Summer Street Music Series: New Orleans

In the French Quarter, Making Tunes out of Water and Glass

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Peter Bennett and his glass harmonica in Jackson Square, New Orleans.

Peter Bennett and his glass harmonica in Jackson Square, New Orleans. Peter Bennett hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Bennett

Hear excerpts of Bennett's music:

audio icon You Are My Sunshine

audio icon Red River Valley

It's water that gave New Orleans its reason to be — a port on the Mississippi — and it's water that threatens to inundate this low-lying city every time a hurricane enters the Gulf of Mexico. And on the streets of the French Quarter, it's water that earns Peter Bennett his livelihood.

As part of All Things Considered's summer series on street musicians, NPR's John Burnett travels to Jackson Square, New Orleans, to hear Bennett, also known as "The Glass Harper."

Bennett has set up a "glass harmonica" with 26 water goblets forming an instrument that spans two octaves. He fills each glass with a set amount of water, and then to tune his musical vessels, he uses a turkey baster, removing water to raise the pitch or squirting in water to lower the sound.

People have been making music with glass for centuries. The glass harmonica, also called musical glasses, became so popular in Europe in the 17th century that Mozart composed an adagio for it. Today, there are about 40 serious glass musicians in the world. Though a glassblowing company in Massachusetts creates glass instruments of quartz crystal that sell for thousands of dollars, Bennett coaxes music from the common variety.

Every evening, when he's not on the buskers' circuit in Key West, Harvard Square, or Venice Beach, Bennett is in Jackson Square, where the very air seems moist with music, Burnett observes. He competes for spare change with blues men, folkies, jazz bands, the human juke box, as well as tarot card readers, caricaturists, and a man who rides a unicycle and spins basketballs.

Bennett’s eclectic resume includes computer consultant, manager of a metal fabrication company, city clerk of Cortland, New York, and newspaper reporter. He says he became a street performer when his wife kicked him out of their house in central New York State and he didn't want to return to the 9-to-5 world.

After 12 years, Bennett has become a fixture on Jackson Square. One of his regular fans, a realtor from Baton Rouge named Allen Fontenot, was so fascinated by the Glass Harper, Fontenot tried it himself.

"I've tried it at home filling up a couple of wine glasses and it never works for me," Fontenot says. "It's definitely amazing what he does, I definitely recommend any tourist to check him out."

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