Feb 282017

Samuel Barber, 1944

The fifth floor of the Museum housed the scientists’ offices and was also a storehouse of artifacts not on display. Margaret Mead had contributed objects from her work in Bali. While she and I were working out a script for the segment on Manus she pointed at something I had never seen. She called it a saron. It looked something like our xylophone, but the keys were brass and there was a trough under it for resonance.

“Can you play it? “

“No. We’ve got a lot of musical instruments in the collection. We’ve never heard them played. “

We found a number of sound makers that had been collected but never used by the museum’s staff. One of Jac Venza’s friends was Samuel Barber. I had heard of Barber who belonged to the short list of serious American composers. When we met he was shy and terse with me. I think he was uncomfortable with straight men. I would ask a question but he would direct his answers to Jac.

Curiosity overcame his modestly when he touched the artifacts. He and Jac whispered and then told me they would return in a week or two. On an April day he brought some first chair musicians from the New York Philharmonic. The flutist picked up a wooden Japanese wind instrument and compared its primary scale against the conventional Western flute.  It was a different do-re-mi than our diatonic scale.

The first chair trumpeter tested a Fiji Island conch shell and a horn made of calabash sections from Tanganyika Africa.  The percussionist examined a two toned drum in the form of a slit wooden animal. One side of the carving gave one tone; the other, a lower timbre. The talking drugs from the Yoruba were mobile tympani. The tribal drums were held under the armpit. When the elbow squeezed the drum into the rib cage the tone ascended or descended.

A palm sized metal instrument best described as a hand piano that twanged when plucked fascinated Samuel. He opened his composition with it.

The composer was restricted by budget to six musicians. He did not want to compose for the artifacts alone. His musicians would also use the conventional harp, French horn and clarinet.  He waived his fee to hire a seventh musician.

Barber wrote a twenty-minute score for Adventure that could not be conventionally notated. It was exotic, beautiful and inventive. His biographers have found Barber’s written score, but it can never be replayed.



Samuel Barber, by Carl Van Vechten – Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52003


 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>