The Ando Gallery was originally commissioned by the Art Institute from the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando to display byobu, or Japanese screens. Ando aimed to create a space that would present the byobu not as art objects in isolation, but within “the spirit of the original Japanese space.” Many objects are thus placed at floor-level as they would be in traditional spaces and the rift-sawn oak pillars that frame the gallery entryway recall the columned porches or entrance halls of Japanese buildings. The current exhibition in the space, Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments, transports the viewer in a similar manner and introduces us to traditional instruments that come from ancient traditions.
Japan's oldest type of classical music is the gagaku (orchesteral court music). It dates from the Heian period (794–1192) and includes music from the zither (gakusô) and pipes (shô). There are two sets of pipes on view in the exhibition and despite the fact that one is from the 17th century and one is from the 19th, they look nearly identical. They both include 17 bamboo pipes (although two are silent) and both emit tones in a resonant cluster, often providing a constant backdrop for gagaku performances. The zither on view would have just been used for gagaku performances, as is evident by the elaborate decorations and inlaid mother-of-pearl, ivory, and gold. It has thicker strings to produce the deeper sound characteristic of these performances.
The exhibition also includes a video of a gagaku performance by the Japanese Imperial Palace Music Department, which provides helpful context for the objects and their potential.