By Lara Pellegrinelli
The surest route to a drummer’s heart? Cymbals.
“You can have all the swirling harmony in the world,” the drummer Brian Blade said, “but only the cymbals can put you over the top of that mountain you’re trying to climb. The tension is the beauty of it, like riding a wave until you need it to crest.”
Mr. Blade, who is best known for playing with the country music singer Emmylou Harris and the jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, said he thinks of his cymbals as an extension of himself, though he also gives credit for his distinctive sound to the instruments he plays: Zildjians. He has endorsed the brand for 20 years, just one in a long, diverse roster of musicians to do so.
Zildjian was incorporated in the United States in 1929. But the company’s relationship with drummers, and drumming itself, dates back much further: 400 years to be precise, to 1618, when a secret casting process resulted in the creation of a new bronze alloy for the court of Sultan Osman II, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire.
“My father always said that the name is bigger than any one person in the family,” said Craigie Zildjian, the company’s chief executive officer (the first woman to have the job), a member of the family’s 14th generation of cymbal makers. “In other words, you have this little piece of 400 years. Don’t screw it up.”
For the 3,000 or so years before 1618, cymbals had evolved very little. The earliest evidence of them can be found on pottery fragments from Hittite Anatolia dating to the Bronze Age. Metallic percussion was long part of the military music for Turkic tribes including the Seljuks, who migrated to the Middle East in the 11th century. (Some “had horns, others pipes and timbrels, gongs, cymbals and other instruments, producing a horrible noise and clamor,” reads a description of battle during the Third Crusade.)
The sound quality of these boisterous instruments might have left something to be desired by the 17th century, an age of Ottoman musical refinement. It was then that Avedis I, a 22-year-old Armenian metal smith and aspiring alchemist, learned that mixing ample tin into copper would produce a rich, robust sound. But he faced a formidable problem. “It’s a very brittle alloy,” Paul Francis, Zildjian’s director of research and development, said. “It will shatter like a piece of glass.”
Then Avedis I made a music-altering discovery — still carefully guarded by the family — that involved forging a metal so flexible it could be repeatedly heated, rolled and hammered into the finest instruments. “He was looking for gold,” Mr. Francis said. “As far as I’m concerned, he found it.”
Osman II thought so: He granted the young artisan permission to make instruments for the court and gave him the Armenian surname Zildjian (meaning “son of cymbal maker”). The family set up shop in the seaside neighborhood of Samatya in Constantinople, where metal arrived on camel caravans and donkeys powered primitive machines.
Those working in Zildjian’s shop produced cymbals for the mehter — monumental ensembles with double reeds, horns, drums and other metallic percussion that belonged to the empire’s elite janissary military corps. The Zildjians likely also did business with Greek and Armenian churches, Sufi dervishes and the Sultan’s harem, where belly dancers wore finger cymbals.
“Military music was a branch of their classical music,” Walter Zev Feldman, the author of “Music of the Ottoman Court,” said. Although mehter ensembles were known in the West for playing in battle, they also performed courtly suites for its rulers, like those by Solakzade Mehmed (1592-1658), who wrote under the name Hemdemi.
Every morning before prayer, and every evening after prayer, ensembles gathered to play from castle towers, including one above the gardens of Topkapi Palace. Hand-held cymbals measuring a foot or so in diameter probably marked the rhythmic cycles, which Mr. Feldman said “are among the most complex in the world: cycles of 24, 28, 32 and even 48 beats.”
It’s no wonder that composers like Gluck and Mozart wanted to emulate a Turkish style with busy, glittering percussion. Precisely what Ottoman music they heard is an open question, though. A handful of European rulers adopted mehter ensembles or sent their kapellmeisters to Constantinople to learn the tradition, but the composers more likely were exposed, Mr. Feldman said, to “klezmorim, local Jewish musicians, in places like Prague and Berlin, who had learned the Ottoman repertoire.”
What came to be known simply as “Turkish cymbals” were assimilated by European orchestras and, in the first half of the 19th century, into new military and wind band styles that thoroughly integrated West and East. Meanwhile, the janissaries, having assassinated one too many sultans, were outlawed and executed in 1826 — as were their mehter musicians. The Zildjians lost a significant portion of their market.
