Laurence Libin

 Laurence Libin
Laurence Libin holding a viola d'amore. Photo by Eileen Travell.

In fall 2015, Grove's Publishing Editor Anna-Lise Santella talked to Laurence Libin, Editor in Chief of the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (2015) about what it was like to edit the landmark work.

You were, for many years, the Curator of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did your curatorial experience affect the way you conducted this project?

Editing is like curating in that both involve acquiring and critically evaluating material from disparate sources. I had a broad network of contacts in the field and some knowledge of how instruments are designed and built and used. Describing instruments for cataloguing purposes and interpreting objects for the public helped in editing descriptions of instruments.

The first edition of GDMI, published in 1984 and edited by Stanley Sadie who had also edited The New Grove Dictionary, was the first spinoff publication in the history of Grove. Why do you think musical instruments demanded a dictionary of their own?

Interest in historical and non-Western instruments had peaked in the 1970s when the 1st edition was conceived to serve and exploit that interest. Many people (e.g. collectors, dealers, restorers, curators) are interested in instruments apart from their musical uses. Instruments merit description and discussion in terms of all functions (e.g. symbolic, emblematic, economic, social, ritual), not only their use in making music.

Which sections of the dictionary grew the most since the first edition?

We’ve had thirty years’ more ethnographic and historical research to draw on since the 1984 edition, and we’ve grappled with a substantially larger 21st-century instrumentarium, which embraces everything from iPhone apps to vuvuzelas, those incredibly loud plastic horns introduced fifteen years ago at South African football matches. We’ve taken account of developments in emerging media such as the flourishing arts of sound sculpture and found instruments, citing for example the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra and the Landfillharmonic from Paraguay. Also, including the human body as an instrument for the first time in Grove, we’ve added entries on body percussion, whistling, armpit music, voice classification, and related topics that blur the distinction between performer and instrument. That distinction is also questioned by entries on brain-instrument interfaces, wearable and bionic instruments, and other forward-looking subjects that complicate our understanding of music’s instrumentalities. We’ve also given more attention to collecting and collectors; notably, in collaboration with Arnold Myers and the European MIMO group, we’ve included an amplified list of major instrument collections worldwide and a new system of sigla identifying these collections. We hope these sigla, like the ones already used internationally for libraries, will be universally adopted so that collections can be more accurately and simply identified in scholarly publications.

Who will find the second edition most useful?

Music students, instrument collectors and dealers, musicians and musicologists/ethnomusicologists interested in organology, and the general public interested in instruments as such.

Laurence Libin is emeritus curator of musical instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is the author of American Musical Instruments in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Norton, 1985).

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