All This For A Song

Tibetan rkang-gling flutes. I wonder what they use the other bones for?

Tibetan rkang-gling flutes. I wonder what they use the other bones for?

It’s a monument to creativity, seven floors in downtown Brussels devoted to musical instruments. But there was no cigar box banjo.

Admission is free at the Musical Instruments Museum on Wednesdays, so we planned our visit for then. That turned out to be a good decision: I hate wasting money and Vivian wasn’t enthralled as I was. We were viewing the exhibits separately, easier that way as we have different interests and reading speeds. When I met her at closing time, as pre-arranged, she told me she had been napping in a nearby park while I had roamed the building.

I’m a natural critic, one of those people who can’t excel at anything so I gain my revenge by tearing down others’ creativity. That’s not true, but I’m sure there are musicians and artists who see critics in that light. I will admit to being critical at times, but there are times when constructive criticism comes with the role I find myself in. So I make no apologies for being critical from time to time, and in this case I felt myself evaluating the museum as if I had been asked to review it, which I suppose is what i am doing here.

If you are ever in Brussels the Musical Instruments Museum is worth the visit if you are a musician or an admirer of musicians. Yes, there are gaps but all things considered it is a pretty comprehensive display. I don’t recall seeing any Native North American instruments (though there were plenty from Asia), and there was no cigar box banjo, but any collection is bound to have deficiencies, for space limitations if for no other reason. (Don’t get me started on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. There’s a place with some very weird exclusions.) Perhaps my biggest criticism is that the museum is definitely not “hands on.” Yes I know, if it was then the cacophony would be unimaginable; staff would quit after a day or two, unable to take the noise. Music lovers would rebel at instruments being mangled by the untrained and unskilled. But think of the fun! I’ve never had the opportunity to play Chinese temple bells, or a glass harmonica or even a rkang- gling (which you I am sure knew already was a Tibetan trumpet made from a thigh bone. I didn’t know that before, and it boggles the mind to think of all the thigh bones I have wasted in my life because I didn’t know the uses I could have put them to. Ah, opportunities lost!).

The time spent in admiring the varied instruments got me to thinking about the immensity of human innovation. Anyone could have invented a drum out of a hollow log. Hey, even I could have done it if I had any sense of rhythm. How hard can it be to hit something with a stick? Oh, wait, I keep forgetting I’m rhythmically challenged.

I could never have invented the saxophone though. Who knew that if you took brass and bent it in a certain shape (okay, I know you don’t bend brass) and added valves that you would get that sound? I guess Adolph Sax did since he invented the instrument. This year (2014) is the 200th anniversary of his birth and the museum had a big display on his life and his creations. I knew saxophones came in a number of different sizes, but the sheer range of permutations surprised me. I guess someone is always trying to build a better mousetrap.

With only three days in Brussels we had to make choices: it was not possible to see everything on our list. I made the Musical Instruments Museum a priority. I think Vivian might have preferred the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate instead.

Not the most successful saxophone design - can you imagine what the case would be like?

Not the most successful saxophone design – can you imagine what the case would be like?

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