An Interview with Brenda Neece, Curator of the de Hen World Music Instrument Collection

Dr. Brenda Neece
Dr. Brenda Neece

World Music Central recently interviewed Dr. Brenda Neece, cellist and curator of Duke University Musical Instrument Collections, about the new world music instrument collection acquired by the university. In March of 2005, Duke University Musical Instrument Collections officially welcomed the arrival of the Frans & Willemina de Hen-Bijl Collection of Musical Instruments.

Belgian organologist and ethnomusicologist Professor Ferdinand J. de Hen acquired the collection during his numerous research expeditions. The collection of over 200 instruments from Africa, the Americas, Europe, East Asia, India, the Middle East, and others, is named in honor of his parents.

When did you join Duke University?

B.N. – July 2001

What does the curator of an instrument collection do?

B.N. – It depends on the collection. Here, where there is a full-time staff of one, it involves everything from research and display work to dusting and changing light bulbs.

How did Duke University manage to purchase the de Hen collection?

It was all arranged by our previous administrator, Dr. Anne Parks.

How relevant is the de Hen collection?

B.N. – The original collections at Duke had examples from the USA and Europe. While the original holdings are wonderful, they could not be said to represent the world of musical instruments. The de Hen-Bijl Collection starts to fill in the “gap” of the rest of the world! The collection includes instruments from the many places that Professor Ferdinand J. de Hen collected and did fieldwork. The combination of the original gift plus the de Hen-Bijl Collection is a strong foundation upon which Duke can build.

What is the jewel of the collection?

B.N. – That is really a matter of opinion. For some, who look for value in age, the pre-Columbian instruments are of interest. For others, who look for value in gold and silver, there are a few instruments with silver and ivory. For others, who look for value in provenance, perhaps some of the items most closely associated with Professor de Hen’s fieldwork. I value the different instruments for their different offerings.

My personal favorites are those with images or carvings of animals, such as the beganna with the two carved lions, the bin with the peacock, and the vina with the dragon.

What was the driving force behind the purchase of this world music instrument collection?

B.N. – When I got the job at Duke I asked my former doctoral thesis supervisor, Jeremy Montagu, what he felt the collections here lacked, or how he thought the collections could best be improved. He immediately pointed out that only small proportion of the world was represented by the original holdings. He also pointed out that in order to collect instruments from around the world, in our current economy, it would be prohibitively expensive. His suggestion was to locate a pre-existing collection and obtain it for Duke. He then asked his colleagues if anyone had a good collection to sell, and located Professor de Hen’s private collection.

Is it rare to find a whole collection for sale today?

B.N. – I think it is rare to find one collected by a former curator of a major collection, yes. However, I have seen collections come up for sale in the past five years — usually specializing in one area: strings, woodwinds, American history, etc. I feel that Duke was very lucky to obtain Professor de Hen’s collection.

How were the instruments shipped to the United States?

B.N. – A company called Maertens in Belgium made arrangements in Oudenaarde, and a company in New York, Masterpiece International, handled customs issues here.

Is the collection for display only or do you use the instruments in other ways?

B.N. – The instruments are for display and teaching. Most of the instruments are too fragile to play. I am working to get modern playing versions of as many of the instruments as possible for students to try.

Are you adding any other instruments to the collection?

B.N. – Yes. As gifts come in, we are adding to the Duke University Musical Instrument Collections. New instruments do not belong to pre-existing named collections, but are added to the holdings as a whole.

And, now, tell us a little about yourself. Where were you born?

B.N. – Georgia, USA.

What is your favorite meal?

B.N. – Burritos.

What music are you listening to now?

B.N. – None.

What is your favorite movie?

B.N. – It varies. I love Le Bossu, Vertigo, The Princess Bride, The Red Violin, North By Northwest, and Bridget Jones’s Diary.

What do you like to do during your free time?

B.N. – Free time?! I am an assistant coach for the Duke Fencing Team. I also teach cello, play in a string quartet, and am learning to play the Highland bagpipes. Soon my focus will be on learning to play the new 5-string cello I’ve commissioned to be built.

What country would you like to visit?

B.N. – There are lots of places I’d like to visit. I’ve been wanting to go to the Czech Republic, Poland, the Republic of Estonia, and Austria for quite some time. I’ve not thought beyond Europe due to time and money constraints. I suppose I’d like to visit Korea, China, and New Zealand as well.

What is your favorite city?

B.N. -Oxford, England.

What was your best moment?

B.N. -I hope I haven’t had it yet! So far my best moments have involved musical performances, fencing, and teaching.

What was your most embarrassing moment?

B.N. – Too embarrassing to mention.

What was the first big lesson you learned about the academic world?

B.N. – That equality in the workplace does not exist, even in the ivory tower.

The Duke University Musical Instrument Collections is located at the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building, East Campus, Department of Music, Durham, North Carolina. Phone: (919) 660-3320, Fax (919) 660-3301.