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)


Talking Sky

Queen Square, Bath, July 2017

As June turned to July, I took the slow train to Bath for the annual conference of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture. This year’s conference theme was ‘The Talking Sky: Myths and Meaning in the Celestial Spheres’. Judging by some of the conversations I’ve had, many people’s shutters come down at the mention of cosmology or the idea of meaning being derived from the stars – in short, astrology. And indeed the Sophia Centre is dedicated to the serious study of astrology. In the popular imagination, astrology is the dubious or fraudulent nonsense of newspaper columns (‘sun sign’ astrology, as it is distinguished). Such is the power of this belief, that even those who would seriously study ancient philosophy and mythology flinch from contemplating ancient astrology. And yet, as the speakers at this conference proved, with great erudition, charm and good humour, the movements of the heavenly bodies were of monumental importance to ancient people, and still hold meaning for many today.

A central idea for the conference was ‘naked eye astronomy’, as advocated by Bernadette Brady. Dr Brady provided a series of revelatory images of the annual interaction of the sun and moon as their relative position in the sky changes throughout the year. The high moon compensating for the low sun in winter, or the sun and moon rising and setting in the same positions at equinox, for example. The loss of naked eye astronomy – of the widespread knowledge of the patterns of sun, moon, and stars as they appear to us on earth – causes a ‘cultural divide’ between modern and ancient humans: we do not know the human view of the sky. Consequently, we lose access to the meaning contained in old myths because we do not recognise our sky.

This concept resonated most clearly in the papers which surveyed the astonishing constructions people built around the movements of the sun – standing stones, cairns, and the like. We all know about those. But what impressed itself upon me, as a novice in this area, was how much sheer trial and error the construction must have involved: generations of living with the knowledge of astronomical movements, and creating monumental structures which interact perfectly with the sun. Attendant to this is the realisation that the will to create these structures must derive from the sky’s significance to daily life in a way that is impossible to overstate.

Other papers addressed decidedly more modern materials. Claudia Rousseau drew connections between images of the coronation of the Virgin (such as that by Velázquez) and Ariadne’s catasterism in the Corona Borealis. Both of these have been addressed on this blog, but I never made the link between them (Ariadne here, Mary here).

Signe Cohen gave a delightful paper on the twelfth-century Norse poem ‘Alvíssmál’ (‘The Speech of the All-Wise’). In this poem, Thor challenges the dwarf Alvís to list the names of sky, sun, and moon, etc., as they are known to mortals, elves, gods, and the like. Alvís is turned to stone by the rising sun while he recites all the sun’s different names. As Dr Cohen drily put it, Alvís’s knowledge is ‘more theoretical than applied’. Once again, of course, the central idea is that, in the diverse names for the same cosmological phenomena, interpretations of the cosmos reflect the stance of the observer.

Ceiling Pan

Sunday morning at the conference began with Jenn Zahrt announcing she would start with some theory. This was music to my ears on this bright summer morning, and all the more involving for discussing the philosopher Jean Gebser, previously unknown to me. Gebser’s work is relevant to a strand of myth theory I have been researching which concerns myth as a system of thought (following Lévy-Bruhl, Cassirer, and so on). This is usually articulated as a split between the archaic or mythical mind and the modern, rational one. For Gebser the distinction is gradated rather than binary: he outlines five structures of consciousness: archaic, magical, mythical, mental/rational, and integral. Moreover, rather than the barriers between structures of consciousness being impermeable and culturally prescribed, it is possible to access all points on this scale. Is the comparative critical neglect of Gebser a result of his being perceived as a ‘new age’ figure? I’ll be looking into him.

Dr Zahrt’s talk also addressed astrologer Alfred Witte’s hypothetical planets. Witte struggled to name one of these planets, seeking an appropriate goddess. Eventually he settled on the name Hades. A strange decision, no? The perfect name was hidden in plain sight, next to Hades: why not Persephone? She is goddess of underworld, who often must not be named, referred to instead as the Korē, the ‘girl’. The unnameable goddess for the unnameable planet, still concealed behind Witte’s Hades.

The topic of my paper was the sun as mythic force in modern fiction. It forms part of my ongoing project to locate and study the sincere engagement with myth in recent literature. I focused on two sun-stricken novels of the 1960s: Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris, and The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard. Despite the apparent differences between the authors in question, both novels are united in their use of myth, of psychological ideas, and of the sun as an active presence. The novels demonstrate how our star  – alongside its material presence – retains a spiritual power in human life, well into our apparently disenchanted, rational age. The two authors offer different perspectives of the same condition: a human in modernity captivated by the power of the sun. In each case, the sun proves itself as our primal deity, its seemingly ceaseless power of light and heat matched by an eternal psychological power over our moods, sanity, sense of self. I was deeply gratified by the warm and attentive reception the paper received, and I came away having been given many promising suggestions for other contemporaneous novels on similar themes.

The conference was held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, which occupies a tremendous building on Queen Square, which – I have only just discovered – was once the home of Dr William Oliver, inventor of the Bath Oliver, which is a cracker I could eat all day. Papers were delivered in a room with four oval ceiling recesses. Pan (or perhaps a satyr) is in one, Demeter in a second, the third is blank, and the fourth has ‘do not paint’, as if awaiting Michelangelo’s return. As the conference drew to a close, I was privileged to hold the eye of Marduk (a votive amulet), dedicated by Nebuchadnezzar II around the sixth century BC, now in a private collection (another is in New York). Marduk, the great Babylonian creator deity, clearly bestowed his blessing on the whole proceedings.