Musical Instruments: Craftsmanship and Traditions from Prehistory to the Present

    -- by Lucie Rault, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2000. 232 pages

Dr. Rault heads the Ethnomusicology Department of the prestigious Musee de l’Homme in Paris. This volume is translated from the original French book; both versions were published concurrently. The translation into English is quite good, although the reasons for the author’s arrangement of examples and sections was not always clear to me.

In the introduction, the author states, “In attempting to rethink the relationship of man and music, and examining the early motivations of his search for sound, [this book] adopts an approach more intuitive than scholarly, more instinctive than methodical” (italics mine). As a reviewer, I would say that those are accurate statements and the author has met her stated goals. She is an acclaimed scholar but has chosen to write a book aimed more toward the layperson than the professional ethnomusicologist. The book includes poetic section titles such as “When soul becomes symphony.” There is also plenty of material that will be fascinating for experts as well.

The book begins with the instruments of prehistoric times, including bullroarers and Cro-Magnon whistles. She includes a large section on the acoustic properties of certain caves where the reverberation of select musical pitches is quite pronounced.

Chapter Two, dealing with “The Body as Instrument,” touches on singing, stomping, and idiophone extensions of the body such as clappers and rattles. From there, the chapter moves to hollow log slit drums and other examples of “instrumental anthropomorphism” where “the shape of various instruments show clear signs of stylization based on the human body.” One example is the African harp on the book’s cover (the caption calls it a “bowed harp” when
it should clearly be labeled “arched harp”).

“Religious and Ritual Uses” of instruments is the topic of Chapter Three, and “Instruments in Society” is the title of Chapter Four. Both of these are primary themes woven throughout the entire book. Many legends and cultural customs connected with a multitude of musical instruments are summarized and sprinkled into the text.

The book’s final chapter is primarily about musical instrument classification systems, both ancient and modern. This chapter also gives examples of instruments made of various materials; for example, rainsticks made from bamboo and cactus spines and ocarinas made from rainforest fruits are included in a category she calls “the orchestra of plants.”

The volume is a true visual feast—more than 200 photos, illustrations, and paintings (some as large as a 2-page spread). Three-fourths of the pictures are in full color. Some instruments are shown being played in their cultural context; others from museum collections have been photographed as art objects. The book does not only collect instrument photos that have already been published elsewhere, but showcases quite a few new ones as well. Furthermore, the book’s large size (10 X 12 ½ inches) makes it possible to appreciate more features of the instruments. For example, the well-known ivory side-blown trumpet from Sierra Leone (circa 1600) is large enough here to see intricate details and carvings sometimes missed in previously published smaller books.

I take issue with some of the author’s speculations about the music of prehistoric people, such as this one: “The music played in those distant times did not reflect a desire to create melody, far from it.” In another place she states, “It seems likely that the spiritual impulse common to all human beings has its origin in, and develops from, the emission of sound” [specifically, the echo of one’s own voice]. These sorts of unsubstantiated assertions were not uncommon up through the first half of the twentieth century, in evolutionistic writings by Curt Sachs and others. I was rather surprised to see such guesswork in a very recent book, but the book’s subtitle implies a strong concern with the evolution of musical instruments. The book is intended to demonstrate “the history of musical instruments [as] a crucial aspect in the complex evolution of human interaction” (taken from the jacket).

The publisher’s publicity department got carried away when it described the book as “a complete and authoritative reference that fills a major gap in our knowledge of music history” (book jacket). “Authoritative” (after the period of pre-history), yes; “complete” seems a bit presumptuous, especially considering the author’s very first sentence: “This book does not claim to be a comprehensive survey of the instruments of the world.” Ethnomusicologists’ knowledge about the world’s musical instruments is still limited, but this volume does present a good cross-section of examples from certain parts of the world. Most of them are “ethnic” instruments; only a few examples of western instruments appear.

A selective list of major public collections of ethnic instruments (in nineteen countries) is given in an appendix. A useful index of instruments mentioned or shown in the book is included; an index of ethnic groups mentioned would have been equally as helpful.

An excellent bibliography is provided, including many entries in French. Unfortunately, there is no indication in the text about which musical instrument under discussion on any given page is related to which entry in the bibliography.

The author obviously did extensive research, but it is not documented or footnoted in the text. Specific referencing of each instrument to source documents would have allowed interested readers to go directly to a cited source for more detailed commentary. As it stands, we get many tantalizing bits of information that will be very difficult for readers to follow up unless they already know where to look.

Even with that caveat (which will not bother the target audience anyway), and though the arrangement of so much data seems a bit chaotic in some places, the volume is a magnificent “coffee table” type of book with an abundance of beautiful pictures and an interesting text.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony