Museum of Sound

The common experience of going to a museum is to wander through the galleries, examining the paintings and sculptures and admiring their beauty and form. The objects are silent and still, frozen in time, and although they may convincingly convey a representation of life they have never actually been alive, nor can their physical state be appreciably altered. Paintings and sculptures are meant to be this way, of course, but great museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art collect a great deal more than that; artifacts, clothing, furniture, things that once had function but that we now admire for their design and craftsmanship. We don’t miss much, not being able to actually sleep in the bedroom from the Sagredo Palace in Venice.

The experience of the newly reopened André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments is different though, tremendously stimulating but also a little frustrating. The European part of the galleries has been redone and, with new wall cards and ambient light spilling in from the adjacent American Wing, is welcoming. The instruments, a relatively small sampling of the 5,000 in the total collection, look supremely attractive in their cases, on pedestals or on the floor. As objects they belong in a museum; they tell a story of the development of ideas in technology and design and many of them are crafted and decorated exquisitely. But they are also silent – all the technology, design and craftsmanship went into making something thought would produce a sound, and so the frustration. A musical instrument not put to use is missing an integral part of its existence.

It’s understandable, of course. Theses instruments are valuable because of what they demonstrate in terms of instrument building, what they represent in cultural terms and through their very rarity. There’s also the challenge in preserving the physical integrity of something that was made by hand out of wood and glue and shellac, perhaps some gut strings and felt, and is several hundred years old. Some literally cannot be played, some can be played only because they have been restored by substituting modern parts for ones that have broken or rotted. There are also instruments where the decorative and cultural elements take precedence over their musical utility, like this combination walking stick and flute/oboe commissioned by Frederick the Great:

Walking-Stick FluteOboe DP136069.jpg

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It says fascinating things about a culture that would make it . But there are others that really beg to be heard, like this melodica:

Melodica DP224729.jpg

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fortunately, they can be heard. The Museum has an audio tour available for the collection that includes audio samples of the instruments in action. It’s the next best thing to being in a concert hall for a performance, and the samples I’ve heard at the time of this writing are very well done, finely recorded and using music that is meant to demonstrate the instruments’ qualities. And the qualities can be breathtaking. At the press preview, the Met brought out a late 17th century Stradivari violin and Sean Carpenter played sections from the Bach Sonatas and Partitas on it. The sound was spectacular; huge, warm, bright, but without any hard edge. One of the gems in the Galleries is the Christofori piano, the oldest piano in existence, and keyboardist Dongsok Shin played two short works by Ludovico Giustini, the first music explicitly written for the piano. The instrument has a delicate, mellow quality and will sound appreciably lower than the ears are used to; through the combination of pitch being maintained at a slightly lower level in the 18th century, and the necessity of retuning the piano to preserve it and incorporate new parts, it’s playing at essentially a minor third below current pitch, so that concert A on the keyboard sound as the F-sharp immediately below. You can hear these demonstrations first and last in the player below, with two samples from the audio tour in between:


Photo by the author


Photo by the author

The Museum has been presenting Early Music performances as well, in conjunction with both the reopening and the exhibit of Bronzino’s drawings. This last brought the Antioch Chamber Ensemble to the stage, singing Renaissance Madrigals from a variety of composers, most prominently Monteverdi and Luca Marenzio, and giving the debut performance of a new piece from Bruce Adolphe, Dell’arte e delle cipolle: Omaggio al Bronzino, a commission from the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, which itself is honoring the artist later this year. Adolphe’s piece is the fascinating combination of new music for ancient instruments, with the addition of the vibraphone, and is made of settings of the artists poetry accompanied by the percussion instrument, viola da gamba and harpsichord. The view of art in the piece is in keeping with the expected experience of art in a museum; one of sumptuous beauty. The vocal writing is truly lovely, with long melodic lines, graceful settings of the Italian and bright, extended harmonies that are a burnished extension of the tonal, but complex, harmonic style heard in Britten or Bernstein. The other contemporary element is the regular pulse of the instrumental parts, the combination of propulsive eighth-notes, whether evenly played or syncopated, the kind of motor rhythm that comes from Stravinsky by way of Steve Reich.

