In 1638, a work of silver known as The Great Salt arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Owned by John Glover, who died during his passage across the Atlantic, the object transferred to Glover’s widow Elizabeth, who later married Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard. The Great Salt (on display in the silver cabinet on Level 2, Gallery 2340) is one of seven pieces of historic Harvard silver. This shape-shifting container, designed to hold salt for the dining table at a time when the mineral was a rare and valuable commodity, is invested with centuries of prestige. Originally the charge of the most important person sitting at the table, The Great Salt continued to be used throughout the 20th century as part of the regalia for inauguration ceremonies of new Harvard presidents.
This object was selected by Jace Clayton, a visiting artist at the Harvard Art Museums, as the subject for a digital response—a sonic extension and intervention into The Great Salt’s narrative. A display vitrine, much like those that protect precious objects elsewhere in the museums, here holds approximately 40 electronic synthesizer modules, connected with multicolored cables. Programmed using granular synthesis, a technique that breaks a sound into tiny “grains,” this collection of electronic components performs a new work—a composition designed by Clayton to self-modulate, actively generating new sounds and changing as it repeats. Three marímbulas—Afro-Cuban thumb pianos—surround the vitrine and can be played by visitors, affecting the presentation of the electronic sound.