In Search of the Simantron
As we approach Easter, I am listening again to one of my favorite CDs, a recording of an Eastern Orthodox Easter celebration. It opens with the wonderful sound of the simantron. I have been researching this ancient instrument for some time. My interest in it had an odd point of departure—vampire movies. All my life I have enjoyed the vampire genre as entertainment and for a while was reading up on the folklore that is the basis for so many books, short stories, and movies. I eventually came across a film called Vincent Price’s Dracula, which purports to deal with much of the historical and mythological data. Well, I’m not suggesting you go too far out of your way to see this movie, but there is one sequence in it that sort of changed my life and led me into the research that I will share with you here.
In discussing the traditional vampire hunter’s bag of tricks, Price demonstrates a really tiny replica of something called a tuaka. Then some brief but quite beautiful documentary footage of Romanian priests using the real thing is shown. Our illustrious host explains that the tuaka is used to frighten any vampires that might be lurking nearby and to keep them at bay. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox priests are announcing the hours of prayer.
So, what is a tuaka, and how does it work? It is simple indeed—a wooden board, hit with a hammer. Typical examples are five to six feet long, symmetrical in shape and design. A notch is cut away from both edges at the center, for balancing it in the left hand while striking with the right. Most are fairly narrow, but some of the Bulgarian ones are quite wide. Fairly simple design elements are often employed, such as cutting a V shape into each end or, more often, carving each end to a near circle. The Bulgarians seem to like drilling lots of holes in theirs to improve resonance. (It doesn’t, but we don’t need to go there now.)
Simantron seems to be the most common name for this percussive implement that has primarily ecclesiastical, but also secular, applications. I have also found it referred to as tuaka (touka), simander, simandrum, talantron (or talanton), and klepalo. One Bulgarian researcher refers to it (in English translation) only as a “clapper.” And apparently in some monasteries it is actually named Adam (more on that later).
Obviously, it is known by many names, depending in part on one’s language or dialect. Sometimes (e.g. klepalo—Serbian) the name would seem to be onomatopoeic (like our “cock-a-doodle-doo”; klepalo is not a Serbo-Croatian word). Sometimes (talantron) it might be named for its association with the words of a chant.
The instrument also exists in a variety of forms. The handheld type is wooden, but wooden ones may also be suspended, like gongs. Some suspended ones are metal, and some have metal nailed onto wood. Many references I have found are written by tourists of monasteries, so their information is sometimes a little vague. Sources that would appear to be more authoritative make a distinction between the wooden simantron and the metal talantron, and such a differentiation is, in my opinion, quite likely.
Early in my investigation I happened to run into an acquaintance from grad school, a filmmaker from Romania, so I asked him about this. He knew nothing of any vampire associations, nor did he mention any religious traditions or practices. He remembered the tuaka as a community signal or alarm, used in Romanian villages to get people together; “Come and get it!” basically. Weddings, political meetings, emergencies, any situation in which you wanted to get people to come from wherever they were, even from the mountains, to gather and participate.
The Vincent Price movie includes documentary footage of just such an occurrence. In it we see a man beating a suspended metal “board” that flares out widely at either end, with two hammers held waist-high. He is not playing rhythms as such, just alternating measured strokes fairly rapidly. He is dressed like a villager, not a monk or priest. As he plays, we see villagers gathering.
The tuakas my Romanian friend remembers were big wooden boards, suspended, hit with two hammers, sometimes for hours at a time. In fact, he said, the men who beat the tuaka would try to out-do each other, carving their best times onto the board.
Other than the competitiveness, this would seem to be much like a practice observed in Zen Buddhist monasteries. Traditionally, the han (Japanese for “wood”) is sounded to wake everyone up and call them to the zendo.
I know very little about the han, but in a religious (especially Zen) setting I would expect its use to be a bit subtler than the farmer’s wife clobbering a triangle to announce dinner. One friend tells me that when he was going to the Zen Center in Los Angeles, two men would play, on opposite sides of the room, starting very slowly, alternating strikes, and very gradually speed up, in hocket, until playing what amounted to a drum roll. That’s not “Come and get it.” That is practiced art-making; that is music.
The favorite CD I mentioned in the opening of this essay is Das Heilige und Grosse Osterfest (The Holy and Great Feast Of Easter) by the Choir of the Monks of Chevetogne—or the “Chevy-Tones” as I like to call them—who are Benedictines from Belgium. I highly recommend this recording (Christophorus CHR 77156) for the beauty of the music and the singing, and for a wonderful example of some really serious simantron playing.
