“Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music,”
August 6, 2018 6:29 PM   Subscribe

Ancient Greek music: now we finally know what it sounded like by [The Conversation] “...the sense and sound of ancient Greek music has proved incredibly elusive. This is because the terms and notions found in ancient sources – mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on – are complicated and unfamiliar. And while notated music exists and can be reliably interpreted, it is scarce and fragmentary. What could be reconstructed in practice has often sounded quite strange and unappealing – so ancient Greek music had by many been deemed a lost art. But recent developments have excitingly overturned this gloomy assessment. A project to investigate ancient Greek music that I have been working on since 2013 has generated stunning insights into how ancient Greeks made music.” [YouTube][Documentary][15:39]

• Step back in time: Listen to the music of ancient Greece [Aleteia]
“Using replicas of instruments used in ancient Greece, a family of musicians gave the audience at Athens’ Archaeological Museum on Thursday a sense of what Greek antiquity actually sounded like, according to a report in Reuters. In order to recreate the music that the ancient Greeks played thousands of years ago, the group, which calls itself Lyravlos, fashioned instruments out of animal shells, bones, hides and thorns. According to Reuters, Panayiotis Stefos, who leads the group, “travels to museums at home and abroad studying ancient Greek antiquities and texts in order to recreate the instruments.”” [YouTube][LyrAvlos - Ancient Greek Musical Instruments Ensemble][5:33]
posted by Fizz (39 comments total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
 
I remember reading once that the biggest risk of attempting an authentic reproduction of ancient music is that you’ll be influenced by modern expectations that it will be exotic and unfamiliar. The other risk, though, is that you’ll be biased to play what sounds good to a modern musician.

I wish I could talk to these scholars, because I’m sure they’ve put a lot of thought into those questions, and I’d like to know more about how they approached the material. The biggest question mark is the harmony, since that’s the one thing left almost entirely to speculation. Or is it?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:48 PM on August 6 [6 favorites]


Not even gonna check the links 'cause I already know that them ancient Greeks invented Slayer
posted by NoMich at 6:52 PM on August 6 [5 favorites]


me: i wonder if it sounds like the street performers in cyrene in ac: origins
music: i do!
me: yay!
posted by poffin boffin at 6:56 PM on August 6 [14 favorites]


Amazing. That was fantastic.
posted by Malla at 7:01 PM on August 6


Oh lordy, I was afraid this would end up on the blue. I don't know where to start, but it might as well be here:
The earliest substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus from the Athenian tragedian Euripides’ Orestes of 408BC. It has long posed problems for interpretation, mainly owing to its use of quarter-tone intervals, which have seemed to suggest an alien melodic sensibility. Western music operates with whole tones and semitones; any smaller interval sounds to our ears as if a note is being played or sung out of tune.
OK. OK. So… "alien" is doing a lot of fucked up colonial work here. Quarter-tone intervals (and smaller) are found in musical traditions all around the Mediterranean, from North Africa, through the Middle East, Anatolia, and right across to Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, and so on. Greece is still surrounded by microtonal musical traditions, so there is nothing alien about this. This is poorly-hidden code for "Oriental / Arabic-sounding and therefore couldn't be the basis for our European musical identity", which is colonialist trash that the fields of ethno/musicology have been working to take out for decades now.

Secondly, hoo boy, this Oxford classist could've spent a moment reading up on medieval and renaissance music history. The music theory underpinning "Western" music has its basis in medieval (c.f., Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy) and renaissance-era encounters with translations of ancient Arabic-language texts that preserved—and commented upon—classical Greek texts. In other words, the only way that classical Greek music is concretely linked to Western music by way of Alexandria and the post-Hellenic Arabic world.

There's a bunch of other glaring problems with method and analysis and everything else that I can't even go into here, 'cause my head is going to explode. Maybe I'll come back to this tomorrow. Maybe some other ethno/musicologists can pitch in here. There are so many pitfalls of "Western Civilization" historiography that this scholar could've avoided by just talking to scholars outside of a small circle-jerk of self-congratulating posh white Europeans. GAH.
posted by LMGM at 7:22 PM on August 6 [122 favorites]


Very cool!
For anyone else that was intrigued by the possibility of thorn-based musical instruments: 1) it seems to be a typo on the Aleteia site; and 2) memail me -- maybe let's collaborate?
posted by mean square error at 7:23 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


*classicist. Sorry, Freudian slip.
posted by LMGM at 7:31 PM on August 6 [14 favorites]


Thanks, LMGM. I am by no means an ethno/musicologist, just a hobbyist by means of adjacency, but I was disappointed to see the ("Western") Eurocentric essentialism underlying this analysis and you articulated that much better than I could have.
posted by invitapriore at 7:34 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


