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Crock Of Ages: New Exhibit Reveals Ancient Pottery's Millennia-Long Songs


All right, now let's listen to a sound that is as old as dirt.


GREENE: What you're hearing is the amplified interior of an old clay pot. This terracotta vessel was fired in a kiln 7,000 years ago in what's now Iran. This ancient pot is now on display as part of a sound exhibition. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited the Met Breuer Museum in New York City.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Artist Oliver Beer dropped dozens of microphones into pots, jars and sculptures belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then he listened.

OLIVER BEER: Every empty space, whether it be an empty room or a wine glass or a jug or the inside of a bronze bust which is hollow, has its own frequency. That's just a universal truth. And so, in fact, every single object that I'd listened to was an empty object, and therefore every single one had its own notes.

ULABY: Much like listening to a seashell, he says - inner space, reverberating with all the sounds around it. Beer's exhibition is called the "Vessel Orchestra." The oldest instrument in it sings the note B.

BEER: And it's been singing a B for 7,000 years, and if we come back in 7,000 years, it will still be singing a B.

ULABY: To bring that B into today's Met Breuer, Beer connected the microphone inside that Mesopotamian pot to a keyboard. When he hits the B key, you don't hear the keyboard produce note; you hear the sound inside the pot.

BEER: And when you turn up the volume, it amplifies that resonant frequency.

ULABY: In order to find the notes he liked, Beer spent months listening to hundreds of objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's giant collection. A Ming vase from China sings a perfect G. A frilly French art nouveau sculpture produces an incongruously heavy low C.


ULABY: The "Vessel Orchestra" includes 32 objects that come from five different departments within the Met - a funerary wine jar, contemporary metal sculpture and hollow stoneware from New Mexico. None of these objects relate historically, artistically or culturally to each other, but together they produce an odd chorus that Beer turned into a composition.


ULABY: It runs constantly in the Met Breuer exhibition space. Co-curator Lauren Rosati says even when everyone goes home, the music continues.

LAUREN ROSATI: These objects are singing to each other on these pedestals long after the museum closes.


ULABY: Oliver Beer invited other musicians to get creative with this instrument made up of priceless pots, vases and figures.

NICO MUHLY: When Oliver first told me about this, I assumed that he was going to be hitting them.

ULABY: Nico Muhly is a contemporary classical music star. He is in the exhibition space preparing to collaborate with a bunch of inanimate objects.

MUHLY: Here is one that's much more percussive.


ULABY: Muhly composed a piece that adds the voice of a viola to the quiet hums of those vases and vessels.


ULABY: The artist who made the "Vessel Orchestra," Oliver Beer, says he learned something surprising about humans after listening to the objects we've made.

BEER: One or two notes kept recurring more than all others across civilizations and across cultures. So E flat, for example, the middle E flat, I kept finding it again and again and again, whether it be in modern contemporary or ancient Near East or Asian. And we don't know why.


ULABY: I wondered if Beer was annoyed by the intrusive sound of cellphones in the gallery, objects that lack a resonant interior. But Beer said no. He referred to the great 20th century composer John Cage. It's all music to me, he said.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF 12DUST'S "CLOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.