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Intoxicating Music Wafts From Jamey Turner’s Brandy Snifters

December 19, 1990

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) _ Musician Jamey Turner’s favorite instrument consists of 60 brandy snifters, several jugs of water and a sturdy table, accompanied by a silent prayer that it won’t rain or freeze.

Turner, a 50-year-old resident of this Washington, D.C., suburb, earns his living playing water glasses. As far as he knows, he’s the only full-time, professional water glass musician in the United States, and one of very, very few anywhere in the world.

Simply by rubbing his wet fingers around the rims of glasses partially filled with water - a trick he learned from his parents at the dining room table - Turner can produce some of the most ethereal music this side of heaven.

He has mesmerized audiences from Boston Common to San Diego’s Balboa Park with splayed hands that swoop in deft circles over his sparkling glasses, coaxing them to sing sweetly from Bach, Mozart, Gershwin or the Beatles.

His musical theme song is the ″Ode to Joy″ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which affirms his belief in the brotherhood of mankind.

″My music is part of my ministry,″ says Turner. ″It lifts people’s spirits. It helps them feel closer to God and gives them a sense of joy.″

A former college instructor, photographer and camera salesman, Turner has played the clarinet since he was a fifth-grader in rural Montana. About 15 years ago, he turned to more unusual instruments.

He became a self-taught expert in the glass harp, the musical saw and the ″wrench harp,″ his own invention which features an assortment of household wrenches stretched on a wooden frame with fishing line. ″It produces a wonderful chiming sound,″ Turner says.

He settled on the glass harp, or musical water glasses, and has been playing them ever since.

Turner gives about 200 performances a year, from street corners to concert halls. He has appeared five times with the Philadelphia Orchestra as water glass soloist, and twice with the National Symphony Orchestra.

He has played for TV network shows, hospitals, schools, churches, prisons, corporate meetings, weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs, for a black-tie reception at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and a catfish festival in Mississippi. He even dubbed the music for movie actor Michael Douglas’ water glass scene in ″The War of the Roses.″

Lest anyone think the glass harp is a musical oddity, Turner notes that water glasses were popular classical instruments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Mozart wrote two compositions for water glasses just before he died in 1792, and Beethoven wrote several short serenades for the glass harmonica, a mechanical version invented by Benjamin Franklin. Similar pieces were written by Haydn, Gluck, Saint-Saens and Donizetti.

Turner says he prefers brandy snifters because their curved shape provides a built-in resonating chamber that yields a ″rounder, fuller sound″ than ordinary water tumblers. He favors plain glass over leaded crystal, which rings too long and has sharp edges that hurt his fingers.

″I use only distilled water,″ he said. ″It gives me better friction on my fingers and it makes a lighter, brighter sound than tap water.″

Squirting the water with a pair of oven basters, Turner spends about 15 minutes tuning his snifters, which are strapped to a custom-built wooden table with heavy rubber bands. The notes correspond to nearly all the keys on the upper half of a piano.

An itinerate water glass musician must contend with some frustrating hazards, Turner says.

In the arid Southwest, the notes gradually sharpen as the water evaporates. If it rains, the music goes flat. In Tampa, Fla., one year a post-Christmas cold snap almost froze Turner’s instrument. The high winds accompanying a sudden thunderstorm in New Orleans almost overturned his table.

Through it all, Turner says he is continually awed and humbled by his audiences’ emotional response to his music.

″Water glasses produce a very mellow, genuinely sweet sound that seems to have a universal appeal,″ Turner says. ″People find it very healing. Countless times I look up and see some people crying and nearly everyone smiling. It’s a very joyous instrument.″

After one Bach performance before a sidewalk crowd, he said, ″a teen-age boy came up in tears and whispered in my ear, ‘I don’t have any money to put in your basket, but you saved my life,’ and he ran away. He might have been contemplating suicide, but I’ll never know.″

A lighter moment occurred during a lunch time recital on Wall Street, when Turner overheard one three-piece suit remark to another: ″He’s going to be very successful. Just look at those liquid assets.″

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