On location with Tiny Desert Concerts: Musical Instrument Museum

By Amber Victoria Singer
Published: Thursday, June 30, 2022 - 12:43pm
Updated: Thursday, July 28, 2022 - 1:39pm

musical instrument museum
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

Twelfth-generation West African musician Arouna Diarra performed a Tiny Desert Concert at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix. Here’s some more information about the museum’s multisensory experience.

At first glance, the Musical Instrument Museum is simply home to an impressive collection of musical instruments from around the world. But slip on a pair of headphones and the place takes you — and your ears — around the world.

the stick, a guitar/bass hybrid
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
"The Stick," a guitar/bass hybrid.

Hundreds of sites around the museum have hidden identifiers that automatically connect to receivers attached to the MIM-provided headphones, allowing guests to actually hear the instruments at each exhibit in their original context.

As you make your way through each room, sounds of familiar and unfamiliar instruments — a moodswinger from the Netherlands, a wiener oboe from Austria, something called “the Stick,” which is sort of like a guitar/bass hybrid — fade in and out.

With a collection of over 8,000 instruments, and over 5,000 on display, you won’t hear every instrument. But you can make up for that by trying a few.

You’re invited to pluck, strike and strum in the downstairs Experience Gallery.

On a recent weekday afternoon in the gallery, a young boy rhythmically struck two gongs as a father waved his hands over a theremin — an electronic instrument controlled by manipulating electromagnetic fields with one’s hands. It almost sounded like the world’s strangest band was warming up for an incredible set.

Alongside the gongs and the theremin; harps, ukuleles, guitars, drums and more instruments are available for museumgoers of all ages. There are even two n’gonis made by Arouna Diarra, featured this month in KJZZ’s Tiny Desert Concerts.

But not all instruments in the museum rely on humans.

In the mechanical music gallery, all the featured instruments play themselves.

A scary-looking doll covered in faces sticks out its tongues and wiggles its eyebrows, a violin is played with electromagnetic impulses — but the star of the gallery is clearly “Apollonia,” a massive orchestrion that takes up the entire back wall.

Apollonia the orchestrion
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
"Apollonia" the orchestrion.

Popular in Europe from the late 1800s to the 1960s, orchestrions are large machines designed to play music like a band or orchestra. Apollonia weighs over two tons, and it features two accordions, two saxophones, a keyboard, flutes and a drum set. Every day at noon and 3 p.m., you have the opportunity to hear the massive, nearly-100-year-old orchestrion perform. Using a computer, a museum employee will choose from hundreds of songs the orchestrion can play. Guests are encouraged to dance along to the loud music.

The grand piano-inspired rotunda leading to artist gallery at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
The grand piano-inspired rotunda leading to artist gallery at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

The artist gallery features instruments, costumes, awards and other memorabilia from famous musicians from around the world.

Where else would a grammy, an Olympic drum and a lyric sheet for Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” all be in the same room?

Even the architecture of the museum is music-related.

The curve of the rotunda leading to the artist gallery is inspired by the shape of a grand piano, and the windows are clustered in a pattern similar to piano keys.

Other aspects of the 200,000-square-foot building are inspired by the desert topography of the Southwest, like the meandering “El Rio” upstairs corridor.

Even as you walk to the parking lot, you might still hear the faint sounds of a xylophone driving out of the Experience Gallery.

Not a bad way to spend a summer day in Phoenix.

a phoenix point of pride sign at the musical instrument museum
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
A Phoenix point of pride sign at the Musical Instrument Museum.

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