How to Hear the Met’s Historic Instruments’ Singular Sounds
New audio recordings by the museum feature roughly 40 instruments, from Ming dynasty lute to the world’s oldest surviving piano
Have you ever been struck by the irony of exhibiting musical instruments — renowned for their singular sounds — in glass display cases? If so, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hears you loud and clear. Its recently renovated music galleries include a new audio collection available via gallery listening kiosks and smartphones, so visitors can enjoy the sounds of instruments on display in tandem with walks through the museum’s halls.
Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon writes that the recordings feature roughly 40 instruments, including a Ming dynasty pipa, or four-string plucked lute, and the world’s oldest surviving piano, an Italian masterpiece crafted by the instrument’s inventor, Bartolomeo Cristofori, in 1720. Although most of the Met’s 5,000 or so instruments are too fragile or rare to be played, associate curator of musical instruments Bradley Strauchen-Scherer tells Voon that “a generous handful” are still in working condition.
In order to recreate the instruments’ former glory, curators turned to musicians well-versed in their craft—horn player R.J. Kelley, for example, recorded a song on a 19th-century orchestral horn that requires users to play without valves.
According to ArtDaily.org, the Met’s reimagined galleries, presented under the all-encompassing title “The Art of Music,” are organized by musical family and historical period. The 600 or so instruments on display span two millennia and five continents, allowing visitors to trace the role of music in expressing status, identity and spirituality across time and space.
Exhibition highlights include the Thomas Appleton pipe organ, one of the country’s oldest functioning examples of the instrument, and four electric guitars, each representing a different season, created by master luthier John Monteleone between 2002 and 2006.
As Hyperallergic’s Elena Goukassian notes in a separate article, “The Art of Music” emphasizes not only the sounds of musical instruments, but their significance within wider historical narratives. By juxtaposing artifacts such as a 19th-century gong wielded by wooden statues of oni, ferocious creatures from Japanese folklore, and an 18th-century French harpsichord-turned-piano decorated with East Asian-esque landscapes—each crafted, ironically, to appeal to the other’s culture—the exhibit nudges visitors to draw connections between seemingly disparate histories.
If an upcoming trip to the Met isn’t on your agenda, you can access the recordings online via Soundcloud or Google Arts & Culture—and be sure to check back soon, as Strauchen-Scherer tells Voon the museum’s department of musical instruments hopes to create new recordings on an annual basis. If you want to watch the instruments in action, visit the Met’s YouTube channel.
“The Art of Music” is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.