Ben Hume plays it as it lays
First published in Elle Décor 1991
Ben Hume crafts musical instruments from other ages, other cultures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art filled a floor-to-ceiling vitrine in the André Mertens Galleries with some of these last year, and Hume demonstrated them to visitors on half a dozen occasions. (The Met is only a couple of blocks from his cluttered apartment and workshop on New York’s Upper East Side.)
His also plays his instruments in funkier downtown avant-garde venues – P.S. 122 in the East Village, the Knitting Factory in SoHo – and makes them on commission for collectors and musicians.
Neither the instruments nor Hume’s performances are unsophisticated. But as he says, and as the Met seems to have understood, “It takes a long time to get rid of the conceit that because a musical instrument is unlacquered, it must be simplistic.”
The names of Hume’s instruments are also unlacquered: Slovakian fujaras, African mbiras, Ashanti lunas, Iranian zarbs, Mongolian changs, Persian setars, Pontic liras. He picks up a mijwiz, a mainstay of “the orchestra at the court of Nebuchadrezzar,” he remarks, and plays – loudly – noting that in Nebuchadrezzar’s time musicians observed a “different harmonic aesthetic.”
Hume’s fascination with the past began about 15 years ago when he chanced upon a history of musical instruments. A self-taught woodworker, jeweler, and ceramicist, he wanted to hear what he was reading about, so he began fashioning variations on ancient instruments from raw materials indigenous to modern Manhattan: soda straws, boots, coffee scoops, cardboard tubes, plastic containers.
To proceed from this unorthodox apprenticeship to the Met and ethnomusicological respectability required years of study and, more important, observation. Hume warns of getting “distracted by what’s being told to you about an object” instead of letting fundamental, relatively simple geometric and material truths inform your craft.
He cites instrument makers who remain content to copy existing models, never speculating on the effect of minor changes in length and volume, and deplores the mediocrity of many modern instruments: “Nowadays nobody seems to know the principles.” His preference for the beauty of old instruments, less valve laden and peg cluttered than their descendants, stems from a belief that “objects are windows to the culture.” Hume says that looking back to re-create ancient instruments involves not so much a historian’s professional curiosity as a truth seeker’s inquiry into the nature of things.
If all that sounds indecorously philosophical, it is in keeping with the personality of Ben Hume. He waxes, if not mystical, then at least Masonic when speaking of the golden section, the ancient proportion he sometimes uses to determine the volume, length, and width of an instrument. Applied to drums, flutes, fiddles, or any of a number of musical objects, this relationship, or “divine proportion” as Renaissance theorists called it, creates “an acoustic preference” and therefore a better sounding instrument.
Skeptics need only ask the exiled Iranian musicians who besiege Hume with requests for traditional instruments from their Persian culture to find out whether the maker’s Masonic methods produce good sound to match their sublime form. Hume tells his grade-school woodworking classes that instrument-making involves four prerequisites: a knowledge of “the harmonic series, basic geometry, and a self-assured aggression toward your material and the destination of your craft, combined with the sublimation of your own will to what the materials are telling you what they want you to do.”