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The Shapes of Sound: Photos
  Catalog Essay: THE SHAPES OF SOUND:
Musical Instruments and the Imagination
An exhibiton of the work of musical instrument inventors from Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota, curated by Hal Rammel, October - December, 1997

Woodland Pattern Book Center
Milwaukee, WI

Catalog essay—
The Shapes of Sound: Musical Instruments and the Imagination


The American composer Lou Harrison has described the building of a musical instrument as one of music's greatest joys: "indeed , to make an instrument is in some strong sense to summon the future." THE SHAPES OF SOUND gathers together thirty very unique musical instruments by fourteen inventors/builders/visual artists from the midwestern United States. All of the designers and builders in this exhibition share a refined sense of the visual character and impact of these instruments balanced with their potential for musical exploration and discovery. Their very personal explorations of sound are beautifully embodied in these unique musical objects. Inspired equally by natural and recycled materials, found objects and chance discoveries, dreams and reveries, or dedicated scholarship and methodical research the forms achieved in these works are quite surprising and diverse. Truly, this is music-making from the ground up.

All musical instruments were invented once. Experimentation is not the provence of the twentieth century avant garde. All instruments have been invented, modified, and refined by individual discovery and innovation. Traditions are nourished by just such individual resolve and perspicacity. Unfortunately, we know nothing of the inventor of the kalimba (sometimes referred to as a thumb piano). Even many of its more recent modifications and elaborations have been lost to time, although scholars such as Nadi Qamar and Paul Berliner have done much to document and preserve this history. This is not only to say that the success of invention and innovation lies in the initiation of a long-lasting lineage. The value and pleasure of today's discovery exceeds the significance of its future impact.

The creation of the one-of-a-kind forms we see in this exhibition provoke not only new shapes and new music but, also, and most importantly, new questions. This is, it seems to me, the heart of Lou Harrison's observation that instrument-making "summons the future." In the face of global entertainment industry's efforts to mold, sell, and profit from the world's music, sincere and innovative ideas persist and thrive. These ideas beg response: from other inventors, other musicians, other artists, and other listeners. This dialogue with others and with the material, visual, and auditory world is our future. The musical experiences offered by these shapes of sound celebrate this future and music's and life's limitless possibilities lying well within the reach of everyone's curiosity and sense of adventure.

Hal Rammel, 1997

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