August 23, 2012

The Muse Contest

Bees with Snowdrop pollen
Bees were called the birds of the Muses.
Honey was mixed with milk or water or grains of wheat as offerings to the Muses.

The Muses had several musical contests but only one was against another group of Muses. The two sets of Muses in this story were the 9 Olympian Muses and the 7 or 9 Muses of Pieria.

The Olympian Muses are the nine daughters of the Titan Mnemosyne, the Goddess of memory, names and language, and Zeus. They are the most widely known Muses today, but it took them quite some time to become the dominant version in Greek myth. The Romans assigned specific poetry, music and images to them but were not always consistent about it. They were all pictured with a lyre at one time or another.

1) Kalliope/Calliope, “of the beautiful voice,” is the Muse of epic or heroic songs. She leads the other Muses and plays the trumpet. She travels with leaders to inspire justice and thought. She settled the argument between Persephone and Aphrodite over Adonis.
Kalliope/Calliope is sometimes pictured with a scroll (book) and stylus (pen) or holding a laurel crown and the Homeric scrolls. In Renaissance times, she played the harp or lute.
2) Kleio/Cleo, “the giver of fame,” became the Muse of history poems. She spread the use of the alphabet and plays the trumpet. She is my pick for a Muse of brass instruments.
Kleio/Cleo is sometimes pictured with a chest of scrolls/books or a water clock.
3) Thaleia, “the festive or blooming,” can be found at the theater watching a comedy when she isn’t off with her other sisters, the Graces. She teaches geometry, architecture and agriculture. She invented the plectrum, used to strum the lyre.
Thaleia is sometimes pictured with a comedy mask, shepherd’s staff and ivy wreath. In Renaissance times, she played the rebec (early violin) or viol (stringed and bowed instrument that isn’t a violin).
4) Melpomene, “the singer,” prefers tragedies and elegies. She creates chants and plays the hunting horn.
Melpomene is sometimes pictured with a tragedy mask, sword, a wreath of ivy or cypress and wearing actors’ boots. In Renaissance times, she played the bass viol.
5) Euterpe, “the giver of joy,” is the Muse of instrumental music. She plays the aulos, a double-reed instrument. She loves wind instruments, lyric poetry and education.
Euterpe is sometimes pictured with the aulos or surrounded by many instruments. In Renaissance times, she played the flute or other woodwind instruments.
6) Terpsichore, who “enjoys dancing,” plays the lyre and dances. She loves large choruses in plays and education. She is occasionally the Muse of stringed instruments.
Terpsichore is sometimes pictured dancing, wearing a laurel wreath or holding a lyre. In Renaissance times, she played the cittern or large lute.
Bleu Mantle Rose7) Erato as the “awakener of desire” claimed erotic poetry, wedding music and dances that entice or require pairs. A prophetic priestess of Pan shares her name.
Erato is sometimes pictured wearing a rose wreath or holding a lyre or jingle ring. In Renaissance times, she played the cittern.
8) Polyhymnia/Polymnia, “many hymns,” is best known for her sacred hymns and mimic arts. But through a link with Demeter, she is also the divine prostitute, the one who grants love to all. She makes the rules of grammar and teaches geometry and agriculture.
Polyhymnia/Polymnia was sometimes pictured wearing a veil or cloak. In Renaissance times, she played the organ or clavichord.
9) Ourania, the “heavenly one,” makes predictions by watching the stars and invented astronomy. Aphrodite took Ourania’s name as one of her titles: Aphrodite Ourania “the Heavenly Aphrodite,” the merciful one who dances to the music of the spheres.
Ourania is sometimes pictured with a compass and star globe. In Renaissance times, she kept time on a drum or gong.

