ancient music, archaeoacoustics

It began as a cry… ‘a cry expressing an urge and appeasing it at the same time.’ The first song: a performance of contradictions. So Ernst Bloch decided. Bloch looked far back into the past to discover the first instance of ‘musical differences’. He distinguishes between the ritual drum which accompanied these primal songs, and the pan pipe. The function of the pipe, Bloch argues, was not ‘to induce a stupor or to work magic like the wooden clapper, the cymbal or the magically painted and in itself magically venerated drum. Rather it was confined — pure entertainment apart — to amorous longing and the enchantment of love, the latter being a survival of magic’ (Bloch, Essays on the Philosophy of Music [1974], p. 196). For Bloch, the invention of the pan-pipe is of great consequence for its ability to make a ‘well-organised series of notes’, thus marking ‘the invention of music as human expression‘ (197).

Ernst Bloch (rarely photographed sans pipe)

Since Bloch wrote, many more prehistoric flutes have been discovered, some arguably also associated with Neanderthals. The oldest bone flute yet discovered is thought to date back more than 43,000 years (the ‘Divje Babe Flute‘, discovered in modern-day Slovenia).  To put that in context, it’s roughly contemporaneous (give or take a few thousand years) with the earliest known figurative rock paintings. Despite the efforts of archaeoacoustic researchers to recreate the prehistoric sound-world, it’s a long, long wait until we get to a point where we can confidently interpret a complete piece of musical notation (the Hellenistic Seikilos epitaph, dated to c. AD 100), and then just a short hop to the invention of sound recording in the second half of the nineteenth century. (On which see the First Sounds website for recoveries of the earliest sound recordings.)

Divje Babe Flute (thought to be the bone flute played by Neanderthals)

There are some fascinating archaeoacoustic projects out there which try to give a sense of the experience of palaeolithic, or other ancient musics. Here is an article accompanying the 2015 CTM Festival (Festival for Adventurous Music and Art) on recent work in archaeoacoustics. One of the participants of the 2015 festival was Rupert Till, who does a lot of work in ancient music. Dr Till is one of the people behind the Songs of the Caves website, where you can explore the sounds and prehistoric paintings of the caves of northern Spain. You can also hear audio and see a video on the EMAP (European Music Archaeology Project) website.

Who knows what sort of stories or rituals accompanied the paintings of hunted animals, or the music of the flute? Bloch recalls Ovid’s retelling of the myth of Pan and Syrinx the nymph (in Metamorphoses I). Syrinx is transformed into reeds to escape Pan’s desire, but Pan is then enchanted by the sound of the wind through these reeds. Sealing reeds of unequal length together with wax to form his pipe, Pan thus communes with the vanished Syrinx. In this tale, Bloch sees ‘something contradictory and utopian …. The vanished nymph has remained as sound … and sings in the face of want’ (197). This same want for the vanished people in the cave is the same that is expressed, and speculatively calmed in the archaeoacoustic performance. The vanished prehistory returns, only to insist upon its impossible distance from us.

Gerard Hoet, Pan and Syrinx (c. 1700) (Dulwich Picture Gallery)