Showcasing the sounds of harmony

Rena Lev-Bass

What do tobacco cans, goat skin and computers all have in common? Well, apparently they’re all musical instruments.

“What is the definition of musical instrument? It’s something that makes sound. I’d just like people to be struck by the diversity,” said University ethnomusicology instructor Mark Levy.
The Museum of Natural and Cultural History’s newest exhibit, “World Harmony,” demonstrates how people around the world harness their united love for music with wildly different instruments depending on the materials that are available to them. Featuring mostly local artists, the exhibit allows visitors to not only hear, but even play a variety of instruments from around the world.

“It gets to showcase the talent that’s out there,” said the museum’s assistant director Judi Pruitt. “It’s fun. Everyone relates to music. There’s music in every culture.”

The exhibit allows guests to learn about cultural significance of music in other areas of the world.

In Mozambique, bat wings are melted onto a xylophone to help seal the instrument. In New Guinea, only men are allowed to play a large, canoe-like slit drum to signal sacred events such as deaths or social gatherings.

The exhibit also features a guitar-like instrument built from a gas canister, a hunting bow played with the mouth and a bagpipe made from an entire goat skin.

The unique nature of the instruments doesn’t stop there. One Tibetan instrument is made of human bone.

“They’re looking at drums, but you don’t always find one made of human skull caps,” said museum guide Mary Smith, pointing to the most shocking item on display.

Levy agreed that it could be considered a little creepy, but he says there is need to seek understanding in the cultural context of Tibet.

“In the Buddhist view, life is fleeting. Today we look at the exhibit, tomorrow we might be one of those drums,” Levy said.

Pruitt finds that the museum has been a lot noisier recently because of the hands-on section of the exhibit. Pruitt’s personal favorite is the steel drum.

“I don’t know how to play music, but I sounded good playing that drum,” she said.

Although the museum already owned a lot of the instruments it currently features, many of them were sitting on the shelves, unidentified.

“I had to be a detective in many ways,” said Levy, who researched many of the instruments on display.

Some of more obscure instruments, such as an ivory trumpet, gave Levy trouble before he was able to track down the specific tribe that had created it. He is also featured in the exhibit himself, playing Serbian and Bulgarian wind pipes. 

As different as the various instruments are from one another, University professor Jeffrey Stolet’s composition, “Tokyo Lick,” stands out. Focusing intensely on the empty air in front of him, Stolet rapidly moves his hands in front of sensing devices to produce, like a magician, chaotic tonal lines and rapid rhythms.

“I didn’t even know you could make music like that. Very innovative and futuristic,” Pruitt said.

Indeed, to the untrained ear, it might not sound like music at all.

“To the people who are doing it, it’s beautiful,” Levy said.

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