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We think of the statues of Ancient Greece as glistening white marble, yet they were beautifully painted in a rainbow of colors to imitate life.  So too, the poetry of the ancient Greek world was meant to be performed to music…maybe Sappho and Pindar had more in common with the Beatles, Slim Shady, and Bob Dylan than we think (although I, for one, will never accept that bad Nobel prize).  Unfortunately, the music of the ancient classical world has always been elusive.  We know how deeply the ancients praised its lyrical form and its emotional depth.  We even have extensive descriptions and directions of musical pieces, complete with comprehensive explanations of tones, scales, and meter.  In a few cases we have the notes themselves, there are extant scores for tunes which show each noise to be made in the fashion of modern music (albeit with a different notation).   Yet these aids have never been good enough to make musical recreations which were compelling.  The oddball classicists who tried to perform the songs from the ages of Athens and Alexander, succeeded only in making discordant and unpleasant harmonies.  Either the musical archaeologists were doing it wrong, or worse, the ancient world had a tin ear (and the sweeping rhythm of the poetry and art makes this seem unlikely).

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A new project has come together to try another stab at ancient Greek music.  The researchers and musicians based the heart of their work around recently discovered auloi which were found in superb condition.  The aulos was the “twin flute” of antiquity—actually a double reed instrument something like a twin oboe.  The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, slaves, and entertainers (as opposed to the expensive lyre which was the instrument of aristocrats, academicians, and such).  Although i have never heard it, the aulos is important to me because of the story of Apollo and Marsyas, a myth which is very dear to me (and instantly familiar to all artists who hear the story).

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Using these ancient auloi, musical scholars and musicians have exhaustively reviewed the ancient notes and commentary.  They have poured effort into understanding weird ancient musical terms like “mode, enharmonic, diesis.”  They read the poetry and they practiced…and, yes, they invented and guessed and made things up with their imaginations (which surely is the greatest magic of art, anyway).  I will let you read about their amazing methodologies on your own, but the upshot is you can listen to a closer (?) approximation of ancient Greek music.

[Imagine that Youtube clip was playing here: I would update my wordpress plan to make this possible, but it would cost $48, which would cause me to go bankrupt]

I am not sure I am fully convinced.  In my head, the aulos sounds more like a cross between a nightingale, an oboe, and a small shepherd’s bagpipe—sad and haunting and sweet with a faint hint of something crass.  In this clip it sounds like a vuvuzela making love to a giant hornet.  However, who am I to judge?  My ideas of musical beauty may have been forever compromised by the peerless euphony of 19th century music.  Maybe the clip is closer to the historical truth than I would like to imagine. Whatever the case, the new ancient songs are still worth listening to—they are alien, yet familiar, and not without a certain majestic ceremonial quality. And, best of all, the scholarship, the research, and the musical craftsmanship provides us with another step closer to recreating the ancient melodies that haunt us in poems and in dark myths.

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