Oh jeez I left out the main verb ("is") in the last sentence of the second-last paragraph. I am undone!
[20-minute rage aria; exit stage left]
posted by LMGM at 7:40 PM on August 6 [14 favorites]


Could we not endow every self serving promotional blog post by an academic with the ring of absolute truth? I have known many people working on ancient classical music over the years and heard similarly grandiose claims (often out of Oxbridge or the equivalent) and there is no particular reason to accept them, just because they are full of rampant confidence.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:48 PM on August 6 [11 favorites]


Please LMGM, let all the rage out. I'm not an ethnomusicologist, but I teach a class that runs through a quick history of Western music for undergrads, which briefly covers ancient Greece and how it relates to Medieval music therefore us, and reading this, at every sentence I was muttering to myself "but..." "no..." "that's not news to anyone..." "how could you?..." "why would you?..." "is there a methodology here?...".

It's nice to see performances of ancient music, but this kind of hyperbole, and colonialism, and whatever else is not helpful.

I kind of blame the editorial stance of The Conversation; often when things from there cross my radar it's an academic bending too far towards populist communication of their area and undermining the point of what they're talking about in the first place. Ho hum.
posted by threecheesetrees at 7:49 PM on August 6 [12 favorites]


(In short: this is not a good piece of scholarship, just because it is in the ringing tone of self-belief that many (white, male) classicists like to imbue their pronouncements with.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:50 PM on August 6 [11 favorites]


Is purty.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:55 PM on August 6


Yasou! Ouzo for all my friends, and saganiki, hanzariki, spanakopita then more ouzo!
posted by vrakatar at 8:00 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


I recall reading somewhere that Vangelis' first solo album (Earth) was inspired by pre-Christian Greek music. Amazing stuff.
posted by philip-random at 8:11 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Ensemble De Organographia (and on YouTube) has been doing recreations of ancient Greek music on reproduction period instruments (and even a few extant ones!) since c. 2000. I had the opportunity to hear them in concert about a year ago. It was remarkable.
posted by jedicus at 8:24 PM on August 6 [3 favorites]


I think that we will never really hear ancient music as it was meant to be played. I think that musicological thought experiments attempting to re-create ancient music are always fun, and should be encouraged. Of course, claims that this is "exactly what it sounded like back then" are over statements, but those broad claims are what we need to sell interest in these ongoing projects.
posted by ovvl at 8:32 PM on August 6 [5 favorites]


How cool is that!

I wonder what we're doing to leave our music behind, for the year 4000?
posted by Twang at 8:43 PM on August 6


IANA musicologist but I will always remember Richard Taruskin's vivid description of this kind of article:
I call it cheating at Telephone, the game in which A whispers a message to B, B to C, and so on, until the last player says it aloud to general hilarity. Not content to accept the whispered message from the one seated next to you, you get up from your seat and tiptoe round behind the other players to the first chair, which by now of course is empty; whereupon you sit yourself down in it and proclaim yourself the winner.
posted by equalpants at 8:49 PM on August 6 [16 favorites]


Of course, claims that this is "exactly what it sounded like back then" are over statements

Especially when it sounds a *lot* like Ren Faire music, with a monastic tenor and a lyre luting as hard as it can and reed pipes, and the unusual time interpreted as a playful interruption in the flow of the music, like the break in a work-song when you have to heave all of a sudden.

It's better than the dirge-like earlier attempts, but there's a lot of wishful thinking and rigorous musical studies based off of the Medievil-to-Pre-Modern European that are coloring of the way a song should sound in there.

Also, the Greeks aren't gone. There are still remote places in Greece that speak a Doric (Spartan) dialect, and in parts of Turkey, they still speak *ancient* Ionian. They have musical traditions. Just sayin'.

(Also, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Mayans - they're still around. Speaking their language in its most current form, having civilizations and art and literature and music. Ancient Egyptians, too - where did you think the Copts came from? Procopious names a date for the closing of the last temple to the Cult of Isis at Philae by the command of Justinian, the year 535CE, but archaology indicates it had been abandoned for thirty years by then. Everyone in town was now going to Church. The Coptic Church.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:58 PM on August 6 [13 favorites]


Man, as someone who just started studying Ancient Greek, I thought it sounded cool and terrifying, which befits the appearance of the Furies.
posted by corb at 9:01 PM on August 6 [3 favorites]


Disclaimer/claimer: I'm not a musicologist, but I am a professional singer of early music. To me, the notion that we "finally know what [Greek music] sounded like" sounds like a wild exaggeration.

The term that early music performers commonly use is "historically informed performance". Nobody throws around words like "accurate", because we know that would be massively overstepping. And the further back you go in time, the less we know. In the time of Handel and Bach, we have plenty of treatises, concert reviews, paintings, well-preserved instruments, etc. But for medieval music, there's a ton of guesswork.

