From the beginning, Jews have been a musical people. When God parted the Red Sea, what did Miriam do? She played the timbrel. When Saul was troubled by evil spirits, he called for David to play the harp. King David, in fact, was known as a great musician, and many of the psalms are attributed to him. Psalm 8 begins with an invocation to play a particular instrument: “To the conductor, on the gittith, a song of David.”
Wait, what’s a gittith?
“Nobody in the world knows what is it,” said Moshe Frumin, an Israeli sculptor and musician who uses scraps of information from the Torah and from archaeological research to reconstruct musical instruments from biblical times. Twenty-one of those instruments are on display at the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa, Okla., through January 25. As for the gittith, Frumin’s interpretation, included in the exhibit, looks something like a harp and was built from mahogany, beech wood and the wood from a lemon tree.
The exhibition,titled Moshe Frumin: Ancient Instruments, opened in mid-October with a concert by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble. Members of SAVAE, like Frumin, study biblical musical instruments and melodies; they performed 12 ancient Middle Eastern songs using Frumin’s instruments. The stringed instruments are played “like a guitar, where you’re plucking one string at a time to make a melody, rather than playing them in chords or with a bow,” said Karen York, the museum’s curator. She said the sound is softer than a steel guitar string. “It reminds you of a sitar, or one of those Chinese guitars: plink, plink, plink.”
To re-create the instruments, Frumin begins with either a verse from the Torah or an archaeological find, like a wall drawing or a picture on an ancient coin. “I take a picture of the coin and enlarge it,” he said. “Some musical instruments are horns, for example, and then I enlarge the picture of the horn until I get exactly the measurement of the horn.”
There is rarely enough information to know exactly how to build the instrument, so Frumin uses his research to interpret what the instrument might have looked like. “I look in the Bible, what type of materials were available in those years,” he said. He builds the instruments from brass, cotton, woods like mahogany and beech wood, and, in one case, deer antlers. They are strung with ligament or gut. Because no one knows exactly what musical scales were used in biblical times, even the way the instruments are tuned is only a guess.
Frumin got his start when he was a teacher of students with disabilities. He liked to do hands-on projects with his students, and when one day they built instruments out of pumpkins, he found he really enjoyed it. After a while, though “it was difficult to find pumpkins,” and he started making instruments from recycled materials; alongside his ancient instruments project, Frumin continues to build instruments out of such castoffs as milk cartons, soda bottles and PVC pipe.
Along with the gittith, the exhibit features a harp, a lyre, bells, cymbals and an uggav, a pipe that’s mentioned four times in the Torah but never described (“And his brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who grasp a lyre and uggav” (Genesis 4:21)). There are also four instruments that Frumim built from recycled materials for the public to try.
“Everyone who comes from the exhibit is gasping like a fish,” York said. “They’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Tulsa has a tiny Jewish community — Jews made up 0.1% of the Oklahoma state population in a 2004 U.S. Census Bureau report — but “the influence of the Jewish community is felt in far greater ways than our numbers imply,” said the museum’s development director, Melissa Schnur, noting that many of the city’s major philanthropists are Jewish.
Still, in order to stay afloat, the museum must connect with its non-Jewish neighbors. It seems to be working: The museum has seen more than double its usual traffic since the Frumin exhibit has been open; in the first week of November, there were more than 800 visitors, compared with 400 during all of November in 2008.
“We are in the belt of the Bible Belt,” said the museum’s executive director, Arthur Feldman. The instruments “fell right into place for us. Because they’re from the Bible, that’s sort of a bond of commonality with the people in our area.”
Contact Beth Schwartzapfel at firstname.lastname@example.org