The sound of the piece is gentle and glowing. The first movement, ‘Salutar Piante’ is quietly hymn-like and the third section, ‘Mentre ch’all’ombra d’un frondoso alloro,’ has an absolutely gorgeous opening. There is an instrumental interlude title ‘Venus,’ and the harpsichord has some fine writing accompanying ‘Il mio volto il consuma’ which incorporates some interesting mannerisms from Renaissance music into the contemporary context. The writing and performance could not be faulted, but there is a flaw in the work, depending on one’s aesthetic viewpoint; it’s too smooth, too pretty. The music and art of the Renaissance sounds and looks beautiful, but it also sounds and looks earthy, rough, even vulgar, and these are good things. The artists and musicians of the era were people just like any other, they drank and swore and farted and laughed. While there is an inherent Apollonian aspect to their practice, a certain ideal of beauty, the actual works balance the beauty of artifice with the humanity of existence. This is especially true of Marenzio and Monteverdi, and even of the poetry Adolphe sets. Bronzino wrote these lines:

What else can this man do? My face consumes him.
Why is he so desirous, and why am I so beautiful?

– il mio volto il consuma

There’s an unsettled feeling here, a sense of urgency, but nothing like that in the music. The same is true for this:

For Painting now comes forth and rubs against me
And with actions and with gestures begs me,
While inspiration moves me, as it does,

To speak of her as well: but all can see
That we give to Poetry in pains and skill
We must as well concede to Painting too?

– La Cipolla di Bronzino Pittore

Bronzino wrote of onions, but there is none of this pungency in the music, only art. The Madrigals suffered from this same problem, if it is one: lovely singing, exquisitely tuned harmonies, sensitive phrasing. But Monteverdi and Marenzio wrote some extremely urgent music, and one of the features of the period in general was internal rhythmic complexity, different voices set at different pulse, building up a tension of staggered entrances and exits, coming to a point of satisfaction on the final cadence. This is emphasized with a certain roughness and force to the attack of vocal phrases. But these performances were exceedingly well mannered, again with an emphasis on beauty. The wonderful Mia benigna fortuna by Cipriano de Rore, which begins in tranquility and ends in despair, was smooth, which didn’t seem right. Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire lacked urgency until the final lines which practically shout out the composer’s wish to die in a sexual swoon. Like Bronzino’s drawings, this music is mannered in that it exaggerates particular stylistic points. The danger of putting a drawing under glass is that it receives a context of acceptance and value and a smoothing of rough edges. Antioch sang this music as if it was under glass, when it was really in their mouths and their guts.

In some sense this is what argument over authenticity in musical performance comes down to, although there is no reason that ancient music cannot be played on modern instruments or sung with modern voices and lose any sense of earthiness and urgency. We have the blues, after all. One musician who has opted for the authentic side, and in doing so literally makes an ancient instrument, the kind preserved in cases at the museum, speak, is Tina Chancey. Her new recording The Versatile Viol II, Tina Chancey Plays LeClair Violin Sonatas, is lovely in every way without making concessions to modern taste. LeClair’s pieces exemplify many aspects of 18th century French musical style and culture with their emphasis on dance rhythms, graceful counterpoint and structures, the kind of bravura gesture that is meant to bring attention to the good form of the player and composer, and a gentle wit, charm and poise. Chancey plays these pieces on the pardessus de viole, a five-stringed instrument, tuned as a cross between the violin and the gamba, and meant to be played on the lap so as to avoid the fashion disaster of a woman tucking the instrument under her chin and spoiling the line of her dress. In a line of instruments that emphasize a certain human vocal quality, the breathiness of the pardessus, the sensation that it is breathing in and out, is uncanny and deeply attractive.

These are not the most complex, dramatic or important pieces ever written, but they are well crafted and make the instruments playing them sound wonderful, and these musicians make the most of them. Chancey is accompanied with sensitivity and precision by Susie Napper playing the basse de viole and Webb Wiggins on the harpsichord. They seem to breath together through the instruments as one unit and the individual and overall phrasing is wonderful. They sound like they are dancing together, courtly, stately and stylishly. They play LeClair with respect for the music and with a pleasure in making living sounds out of these museum piece instruments.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

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