Instruments are a work of art

By Troy Doetch

Because I scavenge music stores with an almost sexual intensity, corporate instrument franchises can seem salacious. It is unnerving to watch a Gretsch Electromatic being used for a tone-deaf 14-year-old’s rendition of “Iron Man.” It seems wrong to see a work of art outside a museum.

Music to My Eyes, running through May 14 as a part of the NIU Art Museum’s Visual Art and Sound in Altgeld Hall, recognizes instruments as pieces of visual art. Stringed, percussion and wind instruments from all over the world were donated by faculty and local residents, and organized for showing by Peter Van Ael’s museum exhibitions graduate class.

While “Please, Do Not Touch” signs in a display of musical instruments seems as futile as a pet store’s signs advising against petting puppies, Trevor Neff, graduate museum studies student, said the function of the instruments is secondary to the look.

“With some of them, the utility we would find out later, and it wasn’t the first thing you worry about,” Neff said. “It was all about the look, the art, the visual.”

But Carol Clark, who studied musicology at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign before joining NIU’s museum studies graduate program, found that it wasn’t easy to separate the two aesthetics.

“That’s been one of our challenges,” Clark said. “There’s so many things when you look at a musical instrument that you can address…We’ve had to constantly remind ourselves which angle we’re taking on this as we go.”

Aside from a few wind instruments and a locally-crafted mandolin, most of the pieces are pretty atypical to our culture. A number of small ornamental string instruments are on display, including the cover piece, the rebab. The piece, which Desiree Swanson, graduate museum studies student, took an interest in, looks like a softball-sized drum was draped in red thread and laced in gold before being impaled by a tiny golden sail.

“It’s just really elaborately decorated, which is kind of one of the things we were trying to talk about,” Swanson said. “It’s not necessarily what its function is so that one in particular really stands out to me.”

Another interesting piece is the African berimbau, a long bow that looks more like a weapon than a musical instrument. Agnes Ma, graduate museum studies student, said that the what makes it really interesting is the sound.

“It makes a sound that you really wouldn’t think it makes,” Ma said. “It sounds more synthetic, but the instrument itself looks really organic so it has a really weird juxtaposition.”

Clark said it is unusual for students in museum exhibitions to select the works that they’re displaying, but that in Music for My Eyes show, this was the case.

“We have gotten to go out and really do that work of trying to find pieces appropriate to the show and that has brought us work with school of music faculty, and faculty in the anthropology department,” Clark said. “It’s been a really good exercise in building some of these ties across campus and getting some of these instruments out for public viewing that haven’t seen the light of day in entirely too long.”