For example, consider these two fine performances of the medieval Trouvère song "Volez-vous que je vous chant". Note how dissimilar they sound. Here's a partial list of things that, by and large, we do not know about such songs:
  • What, if any, instruments accompanied the singer?
  • What notes did the instrumentalists play?
  • What sort of vocal technique did the singer use?
  • Did they sing metrically, or freely?
  • What pitch level did they sing at?
  • How quickly or slowly did they sing?
  • What sort of ornamentation did they use?
  • How were dynamics used?
As you can hear, the performers in these two recordings chose different answers for these questions. And that's totally cool- the point is, they CHOSE those answers. No honest medievalist would say, "Come hear us perform this music how it sounded in the 13th century!" We absolutely don't have the sources to back that up.

And this guy claims he knows what music sounded like literally millennia earlier than that? When even recordings from the early 20th century sound completely different from our expectations? And he's metricized it… because the Greek language has long and short syllables?

I hate to dismiss research without having actually read the papers, spoken to proper experts, etc. But at best, he is significantly overselling his case. I'd be very curious to know what his musicologist colleagues think of this research.
posted by YoloMortemPeccatoris at 10:36 PM on August 6 [31 favorites]


If he went into this project with a bit more skepticism, I think it'd be better received. It'd then function more as a thought-experiment and less as ego-stroking. I appreciate the comments up above that have pointed out some of the issues with how he's framing this project.
posted by Fizz at 5:10 AM on August 7


> I think that musicological thought experiments attempting to re-create ancient music are always fun, and should be encouraged. Of course, claims that this is "exactly what it sounded like back then" are over statements, but those broad claims are what we need to sell interest in these ongoing projects.

No. If you have to "sell interest" with lies, you're just another marketer. Those claims are bullshit, and bullshit should not be encouraged. That's how you get a Trump.

> Also, the Greeks aren't gone. There are still remote places in Greece that speak a Doric (Spartan) dialect, and in parts of Turkey, they still speak *ancient* Ionian. They have musical traditions.

No, this is romantic nationalist nonsense of the type that the nineteenth century spawned and that led to all sorts of twentieth-century horrors. The Greeks aren't gone, but they're not ancient Greeks, and both Greek language and Greek music have changed just as much as language and music elsewhere, even in remote places in Greece and parts of Turkey. Nobody speaks ancient Ionian, or ancient anything else. And much of what we think of as "tradition" was invented surprisingly recently. (Example: almost all the music Russians think of as "folk" was composed in the nineteenth century.)

Please, folks, don't succumb to the natural human instinct to believe something because it's propounded in a confident tone or because it looks/sounds cool. And my deepest thanks to people like LMGM who actually know what they're talking about and are willing to take the time to share it with us.
posted by languagehat at 5:48 AM on August 7 [22 favorites]


And my deepest thanks to people like LMGM who actually know what they're talking about and are willing to take the time to share it with us.

Indeed!

I'm learning a lot in this thread. It is one reason why I posted the video/links. I had a feeling smarter MeFites would come in and share their insight and like clockwork, that is exactly what happened.
posted by Fizz at 5:53 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]


Well, now I know where that introductory music on the Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast comes from, so there’s that.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 6:44 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


As someone who is studying (and practicing) 18th- and early 19-th C. music as-it-may-have-sounded (and that's only 200+ years ago), the only thing I am learning is that the more you study and practice, the more you understand just how little there is to know about how the music "actually" sounded ("sounded" when played by whom? In which context(s)? Etc.). I do find this Greek music thing a cool experiment (and indeed a worthwhile topic to research), but the "finally" in the first link above (and the associated rhetoric in the linked-to discussion) doesn't, to my mind, work as it's being suggested here. Even within a western-centric (and posh, white, European, if you will) context of research on historical musical performance, it's really not doable to first search for final answers, and later proclaim victory. There are too many open questions left in the sources that can't ever be fully answered. (As a test, just read up a bit on Brahms and Joseph Joachim, and then listen to the few recordings that Joachim actually made. There is nothing in the literature that could prepare you for what you're gonna hear).

It's a whole 'nother thing when we stand/sit on stage and make music for people; an audience needs to be entertained and/or edified. That setting requires that an artist needs to decide how stuff has to be played (that is, has to sound, in order to sound "right" for the moment). Here, we can actually use historical research findings as an inspiration that (hopefully) helps us to do a better job entertaining and edifying. But nobody would (at least, not any more [or rather, hopefully so]) claim that whatever we play on the basis of such an inspiration "finally" sounds like Bach, Mozart or Beethoven (or whatever). That kind of authenticity claim is, or should be, utterly passé in Early Music studies. Why re-unearth it in connection with Greek music?
posted by Namlit at 6:45 AM on August 7 [8 favorites]


Please, folks, don't succumb to the natural human instinct to believe something because it's propounded in a confident tone or because it looks/sounds cool. And my deepest thanks to people like LMGM who actually know what they're talking about and are willing to take the time to share it with us.
Not saying LMGM is wrong, but there's a heaping serving of irony in that there comment.
posted by ChrisR at 6:54 AM on August 7 [6 favorites]


Also, the Greeks aren't gone. There are still remote places in Greece that speak a Doric (Spartan) dialect, and in parts of Turkey, they still speak *ancient* Ionian.