The record begins with a 2:30 track performed entirely on simantron. Given the speed and rhythmic complexity of the material, I suspect the main simantron is suspended and played with two hammers, with a second player using a different, possibly hand-held simantron. And they are clearly not improvising or merely making some noise to attract attention. They are playing a composition, a work with form, content, and structure.
Just what are the simantron‘s rhythms, and where do they come from? The specific vocabulary seems to differ among monasteries, as well as countries. But there would appear to be at least one common determining factor, and that is language. Every source I have found that makes specific mention of the simantron‘s rhythms says they are based on words.
A percussionist friend of mine had the opportunity to spend some time in Bulgaria and returned with a photocopy of a musicological article published in 1985, in Bulgarian and English translation, by Dobri Paliev, on the “clapper” and its use in Bulgarian monasteries. Included in the article are transcriptions of rhythmic patterns, variations, and musical motifs. Paliev says the basic rhythm played is based on the words “Touka, touka, touka, touka, vsichki touka” (Hither, hither, hither, hither, all come hither).
I have read that the name “talant(r)on” derives from a Greek chant that encourages the monks to use their talents, for the glory of God—”To ta-lan-ton to-ta-lan-ton, to-ta-to-ta-to-talanton”—”talanton” being Greek for “talent.” That concurs with what John Tavener says in his book A Composer’s Testament. The previous source also says that another rhythm used is “o ad-am o-ad-am o pro-to-plast-is o ad-am” (Adam, First-created Adam). That would explain why some monasteries actually call the instrument by a proper noun.
Paliev gives some variations on the basic phrase, suggesting that some monasteries prefer slightly different versions, and that more artful or technically accomplished players may get just a bit creative, combining them in personal, quasi-improvisatory, ways. He also gives, in “feathered beam” notation, an example of a common motif—a gradual accelerando/ritardando. That is consistent with my own observations. In every recorded example of simantron playing I have heard, not to mention the han example mentioned above and a Basque example to be cited later, the basic rhythm begins slowly and speeds up (the consequent retard seems to be a Bulgarian thing; everyone else just starts again slowly).
Besides its practical function in monastic life and its evocation of particular words, the simantron seems to have some quasi-poetic, almost metaphorical, associations. You will sometimes read that Noah used it to summon all the animals into the ark. (Actually, I suspect most critters would run and hide.) Some authors say that the sound of the simantron is meant to remind the faithful of the crucifixion, the hammering of nails. I suggest that this is an association only, in the minds of some, and does not constitute the specific purpose or origin of the simantron.
The simantron is, conceptually if not strictly-speaking, a bell.
Now let’s talk a bit about the history of the simantron, and its various roles from ancient to modern times. The simantron dates back to the Byzantine period and is still in use in the Eastern church today. (It is used exclusively in the Eastern church, that being one of the ways the Eastern and Roman Catholic churches have distinguished themselves from one another.) It is also closely associated to the history of Russian bell-making and, in modern times, to religious life in Russia.
Bells are expensive, whereas wood is not. And no special or fancy wood is designated for the simantron; they are made from whatever is readily available. So, many churches or monasteries that could not afford bells would use the simantron instead. Even when bells are on hand, they are not always considered appropriate to the occasion. simantrons are sometimes used in lieu of bells, as a matter of protocol, and often in conjunction with bells (or the talanton).
In Communist Russia religious practices were—how shall we say it—”discouraged.” The simantron could be used in place of bells without attracting undue attention. In fact, sometimes an actual simantron was not even necessary. I have read of people simply running through the neighborhood and hitting doors with a hammer to gather the congregation. And, of course, the Soviet government has not been the only persecutor of Christians. Several articles I have read say the simantron has been useful throughout history in circumstances under which the Christian religion has been particularly frowned upon by the ruling bodies (e.g. in Ottoman Bulgaria).
That about covers the ecclesiastical practice as far as I know it. But what about the simantron‘s secular life? Through a friend’s father, I was able to get some comments from an elderly musicologist in Belgrade. This gentleman remembers seeing simantrons used in town orchestras in Serbia playing polkas and Strauss waltzes. He suggests that it might be the original orchestral “wood block.” I’ll leave that research to someone else, but it’s an interesting idea. I think the woodblock in European orchestra music is probably Chinese in origin. But if you don’t have a Chinese wood block and you do have a simantron, why not use it?
