Musical Instrument Museum Plays Many Tunes

Visitors strum and pluck in Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum

In the Musical Instrument Museum’s Experience Gallery visitors can try an assortment of instruments for themselves.
PETER NEVILLE-HADLEY/Meridian Writers’ Group

ON THE northern edge of Phoenix, amongst widely spaced buildings and tracts of arid and as yet undeveloped land, stands the brand-new, state-of-the-art, $250-million Musical Instrument Museum or MIM, housing a spectacular collection of over 10,000 curiosities from every corner of the globe.

Even the most dedicated musicologist will be impressed, but beyond the white crescent of the lobby atrium, which is pleasingly cool in the heat of the Arizona day, there’s much that’s craftily designed to please even the completely tone-deaf.

Regardless of their sound, many of the instruments are remarkably beautiful to look at, with complex carving or decoration or with their simple functional beauty highlighted by display on plain white walls. There are long-forgotten or little-known mutations such as the bizarre strohlviol, part fiddle, part gramophone horn, from early 20th century Paris; and the curious, 14th-century Scandinavian nyckelharpa, part violin and part hurdy-gurdy. The writhing shape of the 16th-century wind instrument aptly called a serpent is echoed in the tangle of cables from an early synthesizer.

Given its interest in sound, the museum is unexpectedly quiet. Each visitor is provided with a wireless headset, and each display includes high-definition video screens showing performances on the relevant instruments. These start up as they are approached and provide a private performance via the earphones.

Inevitably this young museum is stronger on world music and popular music than on historic instruments, and if you want to see Bach’s harpsichord, for instance, you’ll have to go to Berlin. But the white grand piano on which John Lennon composed “Imagine” is here, together with a video of him playing it, as are the guitars of Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and other rock stars. It’s like the Hard Rock Café without the bad food.

Many displays have additional visual elements including colourful traditional dress, props from Japanese theatre and a recreation of a Jesuit mission in Bolivia that used 17th- and 18th-century music for evangelical purposes, accidentally founding a tradition of Baroque performance and composition that continues to this day, absorbed and adapted by indigenous people.

But it’s not all about looking and listening. In the Experience Gallery there’s an opportunity to get your hands on assorted harps, Indonesian gamelan percussion instruments, various species of guitar and, best of all, a theremin.

This precursor of the synthesizer, whose hypnotic, eerie electronic wail featured in the original (1951) The Day the Earth Stood Still, is played simply by gesturing near two antennae, one controlling volume and the other pitch. Playing it is easy, although playing it well is very hard. Just trying to play it is a lot of fun.

But perhaps one of the museum’s most memorable exhibits is one that everyone can play like a maestro. A sign gives its constituents as nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and dreams, and there it is in a Plexiglas case, invisible but for its stand.

It’s a corpophone, better known as an air guitar.



For more information on the Museum of Musical Instruments visit its website at www.themim.org.

For information on travel in Arizona visit the Arizona Office of Tourism website at www.arizonaguide.com.