Road Journals Blog—When I first walked into Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum , the plucking of discordant strings and the resonating thumps of a gong beckoned to me from a door down the hall. “Don’t start in the Experience Gallery,” warned Erin Kozak, the museum’s media person. “You’ll never get to anything else.”
She was right. The 200,000-square-foot building had two floors filled with over 5,000 instruments and objects from around the world. Our group, who visited courtesy of the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau, was encouraged to start with the region that intrigued us the most. I hightailed it to Europe, interested to see what my Irish and Scottish ancestors played, and then snaked my back through the 50 countries represented in the Asia and Oceania section, and then into the Africa and Middle East room, which pulls from the rich background of 47 sub-Saharan and 21 North African and Middle Eastern nations.
Regardless of the starting point, interactive monitors liberally sprinkled throughout the displays pull you in. As you walk from region to region, screens buzz to life with videos of the instruments being played in their natural environments. I watched a duo play a haunting rendition of Danse Macabre on a Dutch carillon, saw a set of tuned bells operated by a keyboard played with fists, and marveled at the delicate plucking of African thumb pianos.
When former Target CEO Robert J. Ulrich began formulating the idea for the museum—which opened in spring of 2010—he wanted people to experience the music. As someone who loved museums, but not necessarily music, he decided to create an immersive space using monitors after a visit to a music museum in Brussels. With the more unusual instruments, videos helped me see exactly how you played the darn thing.
The unique and lesser-known instruments I encountered ranged from the church serpent (a curvy bass horn from France) to Irish Cairdin button accordions to musical spoons used in Cajun zydeco. Other impressive pieces included intricately carved boat lutes from southeast Asia, a plucked zither carved to resemble a giant crocodile, and a Buun shell trumpet from Somalia. Don’t bypass the Republic of Congo display, which showcases unusual rattles, carved drums, and arched harps atop whittled wood resembling plump legs. I also couldn’t pass by the hip hop area, which blasted the video for the song “Rapper’s Delight.”
Downstairs, the museum’s Artist Gallery exhibited instruments that played a significant role in the lives of musicians from Eric Clapton to the Jonas Brothers, most on loan from the estates of performers or the artists themselves. And the King is always in the building. While other artists’ instruments rotate in and out, the gallery always maintains an Elvis presence.
By far, the most exciting part of the visit was the Experience Gallery, where I had the opportunity to actually play some of the instruments I learned about upstairs. I warmed up on the looming gong in the back corner before giving it a healthy whack and felt the vibrations reverberate throughout my body. Easily distracted by shiny objects, I tried my hand on the Indonesian gamelan, two rows of golden orbs that produce different tones when struck. If you find you have a particular knack for the theremin (an electronic instrument with two antennas controlling volume and pitch, which required me to wave my hands around spastically in an awkward looking dance), you can purchase your own to play at home. I opted for a harmonica instead. Small and relatively simple, it’ll be the perfect start until I reach the level of musicianship I witnessed upstairs.
Photography by Kristen Haney
This blog post was first published in May 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.