It strikes me as unlikely that—unless you happen to be of the Eastern Orthodox persuasion or, like me, just stumbled upon it—you would ever have heard of a simantron or know what it is. So you don’t find the simantron written for a lot. But there are examples of its use in contemporary music.
Percussionist John Bergamo tells me that when he was a student at the Manhattan School of Music in the fifties, he played the simantron part in a percussion ensemble piece. Unfortunately, the incident is now too distant for John to recall who the composer was. And of course they did not have a simantron at the school; John played a wooden box. More recently, John Tavener has written for simantron in his The Veil of the Temple (2003). I have made simantrons for myself and others, and have included the instrument in several works, including Tuaca: outdoor ritual music for three simantrons (2000) and Chasing the Devil (1995).
What does this wonderful thing sound like, what are its acoustic characteristics?
It’s not hard to imagine; It sounds like you probably think a wooden plank would sound when hit with a hammer. The hammer used is not metal. I prefer to use a hard rawhide hammer (as I would for chimes). Traditional simantron hammers are wooden.
The sound is piercing, a sharp “clack,” with a semblance of pitch but not really a tone. The instrument is very directional. If you are aiming the tip of your simantron at someone twenty feet away, they are likely to be underwhelmed by the sound. But if you turn so the entire length of it is facing them, it is very loud indeed. This is, I suppose, why the monks carry them around the monastery grounds, playing continuously and changing orientation. (Of course, they could be trying to scare the local vampires.) My piece, Tuaca, was composed specifically for a performance in a park in Pasadena. When we turned around while playing, the clacks echoed off the surrounding hills and moved around the park. It was truly a thing of beauty.
As it is simply a board of fixed length, there is really no way to alter the pitch of the simantron. But it does produce different timbres and overtones depending on where you strike it. Striking it near the center emphasizes the fundamental, with higher tones speaking as you approach the end. In the Bulgarian paper cited above, the transcriptions indicate two pitch areas: high and low. And in the Vincent Price movie, the Romanian priests appear to be striking the boards in two places.
I do not think it is appropriate to consider the simantron a pitched instrument. Byzantine liturgical music is based on a system of eight tones. I have found no reference anywhere to the simantron being tuned or any indication that its “pitch” matters in the least, even when used in a liturgy.
Earlier I mentioned the Buddhist “han,” and the simantron has another relative as well. Basque shepherds have a traditional instrument, the txalaparta, which is a board supported at each end by two baskets full of dried corn husks. The corn husks are supposedly for resonance. I put that idea in the same basket as the Bulgarian holes —but we don’t need to go there now.
Anyway, the txalaparta is now always, it would seem, played by two people together. One player keeps the time, like a metronome but gradually speeding up. In between the pulse, the second player fills in eighths and triplets, ad libitum. This continues until they are playing as fast as possible, at which point they just stop. So, like the han playing at L.A.’s Zen Center and other typical examples of the simantron, a sort of musical piece or practice based on the device of accelerando seems to have developed out of what was originally a signal.
The txalaparta let a shepherd in the hills say “I’m here” (much like an American farmer’s “field holler,” I might add). The han calls people living in a community to a practice which may heighten their experience of being. The simantron calls Eastern Orthodox Christians to worship together.
I see all of these activities as life-affirming, having wonderful musical qualities that we can all appreciate and enjoy, whatever our creed or practice or lack thereof. These instruments and their traditions are celebratory and can uplift us all. That is what music does; that is what music is for.
Bells can be solemn; I can play a bell with solemnity. But I have yet to learn how to play the simantron solemnly or in sadness. Maybe it’s only because I’m a percussionist, but damn do I love to play the simantron! I compose for it, I improvise on it for fun, and I beat it on July 4th to announce that the roast pig is ready. And whenever I play it, people seem to lighten up and enjoy it. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this simple but powerful instrument and its tradition, as far as I can tell it. If you want to buy a simantron, well, I don’t think you can, unless there is a ByzantineEcclesiasticalImplementsSupply.com. If you want to make one, e-mail me and I will tell you how. It’s not hard to do. (I don’t make them for sale, only for my own use and as gifts.)
Arthur Jarvinen is a devout surf music practitioner and a simantron enthusiast who also teaches composition at the California Institute of the Arts.