The word dulcimer is derived from a combination of dulcis, the Latin word for sweet, and the Greek word for song, melos. The word quite literally means "sweet song." And generally speaking, the hammered dulcimer, and its sonic partner the Appalachian dulcimer, is often used for the creation of sugary tunes, even if its lyrics may express deep longing and sorrow.
It was, of course, only a matter of time before some daring musicians divested both strains of dulcimer from its original context, using the instrument's singular tones to communicate something even more deep-seated and almost inexpressible, or with the goal of subverting listeners' expectations completely.
The instrument that has been used most to those ends has been the Appalachian dulcimer. Usually sent through a bank of effects to add further ghostly beauty to its sound, you can hear it haunting tracks by Amps For Christ and Hala Strana and, here at home, with the recent recordings of Inez Lightfoot.
Known in real life as Jacqueline McDowell, the musician has already compiled a healthy discography of noise and sound collage work but has been slowly evolving to include more traditional songwriting. One step in that process has been the introduction of the Appalachian dulcimer to her arsenal.
"I love string instruments of all kinds," McDowell says one cold morning at Maplewood Coffee. "I grew up in rural southern Illinois with a lot of bluegrass, with string bands all around me. It resonated with me. That's what brought me to the dulcimer."
The instrument works with the same principles of a guitar: you strum the strings while moving your hands or a slide up and down its fretboard. But unlike its musical relative, the dulcimer sits in the player's lap and tends to have only three or four strings. The resultant sound often has a steely, droning quality, which is often emphasized in less traditional settings.
"It's really easy to play, actually," McDowell says. "There's really no wrong note on it. It's good for a solo player, too. When you show up for a bluegrass jam night, everyone has to play to it because it doesn't have multiple keys."
On some recordings, McDowell layers the sound of the dulcimer using loops and effects but, as on the two tracks that bookend her most recent album, Familiars (released late last year on Digitalis), she can also play it straight. On those songs, she tries her hand at the traditional folk-gospel songs "Holy Holy Holy" and "Shenandoah."
The opening track, which offsets the melody of "Holy Holy Holy" with ghostly reverb and the slow introduction of a crackly spoken word sample, especially helps establish that the album is not going to fall under the jagged purview of McDowell's earlier efforts, something that has been a concern of hers lately.
"I was lumped in with the experimental synth scene early on because I released a tape on Stunned Records," she says. "I don't listen to or relate to that kind of music at all. It has nothing to do with folk-inspired music."
A musician like Botanist would have no such issues. Because, simply put, there are no other musicians like Botanist.
The enigmatic artist (known as Otrebor, he never performs live and would only agree to an e-mail interview) plays an absolutely distinctive brand of black metal that centers on the burbling vocals and his whipcrack drum sound, both intensified by his other chosen instrument: the hammered dulcimer.
"The first time I had heard mention of the instrument was no doubt in the liner notes of a Rush album," Otrebor writes. "I believe it was Test for Echo, where it is listed as a 'hammer dulcimer,' which though technically incorrect, sounds way cooler and made me want to find out more. When I did, it turned out the hammered dulcimer invokes a clean, ancient, classical, timeless sound for me, one in which harmony is ever-present."
On previous albums, the dulcimer is played straight, its glassy tones stinging each song. But on his upcoming LP IV - Mandragora (out February 19th on The Flenser), Otrebor sends the instrument through effects pedals, which lend it a more guitar like tone.
Strange as it may seem, the hammered dulcimer is actually a very fitting choice for Botanist's musical intentions. Versions of the instrument—a trapezoidal box with metal strings of varying sizes stretched across it—have been around for at least 5,000 years, according to the Smithsonian. Otrebor sees it as the "ideal conduit" for his songs.
"The music of Botanist is meant to represent the Plantae Kingdom," he writes. "Its form, its beauty, its function, all in an artistic or literal way. The music is meant to give each individual denizen a voice. Collectively, it is the voice of The Verdant Realm."
Lyrically, these ideas go even deeper. Almost all the songs are named for a different plant, and gives the first five tracks on IV over to a chilling suite of songs to the figure of a mandragora, a demon borne from both human and plant life who comes to wipe mankind off the planet. It also reflects the dual use of the mandrake, members of the plant genus mandragora, which can be used to heal and hurt.
"The songs are all told from the perspective of The Botanist, a scientist that goes mad from witnessing what he sees as Mankind’s crimes against Nature," Otrebor writes. "He views plants as the pinnacle of beauty and harmony, but also sees them for any ability they have to strike back against their human oppressor. However, in order for The Botanist to witness the floral apocalypse, the end of humanity, he will necessarily have to outlive it. Thus, he also focuses on the species’ beneficial qualities."
A far cry from the sweet songs that gives the instrument its name, but like the spectral sound of the dulcimer, something that will stick deep within in you once you hear it.