At first, every village or kingdom had its own local Muses. Since Pieria is thought to be the place the more organized cult of the Muses began, the seven Muses of Pieria may have been a quite early group. (Confusingly, they are sometimes called the Muses of Lesbos, but Pieria is much more common.) Finding more information about them however, is not easy. Even the meanings of their names have to be pieced together from other myths. Their mother is a nymph named Antiope or Euippe. The name Euippe is closely related to Hera Hippia and Athena Hippia, the horse Goddesses. Their father Pierus is named for the land of Pieria itself. The seven Muses are named Rhodia, Asopo, Neilo, Achelois, Tritone, Heptapora and Tipoplo and their number matches the seven mitochondrial Eves, the genetic mothers of the human race.

Rose Buds1) Rhodia is rose or rose garland or perhaps hibiscus or some other red to pink flower. Two sunny nymphs, Rhodos and Rhode, have very similar names. Some believed Rhodos was the same as Athena Hippia, and Rhode’s mother was sometimes the ocean nymph Polyphe, “of much thought.”
2) Asopo, “never silent,” is a river name. It may also mean “clever in all ways.”
3) Neilo may mean river and/or relate to the river Nile.
4) Achelois, “washes away pain,” is the name of a moon Goddess who was given offerings at the oracle of Dodona.
5) Tritone is three. Tritones are the sea creatures who look like the sea God Triton, the conch shell player. By coincidence, tritone is the name of the most famous interval in modern music theory, the augmented 4th or diminished 5th, the mid-point of the octave.
6) Heptapora is another river name, possibly one with seven springs, streams or paths.
7) Tipoplo, very tentatively, may be a bird call.

In later myths, Pierus is a mortal king who had nine daughters, instead of seven. He claimed his daughters sang as well as the more famous Muses, or he named them after the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus. Whether he did this out of pride or by order of an oracle depends on which story you read. Regardless, his daughters were worshiped as the true Muses of Pieria. Before long, they challenged, or were challenged by, the nine Olympian Muses to a singing contest, which was judged by the nymphs or nature itself. The music of the contest caused the Helicon mountain to rise up into the sky until, finally, Poseidon sent Pegasus to stomp on the mountain. Springs leapt up where the winged-horse’s hooves touched the ground and the Muses were worshiped at these springs. The singing daughters of Pierus, meanwhile, were declared the losers and changed into birds, either magpies or nine different birds: the grebe, the wryneck, the ortolan (or hawk/kestrel), the jay, the green finch, the gold finch, the duck, the woodpecker, and the dracontis pigeon.

Redheaded Woodpecker
About those birds…
The translations of the nine birds are a little uncertain. For the birders out there and for those who just like this kind of puzzle, here are the Greek bird names.
1) Colymbas/Kolymbus means shrub and may be the grebe.
2) Iynx is the wryneck and also means spell or charm.
Bubble Bath Rose3) Cenchris is a kind of serpent and may be the hawk, kestrel or ortolan bunting.
4) Cissa/Kissa is the jay. Also a genus of magpies.
5) Chloris means green, may be the green finch and is used for many green birds. It is also the name of the flower Goddess who created the first rose.
6) Acalanthis/Akalanthis may be the gold finch, linnet or warbler.
7) Nessa means descending from above and may be the duck.
8) Pipo is the woodpecker.
9) Draconitis/Drakonitis is some uncertain type of bird.

Of course, anyone who enters a contest with the Gods is transformed. Some stories say it’s a reward; others that it’s a punishment. But there is no doubt that coming face to face with a God and showing exactly what you can do, exactly who you are, will change you deeply and leave you marked by having met Them. In this case, changing singers into birds, who spend their lives singing...well I leave you to decide precisely what that means.
For more on the other groups of Muses (yes, there are more), see Many Muses

Ovid's Metamorphoses
Hesiod's Theogony
Women of Classical Mythology by Robert E. Bell
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso
The Gods of the Greeks by Kerenyi

