A Sociology of Organology

“How,” asks Kartomi, “do musical instruments reflect the musical thoughts of society?”

What if you asked how musical instruments shape (not just reflect) the musical thoughts (and actions) of a society?

It is possibly a seed for a more sociological approach. It is, potentially, more akin to actor-network theory and implies some role for objects themselves. What are an instrument’s affordances?

Kartomi, Margaret. 1990. On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Instruments in Museums

A klezmer exhibit at the MIM.

The MIM klezmer exhibit.

A couple weeks ago now, NPR ran a short piece that featured the Musical Instrument Museum (the MIM). Ted Robbins quotes director Bill DeWalt noting that the museum is, ironically, “one of the most quiet museums you’ll ever be in.” The reason is that the sound samples illustrating the instruments are heard on headphones. This is the trend in musical museums, I believe, and it matches what I experienced five years ago at the Czech Museum of Music in Prague. Headphones and digital files are certainly one of the amazing technologies that offer a better experience to musical instrument museums!

Last year, when the MIM opened, however, Edward Rothstein was a bit more critical in his New York Times review. Comparing the museum to a “department store” because of its size and architecture, the criticism seemed to be that the collection is too large and lacks a focus in display:

Think of instruments, too, as a kind of raw material that you are confronted with as you walk through the expansive exhibit spaces of this $250 million museum. It is material that the institution celebrates, promotes and sometimes illuminates, and it makes the museum of immediate interest. But the possibilities, for now, are more compelling than the achievements.

Though I saw the museum before its exhibits were fully mounted (and obtained images, text and plans for what was missing), the impact of this institution is in its size, nerve and astonishing quality and character of parts of its collection. But it seems unfinished in ways that should be examined.

In any case, I want to go to the museum, and I encourage anybody in Phoenix to check it out! Have you been? What do you think?

The Musical Instrument Museum is at 4725 East Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix; (480) 478-6000; themim.org.

Three Friday Musings

“It’s now taken for granted that the things we do online are reflections of who we are or announcements of who we wish to be.” Yet, “what we do online still feels somehow novel and ephemeral, although it really shouldn’t anymore” (writes Rob Walker in the NYTimes).

Yet, writes Sherry Turkle, “Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up.” But it’s still developing. There’s also the evocative nature of computers and digital tech: we feel that they means more than the sum of their individual parts, in fact creating emotional connections (and not just addictions). (Listen to her interview on Here and Now.)

And while looking around the blog, imagine my surprise when I noticed that there’s more than just my blog listed on the wordpress tag page for idiophones (cue: Hornbostel-Sachs rejoicing). Most fun, though, are the Hang videos from Dante Bucci, like this “Fanfare”:

Fusion Instruments

I recently caught a profile of the duo Būke and Gāss on NPR. There are many wonderful new groups and recordings out there, but this one caught my ear because of the emphasis on handcrafted, fusion instruments that are the duo’s hallmark. Their name, in fact, is based on hybrid instrument names!

The toe-bourine

The toe-bourine. Photo by Abby Verbosky/NPR


  • Būke: a six-string ukulele with a baritone range
  • Gāss: a guitar that includes bass strings (and it’s also made from body parts of an old Volvo!)

Hence the group’s name. They also include other homegrown originals, such as the “toe-bourine” (at right). The style is also a bit eclectic, described on WNYC’s Soundcheck as “ornate distorto-twang.” They hail from Brooklyn and, to hazard a guess, fit into the urban hillbilly mode (or perhaps what Eric Cook calls home mode production).

More Info and Listening!
The full NPR profile from 27 December 2010 is available here, and it includes the sound file from the interview. Listen to and watch a video of the duo in the NPR Tiny Desk Concert here. You can listen to the full Soundcheck piece here, or check out the WNYC Culture blog’s review of the duo’s debut album Riposte.

Tongue Teasers for Students in World Music

If you’re taking a world music course, you may have had to learn the names of lots of musical instruments. (And, as likely as not, you may have learned all those lovely Hornbostel-Sachs designations as well. Oy.) One that offers no end of trouble to English-speakers is the mrdangam.

So, here’s something to practice: say “mrdangam” five times fast.

(It has three syllables: the mrd combination actually creates a bit of its own syllable, which is uncommon in English but helps a lot with the pronunciation.)

. . .

Got it? Now you’ve got your five-beat meter and divided into triplets to boot!

By the way, that instrument is a double-headed wooden hand-drum common to the Karnatak music played in the south of India (lots more detail, including photos and sound clips, here).

Reimagining the Accordion

Digital accordion virtuoso Cory Pesaturo was interviewed this afternoon by Robin Young on Here and Now. (To listen, click here.) It’s a wonderful interview that will change the way you listen to accordion. (Not just polka anymore…) All performers of lesser-known instruments might sympathize. Here’s a few youtube clips that show just a bit of variety, starting with Pesaturo.

The boy accordion virtuoso (featured on boingboing) playing Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor.

And an interview, with sound samples, of South American Chango Spasiuk.

And thanks to Brian, for the Renegade accordion! in NYC:

New York on the Clock: Nathan Stodola, Renegade Accordion from Thirteen.org.

A classic, of course, would be Pauline Oliveros.

The Phonoharp

Walter Kitundu received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008 in part for his development of the phonoharp. What, you may ask, is that? Kitundu’s work as a sound artist and inventor of original musical instruments is described as negotiating

the boundary between live and recorded performance. Inspired by hip-hop, other modern musical forms, and traditional Asian and African instruments, Kitundu’s phonoharps are hybrids of turntables and stringed instruments. . . . The turntable’s pickup collects and amplifies any sound transmitted to it, allowing the performer to employ percussion and string resonance as well as digital manipulation, or sampling, of prerecorded material.

One of my favorites is certainly the rain-powered turntable . . . how amazing would it be to walk through the music-filled streets in a light rain?

Read more at his MacArthur bio or Web site.

The Banjo: A Thing of Beauty

Steve Martin was interviewed this afternoon on NPR’s All Things Considered about his new banjo album, The Crow. (Who knew!?) He captured that kernel of interest about any musical instrument: it captures a lot of information about a culture.

“The thing about the banjo, is when you first hear it, it strikes many people as ‘What’s that?’ There’s something very compelling about it to certain people; that’s the way I was, that’s the way a lot of banjo players and people who love the banjo are. . . . I’d like to think it’s because we’re Americans and the banjo is truly an American instrument, and it captures something about our past.”

Later, Melissa Block also asked, “When you’re home, do you ever just take out your banjo and look at it as a thing of beauty?”

Martin answered, “I do. I think banjos are incredibly beautiful, just the fundamental look of a banjo. You know, a cylinder and a stick. I think they’re very, very beautiful.”

They also talked about the experience of holding and playing the banjo. Getting into esoteric territory here, and a perfect starting post for the blog. More details to follow.

Listen to the complete interview at NPR.