Triangle Music

Christine Balfa playing the triangleWhile driving home from work today, I listened with interest to a review of a solo triangle album on NPR. Great, I thought.

You see, the triangle is an oft-maligned instrument. It is frequently the butt of jokes. For example, it’s not hard to find lark “how to play the triangle” videos on YouTube where the punchline is some variation of just hit it with the little stick, stupid.

I can sort of understand the intent of the humor. The “instructor” whacks the triangle willy-nilly with no thought to technique. It’s supposed to be funny in the same way how to boil water lessons are, but I know better. It’s a lot harder to play the triangle well than it is to boil water.

As an undergrad I took a one-credit percussion class and, believe it or not, the triangle was the instrument I had the most trouble with. You must hold it so it rings out pure when stuck, but also so you can dampen it when the time is right. And you mustn’t dampen it too quickly (unless you’re going for this effect) or it will make an ugly choking sound; you must dampen it gently. Also, the coordination between the striking hand and the dampening hand can be nontrivial for rhythmic passages. In short, the YouTube jokesters have underestimated the level of skill the triangle demands.

Some jazz tunes start with a nice triangle into. I intended to link to one here, but I wasn’t able to find one on YouTube or elsewhere. (If you know of one, please leave a comment.) However I did find a couple of legit YouTube clips demonstrating triangle technique.

But back to the NPR review. The album is Christine Balfa Plays the Triangle. It’s 55 minutes of unaccompanied Cajun triangle, which sounds good in theory but in practice it is ostinato triangle. Evidently each five-minute track consists of the same measure repeated over and over with essentially zero variation. And as the review (the audio, not the text) points out, the tracks themselves don’t really vary from each other either. Also, the triangle itself seems to be of the larger/darker variety for this recording and is never allowed to ring out with the glorious unmuted triangle sound, except possibly at the end of a track.

Had this review aired thirteen days earlier it would have been taken as an April Fools’ Day joke, and a decent one at that. The disc’s label itself calls it “the perfect gag gift,” which I guess explains its low $6 list price. I call it a wasted opportunity.