When we hear the word alphorn, chances are we think of a guy in lederhosen standing in the Swiss Alps blowing on something that looks like a really long pipe…
Well I admit it, until I saw the following saxophone-shaped alphorn by Bernatone, the above stereotype was alive and well in my head. (This stereotype was furthered by knowing my sax tech, who happens to come from the Swiss Alps, and plays the alphorn.)
Long pipe-like alphorns step aside, there’s a new kid on the block… One inspired by the shape of none other than Adolphe Sax’s saxophone—or maybe Benedikt Eppelsheim’s Tubax. (My money’s on the latter actually.)
Irregardless of what inspired this alphorn’s design, the company that made it is Switzerland’s Bernatone. According to the company’s website, this instrument is called the Alpensaxophon (alpsaxophone), and will set you back CHF 5’400 (that’s $5,524.42 US according to xe.com—and yes, the Swiss Franc is worth more than the US greenback.)
The history of the alphorn, its design, and what it does musically
Although now used musically, alphorns originally were used as a form of communication in the isolated mountainous regions of Europe. In the days prior to satellite communication, farmers checked in with those in the valleys below by signalling with their alphorns. They informed the villagers if all was OK up in the alps.
Like the saxophone, the alphorn’s design is a conical bore. Where it radically differs however, is that it doesn’t use a reed. The saxophone uses a cup mouthpiece, which despite also being made of wood, makes the alphorn a brass wind, and not a woodwind instrument.
Since it has no openings other than the bell and socket that receives the mouthpiece, the alphorn is capable of playing the pure, natural harmonic series through its open pipe.
Although there are literally thousands of video clips available that demonstrate the alphorn being played in traditional music, there is one Swiss musician who is challenging everything you think you know about these traditional Swiss instruments.
Eliana Burki is a young Swiss alphorn player whose main influences are jazz, blues, and funk. She is a pioneer in playing alphorn in these modern styles of music, and is the only one in the world playing these styles on the instrument. As she explains in this podcast, playing alphorn like this is extremely physically demanding. Her shows are 90 minutes long, plus she practices up to 4 hours a day. The following interview is in German, but interspersed between the interview clips are samples of her playing. (Check out 3:05 especially.)
Burki plays a wide array of alphorns, including an Alpensaxophon. The following screenshot of Eilana Burki performing with her Alpensaxophon was taken from video of a December 2012 performance in Hong Kong.
If you’d like to compare what a few different alphorns sound like, the source video for the above screenshot is a really good primer. I should mention that the Alpensaxophon makes its appearance near the end at 5:20—right after a wicked guitar solo.