Sweet Home Southern Tier
The Crystal City hits perfect note for world renowned glass music instrumentalist Dennis James
By Catherine White, photographs provided by Dennis James
Imagine deciding at the age of 14 what you were going to do for the rest of your life, and that you were confident that it would involve playing obscure instruments, most of which hadn’t been heard for centuries. Dennis James is an internationally revered musician who has spent his life mastering the art of coaxing heavenly sounds from archaic glass musical instruments, starting with the Benjamin Franklin 1761 invention, the Glass Armonica. He’s performed with a variety of classical and contemporary legends in venues across the globe on his varied collection of antique instruments, which he keeps in a beautiful Victorian home in Steuben County where he’s lived for more than a decade.
Born in Philadelphia, PA, and raised in southern New Jersey, Dennis James’ infatuation with the sound of glass began at the impressionable age of 6, as he recalled in a recent interview.
“The trigger of my interest in glass music came from seeing Ben Franklin’s Glass Armonica in Philadelphia at the newly opened downtown Franklin Institute,” Dennis said. “I was transfixed, even just by seeing the instrument.”
It’s his father who Dennis credits with sparking his interest in glass and glass music with visits to two museums, the aforementioned Franklin Institute and the Corning Museum of Glass (CMOG), that would fuel a lifelong love of, and professional connection to, glass.
“The minute we walked into that Philadelphia science museum, it was in the rotunda with the very first showcase when you walked in — and I stopped dead in my tracks, and would not leave it,” Dennis said, recalling the first time he saw Franklin’s own original Glass Armonica on display. “So the rest of the family sort of went off and left me there because it was obvious I would not leave. I was just six years old, and I was fascinated to the point that I still can recall it all, just being transfixed.”
Dennis James' modern recreation of Benjamin Franklin's glass music invention, the Glass Armonica.
Although there was no sound and visitors couldn’t touch it, Dennis recalls how Franklin’s musical instrument invention captivated him and sparked a curiosity that he suspected began with a visit earlier in the year that the family took to CMOG.
“We had gone to the Corning Museum of Glass, and we met Bob Carson, the longtime demonstrator of flameworking at the museum, and he used to have the setup in the main entrance of the museum’s original single round building,” he explained.
“I was five and I was absolutely entranced with him making glass animals. He saw that I wouldn’t leave and I just kept watching and watching and watching,” Dennis remembered.
“He said, ‘Can I make something for you?’ which was really unusual. Apparently, they didn’t just do that but he could see that I was really taken.”
Dennis didn’t let the rare opportunity pass. With impish delight, he requested a jackalope.
“He knew what it was … Bob actually blew one — I still have it — made it for me and I was absolutely thrilled.”
“So, then all of that introduction to glass material, and then the link with having seen the glass Armonica shortly after, really got me going, and I’m sure that that’s the foundation that led to this career.”
Graduating from high school, he moved to the Midwest for college, and remembers making a conscious effort to ensure a stop to the Crystal City every time he visited his New Jersey family home during study breaks. His first professional work was in the Midwest, and then spread out from there to the west coast, starting with touring and then living in California, and eventually migrating to Seattle.
“Then I finally got out of living in apartments and cities, and moved to the Corning area.”
Dennis came to the Southern Tier region during the Great Recession.
“I actually moved to Corning as a result of coming through back in 2007.” he explained. "They offered an introductory course of flameworking for two weeks which I took at the studio. And we learned from Bob Carson, my childhood mentor, to make glass animals. It’s the only time they offered a course to make glass animals and I took it.”
The 2008 U.S. economic recession prompted Dennis, who was living in Seattle, WA at the time, to look for a more affordable locale.
“I was paying over three thousand a month for a loft apartment, and I ended up outright buying a house in Addison, New York, and I’m now paying a third of the Seattle rent cost, and to think … that’s now my mortgage!”
“I’ve filled it with over 300 musical instruments … I’ve got this whole house with a garage, and a half acre backyard. I mean, everything that I couldn’t possibly find nor afford in a city.”
“I’ve lived here ever since and I’m just absolutely thrilled. It’s everything I ever needed and wanted,” he gushed. “It’s a big, old Victorian house, perfectly preserved. Gorgeous place.”
Each of the four-bedrooms of Dennis’ home is filled with the musician’s various pursuits, interests and inventions.
