I’m just back from a week in Paris where I visited the fantastic Cité de la Musique, home to the Musée de la Musique with its extensive collection of instruments from centuries ago up to the modern era. The focus of the museum is classical music, with only slight nods to folk/world/rock and other popular genres, but the collection is well-presented with many of the instruments on display accompanied by audio examples provided on a headset included in the ticket price. This is a great way to see and hear some really obscure old instruments.
Of particular interest to me were the wide range of lute-based instruments, glass wind instruments (the flutes in particular looked amazing), a glass harmonium, some truly bizarre brass instruments and the 3.5m tall Octobass (pictured here).
It was when I got to the top floor of the museum that my eyes popped out on stalks. The very first thing I saw as I came up the stairs was their RCA Theremin, complete with original RCA speaker enclosure. Beside it sat an Ondes Martenot and behind them a display of the more unusual instrumentation used in Varèse’s “Ionisation” – gongs, castanets, maracas, two sirens and the “lion’s roar”.
I should have taken out the camera by now, of course, but as I moved along the instruments I whisked it out and started clicking away. First up and close to hand (but not for touching or playing, unfortunately) was a Moog 900 Series modular synth.
Behind that sat the imposing form of the E-mu modular, but not just any model, oh no, this one was owned by none other than Frank Zappa.
It’s hard not to love the VCS-3 ‘Putney’ synth, apparently simple in comparison to the big modulars, but overflowing with flexibility thanks to the pin-matrix used for shifting signals around and the rather dainty joystick. These little critters were all over the 70’s, from Pink Floyd to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Zappa was also a big fan of the Synclavier and there was an early model here too. Now, I don’t feel like I should be in a museum, but there behind the Synclavier is a DX7 mk1, the same model that sits in my studio. Yes, folks, I’m playing with a museum piece.
I had never heard of a Gmebaphone, a half-hexagonal synth console that wouldn’t look out of place on a low budget scifi movie from the 60’s, but one sits out at the end of the modern music display. Designed to synthesise sound within a 3D space, it certainly looks impressive, though I suspect its use is mainly in fairly academic circles.
The Cité de la Musique is certainly worth a visit – I just wish there were somewhere like that in Scotland.