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Joseph Cornell’s Music Boxes (San Francisco)

There’s a substantial exhibit of boxes, prints, photographs, short films and other work by Joseph Cornell at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit is titled Navigating the Imagination and a number of the featured items touch on musical themes:

  • “Bel Echo Gruyère” (ca. 1940) is a “Box construction with inoperative toy bellows.” The bellows is the sort of mooing contraption that makes a cow noise when it’s turned upside down. This one is wrapped in foil and placed inside a circular box.
  • “Beehive” (1940-48) is another circular box, walled with mirrors and containing five metal thimbles that, when viewed through a small side-hole, seem larger than life: “Like a true beehive, the box also incorporates sound: the thimbles fixed inside tinkle when they move.”
  • “Untitled (Rattle and Music Box)” (ca. 1955) includes “inoperative toy xylophone.”
  • “Webern’s Room: Mathematics and Music” (ca. 1964-67) shows a hand-numbered grid superimposed over an image of a chickadee, reportedly Cornell’s favorite songbird. The grid is said to suggest “the Schoenbergian system’s basis in a tone row, an ordered arrangement of the chromatic scale’s twelve notes.”
  • “Pantry Ballet (For Jacques Offenbach)” (1943) is a box featuring a chorus line of plastic lobsters, and was constructed in honor of the composer.
  • “Monsieur Phot (Seen Through the Stereoscope), no. 5” (1933) is a folio of images and text that describe an imagined film scenario, with particular attention paid to sound: “The rippling music of the harp,” Cornell writes, “sounds like a fountain playing into water.”
The exhibit opened on October 6 and runs through Sunday, January 6, 2008. More info at There’s an interactive website, developed by the Peabody Essex Museum, at

By Marc Weidenbaum

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