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Musical Instrument Museum, Part 1

One of my favorite attractions in the Phoenix area is the Musical Instrument Museum in northeast Phoenix, near Scottsdale. When I received a notice of a special exhibition, "Ancient Musical Treasures from Central China", I had to go. It is on display until May 6 — if you are interested, don't wait until the last minute.

Pictured here is a bronze bell. The alloy contains tin plus copper but with a higher percentage of tin than other forms of bronze, such as that used for statues. Ages-old experience has taught that such an alloy produces a more melodic tone than other mixtures.

This particular bell is from 770 to 476 BCE and was discovered in the tomb of a duke of Zheng State in Lijialou. The internal cavity of each Zhou dynasty bell was engineered to produce two separate musical notes roughly three tones apart, which players activated by stringing the bell with a mallet on the front or the side. This bass-tuned bell was originally part of a large set of 24 bells. The upper hanger consists of mythical Phoenix birds, a powerful counterpart to dragons.

[Photographer's note: I apologize that many of these photos have reflections. Most of these rare treasures on display were fully encased in acrylic boxes and reflected any external source of light — and unfortunately, I did not have a polarizing filter with me to reduce those reflections.]

These figurines are from the Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368 CE during the period of Mongol rule over China. They depict children from nomadic ethnic groups performing as part of a shehuo festival. Shehuo is still performed in northern China for Chinese New Year and includes such festivities as lion and dragon dances, fireworks and performances on an elevated stage.

This photo shows a ceramic drum from the Yangshao culture, 5000-3000 BCE. Neolithic cultures along the Yellow River subsisted on agriculture and livestock. They developed a variety of ceramic forms, including musical instruments such as drums of different sizes. This drum had an animal skin membrane secured to the hooks around the rim.

Next on display is a Green-glazed Pottery Theater from the Eastern Han dynasty, 25 - 200 CE. This miniature theater is an imagined setting for performances of baixi, a style of popular theater that included music, drama, magic and acrobatics. Performing arts from over 2000 years ago have evolved into the opera and folk music forms still enjoyed in China today.

This is a tricolor glaze figure of a musician on a horse from the Tang dynasty, 618 - 907 CE. The musician is playing a paixiao panpipe representing one member of a marching ensemble called guchuiyue ("drumming-and-blowing music"), which included panpipes, horns and drums. He is styled to resemble a Central Asian musician, illustrating the multiculturalism that flourished in China via the legendary Silk Road trade.

The next photo shows a Yazheng zither from the Qing dynasty, 1644-1912 CE. This is an old form of the Chinese zither used in folk music and was a predecessor to the modern guzheng. The Yazheng propped upright against the player's body and played by rubbing a stick made from sorghum wood across the strings like a bow.

Here on display are bronze bells from the Spring and Autumn Period, 770 - 476 BCE. They were cast with exquisite iconography illustrating the artistry of the Zhou dynasty bronze casters. Each bell bears a stylized taotie "beast mask", while stylized clouds represent heaven. The protruding knobs, here consisting of coiled dragons, shorten the ringing time of the bell, allowing the performance of melodies and shifting harmonies. Ancient characters identify notes of the musical scale and the name of the bells' owner.

The next photo shows a flute made out of bone, from the Peiligang Culture, 7,000 - 5,000 BCE. Flutes made of bird bones are collectively the oldest-known musical instruments in all of China. They show a sophisticated tuning system which may have facilitated multiple instruments playing together in harmony. The number of pitch holes on this flute suggest that it was a reference for tuning other instruments.

In my humble opinion, this piece is the star of the exhibition. It is an instrument stand in the form of a divine beast, dated to the Spring and Autumn period, 770 - 476 BCE. It was intended as a stand for a drum or a set of stone chimes. This sculptural masterpiece combines a dragon's head, a tiger's body and tortoise legs. Its body includes phoenix motifs inlaid with malachite. Its horns consist of dragons. The blending of creatures may refer to "the four symbols" of Daoism with their respective attributes of power, harmonized here to reflect strength and virtue. The once-powerful Chu State is known for its pantheon of deities and mythical beasts.

The drum or chimes should have been mounted on a pillar, set in the square socket mounted on the beast's hip.

These are bronze nao bells decorated with a hui motif, from the time of the Shang dynasty, 1600 - 1046 BCE. Ritual orchestras from that time included the world's earliest bell chimes, each bell made with careful shaping to produce two distinct notes. Instead of using a clapper, these nao bells, with their upturned mouth, were played with a mallet, striking the front and side surfaces to activate the pitches.

Last for today is the bianzhong bell chime from the Spring and Autumn period, 770 - 476 BCE — the name means "ordered bells". This set was excavated from the tomb of a duke of the Zheng State and illustrates the extravagance of rich, noble families. Every court maintained a full orchestra with a set of bronze bells at its core to perform for elaborate rituals and banquets. Each of these 24 bells produces two distinct tones, allowing musicians to perform in several six-note scales.

This bianzhong is one of only 10 surviving sets made to play a flashy style of music, played at decadent banquets and parties. This style broke from the rigid formality of yayue by incorporating a wider variety of pitches, leading Confucius to condemn it as extravagant and damaging to the social order of the time.


To be continued...

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com