A World Tour in One Room

Friday, Jan. 15, 2010 1:18 pm

If you’ve got a few minutes, you can take a whirlwind tour of the world’s musical instruments by visiting Grinnell’s World Music Instrument Collection in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts. There, you’ll find instruments as diverse as the tarka flute from the Andes, the djembe drum from West Africa, the tambura lute from India, and the koto zither from Japan, all in the same room. The World Music Instrument Collection serves the Grinnell community in many ways, and even influences far-flung music enthusiasts, thanks to its extensive online database.

The instrument collection, which occupies a large wall in the Cornell World Music Room, has been assembled during the last 30 years through a variety of means. A small collection was in place when ethnomusicologist Roger Vetter joined the Grinnell music faculty in 1986. “I started to buy instruments central to the classes I inherited,” the professor of music says.

Many more have been gifts from Grinnellians (if you have an instrument to donate, contact Vetter at vetter[at]grinnell[dot]edu). Visiting professors have added different instruments based on their own research interests. Vetter himself has added numerous instruments as the result of his own extensive travels to Hawaii, Indonesia, Ghana, and Zimbabwe. He once even contributed a banjo he found at an antique shop in Des Moines. “‘Opportunistic’ is the key word,” he says.

The instruments are hands-on educational materials for students in practicum classes such as the Javanese Gamelan Ensemble, and also serve as informal supplemental tools in courses such as Music, Culture, and Context. “Instruments also have value as objects of material culture,” Vetter adds. “I use musical instruments as teaching devices in many classes, whether or not we are actually playing them.”

Vetter hopes to someday arrange an exhibition in the Faulconer Gallery to display selected instruments as art objects and educate viewers about their construction. In the meantime, he has taken advantage of the spacious Cornell World Music Room to set up a sort of permanent museum, and he encourages anyone interested in seeing the collection to contact him (vetter[at]grinnell[dot]edu).

Thanks to an online database that includes pictures of every instrument, detailed descriptions, and audio samples, people anywhere can also benefit from the collection. Vetter and the department’s curricular technology specialist launched the site in 2000 after a long process: taking professional photos of each instrument, listening to more than 1,000 CDs to find appropriate audio examples, and writing the descriptions.

The result is a valuable resource. “Now, anyone searching for a particular instrument might come across the website,” Vetter says. Professors of ethnomusicology at other institutions regularly use the site in their classes, and Vetter’s former students who now teach have also introduced the site to their students.

Collecting instruments is a lifelong hobby for Vetter. He spent the fall semester of 2009 teaching in Sri Lanka, and he brought back a couple of instruments to add to the collection. “I held myself back,” he says with a smile, unwrapping a small hand drum he had packed and shipped to Grinnell.