The baliset was a nine-stringed musical instrument, lineal descendant of the zithra, tuned to the Chusuk scale and played by strumming. The baliset was a favorite instrument of Imperial troubadors.
Gurney Halleck owned a baliset, and often played it while reciting proverbs or singing folk songs for entertainment. Often he would entertain family members of House Atreides before the attack on Arrakis.
The lyre, lute, and zythra were early ancestors of the baliset. Larger instruments lost favor with the space travel since vehicles were very limited in areas for storage. Perhaps the most successful instrument was the crohm-vellar-a small, stringed tambourine with the advantage of clinging to space-suits. Then the fardahggen and vintule developed.
Both of these were early and small versions of the baliset, but both were overwhelmed with sometimes three, or four drone strings, far too many. The baliset grew out of the colonization of space colonies. At the same time, this instrument needed to be compact enough for individuals to take along on any voyages, planetary or space. The baliset grew out of expedience.
During the time of Leto II Atreides, scientists and artists observed a decline of the baliset culture: loss of apprentices applying to their studios, troubadors met infrequently on the road and heard rarely in town squares. The noble families seemed not to encourage young people to learn the intricacies of playing the instrument and few common folk could afford one. As a beg to differ, the birth town of Varota on the planet Chusuk planned an annual baliset festival in honor of the famous artist. Players from around the galaxy were expected to attend hoping to spur interest in the baliset again.
The baliset consists of a resonance chamber, neck, head, nine strings, and tuning knobs. The embellishments on the baliset strap usually display the player's station and origins. Each baliset is traditionally inscribed with the birthname of the individual who commissioned it.
Each of the strings is capable of producing pitches between those of its neighbors, (e.g. the highest note of its lower neighbor and the lowest note of the next higher). The strings are tuned in a seven tone scale with no half-tones. Seven of the strings are pitched in quarter intervals beginning with C. The pattern evolves as C-F-B-E-A-D-C. These tones are equally tempered. The absence of half tones makes equal temper mandatory. Strings 8 and 9 are drones places at the side of the neck of the instrument. They are essentially bass strings, set to the pitch appropriate tor the mode desired by adjusting the notes attached to the body of the instrument, responsive to the particular harmonics involved in the chord being played. This characteristic makes the baliset so effective in evoking semuta music. In effect the atonal combination of pitches in semuta is given both support and surrealistic intensity by the drones.
The lower pitched strings are wrapped in additional filaments with attention (even to the number of wraps per millimeter). Each string is attached to the baliset at the foot by twisting it around tiny hooks below the resonance aperture. At the head each string is wrapped around its own tuning knob. The first and original tuning is of utmost importance because it ensures that only minor tuning adjustments will be needed in the future.
The making of a baliset involves strict discipline and nearly mindless obedience. The consummate artistry of a luthier such as Varota coordinates the efforts of his apprentices and produces an instrument which is itself a work of art
Originally all balisets were made of elacca wood, but the proclivity of that substance to translate any atonal music into semuta music precluded its continued use. The Butlerian Jihad and its scrutiny of all machines and instruments of any kind resulted in the prohibition of the use of elacca wood in the construction of balisets. Ahdn-Hahd began his work in stimic; a fibrous resin and balisets were made in commercial quantities for sale. Surviving elacca wood balisets are considered rare antiques, kept under tight security.
Ahdn-Hahd developed the techniques used to this day according to which balisets are made entirely of stimic. Fifty-seven sheets of the material are treated with heat, an exacting process involving precision timing. The sheets are exposed to one hour of intense sunlight beginning precisely at high noon for 100 days. The rays of the sun strike the heart of the stimic at the properly progressing angles, guaranteeing lasting strength and resonance. According to Varota on Chusuk, carelessness or a mistake in this process would destroy the tone quality of the instrument.
At the end of the prescribed time, the sheets are placed over the baliset master form and returned to the sunlight where it remains until sundown. Thereafter it is turned hourly, day and night, for forty days. The warming during daylight hours and the cooling at night while Chusuk's three moons complete their circuit account for the gradual melding of die layers of stimic into a harmonious whole.
No matter how carefully the forming process has been earned out some qualitative differences of tonal substance will exist in each new instrument. Through judicious buffing and planning, the still-incomplete baliset is given its own individual sound characteristics. Beyond this the characteristic built into the body must be honored by the qualities of the nine strings. A baliset of authoritative tone would resent gentle strings, just as harsher strings on a more subdued instrument would be an indignity.
The strings themselves are produced by stretching long filaments of stravidium until the proper dimension is achieved. The speed with which the filaments are stretched dictates the tone quality of the string. Rapid stretching produces a narrower, more strident tone while slow stretching results in a kinder sound. Another consideration exists in the fact that the filaments cannot be cut to the required length: it must be stretched to measure. If a particular filament is stretched too far or not far enough, it must be discarded and the process begun again.
Behind the scenes
Much of the details concerning the history and nature of the instrument derive from The Dune Encyclopedia.
In the 1984 movie, a baliset was constructed from a Chapman Stick. The short cue seen played by Halleck is actually a part of the track Back Yard played by Emmet Chapman himself. The scene was cut in the final release and can be seen only in the extended versions.
Notably, the movie version of the instrument features an electric fan at the bottom.