Posted by: planetisrael | September 16, 2007

Magical Mechanical Music

In the midst of enjoying the home-brewed ale and hearing wild stories about the early days of live concert recording in the UK, I asked Danny about this ancient place, Ein Hod, and the artists who populate it.  Danny explained that, as it says on their official website, Ein Hod was founded in 1953 by the Dada artist Marcel Janco and a group of artists and remains the only artists’ village in Israel, and one of few of its kind in the whole world.  He told me about the glass blowing, ceramics, galleries and stained glass, adding that if I have time for just one thing, I MUST check out the Nisco Mechanical Music Museum.  Well, if there’s one thing I know, it’s to take the advice of a man who can brew beer that tastes that good.   I didn’t have time that afternoon but decided to return with my children, or at least some of them.  Two weeks later, I and four of my kids ages 8-17 found ourselves taking a 150year step back into history.  

nisco museum     mechanical music box

                                                                                                                           Upon entering the museum we found one large room filled with scores of fine wood boxes and a small area cordoned off for concerts of original gramophone recordings from the museum’s vast archive of Yiddish music recorded in the early 1900’s.  Immediately we realized we were standing amidst one of the richest collections of antique mechanical music machines in the Middle East.                  Nisan in museum                                                                                   Clad in shorts, sandals and a French beret, our guide and the museum founder, Nisan Cohen, welcomed us with good humor and warmth as he opened our eyes…and ears… to the musical aspect of a unique period in Western history – the industrial revolution.   He took us back in time as we gathered around a 140yr old box anticipating the opening of its handcrafted wood top as if it were a treasure.  We were not far off.   Nisan explained that when he first came across these amazing inventions over 40 years ago, he knew right away this was something he wanted to collect.  During his travels as a documentary film maker for CBS and NBC based in New York, he was able to find scores of these musical gems dating as far back as 1863.   When he lifted the silky smooth cover of the first item on the tour, we saw inside a creation so inspired, so unique that it changed the path of music forever. Nisan explained how the nubs on the moving spool pluck at the tiny piano-like prongs to create the delicate sounds of Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven etc.  This magical mechanical music box meant that for the first time in the history of the planet one could listen to music without being within hearing range of a live singer or musician. 

  nisan1 At 80yrs of age – our visit happened to fall on on Aug. 16, 2007, our host’s 80th birthday –  Nisan had no trouble holding the interest of each one of us, including my daughters 8, 11 and 15 and my 17yr old son as well as me, 45, with his  charm and wit.   Peppering our tour with a few pop quizzes to be sure we were both attentive and entertained, Nisan took us from the music boxes that played one song per spool, to ones that held 9 songs – a clever precursor to computer programs.  As we progressed from the hurdy gurdy to the street organ, the oldest mechanical music device, we enjoyed the hands-on experience that defines this museum. 


Each of us took turns cranking the organ by hand; it has no wind-up device because they didn’t arrive until after the industrial revolution (1850’s).  We then heard the automatic organ which is a wind instrument is powered by a bellows. They were already in use some 300 years ago.  We marveled at the the reproducing player piano, something we’d only ever seen in old films.  We wound the 100 yr old manivelles, the French name for the small music box, which is turned by hand (not a wind up). They were common gifts for children during the Victorian period.    gramaphone When we reached the far end of the room, we stood before a beautiful wind up gramophone.  Nisan held up a vinyl disc explaining that is the very first recording ever of Hatikva, made in 1918 before the lyrics changed with the founding of the State of Israel.  Watching this ancient original playing on the gramophone was yet another walk thru the wormhole of space/time to the Europe of the 1850’s.  From there we all put our backs into the hand operated automatic piano.   juke box  After seeing the inner workings of the first automatic-paid-for 120yr old juke box, we watched the record fall and enjoyed the music. Each item was artistically beautiful and mechanically inventive.  Yet what made the afternoon so special and enjoyable was the charisma and enthusiasm of it’s octogenarian founder whose personality sets the tone of the museum  experience.  In his former life, Nisan produced feature films on the Holocaust as well as a documentary, Song & the Silences, a haunting pictography of the fervent, gentle spiritual life in a pre-World War II shtetle.  The documentary takes place in a small Jewish community in Poland prior to Nazi occupation in 1939.   Throughout the tour we sensed that Nisan’s love and respect for that period in history motivated him not only to create his heartfelt films but also this museum that aims to preserve a unique moment in time in a way that each new generation can experience first hand. With Nisan as our guide, the tour of the Nisco museum was at once  fun, informative and moving.  A truly magical day in Ein Hod.  



  1. thank you nice article..

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