Riffing on the Tradition: Music! Music! Music!
I missed Carnival this year traveling for work. I hope it was as good for everyone as it looked. Today, in Phoenix a day early for a concert with a New Orleans group, I ventured to a museum that a friend had told me about. Museums, in general, are special places, but the Musical Instrument Museum in North Phoenix that houses arguably the largest collection of musical instruments in the world exceeded all my expectations.
Our business is funny. How many times has someone told you something like this after a show? “You’re so lucky to be a musician, I wish I had your job.” or “If only I had stayed with my music...”
I suppose saying that they would love to be doing what they just saw and heard is intended to be flattering, which is why I usually withhold responses like, “Right. Because, besides the painstaking, daily work to develop this craft, you wish your best days could start way too early with one or two fun-filled flights, bad sandwiches for lunch, mediocre catering for dinner, and could end with trying to sleep in a bed that thousands of other people have used. Oh, and of course, you also want my job because you have the perfect temperament to spend hours prior to every show dealing with agents, your website, Facebook, other musicians, and concert organizers."
Not sure why I thought of all that. I guess because ending up somewhere for work that, well, let’s say isn’t high on my list of places to visit before I die, yet allows me to visit inspiring spaces like the MIM, actually DOES make me feel lucky to be a musician.
Sleek and modern, the MIM is vast. The instrument displays are arranged by country, and the galleries by continents or regions. Including a snack break between Africa and the Middle East, the second floor alone took more than three hours. Most displays have high-quality video clips that show the instruments being performed in their native cultural context by contemporary musicians in national garb. A wireless audio guide senses when you are near each display. Some videos showed instruments being made, like gongs being forged or drums being carved. ... So many beautiful drums.
It’s funny; the museum is so spell-binding that I hardly noticed a large area devoted to jazz and blues closed off because it hasn't yet been completed.
The instruments come alive at the MIM and we're reminded that music-making and instrument building are human endeavors. I know that almost sounds silly to iterate, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me if I didn’t think that people often take that for granted. On the other hand, I guess it's good when our music seems magical and natural. In college, a professor once told me that the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional makes things look easy. Whatever. In the end, we know what it takes to do what we do well. Furthermore, if we consider the people we most admire, we know what it takes to be great.
But, even more poignant than the MIM’s ability to humanize the art of musical expression as well as the craft of instrument making, is how well it celebrates the universal need for music. For anyone who strives to be truly great at a craft in which they passionately believe, genuine exaltation and appreciation is pretty refreshing. Thank you, MIM.
Learn more about the Musical Instrument Museum at www.themim.org.
Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and a founding member of Nola Art House Music. Click here for an interview with the artist. He writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie.