Before the nineteenth century, the music of reed instruments flowed from the woods of their homelands. Now we often hear materials that have been transported from other continents. Most oboes and clarinets used by professional musicians, for example, are made from mpingo, also known as East African blackwood or grenadilla, or other tropical woods such as cocobolo or rosewood. These materials became available to European instrument makers after colonial occupations of Africa, South America, and Asia. The superior stability, density, and smoothness of these woods were ideal for instruments that are repeatedly bathed in human breath then dried, a process that cracks or warps other woods. Along with nineteenth-century innovations in metal sound-hole keys and levers, forest products shipped to Europe from tropical forests produced many of the instrument-making traditions that prevail today.
The Musical Instruments Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a short walk across Central Park from Lincoln Center, reveals the tangled relationships among local ecologies, colonial trade, and the craft of instrument making. At first, the galleries seem like mausoleums for sound. Silent instruments sit illuminated behind sheets of plateglass, reliquaries for the remains of music whose spirits have flown. The glass, polished wooden floors, and long, narrow dimensions of the galleries give the sound of footfalls and voices a lively, clattery feel, unlike the expansive warmth of concert halls, reinforcing the sense of isolation from musical sound. This initial impression evaporates, though, when I let go of the idea that this is a space for direct experience of sound. Instead, we can marvel here at stories of materiality, human ingenuity, and the relationships among cultures.
The relationships between musicians and their instruments—often built over decades of daily bodily connection—serve as an inspiring example of how we might live in better relationship to forests.
Like the Paleolithic mammoth-ivory flutes whose construction relied on the most sophisticated craft of their era, the instruments on display at the Met show how, across cultures and time, people have drawn on their highest forms of technology to create music. Trumpets and whistling jars from the precolonial South American Moche civilization reveal mastery of ceramics. Pipe organs were, for centuries, among the most complex ma- chines in Western Europe. An Algerian rebab bowed lute and Ugandan ennanga harp show precise engineering of wood, skin, and string. The technologies of silk production, wood carving, lacquer, and ornamented inlay converge in a Chinese guqin, a long stringed instrument played on a tabletop or lap. In the twentieth century, industrial innovations appear, from electric guitars to plastic vuvuzela horns.
Precolonial instruments often used indigenous materials. Walking through the galleries is an education in the many ways that humans have sonified matter from their surroundings. Clay, shaped then fired, turns human breath and lip vibrations into amplified tones. Rocks turned to bells and strings reveal metallurgical connections to land. Plant matter is given voice in carved wood, stretched palm frond, and spun fiber. A bestiary of animals sings through taut skins and reshaped teeth and tusks. Each instrument is rooted in local ecological context. Condor feathers in South American pipes. Kapok wood, snake skins, antelope horn, and porcupine quills on African drums, harps, and lutes. Boxwood and brass in European oboes. Wood, silk, bronze, and stone in se, shiqing, and yunluo, Chinese percussive and stringed instruments. Music emerged from human relation- ship with the beyond-human world, its varied sounds around the world revealing not only the many forms of human culture but the diverse sonorous, reverberant properties of rock, soil, and living beings.
But for all its magnificent and often fine-grained ecological and cultural rootedness, human music is not narrowly provincial. Music’s power to connect stretches far beyond its unifying effects on listeners in the present moment. Music making binds the ecological, creative, and technological histories of seemingly distant cultures. Ideas and materials have moved from one place to another since the dawn of instrumental music. The swans whose bones gave Paleolithic artisans material for flutes were not part of the fauna of the tundra around the caves. Transport or trade brought the swan’s wing bones into the places where they became musical instruments. Human desires have driven trade for instrument making ever since. Listeners seek sound that pleases and moves them. Musicians demand stability and consistency from their instruments. Our eyes delight in the form, hue, and surface ornamentation of instruments, a visual complement to sonic beauty. All these qualities demand the best materials, stimuli for trade.
The extensive trade network that connected China, India, western Asia, North Africa, and Europe—the “silk road” of the first millennium CE, carried ivory east from Africa to Asia, silk strings west from China to Persia, and southern Asian tropical woods to temperate regions. Ideas about the forms of instruments moved alongside materials used in instrument making. Double-reed instruments and bowed stringed instruments came to Europe from Africa and western Asia. Lutes, drums, harps, and trumpets arrived in China from central and western Asia.
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonial land seizures, forced labor, and rail and shipping networks brought new materials to European instrument makers. When a modern orchestra, folk group, or rock band takes the stage, the air comes alive with the sounds of vibrating plant and animal parts, the voices of forests and fields reanimated through human art. But we also hear the legacy of forced occupation and resource extraction, now turned to modern globalized trade. Melodies soar from hollowed mpingo wood in oboes and clarinets, a voice from East African savannahs. Electric guitarists press their hips into the mahogany bodies of their instruments and slide their fingers over Madagascan rosewood fingerboards, playing with slices of giant rain forest trees. String players bow with horsehair tensioned by South American Pernambuco wood. Many bows are tipped with ivory or tortoiseshell. All of these European instruments had long precolonial histories, grounded in local soils and materials, but were transformed into their modern forms, in part, by the export to Europe of materials from colonized lands. The changes wrought by colonialism create striking visual differences among the European instruments of different ages in the Met galleries. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, dark tropical woods and abundant use of ivory replaced much of the lighter boxwood, maple, and brass of earlier European instruments.
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European colonizers picked out the material most pleasing to their ears and most useful to instrument-making workshops. A few European materials made the grade and were retained, even as “exotic” woods and animal parts became more readily available. Spruce and maple, especially, remained the favored wood for the bodies of stringed instruments and the soundboards of pianos. Calfskin topped tympani. These European materials were joined by ivory, favored for its workability and stability, and tropical woods whose density, smoothness, elasticity, and tones met musical needs: mpingo’s tight, silky grain; Pernambuco’s extraordinary strength, elasticity, and responsiveness; rosewood’s warmth and stability; and padauk’s resonance. These tropical woods all belong to the same taxonomic family, tree cousins to the beans, and have tight-grained, dense wood from slow-growing trees. Most take seventy or more years to reach harvestable age. On a concert stage, we hear the voices of tree elders.
The industrial economy continues the same path, plucking materials and energy from around the world. Long-buried algae drilled from oil wells are distilled and polymerized into plastic keyboards. Amplifiers are plugged into an electric grid powered by the incineration of mined coal, the flow of water through dammed rivers, or the decay of mined uranium rock.
The tropical woods and ivory most favored for instrument making are now mostly threatened or endangered. Nineteenth-century exploitation has turned to twenty-first-century ruination. Demand for materials for musical instruments, though, was not the primary cause of many of these losses. The volume of ivory used for violin bows and bassoon rings was dwarfed by exports for tableware handles, billiard balls, religious carvings, and ornaments, although piano keys consumed hundreds of thousands of pounds of tusks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pernambuco was extirpated from most of its range not by violin bow makers, but through overharvesting for dye made from its crimson heartwood. The country Brazil gets its name from brasa, “ember” in Portuguese, for the glowing-coal color of the wood whose trade was so important in the founding of the country.
Mpingo woodlands are in decline, driven by export for instruments and flooring, and by local uses for carving. Compounding the problem of overharvesting is the twisting, gnarled form of mpingo trunks. Carving straight billets for oboes and clarinets from such wood is challenging, and often less than ten percent of the cut log is usable. Rosewoods, often used for guitar fingerboards, are mostly exported for furniture, with more wood in one bed frame or cabinet than in any guitar shop. Although trade in many rosewood species is restricted by international law, the wood is now so valuable that financial speculators and luxury goods manufacturers drive an illegal market worth billions of dollars yearly.
The sound of contemporary music is therefore a product of past colonialism and present-day trade, but, with very few exceptions, it is not a driver of species endangerment. Indeed, the relationships between musicians and their instruments—often built over decades of daily bodily connection—serve as an inspiring example of how we might live in better relationship to forests. An oboe or violin contains less wood than a chair or stack of magazines, yet this single instrument yields beauty and utility for decades, sometimes centuries. Contrast this with the culture of overexploitation and disposability that pervades so much of our relationship to material objects and their sources. For example, we threw out more than twelve million tons of furniture in the United States in 2018, eighty percent of it buried in landfills, most of the rest burned, and only one-third of one percent recycled. Much of this furniture was sourced from tropical forests, often supplied to the United States through manufacturing hubs in Asia. Such trade is increasing and the World Wildlife Fund states that the “world’s natural forests cannot sustainably meet the soaring global demand for timber products.” If the rest of our economy took as much care of wood products as musicians do of their instruments, the deforestation crisis would be greatly eased.
Driven to action by a desire to honor the materials with which they work, some musicians and luthiers are now at the forefront of seeking alternatives to the exploitative use of wood, ivory, and other materials from threatened species. This is especially important work because musical instruments are now far more numerous than in past centuries. More than ten million guitars and hundreds of thousands of violins are made annually. Such volume of trade cannot be built on rare woods. It is therefore now possible, with some searching, to find instruments made from wood certified to come from sustainable logging operations. The Forest Stewardship Council, for example, puts its stamp of approval on several new lines of instruments. The Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative in southeastern Tanzania promotes community-based forest management where local residents own, manage, and benefit from mpingo and other woodland species, managing forests sustainably to help the local economy. Instrument makers are also introducing new materials, relieving pressure on endangered woods. Until the late twentieth century, only twenty tree species provided most of the wood for guitars, violins, violas, cellos, mandolins, and other Western stringed instruments. Today the variety of wood sources for instrument making has increased to more than one hundred species. Alongside this diversification of natural products, manufactured materials like carbon fiber and wood laminate are substituting for solid wood.
When we listen to instrumental music, we arrive in intimate contact with the world’s forests—their past and future—and the history of human trade.
In the decades that come, unless our path changes, it will not be the overharvesting of particularly valuable species that challenges our sources of wood and animal parts for instruments. Instead, the loss of entire forest ecosystems will remake the relationship between human music and the land. The forests from which we now draw our most precious musical raw materials are in decline. In the first dozen years of this century, forest loss exceeded gain by nearly three times, a global net reduction of more than 1.5 million square kilometers. Tropical forests fared worst, followed by the spruce and other boreal forests of the north. Increasing fire, forest clearing for commodity crops, and changing climate will likely accelerate these changes in coming decades. Music will, in future, still give voice to the Earth, just as it always has. It will tell of the ancient bond between ecosystems and human artistry but also of extinction, technological change, and the subjugation of forests by human appetites.
A few old instruments—carefully tended by musicians—now evoke the memory of the departed or degraded forests. On the stage at Lincoln Center, we hear woods from past decades and centuries. Sherry Sylar plays on oboes whose woods were harvested decades ago in the early twentieth century. Each one has a “passport” documenting the wood’s provenance, showing that it was not obtained through recent cutting of now-endangered trees. When we talked, she described how some colleagues scour the country for sales of older oboes, hoping to find instruments with good wood from ages past. The music of Sylar’s violinist colleague, Sheryl Staples, comes from a Guarneri violin. Its woods are at least three hundred years old, harvested from spruce and maple forests that grew on a preindustrial Earth. Although wood for instruments still comes from the Fiemme Valley forests in northern Italy that supplied Guarneri and Stradivarius, springtime there now comes earlier, summer is hotter, and winter snowpack is diminished compared with that of previous centuries. This yields wood with a looser, less sonorous grain than the tight woods of past centuries. In another hundred years, it is likely that heat, droughts, and changed rainfall will push alpine forests off these mountain slopes. Music often now speaks of the Earth as it was, not as it is, a memory carried in wood grain.
When we listen to instrumental music, we arrive in intimate contact with the world’s forests—their past and future—and the history of human trade. The sounds of the orchestra are worldly, immersing us in the beauty and brokenness of both biodiversity and human history. Music is not transcendent or abstracted, it is immanent and embodied. In a time where forests are in crisis and mass extinction is underway within life’s community, it is perhaps time to unshroud and honor these relationships from which music blooms.
This piece is excerpted from Sounds Wild and Broken by David George Haskell, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by David George Haskell.
Watch David in conversation with Robert Macfarlane, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Mary Evelyn Tucker as they discuss the idea of the personhood of trees, root communities, and the ways in which humans might foster the growth of our canopy here.
Explore The Met’s unique instrument collection here.