Epirotiko Mirologi - strongly suggest that people look for a book called lament from epirus - supposedly, this music is very, very old ...

asserting there was suck a thing as "greek" music is pretty dubious when there wasn't a greek country and barely a greek ethnic identity back then - what they're doing is taking a few scraps of music here and there and claiming it's representative of a very fragmented group of city-states and disorganized rural areas

classical scholars should know better
posted by pyramid termite at 7:24 AM on August 7 [3 favorites]


When even recordings from the early 20th century sound completely different from our expectations?

That was incredible....they were so much freer with the time
posted by thelonius at 7:46 AM on August 7


I really appreciate this thread. I had thought about posting this, but there was a weird smell on the last paragraph -- "the European musical tradition"? That sounds like a dogwhistle of some kind. It probably isn't; I didn't want to assume that level of bad faith. But it was enough to make me pass.

I did study ancient Greek and archaeology in school, but I certainly didn't study the music. One of my Greek professors -- a very amiable, ordinary-looking old American guy -- once called out a paean, a Greek battle cry, in a way that chilled my blood. It sounded like a minor-mode rebel yell, which before it was a brand of whiskey was a genuinely frightening Confederate battle cry. I never learned how he learned it. No doubt it was some professorial pastiche, but it worked.

Personally, I always thought that the movie Time Bandits, of all things, offered an extremely convincing Bronze Age Greek dance tune, "Bacchanalia." But that, too, is written by a British Oxonian, John du Prez. And whether that high, clear recorder would sound like a Greek instrument, I couldn't say. (cw: music is played by Philip Pickett, a very bad man indeed, and learning that this artist was monstrous on top of having learned Terry Gilliam was awful has cooled my affection for this most beloved movie once more)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:13 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


> Not saying LMGM is wrong, but there's a heaping serving of irony in that there comment.

That there is exactly the kind of cheap, lazy shot that is part of why I spend less time on MeFi these days.
posted by languagehat at 8:42 AM on August 7 [6 favorites]


What I hear is... academic, dry, stilted and simply Devoid-o-Funk. This is music concieved and played in a British library. Regardless of their place in history, Greeks have never made music as unfunky as this. Sure - most of the older layers in Modern Greek "Demotika" music are influenced by Byzantine Church music, Turkish classical and folk music, Italian song, and Balkan shepherd culture. But outlying colonies of late ancient Greek influence remain.

Pontic Greek music of the eastern Black Sea preserves a dialect reflecting ancient Greek dance practice and language which is ... for lack of a better term... extremely funky, especially in its modern version. And Sardinian music uses the launeddas - essentially the same as the aulos reed pipes, and they kick ethnomusicological butt.

The Griko people of southern Italy, especially Grecìa Salentina can trace their origins back to ancient Greek settlers, and while their music has gradually morphed into classic southern Italian folk music, it is one of the strongest pillars of their language and identity.
posted by zaelic at 9:23 AM on August 7 [8 favorites]


Example: almost all the music Russians think of as "folk" was composed in the nineteenth century.

i am now reminded of enjoyably trolling my italian ex by telling him that in the US we are taught that funiculi funicula is the italian national anthem
posted by poffin boffin at 9:52 AM on August 7 [5 favorites]


Secondly, hoo boy, this Oxford classist could've spent a moment reading up on medieval and renaissance music history.

So you're saying this is neither justified nor ancient?

Un-huh-uh...uh-hunh-uh-uh!
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:27 PM on August 7 [5 favorites]


On second thought, I may have confused 3am Eternal with Justified and Ancient.

C'mon, it was 30 years ago and the drugs were better then. Either way we're all bound for Mu Mu Land.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:31 PM on August 7


Oh shit I’m super embarrassed by my last comment. I didn’t even see the first link. It turns out the answer to my questions lie in the fact that is is total wanking bullshit and literally everything I hate about music historiography.

Ugh, hate myself - this is one of my favorite topics and I blew it.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:26 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]


Didn't watch the long video. Loved the music in the second. Good enough for me.
posted by lhauser at 7:01 PM on August 7


> That there is exactly the kind of cheap, lazy shot that is part of why I spend less time on MeFi these days.

I'd like to apologize to ChrisR for my overhasty, overhostile response. I shouldn't comment when I'm feeling stressed.
posted by languagehat at 5:19 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


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