To play in tune together, musicians have to tune their instruments together using a fixed pitch as a standard. For most ensembles today, that standard is A 440, meaning the note A above middle C is tuned to a frequency of 440 Hz. But how did that pitch become fixed at 440 Hz?
The answer lies in the Deagan Building, a hundred-year-old factory in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood that is now home to Century Mallet Instrument Service. The building has produced some of the world’s finest percussion instruments by J.C. Deagan, Inc., founded by J.C. Deagan himself.
Deagan not only set standards for building instruments, but he also helped establish standards for tuning them. Watch the video below to find out why Deagan advocated for using A 440 as a standard pitch.
So curiously, though many people think of primarily unpitched instruments when it comes to the percussion family, pitched percussion instruments helped establish A 440 as a standard to tune all instruments. After decades of Deagan lobbying, the American Standards Association established 440 as standard pitch in 1936.
One time, the Deagan Building was completely devoted to manufacturing instruments. One hundred years after the building was erected, you’ll still find some of the best percussion instruments in the world inside at Century Mallet Instrument Service.
The company was founded in 1980 by Gilberto Serna, who trained and worked with Deagan for over 15 years. Today, the company is owned by Andres Bautista, and services instruments from some of the world’s leading musical institutions including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, and Royal Opera Stockholm.
Summer is an especially busy time at Century Mallet since most orchestras and conservatories aren’t as active as they are during the regular concert season. Century Mallet does everything from small instrument repairs to full restorations, which can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks to several months.
In the tradition of J.C. Deagan, Inc., Century Mallet repairs and restores primarily pitched percussion instruments like marimbas, xylophones, and vibraphones. Of course, the percussion family includes many more instruments than that, which is one reason all-percussion ensembles might be so popular today.
“Almost anything can be a percussion instrument,” Bautista explained. “There’s been a resurgence of interest in percussion music today that started in the middle of the 20th century, in part, because of John Cage. Cage himself was a big percussionist and did a lot of percussion ensemble stuff. There was definitely music for percussion ensemble before Cage, but he helped develop a lot of interest in percussion music that’s continued into what we see today. There’s something kind of primal that takes place with percussion music.”
There’s something so primal about percussion instruments, that they’ve impacted how we tune all instruments.