bringing the music of ancient greece into the present
Oxford University classicist Armand D’Angour is embarking on a fascinating project, the reconstruction of the sounds of ancient Greek music. While this may seem like merely a vanity project, the pinnacle of academic self-indulgence, I believe it to be a culturally significant endeavor—one that has the possibility of reconstituting our relationship to, and understanding of, the past. The fruits of his efforts are already available online. A brief snippet of ancient Greek music is available for listening on SoundCloud. This snippet is as simple as can be: A short song inscribed on a marble column dating from 200 AD has been reconstructed and recorded by D’Angour. The experience of listening to it is utterly mesmerizing. Ancient Greek poetry forms the basis, the nurturing soil, for all of Western literature. An under-appreciated fact is that all Greek poetry was sung. The oral tradition of epic poetry was passed through song. In reconstructing these songs and thereby reviving the musicality of Greek literature, D’Angour is recreating the basis of Western literature, allowing us to re-encounter our own origins. As this utterly strange music rang out in its incomprehensible tones and its waves spilled across me, I could not help but experience a deep and abiding sense of connection to these sounds, as impregnable as their meaning is to me in the current day. And so I was confronted with a paradox: I was aurally confused and destabilized and alienated, yet imaginatively, emotionally, and indeed spiritually, I experienced a deep resonance.
What is the cause of this? Is it merely the perverse attraction of the strange which gripped me? Or even more superficially is it just something interesting, mere click-bait that happened to fill a minute of my time and I had merely deceived myself into believing that any deeper connection actually existed? While both of these explanations may be present, the notes continued to swirl and sound throughout my mind despite their lack of aesthetic immediacy. I think the superficial explanations ignore the history at play in my listening to these songs. It ignores the fact that these songs lie within me, embedded in my soul whose depths are formed by a tradition of which we are both a part, reaching back in time to these notes and beyond. There is something numinous about re-encountering one’s deepest origins. In this encounter, the imaginative, spiritual, and emotional resonance find their realization. Somewhere, implanted within me and all other descendants of the West, are the Homeric oracles recounting the trials of their people by fireside, the stars vaulting above their heads and songs of old—these notes included—dancing on their lips.
The ancients have that power over us, despite the vast temporal gulf that lies between them and us. We are the products of their trials, of their stories and experiences. The re-encountering of their original forms provokes not only feelings of strangeness, but an awakening of what long lay dormant within us. Through the strangeness we find ourselves again, for the ancients remain lodged within our cells, embedded amongst our deepest fibers, waiting to be called back into the forefront. Given their distance from us, it merely requires some more time for recognition; thus we must pass through the crucible of strangeness towards recognition. We forget how much we are still them, how the passage of time has shaped the land and turned empires into dust but man has endured in his same form, for he is still there, waiting beneath the canopy of stars, telling stories. Their wisdom, from our current vantage point, can seem eroded by the vast, hurried productions of modernity. We have Hegel and Marx and Sartre, so why do we need Homer? What does Homer know of student debt, of racial tensions, of social media, and films? And so complexity begins to outweigh insight as the weight of our current time seems to render the wisdom of the ancients simpler. But that sense of erosion only exists because of the degree to which we are the offspring of Homer. We forget his significance, his worth, because we know not what it is to live without Homer. The world would not exist in its current form.
The productions of the ancient past, necessarily obscure and unable to be pinned down by fact and to be reduced through analysis, allow us access to beauty and truth unfettered by the reductionist tendencies of the modern age. Their obscurity, their lack of shared cultural context with modernity, allows them to slip behind the screens of judgment that the modern mind has arrayed to weed out that which is not fact or deemed admissible and allows them to pluck the strings of our soul more effectively than productions of our own time which are laden with the burden of existing in our time and therefore approachable on our terms. We come equipped to discourse with a set of pre-formed, immoveable opinions. We have something to say about absolutely everything, from a serious critique to, more likely, a thoughtless quip. Anything that is the product of our age is subject to these relentless rounds of judgment. The ancients form a sort of revelation, the conveyance of truth through an impeachable, external source. The ancients transcend judgment of any particular generation or cultural milieu, for their influence stretches so far back into our being that we cannot dismiss them, as we do not possess the ability to judge them and we cannot approach them on our terms as we cannot hope to transcend them. This is what allows them to be a vehicle to reacquaint us with the much-derided notion of truth. Their simultaneous transcendence and immanence, lying so deeply within us that they lie beyond.
The music reintroduces a tangibility to the ancients. It reawakens them within our hearts and souls and reconstitutes their presence in our lives. They still form the irreplaceable backbone of our existence, but they need to be brought out to the forefront in order for us to truly engage with them, to draw from them their enduring wisdom and apply it to our lives in the present moment. To dwell within them is to view reality not through the ever-unstable, limited lens of modernity but through that which has endured, to find the truths within human life that lie unchanged and ever-present beneath the vacillations and convulsions of the surface. The epics are the fundamental bedrock of this truth. Fate, heroism, love, duty; “the verities of the human heart” as Faulkner said, are first built within the epic tradition. The wails of Andromache, the bronze-bound duty of Hector, Odysseus’ first sight of the familiar, the elder sibling hero-worship of Ismene, the carnage beneath the walls of Troy, the pride of Agamemnon, and above all, the rage of Achilles. These are the originary emotions and stories that form the consciousness of the West. It is from these that the West emerges. The pride we feel is descended from that of Agamemnon. The grief from Andromache, the honor from Hector and on and on until we ask ourselves whether rage exists at all without Achilles. The wisdom lies there too for any arc of life that exists now is contained within theirs, for they experienced the complexities of their humanity far before us. And they sang them. The fullness of their power cannot be revealed without the notes. Strange and foreign as they may be, they contain us within them.
The tableau of human experience is brought to the page through these works, casting their illuminating light on our lives, as they have on all, but we must open our eyes to see it. To hear the music of ancient Greece, the notes dripping with civilizational resonance, is to see the light, is to be bathed in the incandescence of ancient wisdom and feeling, transmitted across the millennia through the common truth residing within the hearts of creator and listener. This is why veterans of current wars find these stories utterly, disturbingly, therapeutically relevant. This is why Achilles and Vietnam and Odysseus in America could be written by a psychiatrist in the Department of Veterans Affairs based on the testimonies of soldiers. For to listen to them is to remember our origins, to remember that we come from somewhere and do not emerge naked and blank without taint or context. The key to establishing continuity between our mythic past and our present, is contained within the resurrected notes of this song. That is the value of this project, the glory of the ancients that resides within us, that has always hovered amongst our heart and soul, is set free for our engagement as we lay quivering on the threshold between this life and those that have come before, between the calcifying present and the unopened past.
This is the enduring value of Homer in 2014, this is why we must let the notes of Ancient Greek music flow through our veins.