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The exhibit features an assemblage of archival conundrums, instruments, and a modality of presenting academic research through multiple forms of communication. In this sense, it does not offer a single explanation of why the elements you notice are connected to one another. Rather, the exhibit opens possible articulations in which texts, objects, sounds, and images make sense as they envision multiple scenarios possible through gaps, joints, similarities, and differences.


Words from the Curator

“Most of the books that have been recently published in Turkey on how to play the Ney make direct reference to the oldest Ney in the world kept by the University of Pennsylvania.”

Since I arrived on campus in 2014, I wanted to see the Ney reed flutes at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania, as my interlocutors in Istanbul were always talking about the most ancient Ney in the world kept by Penn Museum. For over ten years I had been conducting research in Muslim mysticism, analytics of listening, and liturgical Sufi practices in contemporary Istanbul. But it was only until 2018 that I was able to work with the instruments thanks to a serendipitous request made by Dwaune Latimer, the Jean Friendly Keeper of the African Collections, who wanted my informed opinion about the Ney after being contacted by the public. This exhibit presents my answer to Dwaune Latimer and anyone interested in what these instruments have to tell. It renders my informed perspective on the instruments through ways in which the Ney collection can be heard, remembered, or forgotten.

Listen to this reed flute as it tells its tales complaining of separations as it wails (Jelaluddin Rumi)

In my research, I have learned that humans who conceive the Ney from a devotional perspective think that this instrument finds them being guided by the powerful and beautiful purpose of telling the story of return to the primordial intimacy with God, explained through the sounds it makes noticeable. From this perspective, it is the instrument that finds the performer. The Ney wants a flutist, Neyzen, to reveal a world through its sounds and set it in motion.

In the conditions in which I was found by these instruments, and given that I cannot blow them due to the conservation policy of the Museum, I wonder what kind of story they want us to know. They may want us to know about the formation of private collections and colonial encounters during the end of the nineteenth century, in which objects were acquired in order to present Islamic art to educated American audiences in Philadelphia and New York City. They also tell us about the sonic connection between Cairo and Istanbul, and the affinity between reed arts and non-humans in Islam.

Exercising the Kamish

Islam, understood from the aesthetic thought it developed, is a system that generates synthesis in which the vegetal, celestial, animal, human, and divine worlds meet one another. The reed (Kamish) and the practices it sets in motion situate practitioners within sensibilities and discourses projected by the Coranic revelation. In this project, the Kamish appears rendered as an object and an agent of divine instruction. It teaches humans what they ignore, as it reads in the Coran: “He Who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know” (Coran, Sura Al-Alaq 4,5). Far from being simply a tool, the Kamish unifies the musical and the calligraphic practice within a long process of instruction called meşin which practitioners learn from mentors to discipline a religious body. This process develops creative and ethic interactions in and through different worlds that include nature, the moral and perceptual scope of their sensorial body and the tenants of aesthetic kinship of their traditions in which the subjectivity or the heart of each practitioner is assembled.

Some of these interactions between different worlds can be noticed in the exhibit in which the figurative presence of non-humans gets entangled with the reed-flutes and the calligraphic art of the reed-pen. This figuration helps to craft elements for art practice, but also to reshape the perception and the proportions presented by these art forms. This can be noticed in exhibit case that features Arabic calligraphy in which the presence of non-humans are part of the artifacts needed for calligraphic practice and also referents for the correct proportion of letters.

Afterlife of the instruments beyond Egypt

Between 1954 and 1958, the University Museum hosted an organological exhibit entitled 4000 Years of Music featuring most of the instruments donated by Sarah Frishmuth, the most renowned female collector of antique musical instruments of Philadelphia, at the end of the nineteenth century. The exhibit was initially curated by horn player and music librarian Theodore Seder, and later by the Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor. However, the records of the exhibit did not list the Ney instruments donated by Mrs. Frishmuth. The exhibit featured different types of instruments of different origin that were either transverse, end, or duct flutes. There were no examples of vertical flutes, such as the Ney, in the exhibit.

This verticality was, however, what led Francis William Galpin to link the Ney to the archaeological archive of other instruments of ancient origin in his well-known book The Music of the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, published in London in 1937, which you can see on display. He featured the vertical Nâ flute being performed in front of GulaNinkarrak or Ninisinna, a healing deity of ancient Mesopotamia; and listed Penn Museum among the institutions that owned this type of ancient instruments. He also mentioned the Ney in relation to other reed pipes dating from 2800 B.C. found in the excavations at Ur, Irak, conducted by Penn Museum and the British Museum from 1922 to 1934. Since then, the international impact of Galpin’s book and the prominence of these instruments, as part of the colonial interest in displaying material culture from ancient kingdoms of the Levant (Middle Eastern area), have stimulated musicological discussions about the origins of the Ney and its ongoing transformations.

