was standard for the psaltery, but he says it can be played with the spoon-shaped hammers used on the hammered dulcimer. As you heard at the beginning of this feature, Mark and I played a little duet—he played psaltery and I provided the drone via the hurdy-gurdy. All I had to do was press one key and turn the crank... but I had to work at it a bit to get the sound Mark wanted.

(AUDIO: Randy plays discordant note on hurdy-gurdy)

MARK: Somehow that’s giving a minor third...

RANDY: Yes, it is!

(AUDIO: Randy tries again, with same result...)

MARK: No, don’t push it in so hard.

RANDY: (finally getting it right) Oh! Oh, I see what you’re saying—yeah, okay!

(AUDIO: Hurdy-gurdy sounds a drone in C, as Mark plays melody on psaltery)

RANDY: Mark Roark Chartier would one day like to have a website to demonstrate and, hopefully, to sell his instruments. But for now he relies mostly on word-of-mouth and the occasional public performance. Well, I can make this guarantee: this is the ONLY time you’ll ever hear me attempting to play ANY musical instrument publically! For KSMU, I’m Randy Stewart.

(AUDIO: psaltery & hurdy-gurdy duet)