Mrs. Harper and I initially took refuge in Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) to escape the blazing midday sun. But this 2-year-old museum proved to be so charming and engrossing, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a visit on even the most pleasant of days.
Of course, as interesting as it is to look at objects such as a German walking cane violin or Burmese double-headed barrel drums, it would be a poor museum that didn’t offer the opportunity to hear some of these instruments in action. MIM has assembled an impressive collection of videos of live performances, accessible through uniquely designed complimentary audio guides. Rather than punching in numbers, one merely has to approach one of the many flat-screen televisions interspersed with the instruments, and the guide then plays the appropriate sound track.
We spent almost an hour on the first floor, devoted to famous musicians, self-playing mechanical instruments and temporary exhibitions (“Sanza,” celebrating African thumb pianos, runs until October 1). We returned more than once to the mesmerizing video of a very focused and dignified Clara Rockmore playing Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” on the theremin.
But for a traveler, the second floor holds the most intriguing exhibits. Almost every country in the world has at least a small display of instruments. We spotted nose flutes from Borneo, an Aztec Tlalpanhuehuetl drum from Mexico, Pamiri lutes from Tajikistan, a Maltese zaqq (a bagpipe made all too clearly from the skin of an entire calf) and Cold War-era synthesizers from Belarus built to withstand a nuclear attack. What a pleasure it was to wander from country to country, encountering this vast and varied array of thoroughly fascinating musical instruments, many of which we could hear in the accompanying videos.
Even if you don’t have a musical bone in your body, don’t miss the chance to try out some instruments in the “Experience Gallery” on the ground level. I didn’t do too well on the Indonesian metallophone, and my theremin playing sounded like a cat in distress, but Mrs. Harper hailed my gong performance as “very nice.” After that grand finale, she suggested that we relax for a moment in The Café, which had a surprisingly fine selection of wines by the glass.
We had a wonderful time at MIM, in part because the museum was blissfully uncrowded on our weekday visit. If possible, avoid weekends, when it’s sure to be much busier.