Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Cacophany of Musical Playthings in the Desert // The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix

Full Article HERE // Excerpt Below

There are complete skins of animals, dried, tied and knotted, their orifices fitted with hollow canes and reeds. Other hides are stretched taut over enormous gourds. Strings, spun from intestines, are pulled and pegged into the ends of long necks. Antlers, bones and horns are cut, carved and drilled. Elephant, goat, antelope, lizard, gazelle — the skins of all are used.

It isn’t the scrapheap of an abattoir, but it can seem like one.

Music is noble, ethereal, seductive, thrilling, but spend time gazing at some of the 12,000 instruments that the new Musical Instrument Museum has collected in time for its Saturday opening — about 3,000 are on display in a new 190,000-square-foot building on 20 acres in northern Phoenix — and you are overwhelmed by something else. These instruments from around the world are haunted by the animal world and its natural setting.

It is so easy today to think of instruments as the products of manufacture that you can be unprepared for their primal invocations. They boast of the rawness of their natural origins, sometimes displaying it in furs or skins, sometimes merely evoking it with inchoate cries of the inhuman. Skins and bone are wrested into shape — stretched, pulled, hammered, pressed — until these instruments are prepared to sing, shout or pulse.

We often think about musical culture from the other end of its life, from the sounds being produced. At this museum, though, you are faced again and again with music’s origins — with its means, not its ends.

Those origins may not always be obvious, particularly when you walk into the museum’s collection of mechanical instruments and watch the 27-foot-wide Decap mechanical jazz orchestra (built in the 1930s in Antwerp, Belgium) play two saxophones, two accordions, a xylophone and a drum kit as it reads signals off reams of programmed, punctured paper. But in general, instruments anticipate the transformational work of the music they play: they take elements of the instinctive, animal, irrational world and shape it. They transform nature into culture. There may be no more important civilizing work. We like to think of it as play.

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