by Richard Nilsen - Apr. 18, 2010 12:20 AM
The Arizona Republic
Phoenix becomes part of an epic musical journey this week.
When the Music Instrument Museum opens its doors Saturday, it will unveil instruments from every continent and culture, the largest collection of its kind in the world, with 14,000 objects. And in its way, it will become the single largest way station for a voyage that has been going on since someone on the Serengeti whacked two sticks together in rhythm.
Music always has been on this journey. As people throughout history traded wares, exchanged ideas, traveled and conquered, they carried music with them, too.
They carried music as a physical thing, the musical instrument itself - strings and woodwinds lugged on horse carts and clipper ships.
But with those instruments and the musicians that played them came the ideas of music, its pitches and rhythms.
With every note that is replayed, this audible journey continues.
"You can talk about music being a universal language, but that's not really true," says the museum's North American curator, Matthew Hill. "Instead, it's a universal behavior. Like language, they're all different. But I don't know of any human culture that doesn't have language of some kind and no culture that doesn't have some form of music."
From large to small, the instruments in the collection reflect that. There is the 12-foot-tall double bass - an "octobass" - that requires a ladder to play and hits notes so deep you feel them in the seat of your pants. There is the lowly walnut, sometimes used ad hoc in Italy to rap out a beat in folk music.
There is the piano on which John Lennon wrote "Imagine," Hardanger fiddles from Norway and a gamelan orchestra from Indonesia.
But this is a museum where hearing is as important as seeing. Viewers roam equipped with headphones, and as they approach each exhibit, the notes start playing.
The state-of-the-art headphones, given out with admission, are activated by proximity to a video screen. Stand in front of one, and you hear the music while watching indigenous musicians perform it.
"The one thing that's missing when you install these objects is the people," says European curator Christina Linsenmeyer. "So, we're trying as much as possible, if we have an image or a video . . . to use that."
On display are the instruments and the music itself, evoking everything from the travels along the ancient Silk Road to the creativity of contemporary rock and roll.
HEARING A JOURNEY
No one knows for sure where the earliest oboe came from, but it certainly evolved along the Silk Road, that ancient trading route across Asia that Marco Polo traveled and still conjures exotic images in the mind's eye.
You can see the oboe in the Persian sorna, the Turkish zurna, the Chinese suona, all variations of the same name, as well as the same instrument.
It came to Europe, and the name changed to shawm, the Medieval predecessor of the oboe.
And it was taken halfway around the world by Portuguese missionaries to Japan, where it became the charumera and the traditional instrument of noodle sellers, and by Spanish colonists to the New World, where it became the chirimia.
You find a surma in Ukraine, a srailai in Cambodia, a shehnai in India.
The journeys are ancient, but the borrowing goes on. Dave Mason played a shehnai in the 1968 Rolling Stones song "Street Fighting Man."
"That's our whole point: There is no such thing as an exotic instrument," Hill says. "There are only instruments you don't know about."
There is no pop, no art, no folk, no high, no low, he says. There is only music and the instruments that are played.
"And it's not just us who say that. That's how musicians have been since Day One."
INSIDE THE MUSEUM
There are 250 high-definition television monitors throughout, with video to watch and hear, through the earphones.
The museum's permanent exhibits are arranged in five galleries according to continent of origin. All but the North American gallery are divided by country, so there is a Peruvian exhibit, a Thai exhibit, a Lithuanian exhibit. In them, the instruments are often displayed as they are used, together in groups.
"We wanted to group the instruments as they would have been played together so it looks like the band just left the stage for a little while, and you come up and instead of punching a number in an audio-guide, this new technology automatically starts playing the soundtrack to the video you are closest to," says Bob Ulrich, the museum's creator and board chairman.
One of the unintended consequences of organizing the galleries by country is that it emphasizes how much things cross borders.
"Take the polka, and you think of an accordion," Hill says. "But you can't imagine a tango without an accordion, either."
MUSIC WITHOUT BORDERS
Perhaps the most remarkable thing to learn about these instruments is that the music isn't even really about the instruments. It is about the ideas, the people - that musical journey.
The name of one genre popular in the U.S. may be derived from the name of an instrument in a language in Africa. The rhythms of spirituals in one culture can become dance music in another.
King Sunny Adé has sold millions of records playing a type of music called juju, which derives from Salvation Army music heard in Nigeria in the 1930s.
"They just started adding drums," says African curator Amanda Villepastour. "One theory about the name juju is that it comes from a Yoruba word for playing a tambourine."
Adé also added pedal steel guitar, which had previously been used only in Hawaiian music and American country music.
All music is a mix, one culture borrowing from another.
"I was at a conference in Durban, South Africa, at the university there, and I found that the most popular area of study is opera," she says. "Go figure. The music of the White oppressors. They love it. Is it because it represents power? It might be. But they might just love the sound of it, or there might be something in a lot of opera that relates to Zulu music. I don't know what the connection is, but they're nuts about it."
People have been borrowing forever, Hill says.
Take Paul Simon's "Graceland," he says, with its famous rhythms and guitar licks borrowed from African pop. "Is this a big deal, using African musicians? Not really. That's how musicians have been since the beginning."
Asian curator Jennifer Post brings that home when she tells about a trip to Mongolia.
"I might be hanging out in a very remote area with a family in a yurt, and one member of the family says, 'I'm getting on my horse and riding across the border into China to buy a solar panel to run our black-and-white television.' He disappears and comes back. And after sharing a sheep that they've slaughtered for me and sleeping on the floor and all that, they then turn on the television, and we listen to hip-hop from Kazakhstan."
To Hill, the journey of music and its instruments is much like the journey of humanity itself.
"It's not neat," he says. "It's big, messy, complicated, and it doesn't tie up neatly."
4/24: Music Instrument Museum opens in Phoenix
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