Musical medley in an eclectic museum

Travel Trip Musical Instrument Museum
A display of Blues instruments are displayed Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. One man's dream to build a museum dedicated to musical instruments from around the world becomes a reality Saturday as the $250 million Musical Instrument Museum rises out of the Sonoran desert in north Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX - You won't hear the sound of silence at the Musical Instrument Museum, unless it's Simon and Garfunkel on an errant iPod.

That's because the five-year-old museum - known in the Valley of the Sun as "the MIM" - is a shrine to aural delights, a showcase for 15,000 instruments of all shapes, sizes, ages, nationalities (200 countries represented), and celebrity pedigrees.

Along with calliopes and nickelodeons, djembes and dunduns, you will find Keith Moon's psychedelic "Pictures of Lily" drum kit, half-destroyed during a performance by The Who on a 1967 episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The Steinway piano on which John Lennon composed "Imagine" is preserved under glass, just a stone's throw from George Benson's Gibson guitar, Carlos Santana's custom, Asian-art-adorned Yamaha ax, and Pablo Casals' cello.

The MIM even salutes Eastern Pennsylvania with an extensive exhibit on the history of Nazareth guitar maker C.F. Martin & Co., a special section on string bands, and a new installation on Wyomissing's Taylor Swift (instruments, handwritten songs, and stage costumes included).

That still leaves nearly 20,000 square feet of auditory adventure, beginning in the lobby.

Upon entering the modern, two-story museum, we hear live piano playing: a snippet of a Beethoven sonata, followed by a discordant version of "Chopsticks," then a few bars of a Coldplay song. All are performed on the lobby's baby grand by MIM visitors, free to let out whatever tunes are in them before moving on to the many galleries.

The MIM is the creation of Robert J. Ulrich, a former CEO and chairman of the retailing giant Target, who was inspired to open an instrument-oriented museum after visiting the Muziekinstrumentenmuseum in Brussels (where it's also called "MIM"). That institution, founded in 1877 and part of the Royal Museums for Art and History, is highly regarded for its collection of 8,000 instruments and its classical exhibits. Phoenix's MIM serves up a more eclectic musical medley.

The ground floor is divided into several specialized spaces. One is the interactive Experience Gallery. Curious about plucking a banjo, picking a ukulele, manipulating a theremin - an early electronic instrument invented in 1920 by Russian Léon Theremin that makes the eerie, high-pitched sounds associated with 1950s sci-fi movies? This is the place to try it.

The Artist Gallery pays homage to famous musicians and their one-of-a-kind instruments (Lennon, Santana, et al). In the Conservation Lab, visitors can view technicians restoring vintage acquisitions. And in the Mechanical Music Gallery - well, plan to spend some time. Housed there are instruments invented in the late 19th and 20th centuries, now gorgeously preserved.

Along with player pianos, cylinder music boxes, and calliopes, there are several authentic nickelodeons of varying sizes, including one customized for cowboy-movie great Gene Autry. These beauties are essentially player pianos rigged Rube Goldberg-style with drums, accordions, violins, toy soldiers, and dolls, among other objects; at the peak of their popularity in the early 1900s, they commonly were placed in bars and restaurants and at fairs.

Museum guides activate them by inserting a nickel into a slot, providing a one-man-band concert - minus the man.

Upstairs are the Geographical Galleries, featuring instruments from around the world, from ancient to modern, from simple to sophisticated.

Along with the many variations on instruments well-known in the West are exotics. A recent special exhibit, "Beyond the Beat: Drums of the World," offered a global tour of djembes, dunduns, tablas, and other percussion instruments. They shared the room with a collection of hi-hats, a multi-media primer on the secrets of the Cuban rumba, a drum set played by Creedence Clearwater Revival's Doug "Cosmo" Clifford, a survey of how African tribes use percussion for celebration and grief, and a huge "community" drum from Yaqui father-and-son instrument makers - on which kids of all ages were invited to pound.

Other special exhibits, which change a few times a year, have focused on "Women Who Rock," "Portraits from the Golden Age of Jazz," and "American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music."

In the United States and Canada area, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, the Ramones, Alice Cooper, Judy Collins, Steve Vai, and Duane Eddy are well-represented, as are country stars Johnny and June Carter Cash and Buck Owens, and jazz greats Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong.

In addition to its main exhibit rooms, the MIM has a state-of-the-art 300-seat concert hall that regularly brings in an eclectic roster of performers, from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to surf-guitar king Dick Dale, from Grammy-winning Latin hybrids La Santa Cecilia to juju maestro King Sunny Ade. Each year in November, an MIM Fest welcomes several world-known musical artists for outdoor performances that give concertgoers a taste of what awaits inside.

One more note about taste: The MIM offers lunchtime dining at its cafeteria-style Cafe Allegro, which dishes out an international menu freshly prepared from local ingredients. For musical adventurers looking to "take five," it's a nifty place to dine.


To Learn More

The Musical Instrument Museum is at 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix.

Hours: Daily 9 a.m.

to 5 p.m.

Admission: $10-$20 (children under 3 free); additional charge for special exhibits and concerts.

Information: www.mim.org or 480-478-6000.