Bloomsbury (2021) p/b 176pp £18.99 (ISBN 9781350119925)
In ancient Greece, music was everywhere. From strict rules-based performances at festivals to the drunken singing of street revellers, from hymns chanted at sacrifices to work-songs sung by labourers in fields, from plucked strings accompanying lyrics by Sappho and Alcaeus to popular compositions played by flute-girls at symposia, the air pulsated with melody. Meanwhile, politicians debated the effect of music on the young, while philosophers formulated theories linking music with not just mathematics but the very structure of the universe. To try to understand the classical world, therefore, and how very ‘colourful and alive’ it was, we must do all we can to explore and understand musical theory and practice. As K. writes (discussing the shock that many today feel on realising that Greek statuary was intended to be polychrome), ‘what painted sculptures do for the eyes, musical reconstructions do for the ears.’
The purpose of his pamphlet, then, is to introduce the multifaceted nature of ancient music to a general readership, and it is to his credit that he succeeds in covering a wide range of diverse (and sometimes very technical) material with such clarity, leading the reader from first beginnings—prehistoric caves, the first clay tablets to bear musical notation, a ‘feast of music’ hosted by Sargon II of Assyria—to the intellectual and cultural melting pot of post-Persian Wars Athens, and from the basic framework of our knowledge of Greek instruments and the settings in which they were first played to more abstract ideas of music in education, politics and philosophy, before approaching technical issues such as rhythm, scales, modes and melody. At the heart of this final section is the question of Greek melodic and rhythmic notation, and how this can enable us to perform such scraps of music as still survive, even if—while we might be closer than ever to hearing what Greek songs sounded like, (K. points readers towards Armand D’Angour’s haunting reconstructions of music including an ode from Euripides’ Orestes on YouTube)—we can never fully recreate the experience of hearing them in context. We can, however, appreciate more fully the place of music in Greek culture, and in encouraging us to do so K. fulfils a vital role.
If the book has one flaw, however, it lies in its style. While the final (technical) chapters set out their sometimes-complex arguments with admirably limpid pellucidity, possibly in an attempt to capture a youthful readership much of the rest of book is peppered with potentially jarring tropes. Thus, for example, Plato and Aristotle (who regarded the aulos with suspicion) are ‘theorists … antsy about posh young boys jamming on the pipes’ while, when those same boys (testing out ‘hotter licks’) disdain the music of their forefathers, ‘the kids aren’t really grooving to the golden oldies they have to learn at school’. Similarly, this reviewer suspects that he will not be alone in considering himself the true heir of Judge James Pickles (who, it is said, had to be told that The Beatles were ‘a popular beat combo’), when faced with analogies drawn from songs by artists such as Beyoncé and Kayne West.
Such fuddy-duddy gripes aside, however, this book with its generally accessible style and breadth of material is an important contribution to the layperson’s understanding of Greek music. Containing five black-and-white photographs, two diagrams, a textual and musical transcription (but curiously no translation) of the Seikilos inscription, Armand D’Angour’s modern transcription of the ode from Orestes, a timeline, chapter endnotes with bibliographies, a glossary and index, it brims with such charisma that it must surely be a ‘hot ticket’.