“I began my career as a glass music instrumentalist, invited in the early 1980s by then director Thomas Buechner under the auspices of the Corning Museum of Glass and, of course, I have loved coming back to Corning ever since,” he said. “That was the beginning of it all for me.”
(Photos, left to right) A recent photo of Dennis James' beloved Victorian home in Addison, NY; Dennis with his Glass Armonica, a musical invention created by Benjamin Franklin; and Dennis in a promotional poster for Corning's Music in the Square.
“I had a bond with the glass, and I began my glass career in 1982. I performed at CMOG for the community concert series people at the Corning Museum of Glass. I did a lecture — demonstration and that led to an entire festival of glass music just a year later.”
Dennis is one of very few people in the world to have mastered a musical skill that had not been heard or seen in centuries.
“I began my pursuit in 1982. I just decided that I’m going to play the Glass Armonica and — Boom! — I was the first person to seriously take it up in 200 years,” he said. “I then did a solid 10 years of research and development … I was able to uncover texts that were written in the 18th century on how to play it.”
Dennis said that he found a letter from Benjamin Franklin to a fellow Italian scientist that explained how to make and play his musical invention. He said that "he has, over the years, actually assembled a collection of some 17 original documents that explain how to build and play the Glass Armonica."
“Then it was really a matter of researching to figure out the terms they were using back then and what they meant. And then, of course, getting an instrument of my own to play.”
Dennis ended up building his own, which he calls a “modern recreation” of Franklin’s Glass Armonica.
“I did have to change a few things … but it has all of the Franklin design elements, which is very rare these days. The people that do these imitation devices break so many rules of reproduction. I broke only very minimal, required for modern-day use.”
He explained, “I added an electric motor so that I would have a completely silent drive system to make the bowls spin. That’s the primary thing I did.”
Dennis added a sewing machine motor to his Armonica to make the mechanism for turning the bowls silent.
“There are all sorts of spurious sounds that happen when you play that are very offensive to modern recording and performing needs to the point that I was hounded to replace the direct drive into an electric drive so that we would have a more stable pure sound recreation.”
Once he mastered performing on the instrument, he began accepting invitations to play music created specifically for the Glass Armonica around the world.
“I was able to give my debut performance on my very first instrument in 1988. My performance was with members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, who were brought over to Europe for me to perform my debut in Versailles at the private home of the head of the Baccarat Crystal organization.”
According to Dennis, the company used to make the instrument in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“They wanted to showcase the instrument and so they arranged for me to play and brought over the New York Philharmonic musicians … and that was my debut,” he said.
“I knew then and there that my career was going to take off in directions that I could never have predicted from my hitherto very active organ and keyboardist touring career. All of it went into glass and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
(Photos, left to right) A Cristal Baschet sound sculpture, one of the obscure glass music art instruments that Dennis James can play; Dennis demonstrating how to play the Glass Armonica for YouTuber Rob Scallon; Dennis on Jan. 16, 2024 in a New York City recording session with film score composer Osvaldo Golijov.
He plays many other impressive musical instruments such as the exotic Parisian Cristal Baschet, created in 1954 by Bernard and Francois Baschet. The one that Dennis owns was custom made by inventor Bernard Baschet for him, who he was fortunate to have met and befriended.
His internet interviews have racked up millions of views on YouTube, he’s performed at various music festivals, in prestigious music halls around the globe, and with popular music legends such as Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, who Dennis recorded and toured with for six years, beginning in the late 1990s.
Although Dennis enjoys the small town, big space vibe of New York’s Southern Tier, he doesn’t spend a lot of time resting on his laurels. The septuagenarian’s unique talents are still in high demand. Earlier this month, Dennis was in New York City to perform on his Glass Armonica and Cristal Baschet sound sculpture, in recording sessions with composer Osvaldo Golijov, playing glass instruments in his new score for the soon to be released Francis Ford Coppola film, Megalopolis.
“My Dad told me back when I became professional … ‘You’ve chosen a great career because I understand musician’s never retire. They just get old and die,’” he laughed. “Because they never retire, because you love music … You’re in it, you did it and you just keep on doing it right through your cycle of life.”
For Dennis James, his future plans are crystal clear — he’ll keep performing whenever he’s asked, all while enjoying his life in the Southern Tier.