YOUNTVILLE — When a Napa couple and their infant son were first through the doors at the Napa Valley Museum, the building was nearly quiet on a Sunday morning – but not for long.
Arranged around the airy gallery were the showpieces of the Yountville museum’s exhibit “Paul Dresher’s Sound Maze,” a dozen Rube Goldberg-like contraptions ready for passers-by to stir them to musical, rhythmic life.
Along a “Field of Flowers,” a row of clapper balls inside wooden boxes on springy metal stems, a curious Dallas Lehman pushed one box and then another and another. Amid the clock-like clacking, Lehman’s 9-month-old son Wolf stretched from his father’s arm toward one of the swinging clappers – just as he would minutes later toward a bright red school bell atop a cluster of noisemakers a few yards away.
Later, at the other end of the museum floor, Dallas and Inna Lehman watched intently – their baby, too – as a metal barrel combined with wires and sensors to rattle the floor with bass notes of an organ built from reclaimed metal pipes. Eventually, the family’s walkabout ended at a wooden A-frame nearly touching the ceiling – a 17-foot-tall metronome-like device that generated a forceful musical motif that repeated itself faster with each push Inna gave its huge, lumbering central pendulum.
“I love it – there’s not many exhibitions where you can go out and touch things,” Inna said as her son’s little eyes continued to track the pendulum. “We took him to another museum where everything was behind glass – and of course, his hands were all over the glass.
“In most museums you have to be quiet and respectful, but here, you can say, ‘Let’s get this place going!’”
Since opening May 12, “Sound Maze” has shown visitors at the Yountville museum an inventive, offbeat look at music and the devices that that produce it – intended or not. An array of metals, woods, wire and other parts form the workings of one-of-a-kind instruments that toddlers, seniors and all those in between can tap, pluck, press and otherwise play in a spirit as experimental as that of their creator.
Paul Dresher, a composer based in San Francisco, began concocting homebrew musical devices while still in high school and performs with the Paul Dresher ensemble using his creations. The instruments on display at the Napa Valley Museum originally were developed with his inventing partner Daniel Schmidt for experimental music projects.
“The creation of all these instruments started with that ‘what would happen if’ type question, such as, ‘What would happen if we greatly increased the size of a musical instrument such that the instrument holds the musician, as opposed to the other way around?’” Dresher wrote about his taste for tinkering in an essay written for the museum.
Unlike a tuba’s gleaming brass surfaces or the inky-black varnish of a grand piano, little separates the music-making from the listener in the instruments brainstormed by Dresher and Schmidt, said Devin Lamb, a museum docent who guided visitors around the “Sound Maze” on Sunday.
“This hasn’t been painted or beautified in any way. These are the bare bones,” she said. “All the bits and pieces that go into each instrument, the wires on the organ, the bolts, the cogs – you can imagine all the time and thought that goes into that.”
For Lamb, watching museum guests at the “Sound Maze,” which runs through Aug. 11, has revealed a special sort of delight not usually seen in other galleries and displays.
“I see what it does for children, what it does for the grownups,” she said. “It shows the artistic side, the creative side we all have.”