Recalibrating the art history of music

So reading Robert Jourdain’s book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, I wondered some more about the biological roots of music. Mr. Jourdain observes that we moderns listen to music almost on demand in incidental and volitional ways and states that the special participatory nature of music has consequently diminished. Before the concert form arose in the parlors of the rich in the 17th century, he says further that musical experience was lacking for most and that to a peasant in the middle ages, music was mostly work songs and lullabies. I believe this neglects a lot of history.


We have a bone flute estimated at 43,000 years old. We have the earliest literature derived from oral traditions mentioning bards, poets, songs, lutes and lyres from 8000 years ago. Musical scenes on pottery derive from the same time. Lao-Tzu mentions music and voice in the Tao Te Ching from the 6th century BCE. Drums are more fragile with time’s passage but I think it is a safe assumption that they are at least as old as the flute. We have visual art from 45,000 years ago, so some aesthetic sense was rising. (Remember we have an estimate that modern languages appeared 500,000 years ago, fire and cooking 1.8 million years ago, and tools from over 2 million years ago—see post 5/2/15).


As discussed a few posts below on 9/8/15, A. Patel in his masterful book, Music, Language and the Brain, says that the best candidate for a distinctive musical evolutionary trait is our ability to keep a regular, e.g., metronomic, beat (though more recent research shows some of the same in bonobos). Susanne Langer in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, v. 3, imagines that dancing to the beat provided the opportunity for mathematical advancement in the discovery of patterns, even in fractions, as some rambunctious young dancer double-timed the steps and jumped the beat. And let us not forget Pythagoras (say 500 BCE) and his followers who found mathematical patterns in tonal octaves or even earlier, Apollo as the god of music.


The development of technology for making instruments, musical notation and finally recordings are in some ways analogous to the development of glyphs with oral language—we began a new learning curve. Same with the influence of photography on painting.   My point here is really that there is a long and largely unconsidered history to music that we are actually just beginning to explore with any rigor. Yes, music is participatory in its inception and now we listen more passively but so did the Greeks listen to Homer and other bards strumming the lyre, playing the pan pipes, and beating the drum. And music is pervasive in human culture. In the mid-19th century Alexander Carmichael gathered hundreds of songs and chants from the oral traditons of the Scottish people in his Carmina Gadelica. These pieces were about every facet of daily life and spiritual practice from both pre-Christian pagan times (say <400 C.E.) and Christian times. These accompanied, no doubt, a rising tradition of the Ceilidh, a social gathering centered around music, dance, and conversation (with perhaps some whisky about). Music, especially drums and trumpets, has been martial for a good while too. The English banned the great Highland pipes (bagpipes were known in 1000 BCE) in the 1700s as instruments of war (listen to a grand piper summoning the warrior spirit and you will understand). Later, with the development of excessive zeal from the reformation and the heightened superstition of the devil and dance, preachers ordered many of the Scots highlanders to destroy their fiddles, etc.

My, my, so much to consider, and here is one last item. Remember the research, again posted below on 8/27/14, that musical memories are some of the last to go in Alzheimer’s, even after memory of others’ and one’s own identity. So now we have music as magic, spiritual, daily, ritual, repression, expressive, mnemonic, emotive, martial, social, participatory, dance, mathematical, and starkly aesthetic as in sublimely artistic (think Mozart and Beethoven). Better travel on. And a one, and a two, and a . . .

Father James McDyer

A different sort of post here.  In Ireland we traveled to a small village in County Donegal, Glen Columchille, in a shallow valley by the north Atlantic that has been populated by humans over 5000 years.  And then St. Columba’s ( the latin for Columchille in Gaelic) clan lived there in 4-500 C.E.  We visited a folk village there with different cottages from several centuries (16th, 17th, 18th and 19th) set up to illustrate life there then.  They also had an exhibit about the man responsible for the folk village museum, Father James McDyer.  He seemed to have pursued a career in the church as a way of working for social change and justice.  Beginning in his youth he took exception to how rural people were devalued and treated as ignorant and without a valid point of view, and so worked many years to change that.  With his advocacy the village got electricity (in 1951 now) and telephones, developed a plan for developing their tourist trade (and they built this museum and several vacation lodges to let) and improved their schools.  They worked hard to keep their youth from the diaspora.  Evidently Ireland did not provide free public high school education until well after WWII.  He was a social organizer par excellence.  He said it was useless to preach on Sunday if you did not act on the needs Monday.  He was something of a cut-up all his life, even stating that every official meeting he had in Dublin to advocate for his people, he went with mischief in his mind.  I have been critical of the Catholic church in Ireland (see my St. Patrick’s Day posts) but I must respect Father McDyer and those like him who worked for those devalued by official society.  Learning about him was a highlight of the trip.  Where did he preach on Sunday? If you read the last post, you already know the answer.  I took this photo by chance when we stopped to change drivers on the way back to our BnB.


Glyph Learning Curve 3.14: Irish Edition

I recently had the great pleasure of touring Ireland, seeing the great Book of Kells and learning more about the many Irish writers (4 Nobel laureates, Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, Heaney).  We also visited several prehistoric sites.  Anyway, this gave me pause to reflect on their own particular glyph learning curve (first presented here on 11/6/14 with a follow up on 12/5/14).  The Celts who settled Ireland were mainly illiterate.  Their priests/historians/storytellers were forbidden from writing down any of their lore; all had to be memorized and recited frequently to maintain the memory.  They had a strong bardic tradition, which the Christians later tried to banish until St. Columba returned from his exile on the Scottish isle of Iona to be their champion (he had been trained as a bard himself).  Druid initiates studied for many years to memorize the requisite lore before becoming full fledged priests or bards.  And then Christianity arrived as the Dark Ages were settling into the rest of Europe and many libraries were razed.  Thomas Cahill documented the rise of Irish monks copying the books upon which much of western culture is founded in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, as these monks diligently copied books and later carried them back throughout Europe, thereby keeping some flame alive.

So the Irish went from primarily illiterate to great writers and book preservers in a few centuries.  I have enjoyed pondering this change because at some point you have to acknowledge their gift of gab, love of words, and respect for glyphic communication.  10,000 years ago in the middle east the first glyphs appeared so:


5000 years ago the Irish seemed to have only the Ogham symbols like these carved into a foundation stone at New Grange, a fabulous passage tomb.


And then around 800 C.E. we have not just books but illustrated, illuminated books.  The Irish monks did not just copy, they also sought to present the symbolic spirit of the writings, like this from the Book of Kells.


Not bad for only a few centuries of literacy, but clearly their love of oral language carries forth even into today.

And by the bye, we had fabulous weather for our two weeks over there.  Only one day was it showery and then we had this:


And this:


More on the humanity of this last picture in later post.  Travel on.