Koto, 19th century, Japan, kiri wood (Paulownia tomentosa), lacquer, various woods, ivory, possibly jade, tortoiseshell, gilt, silk, gold thread, possibly pewter, leather, boxwood, rosewood, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Hinkle, 1891.2956

By Larry Watson

Cincinnati Art Museum June 16-September 12, 2012

When viewing works that have a function, one wonders  whether  there is a critical distinction between art and craft; between creativity and structural formulas; between innovation and “form follows function?” The exhibit at the CAM gathers musical instruments from around the globe and across the centuries with a breadth of styles, technical proficiency, and cultural influences, and stimulates the senses as well as the intellect.

Though some were created for show, the instruments were designed to play music, whether for discerning audiences, for personal enjoyment, or ceremonial celebrations. The function of each instrument largely influences the overall design, and, aside from rare examples of culturally based visual innovations, design follows traditionally accepted norms for shape and form largely dictated by the desired audible results.

Embellishment of the wood cabinetry with inlays and marquetry of mother of pearl and exotic woods is prevalent on European examples of stringed instruments, from lutes to pianos to guitars.  The exquisite details add elegance and add visual interest to the surface. The details also create a decorative/artistic value that remains after the instrument has fulfilled it function creating music.

Now, in a static state, devoid of the distraction of the musical performance, resting in these glass fronted cases, the beauty of the instrument maker’s artistry can be fully appreciated. After the ceremonial dance or aria performance, it then becomes a work of art that could be displayed in a home with  special emphasis on its visual beauty.

While in this exhibit, these instruments have lost the added dimension of musical emanations. CAM has collected videos of musicians playing many of these unusual instruments. Watching the videos of musicians masterfully drawing sound from these instruments, we not only receive the aural experience through our ears, but we also vicariously participate in the kinetic experience of hands, fingers, and even breath as tools of musical performance. The instruments are brought to life in the real world, demonstrating their primary function as structures from which beautiful combinations of sounds emanate.

The musical instruments of Africa presented a study in contrasts. Whereas the addition of inlays of contrasting materials was a common practice in other continents, African instruments relied primarily on subtraction for elaborate decoration. This involved sculptural and surface carving for relief details of design and patterns that seemed to beg  for a hands-on, tactile experience.

Their raised designs gave rise to the temptation to lay one’s hands on the surface for full appreciation of the material and the artistry, and to feel the percussive rhythms produced with these instruments. The African instruments displayed were primarily percussion instruments, and the variety of designs, shapes, and materials was impressive.

Percussive qualities are prevalent in the African culture, as I witnessed at the World Choir Games recently. The majority of the choral compositions of the choir from Nigeria were actually vocal renditions of percussion arrangements, as complex and inspiring as the designs on these instruments.

From the Zanze (Thumb Piano) to the copper Kuge to the matching pair of five foot Ndungu drums, the rhythms and sounds of the African community in music and dance fairly come to life as one imagines a vibrant performance and   participation of people in celebration.

The discussions of whether functional works can be considered “art” have raged for centuries, and will continue for many more. But such discussions do not diminish the artistry and innovation demonstrated in this diverse exhibit.




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