Friday, November 1, 2013

Another Clunker from the BBC

The BBC is a great resource--after all, that's who is responsible for Doctor Who! Not to mention great Shakespeare. But why is it that their reporting on music is always so bad? Here is an example of really bad reporting on Beethoven that I posted a while back.

I just ran across a new example that is wrong in a more subtle way. This is from the business section, oddly enough:
"Suppose that 2,500 years from now all that survived of the Beatles songs were a few of the lyrics, and all that remained of Mozart and Verdi's operas were the words and not the music.
Imagine if we could then reconstruct the music, rediscover the instruments that played them, and hear the words once again in their proper setting, how exciting that would be.
This is about to happen with the classic texts of ancient Greece.
The source of this quote is Armand D'Angour, a specialist in both classics and music (he is a cellist) at Oxford. I'm not sure what is happening at venerable old Oxford, but if this is an example of current scholarship, then too bad for them. What's wrong with the quote above? If all that survived of the music of the Beatles were a few of the lyrics then we would have NO real idea of how their music sounded. Here are the beginning lyrics to "Tomorrow Never Knows" the last track on Revolver.
Turn off your mind relax and float down stream 
It is not dying, it is not dying 

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, 
It is shining, it is shining. 
Ok, now reconstruct the music. I'll wait. (crickets chirping...) OK, whaddayagot? Anything like this:


What we are hearing there is an extremely complex texture made up of five different pre-recorded tape loops being mixed in and out, Ringo's innovative drum track, John Lennon's singing, put through a Leslie (a rotating speaker system originally designed for organs) and other stuff. Any of this deducible from the lyrics? Nope. What about a Mozart opera? Suppose we just had this:
German Text
Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!Fühlt nicht durch dich SarastroTodesschmerzen,So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.Verstossen sei auf ewig,Verlassen sei auf ewig,Zertrümmert sei'n auf ewigAlle Bande der NaturWenn nicht durch dich!Sarastro wird erblassen!Hört, Rachegötter,Hört der Mutter Schwur!

English Translation of "Der Hölle Rache"
The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,Death and despair flame about me!If Sarastro does not through you feelThe pain of death,Then you will be my daughter nevermore.Disowned may you be forever,Abandoned may you be forever,Destroyed be foreverAll the bonds of nature,If not through youSarastro becomes pale! (as death)Hear, Gods of Revenge,Hear a mother's oath! 
Is there any way we could deduce this:


Yeah, right! So why does Prof. D'Angour think we can reconstruct Greek music? Here is what he says:
But isn't the music lost beyond recovery? The answer is no. The rhythms - perhaps the most important aspect of music - are preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables.
And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.
Uh-huh. This is the equivalent of saying that we can deduce the rhythms of the Beatles' song from the lyrics. And if we had John's lyrics written on a napkin where he wrote the chords down: C, in this case, we could figure out the harmonies. And if we had a picture of George's guitar we could figure out what notes he was playing. Excuse me while I wipe away the tears of laughter! Have you ever heard anything so utterly ludicrous?

You cannot deduce the specifics of a music performance from vague generalities like a picture of the instrument or syllable length in the lyrics or anything like that. Why? Well for one thing, the Beatles recorded around 200 songs using roughly the same instruments. Mozart wrote hundreds of pieces, all different, with about the same musical resources. It is the specific differences that make different pieces of music.

Now let's hear a modern reconstruction of one of those ancient Greek songs:


Yes, the bare notes you hear at the beginning are probably a decent approximation of the original notes of the melody. But, despite the professor's assertions, we do not know the rhythms because the Greeks did not possess a rhythmic notation. All that about syllable length is mere speculation. A notation for rhythm was not developed until between 1000 AD and 1500 AD. It took 500 years of hard work! And everything you hear after that introduction is 100% speculation. Just imagine what someone might come up with if they had only the lyrics to "Tomorrow Never Knows" and just the names of the notes of the melody. Here, I'll give them to you: E E E G C E C G, G G G B flat C G G G B flat C. There you go, now go reconstruct the song.

This is what we have of ancient Greek music: the lyrics and some note names. The idea that we can ever have any idea of what their music actually sounded like is pure academic loony-tunes. The professor claims:
We must set aside our Western preconceptions. A better parallel is non-Western folk traditions, such as those of India and the Middle East.
I can pretty much guarantee you that ancient Greek music probably sounded no more like current non-Western folk music from India and the Middle East than it did like Duke Ellington. Why? Well, why should it? The ancient Greeks were a unique civilization. They invented aesthetics, philosophy, ethics, history, tragedy and comedy, the Olympic games, physics, botany and a host of other things upon which our civilization is built. Why would their music sound anything like non-Greek music when nothing else in their civilization is like the non-Greeks?

Do they not teach logic (another Greek invention) or history at Oxford any more? Because the merest acquaintance with either would enable you to see this whole article as being pompous, empty blather.

But surely the professor must offer something more in the article? Well, sorry, but no. The rest of the article is more artful dodging around the problem that we simply do not have nearly enough information about the music of the ancient Greeks to be able to reconstruct anything. He doesn't even link to a single musical example, which is pretty telling...

3 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

As a specialist in music he is very bad it seems as he comes up with such nonsense. Obviously the further in history we go the more speculative music becomes as less and less is notated or not notated at all and we also don't know exactly how everything was played as it wasn't possible to record. Still, regular notation is more than enough detailed and at the same time with enough freedom given to the performers.

Rickard Dahl said...

I mean further back in history of course.

Bryan Townsend said...

What is amazing to me is how much absurdity people will swallow as long as it is presented in a pseudo-scientific manner!