Sunday, 2 December 2012

Musical Instruments at the Met: Part II - Woodwind, Brass & Percussion

After attending a recent sitar and tabla concert in Melbourne, I was reminded of the collection of unusual and expertly crafted musical instruments I saw earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Here's Part II of my photographs of the collection of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. 

These pigeon whistles (below) are made of bamboo and gourd, and weigh only a few ounces. I was drawn in by their elegant, whimsical forms, but it's the use of this instrument that's truly fascinating. In China, they were attached to the tails of pigeons, and when the birds flew overhead, an eerie sound could be heard. The usage of these devices dates back to the southern Song Dynasty (1127 - 1278 AD -  no pun intended). According to the museum information, the whistles were traditionally used on carrier pigeons to announce their arrival to the recipient. In trying to find out more about these objects, it seems that they are still used to some extent, although perhaps now it is purely for entertainment purposes. One of these tiny instruments can have up to 30 whistles, producing a drone of 30 different tones. Although most pigeon whistles are very small, and all must be lightweight, the whistle at the front of this display looked about 10cm in diameter, which seems very large for a pigeon to wear on its tail!

Below is the musette de cour, an early 18th century French instrument with similarities to bagpipes. It plays a three-tone drone and was used for playing folk music based on rustic dances.

The oddly-shaped instrument below is the Bohemian Bock, a 19th century Bohemian instrument. Made of goat skin and decorated with a carved wooden goat head, it was used to play dance music, along with a fiddle.

The taiko is a traditional Japanese drum still popular today, but this o-daiko (large taiko) is an unusually ornate decorative drum. Both the drum and its stand are entirely covered in cloisonne enameled metalwork. This exquisite piece was made to order for the Japanese government for the Vienna Exposition of 1873. The artist is not known, but is thought to possibly be Hodenji Hayashi. The cowhide skins of the drum are decorated with lacquer-work dragons. This drum was never sounded: it was intended as a symbol of peace, based on an ancient Japanese folktale about a drum placed at a village gate to sound an alarm in case of attack. As the years went by and the drum was never used, roosters and hens began to live on top of the drum, and a rooster atop a drum became a symbol of peace.

The gyo, below, is a Japanese instrument dating from 1889. The musician struck the head of the tiger three times and then rubbed a drumstick down the back of the wooden animal to create a purring effect. The scraping motion symbolised the end of a Confucian hymn. Confucianism was rare in Japan, and this instrument was more prominent in China, where Confucianism was widespread for 3000 years and the instrument was called yu, and in Korea, where it is still used in traditional rituals and called o. Traditionally the tiger would be painted white to represent the western region and autumn, and would be placed on the western end of a ceremonial hall.

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