The Musical Instrument Museum
By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Musical and philosophical harmony has always been important in China. The Musical Instrument Museum is bringing those together with Ancient Musical Treasures from Central China: Harmony of the Ancients from the Henan Museum.
“We have this extraordinary opportunity to explore the musical history of China—9,000 years of it—through this collection,” says Colin Pearson, MIM’s curator for the exhibition and for the Asia collection.
“It’s a great assortment of instruments and music-related artwork. There’s a little something for everybody. No on here, nor who I’ve spoken to, is aware of anything ever been staged here in America.”
The exhibition runs from Friday, November 10, to Sunday, May 6, in partnership with the Henan Museum, one of China’s oldest and most prestigious museums. It explores the harmony between music, people, heaven and Earth through more than 60 rare instruments and works of art.
Ancient flutes and drums harken back to the dawn of Chinese civilization, giving guests a glimpse of the musical life of an early agrarian society. Grand racks of bronze bells evoke elaborate rituals performed during the formative years of Chinese culture. Lively ceramic figures illustrate the joyful mixing of cultures during the time of the legendary Silk Road. Elegant silk strings entertain gatherings of refined music lovers and inspire poetic contemplation.
- Bone flute, 7000–5000 BCE (approximately 7,000–9,000 years ago) – This flute comes from a collection of several flutes that were excavated from the Peiligang burial sites and are collectively the oldest musical instruments in China. Crafted from the hollow wing bones of crane birds, these flutes are precisely tuned to a five-note (pentatonic) scale, indicating a highly developed music system.
- Bianzhong bell-chime, Spring and Autumn period, 770–476 BCE (approximately 2,500–2,800 years ago) – This set of 24 bells from the court of a duke of Zheng state illustrates the extravagance of noble families and is one of only 10 surviving sets made in the latter half of the Zhou dynasty to play a flashy new style of music developed known as zhengsheng. Each bell—four bo bass bells and 20 niu—was specially crafted to produce two distinct musical tones.
- Bronze “divine beast” drum stand, Spring and Autumn period, 770–476 BCE (approximately 2,500–2,800 years ago) – Full-bodied depictions of mythical beasts are exceptionally rare, and this drum stand example is one of the finest uncovered to date. Malachite has been inlaid into the bronze body in phoenix and dragon patterns, and many of the beast’s features are made up of small dragons and its face is framed by two persimmon flowers.
- Tricolor glazed pillow depicting scholarly qin performance, Northern Song dynasty, 960–1127 – The multicolored decoration on this ceramic pillow illustrates two Confucian scholars in a manicured garden; one playing the qin while the other listens. The ability to play and appreciate the qin and its repertoire was described as one of the most important virtues that should be possessed by Confucian scholars, and its performance was meant to be shared privately among friends.
- Musician and dancer figurines in a pavilion, Han dynasty, 202 BCE–220 CE (approximately 1,800 – 2,200 years ago) – This unusual three-story tower houses an ensemble of musicians and dancers for the nobleman’s entertainment, as well as a complement of guards armed with crossbows. Many Han tombs included ceramic models of the palatial homes that deceased noblemen wished to inhabit in the afterlife.
Using interactive technology to explore the exhibition, guests will see, hear, and feel the harmony of the ancients. Video content will be available to watch performances on replicas of the instruments on display.
“Most of the trips I have made to China, I was visiting their museum,” Pearson says. “It’s like getting acquainted with fellow museum colleagues. We’re building a relationship with parallel colleagues on the other side.
“We also produced the video for the exhibition. We shot hours of original material, both of music and interviews with the experts. That was a really fun trip. We’re doubly excited to bring that collection to life.”
Ancient Musical Treasures from Central China: Harmony of the Ancients from the Henan Museum, Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix, 480.478.6000, mim.org, Friday, November 10, to Sunday, May 6, $10 for special exhibition only, $7 when purchased with general museum admission.
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