At ‘Sound Maze’ Exhibit in Napa, Everyone Is a Musician

Lily Gutierrez plays an instrument at the Sound Museum. (Tom McFadden)

When stuffy classical music doesn't work for you, make your own instrument. Artist Paul Dresher did exactly that.

Dresher is a composer and musician who has been inventing his own musical instruments since high school. His love of all things musical is loud and clear at his latest exhibit at the Napa Valley Museum, called "Sound Maze."

Artist and musician Paul Dresher plays "A-Frame", a 17-foot pendulum with instruments attached. (Tom McFadden)

"Sound Maze" doesn't look or sound like anything you're used to seeing at a museum. In the center of the exhibit, a massive 17-foot metal pendulum swings, hitting vintage school bells on one side and snare drums on the other. Nearby, a metal hula hoop spins and clatters to the floor. In the back of the room, a silver pipe organ, its pipes tied together with string, blares.

Everything in the Sound Maze is meant to be pressed, spun, strummed, knocked and played by everybody, no matter their musical talent, said Dresher.

"When you put some energy into them, the instruments play themselves," he said. "That's part of the idea of this installation. You don’t have to a skilled musician or practice for years to get interesting sonic results."

Lily Gutierrez plays the Sound Maze's pipe organ. (Tom McFadden)

It's 7-year-old Lily Gutierrez's first time at "Sound Maze" -- and her first time at any museum, ever -- and she's ready for her turn at the "Big Wheel."

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The "Big Wheel" is a 4-foot-tall wooden wheel filled with golf balls, pingpong balls and wooden balls. When you spin it, the balls bounce around noisily until they get spit out a hole in the back, where they roll down a xylophone that chimes delightfully.

She pushes the wheel with both hands and squeals with delight as the balls go flying.

"Oh look it! It's cool, they fall down! They're really jumping!" she said.

After her turn at the "Big Wheel," she moves on to a row of skinny steel rods swaying back and forth with wood blocks on the end. This instrument is called "Field of Flowers." It does look like flowers, too, but out of a Dr. Seuss Book rather than a garden.

Lily plays "Field of Flowers", a row of wooden blocks atop steel rods. (Tom McFadden)

Lily pulls the wooden blocks back and lets them go, listening as they knock together in a rhythmic wave.

"Whoa ... cool...," she said.

The sound of wooden blocks mixes with the sound of the nearly dozen other instruments being played by people at the exhibit, and the sound swells to a loud din.

Dresher uses the word "cacophony" to describe all the noise. To him it sounds like kids and adults finding their inner musician. And that, he said, is music to his ears.

You can see "Sound Maze" for yourself at the Napa Valley Museum through Sunday, August 20.

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