The Laura Boulton Collection of World Music and Musical Instruments

October 1, 1974

On January 11, 1974, at the ceremonies opening the Laura Boulton Collection at Arizona State University, Dean Henry Bruinsma said, "The Boulton Collection will be a living center at Arizona State University where students and others may undertake research. It will be of interest to musicians, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and artists, as well as to laymen and school children." This center, a part of the College of Fine Arts, occupies the top floor of the new music building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

On permanent view at the center are approximately 300 rare oriental, primitive and folk music instruments which I have collected on thirty-five expeditions to the far corners of the globe. These expeditions were carried out to discover and record the traditional and liturgical music of peoples all over the world. I collected approximately 30,000 recordings in addition to the musical instruments—drums, flutes, lutes, guitars, and other instruments, representing all the families of instruments from the cultures of five continents, from the musical beginnings of man to the present time.

The plan is that visitors will hear musical recordings of the instruments while viewing them. Explanatory notes below objects such as a Chinese lute, an Ethiopian lyre, an Angolan leg rattle, or a Hopi bull-roarer will be lighted at synchronized intervals, activating a recording of the instrument. Continuous slides will enable the viewers to see the people and places associated with the instruments and the occasions on which they are used.

The center's exhibition is divided into four geographical sections with the musical instruments indigenous to each region: Africa, Asia, Europe, and the New World (the Americas, including the Arctic and the Caribbean).

One of the oldest and most beautiful objects in the exhibit is the Chinese p'i p'a, a short-necked 16th-century lute. The instrument first appeared in China in the first century, and was played by troubadours who were hired to sing ballads. The first non-Western instrument in the Collection (given to me when I was a young student at the Sorbonne) was the "Chinese mouth-organ," probably developed in Laos as early as the second or third century. It is the ancestor of all free-reed instruments, including the modern American organ. Among the Bushmen in the remote Kalahari desert of Southwest Africa, I found unique ankle rattles worn for dancing. They are made from butterfly cocoons collected by the women and strung on a long cord of plaited fiber. Bits of ostrich shell placed inside create a soft, rattling sound which is a pleasant accompaniment for their singing and dancing.

Today there is a growing interest in non-Western music and musical instruments with their unfamiliar sounds. When I began the Collection, the study of ethnic music and musical instruments was in the field of anthropology. In more recent years the word ethnomusicology has come into use, and these studies have become increasingly important to musicians. They are now incorporated into the curricula of the major universities and have become essential in world cultural studies even in elementary and high schools. Music education is now undergoing curricular changes, particularly at elementary or secondary levels, to encourage the new interest in ethnic music, electronic music, in jazz as an art form, rock music, etc. Scholars in ethnomusicology and music education are now emphasizing the importance of these pursuits.

The Collection illustrates the development of instruments from their simplest forms to extremely elaborate forms, sometimes found within one limited area. From region to region, even within a single country, there is a tremendous variety—for example, in West Africa, from a one-stringed fiddle with a small gourd resonator to a sophisticated harp of 21 strings; from a tiny whistle that plays melodies of two or three tones to an elegant flute that plays melodies to inspire a Debussy; from the simplest drum consisting of a skin spontaneously stretched between two men and beaten by a third to a four-toned talking drum used as an important means of communication or even to an orchestra of drums playing whole symphonies of rhythms.

The historical association is important but is not necessarily the most vital part of the study. Also important are comparative studies within, for example, one family of instruments such as the sansa family (the "thumb piano" found only in Africa). The Collection has twenty-four examples showing (1) various kinds of resonators; (2) different vibration devices, shells or bits of metal attached to the foundation board, or a string of beads lying across the keys, or small pieces of metal attached to the individual keys; (3) one or two rows of keys which are plucked; (4) keys of bamboo instead of metal; (5) the number of keys varying from 7 to 18 or more.

These musical instruments are undeniably works of art. Many of the shapes are as beautiful as the work of a fine sculptor. Most of them were handmade by special craftsmen who inherited the profession and took time to follow the traditional patterns of their forefathers. Some of them showed great imagination and created new forms. Each instrument illustrates some step in the development of music and becomes an important phase in the history of music and musical instruments.

Musical instruments play a vital role in cultural research. They can be seen, handled, and measured; but even more important is their function in the spiritual and mental life of the people through ritual and secular uses. From the crude sacred whirring instruments, e.g., the bull-roarers which come from early times when magic was an important part of human philosophy, to the more elaborate and highly developed instruments in the Collection, e.g., the Chinese lute (p'i p'a) or the Indian lute (sitar),—all demonstrate the musical achievement of the people and the cultural significance of their music.

Included in the Collection is a great variety of music from peoples throughout Africa, visited on fourteen expeditions; also represented are nearly thirty tribes of Indians of North America, South America, and Mexico and Eskimos of Alaska and Canada. The music of national and folk groups from the Americas, Europe, Middle East, Far East and Pacific Islands is also represented.

The liturgical music includes songs and chants from all the great religions of the world. Christian music is represented by a large collection of Neo-Byzantine and Orthodox liturgy from the cathedrals and monasteries of Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, Egypt, and Ethiopia.

Music accompanies every activity in life—work, play, and worship. The study of song-texts, tonal systems and rhythmic patterns opens doors to greater knowledge and understanding.

Scholarly efforts in ethnomusicology have emphasized the significance of world musics as in the study of music and man. It is essential that authentic material be available. The Laura Boulton Collection provides comprehensive global coverage and research opportunities for cooperative studies in music education and ethnomusicology.

In addition to the musical instruments and recordings there are more than 5,000 photographs and colored slides of the peoples and areas covered by the expeditions and about 60,000 feet of motion picture film. There is a significant collection of paintings of ethnic musical subjects. The Collection also contains a specialized library with rare illustrated books and pamphlets in many languages.

Facilities for music research in iconography will be provided. The visual sources in the Boulton archives include documentation in many areas—photographs (essential in the study of ethnic music), colored slides, films, prints, paintings, sculpture. This unexplored treasure of visual documentation of the musical life of ethnic groups has great potential for scholars. Many musicologists are aware of the need for systematic work in this field.

Students who wish to train in music iconography or organology can combine these studies with art history, anthropology, cultural history and the sociology of music. Workshops with musical instruments are planned, as well as seminars, special lectures for students in ethnic studies, and educational tours.

The publication program on the "Music of World Cultures" is progressing. I have published fourteen record albums from the Collection with comprehensive booklets from this unusual treasury of rare material, much of which exists only in this Collection. Six more albums have been prepared; three are scheduled to appear in 1974 with others to follow in 1975. Two books of mine based on the Collection have been published: THE MUSIC HUNTER (Doubleday, New York), and MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS OF WORLD CULTURES (Intercultural Arts Press, New York). Other books, monographs, and catalogues are in progress on the music and the literature of the people (song texts, folk tales, sung riddles and proverbs). A series of catalogues with extensive comprehensive commentary illustrated with photographs and line drawings is in preparation.

The Collection is easily accessible and welcomes visiting scholars.

2659 Last modified on November 13, 2018