Avedis II built a 25-foot schooner to transport the first cymbals physically bearing his family’s name to London for the Great Exhibition, the first world’s fair, in 1851. His brother Kerope assumed the company helm in 1865, establishing a line of instruments named K Zildjian in several sizes and thicknesses that are still prized by percussionists today.
Those old K’s — which possess the “sound of two gladiator swords meeting,” in the words of Armand Zildjian, Craigie’s father — can be heard in the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Metropolitan Opera orchestras, among others. Gregory Zuber, the Met’s principal percussionist, said, “It’s a tradition that’s been handed down from player to player” and that can be heard in the tremendous, exposed crashes that heighten the drama of the 19th-century operas.
In America other musical forms began to shape, and be shaped by, the cymbal’s evolution. Avedis III, a Boston candy maker who left Turkey before the Armenian genocide, was reluctant to take over the family business when it was thrust upon him by his uncle Aram in 1927. But he changed his mind after checking out the growing dance band scene: “I saw the possibility that even if there wasn’t a market we could create one,” he recalled in a 1975 interview with The Armenian Reporter.
According to Jon Cohan’s book “Zildjian: A History of the Legendary Cymbal Makers,” drum shops and catalogs in the 1920s were likely to carry only so-called Oriental cymbals, American ones made of brass and nickel silver, and the weighty K’s from Constantinople. Avedis III sought out swing drummers, like Gene Krupa, and learned that they preferred Turkish cymbals but wanted them to be thinner and more responsive — “paper thin,” as Krupa put it.
The new instruments Avedis III developed and trademarked under his name had the crispness to cut through the sound of a big band. And, paired in hi-hats, cymbals took over the time keeping responsibilities from the laboring bass drum, a technique pioneered by Jo Jones of the Count Basie Orchestra.
“It gave you that upbeat that puts the snap in a dancer’s foot: down, chit; down, chit,” said Mr. Blade, who uses 1940s-era Avedis Zildjians in his drum kit. By the mid-1930s, celebrities including Chick Webb, Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton were coming to the Zildjian factory in Quincy, Mass., to pick out their cymbals, with help from Avedis’s fine ear.
His experimentation producing novel cymbal types — swish and sizzle, bounce and crash — would inspire a new generation of musicians to utilize a broader sonic palette. The bebop drummer Kenny Clarke led the pack by keeping a flexible, furiously paced, highly individualistic beat, probably on 17-inch Zildjian bounce cymbal. That instrument, later named a ride, became a cornerstone of modern drumming.
Touring the factory, which now sits in a leafy industrial park in Norwell, Mass., is the drummer’s equivalent of stumbling into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams,” Mr. Francis, the director of research and development, said, quoting the movie, as he led the way on a recent visit.
A line of Gen16 products attempts to create an electronic cymbal that looks and feels like a real cymbal instead of a drum pad. A low-volume practice cymbal that looks like mesh is selling well among drummers in Asia who live in apartments with thin walls.
The lobby has the feel of a show room, with kits on display that belonged to Travis Barker (Blink-182), Tré Cool (Green Day) and Ginger Baker (Cream), along with a replica of Ringo Starr’s. “We all know what happened in 1964,” Mr. Francis said, referring to the British Invasion. “We had 90,000 cymbals on back order.”
A lounge gives drummers a place to try out their instruments or simply hang out while waiting for an order. Some, like Joey Kramer of Aerosmith and the famed session musician Steve Gadd, prefer to watch from the factory floor.
Metal glows hot from the furnace, and rolling machines spit out silvery pancakes of zinc-oxide-coated bronze, collected with coal shovels. Armand Zildjian modernized the factory using robots to remove the most burdensome physical labor and offer greater precision in tasks like hammering. (His younger brother Bob broke from the company 1981 and founded his own cymbal manufacture, Sabian, in Canada.)
Today, each instrument still passes through the hands of dozens of highly skilled workers. “Paper thin” is not measured by tiny calipers, but by lathe operators shaving off golden ribbons and checking to make sure their work falls within a certain range on digital scales.
The head cymbal tester, Leon Chiappini, who has worked at the factory for 57 years, listens to each one multiple times with a standard in mind and pairs them. But like drummers, no two are exactly alike.