In Turkey, musicologists enmeshed the Ney owned by Penn Museum to their own academic agendas developed during the consolidation of the field during the mid-twentieth century. Scholars Suphi Ezgi, Rauf Yekta, and Süleyman Ergüner emphasized the robust historical past of the Ney following a philological statement that linked the word ‘Ney’ to the word ‘Nâ,’ a reed of Sumerian origin. This argument has been recently contested by a new generation of musicologists who have developed a genealogy of what is called today “Turkish Classical Music” throughout a more diverse and complex network of regional influences. Regarding the interest on the Ney, musicologist Ali Tan highlighted the inaccuracy of the Ney ancientness reported by the aforementioned scholars highlighting that Nâ only means ‘wind instrument’ in a Sumerian language, and questioning the reliability of the instruments considered to be Ney at non-Turkish museums as the only source for establishing the genealogy of the instrument.

Cairo and Istanbul

Even though Ali Tan’s argument is accurate regarding the double reed flutes coming from Ur, it is also certain that Penn Museum has Ney instruments in its collection. The instruments in the exhibit are not the reed pipes coming from Ur dating from 2800 B.C., which belong to the Near East section of Penn Museum. The instruments on display, donated by Mrs. Frishmuth and labeled as Ney in the catalogue at the Registrar Office, came from Egypt and belong to the African section of the museum.

Based on a preliminary analysis of acoustics and measurements, I was able to establish a structural correlation between the pitches of the four Neys you see on display and the intervals of the Turkish Ney-reeds, standardized across the Ottoman territories where Art Music was taught for the past four centuries. If Mrs. Frishmuth acquired these instruments from Egypt they may relate to the Mevlevi dervishes established in Cairo since the sixteenth century.

The link between Istanbul and Egypt offers the possibility to understand the recent history of the Ney vis-a-vis new secularisms in the Middle East. Egypt, apart from being a partner in extending music professionalization in the Levant, it was a place where the Ottoman sultan sent both the servants he wouldn’t like to listen to and the ones he refused to kill. This was the case of Neyzen Tevfik Kolaylı, who was sent to the Mevlevi Lodge in Cairo in 1903. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the Ottoman sultan started to listen to other voices and sounds, and to pay more attention to other forms of social interaction related to expressive practices such as Italian opera, and French cinema. Sending to Egypt these powerful sounds that he probably found dissonant and discordant to his will and ear, is an early example of the systematic deterritorialization of music professionalization that happened during the second decade of the twentieth century across the Middle East.

During this period, the large majority of dervish-talented musicians ended up offering musical training at their homes after most Sufi lodges were banned and closed. However, this deterritorialization found a strong obstacle in the strength of spiritual listening, or sama’, cultivated among Sufi musicians, as it fosters a type of affinity to social disobedience in Muslim mysticism: a path that reaffirms its own ordering principles despite the given conditions of the everyday life.

Curator Juan Castrillón

Ph.D. in Music Studies

UPENN Department of Music | School of Art and Sciences

Displays on Site

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Marian Anderson Gallery
Otto E. Albrecht Music Library, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, fourth floor
3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA

Sounding Images

Video 1: Interview conducted and shot by Juan Castrillón, and edited by Chelsea Rizzolo.

Video 2: Interview conducted and shot by Juan Castrillón, and edited by Chelsea Rizzolo.

Video 3: Scene of a film produced in 2017 co-sponsored by UPenn Music, CAMRA, and Penn Cinema and Media Studies.

Video 4: Fragment of a music recital performed at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center.

Re-discovering the Ney was a recital performed at the Marian Anderson Gallery in December 3 2019 by Juan Castrillon, doctoral candidate of the Music Department, and Ibrahim Miari, assistant professor at the Jewish Studies Program. The recital introduced a collection of Ney reed-flute instruments collected by Mrs. Sarah Frishmuth, the most renowned female collector of antique musical instruments of Philadelphia at the end of the nineteenth century.

The repertoire of the recital presented pieces composed by Turk-Ottoman composers that were heard in Muslim lodges called mevlevihâne in cities like Istanbul and Cairo, the city from which Mrs. Frishmuth acquired the reed-flutes. The repertoire was performed using the Turkish ney flutes called Kız and Süpürde as they present the tuning system of the instruments owned by Penn Museum, which two of them are tuned in A and C respectively, including their distinctive microtonal registers. The recital included pershrev suites, sharki songs, and ilahi psalms. This video presents the end recital in which ilahi psalm Seni ben severim (I love Thy) was performed during the sama’ whirling dance. The Anatolian Muslim saint Yunus Emre wrote this psalm in the thirteenth century and its text reads:

I love thy, my path goes beneath everything that exists. The form of religion and the structure of mysticism wrap this path, carrying truth and certainty within. Yunus’s words are blood and fire; at your door, there is a servant within the sovereign.”

This dance, the audience, the performers, and the occasion as a whole rendered the journey towards The Divine (Al-Lah) and everyone’s new return to everyday life.

You can download the program of this recital clicking here.



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