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Ancient Music Beyond Hellenisation

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - AMBH (Ancient Music Beyond Hellenisation)

Reporting period: 2021-09-01 to 2023-02-28

From medieval times, Arabic as well as European music was analysed in terms that were inherited from Classical Antiquity and had thus developed in a very different music culture. In spite of recent breakthroughs in the understanding of the latter, whose technicalities we access not only through texts and iconography, but also through instrument finds and surviving notated melodies, its relation to music traditions known from later periods and different places is almost uncharted territory.
The present project explores relations between Hellenic/Hellenistic music, Near Eastern traditions – from the diatonic system emerging from cuneiform sources to the flourishing musical world of the caliphates – and, as far as possible, African musical life south of Egypt as well – a region that maintained close ties both with the Hellenised culture of its northern neighbours and with the Arabian Peninsula. On the one hand, this is done in close collaboration between Classical Philology and Arabic Studies, extending methods recently developed within music archaeological research related to the Classical Mediterranean.
Arabic writings are examined using recent insights into the interplay between ancient music theory and practice, in order to segregate the influence of Greek thinking from ideas and facts
that must relate to contemporaneous ‘Arabic’ music-making. In this way we hope better to define the relation of this tradition to the ‘Classical world’, potentially breaking free of Orientalising bias informing modern views. On the other hand, the study and reconstruction, virtual and material, of wind instruments of Hellenistic pedigree but found outside the confinements of the Hellenistic ‘heartlands’ may provide evidence of ‘foreign’ tonality employed in those regions – specifically the royal city of Meroë in modern Sudan and the Oxus Temple in modern Tajikistan.
As a basis for our studies, we have developed database applications with desktop frontends for rapid data entry and linking. One of these manages two separate databases, one comprising the over 200 instrument fragments found in Queen Amanishakheto’s tomb in Meroë, Sudan, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the other 48 fragments from the Oxus temple, now in Museums in Dushanbe.
We have travelled twice to Boston in order to complement our technical documentation of the items, further our musical and technical understanding and prepare a reconstruction. The database associates important measurements with various photographic, X-ray and spectroscopic data as well as technical drawings.
We have also enhanced our software for physical modelling of instrumental pitches, partly because it proved necessary to cope with tubes of varying diameters. The interface for producing 3D-printed models of parts and instruments directly from the database was also perfected, so that it is now possible to produce working models of the ancient mechanism of rotating sleeves by 3D manufacturing. Consequently, several experimental instruments have been printed, finally leading to the reconstruction of the first pair in original materials by Peter Holmes and team at Middlesex University, London, which was displayed in the exhibition “Ancient Nubia Now” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In another strand of the project, we have evaluated Al-Fārābī’s information on the construction and tuning of woodwind instruments of his time, and how these relate to lute scales – a question that demanded careful examination of his use of musical terminology in the Peripatetic tradition. In order to make Al-Fārābī’s enormous compendium searchable and prepare a translation as well as a better critical edition of crucial parts (mainly those referring to the scales and mutual relations of various string and wind instruments), we have digitised the latest edition to Classical Text Editor format. Digital images of all known manuscripts have been procured, as far as the pandemic allowed.
Complementary to the study of Early Islamicate texts on lutes, we have started a re-evaluation of published Egyptian lutes from the late antique and early Byzantine periods. This also involved the creation of a new software application. The software models the pitches of strings of different diameter and material on a fretted board more accurately, and thus permits finding optimal placements of the bridge and evaluating the resulting plausible scales against the background of ancient and early medieval music theory; an exemplary evaluation of the best-studied instrument both confirmed and improved upon earlier interpretations.
Apart from the aforementioned aulos finds, on which our projects focuses especially, Olga Sutkowska was able to conduct a preliminary survey on an instrument of Near Eastern origin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and we have measured a plaster cast of the lost Pergamum aulos model. Renowned music archaeologist Chrēstos Terzēs has contributed his meticulous data of two bone instruments with bronze sliders found at Megara, which exhibit close structural similarities with the Oxus find.
When we found our project schedule shattered by the pandemic, we focused on obtaining preliminary measurements for the Oxus find from photographs and drawings, with the invaluable support of Gunvor Lindström, long-standing expert on the archaeology of the site, who has secured all available evidence from the excavation and prepared a survey of what we know and don’t know about the original find spots. Working from secondary, partially photographic, data involved tedious procedures of quality management, but in the end it became possible to port the measurements to the physical modelling software via a newly designed interface. The latter was augmented by the possibility to experimentally assemble fragments as sketches, images or images overlaid with sketches, which greatly facilitates the recognition of items, automatically highlighting possible joins or even searching for physically plausible configurations of longer sections. In this way, we have arrived at a first musical interpretation starting from an extraordinary instrument section comprising of two concentric bone cylinders, whose association in the find we first needed to reconstruct as they are now separated. These formed a hitherto unknown type of mechanism, which appears to present the first archaeological corroboration for a musical system that had been reconstructed mainly from literary sources only twenty years ago. From preliminary 3D prints that we had prepared of all the fragments it was thus possible to assemble and play one hypothetical pipe.
The Meroë find, formerly merely a collection of more than hundred small fragments, can now be appreciated as containing six instruments belonging to three distinct classes, including extremely long pipes with extensive mechanisms; for the Oxus find, we have established a theory relating it to the late Classical era in the Greek mainland. The wind instruments described by Al-Fārābī are now better understood in their relation to the contemporary lute, while we have also gained insights in the latter's position in a context spanning thousands of kilometres and several centuries.
Pandemic permitting, we hope to conduct our postponed study sessions and publish our data along with a thorough organological and musical evaluation.
Reconstruction work on the Meroë pipes, photo: Stefan Hagel (courtesy MfA, Boston)