Saturday, November 7, 2015

Ancient Music--Not!

Every now and then we run across something that is presented as "ancient music". For example, I recently picked up a box of ten CDs titled "Mediterranean Music Edition" that contained various recordings of music from around the Mediterranean from Morocco to Venice to the Balkans to 12th century Santiago de Compostela to ancient Greece. This latter disc is of what should be "ancient music". But it isn't of course.

I got thinking about this after looking at some photos of truly remarkable art from ancient Egypt. Both of these artworks, the beautifully painted relief and the intricate necklace in gold and semi-precious stones, date from about 2000 BC or four thousand years ago:

Click to enlarge

Given how beautifully preserved these artworks are, surely we must have equally ancient music that we can enjoy as well? Sadly, no. A physical object like a limestone relief or gold and jewels can last indefinitely and, if it has not suffered damage over the millennia, can appear almost as new. But music is very different. It is performed and instantly evaporates into nothing with the last vibration in the air. Music was utterly unable to be preserved until a little over one century ago with the development of recording technology. Ah, you ask, but what about all that great music from two, three or even four or more centuries ago? Yes, that music we can enjoy due to two marvelous developments: recording technology and the development of music notation. People like Mozart and Schubert were able to sit down and notate on paper very accurate symbolic descriptions of what the music should sound like. Given years of training and suitable instruments, musicians today can play their music virtually at sight.

But this notation, in my opinion one of the greatest feats of civilization, was the labor of hundreds of years of effort. It began with very sketchy neumes that did no more than suggest the shape of little melodic fragments. This very crude notation did little more than act as an aide memoire:

It was not until around the year 1025 AD that the Benedictine monk, Guido of Arezzo, made perhaps the most useful discovery in music history: he figured out how to make the notation of pitch precise by simply orienting the neumes around a horizontal line, rather like plotting the notes on a graph. I am having difficulty finding an original image of Guido's notation, but this might give you an idea:

This solved the problem of pitch, but that still left the even knottier problem of rhythm. If you were going to figure out how to write down rhythms so other people could play them at sight, what would you do? It took about 500 years experimenting with several different very complicated systems before musicians settled on what we use today. An example:

And for a particularly beautiful example, just look at the image I use as a header for this blog. That is a love song from the late 14th, early 15th century written in the shape of a heart.

By about 1600 things had settled down and modern musicians can read scores from then and later without much difficulty. Only specialists can read the earlier ones.

Now contrast this with the history of writing. There are ancient examples dating back three and four thousand years, but the first really functional alphabet is the one the Greeks used that they borrowed from the Phoenicians. This was around the 8th century BC. Due to its invention, we are able to read pretty much exactly what Homer recited, not to mention all the literature since.

But the notation of music is much more complex than the notation of ordinary language, so its development was not complete until 2400 years later.

The point of all this exciting history is to inform you that NO-ONE has the foggiest idea what ancient music actually sounded like. They have gone to considerable effort to dream something up that they hope will sound plausible, and it is often marketed as the Real Thing. But there was no accurate pitch notation before about 1000 AD and only confusing rhythmic notation until about 1600 AD. This is the kind of thing we have from ancient Greece:

That's an inscription from Delphi of a hymn and if you really squint, you might see some funny little signs above the lines of text that was what the Greeks used for music notation. What the result might have sounded like is sheer guesswork. So I imagine if Sappho were miraculously brought to life and had this played to her (from the album "Sappho and Her Time") she would probably say, "what is that?" and when told it was music from her time, her response would probably be "bloody hell!" Or so I would surmise...

We have absolutely no models on which to shape an interpretation, which is why these efforts always sound to me like modern North African musicians jamming around on a copy--fudged up from an ancient image--of an ancient instrument. It is probably about as accurate as Eric Clapton jamming on a Renaissance lute.

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