Exploring the sound of the Langspil
If you have ever had the pleasure of hearing the drone of a langspil, then you can count yourself very lucky. It looks like a Jenga box and is an oblong string instrument. Örn Magnússon recently crafted a langspil after discovering his passion for the instrument a few years back. “I built my first one with my father in law about a year ago” he explained. “Langspils were first made with driftwood from the beach, but now they are made from birch or wood from the rowan tree in my garden”
The langspil is unofficially recognised as the Icelandic National Instrument, but its popularity on the continent dates back to the time of the Renaissance, somewhere between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. In France it is known as the Epinette Des Osges or in Germany as the Scheitholt. Sources confirm that the langspil variety arrived in Iceland in the eighteenth century. Upon its arrival, the langspil was used at rituals and was not seen as a concert instrument. “It was played in small rooms in houses and sometimes on farms” explains Magnússon. “It was also played at weddings and other gatherings of joy.” Upon hearing the tone, it is possible to imagine the langspil as part of a large, upbeat orchestral backing. Yet, played solo it has a sombre quality that is unlike any other instrument I have ever heard.
Magnússon started to play the langspil two years ago and was drawn to it by its unassuming nature: “It is a very simple instrument. It has frets for one string and the other two are drone strings. Some have five but mine is a simple, old version,” he explained. The Icelandic way of playing the instrument is with a bow, whereas in other cultures a plectrum is used, for example Joni Mitchell plucking the Appalachian Dulcimer variety in North America in her folk songs. Current players include Diddi Fiðla, Chris Foster and Bára Grímsdóttir. Beyond the technical description, Magnússon compares the sound to a human voice: “It gives a very lonely, sweet sound. It has a special kind of pain, a little bit like a tender female sound. It has a melancholy tone and it goes straight to my heart.” The droning quality of the langspil evokes a unique resonance that is uncomplicated in conveying isolation and oneness in an elongated tone. “You could say that the drone is always there. What is the true meaning of the drone? The answer is that things never change, be it in life or some kind of eternity”.