August 21, 2012

Busking Thoughts

Busking is exhausting, too hot or too cold, noisy and the audience is often small. So why do I like it so much?
For one thing it inspires new music. When I first started busking, I played a lot of folk tunes, old troubadour music or Renaissance tunes. I've always liked how these tunes seemed to be related and the fit in at Festivals wonderfully. Plus the improvisations and variations I came up with made it possible to play one tune for a longer time without boring myself (or my audience!) It was a startling short hop from there to simply playing music I created from scratch. Not everything was wonderful but it is thrilling to know people were willing to listen to a tune I created. The more time I spent busking the more I improvised on my own musical ideas. The more I did this, the more I liked the music I created and before long I had a long list of original tunes I was trying to remember.
Then of course I busk because I love to play. And I like seeing people smile when they hear the music even if they don't stop. I feel like I'm doing my tiny part to add creativity and maybe even beauty to people's everyday lives, something there should always be more of.

In many ways busking is an endurance activity. Even when you only have a short time to play in, you have to keep the energy and music moving the whole time. There is no off-stage to duck into, even when you can take a break. The more involved I am in the music, the easier it is to keep the show going. When the music changes and is new, I can (and do!) stay enthusiastic about playing till I drop.
Mixing up the music I play, my own, folk, Classical and anything I've just wandered into is what keeps busking closer to a game than work. And nothing is quite as exciting as putting the flute to my face and discovering what I’m about to play along with the audience.

August 12, 2012

Rain Spell

Earlier this summer, back in the “cooler” part of the heat wave, my grandmother said this year was reminding her of the Dust Bowl days of her childhood. In the evenings, she and her siblings would lie by the window in their room while my great-grandfather sprayed the outside wall with the garden hose. The mist came in through the screen and the water pattered over them, as cool as a tune. When it gets so hot the sweat makes the flute slide right out of my hands, I selfishly want to go listen to other people play or find somewhere cool, drink something well iced and read about how music can change the weather.
            The drums, of course, are thunder. They can call it up or back it down. They speak to the sky in its own language, murmuring and rumbling or pounding and rolling. The flute is the lightning. Its melody line climbs up to the sky till it touches the clouds with one clear high note. Then in one sharp flash that lights the world up as bright as day, tumbles down upon itself into its low dark register. The two together make an old, powerful mix. Even when they try to out play each other, the rhythm and melody never quite leave each other behind, though they may overwhelm the dancers and audience. But what else would you expect from a musical storm?
            The violin’s strings and bow meet and cross, building up energy. The sound leaps out, fierce as any breeze from clashing fronts. Played to add water weight to clouds, those tense little strings draw out rich soothing tones and flashes of color, bright as lightning. The hollow body echoes as long as any thunder clap.
The tambourine, now, is a mini storm front all by itself. The tap, tap, tapping and the rattle and crash of the jingles builds up to wilder patterns, calling in the wind front that pushes all the dry thirsty leaves out in front of it. It’s a dancer’s instrument, meant to be played by hand strikes and body movement equally as they spin, leap and work themselves into a moving trance.
wind chimes
Whistling can call up the winds, especially outdoors. All those little skipping tunes make the wind want to show off its own skill. Meanwhile, a flute played indoors can cause rain. And once the rain tumbles down, I think, how sweet it will be to settle down and play a tune with the most unruly accompaniment in the world chattering away on the roof. Each tiny note from the wind chimes makes me long for just one more, and just one more…The leaves are rattling like Halloween on the trees, applauding each breeze with a standing ovation worthy of the finest virtuoso ever to grace a stage. Demanding just one more encore.
The cicada singers have taken over the chorus role, like they do every year. But even they wouldn’t mind being spelled a day or so by the voices of the rain barrels bubbling and filling. A long soak and their voices will be fresh and ready to go for the last month of their touring show. One lone Surprise Lilly has bloomed this year, out of the double rows that line the walk. All those sweet scented stage lights have gone dim, anticipating some dramatic event that will come along any moment now. They're just waiting for their final cue. And this weekend the meteors played hopscotch in the rain clouds, waiting for the overture to begin. They added their little trills and turns to the, still too distant!, harmony of the thunder, lightning and rain. 
Surprise Lilly

The rain cancelled its performance as it was starting last night. But the worst of the heat has broken and I taste less dust when I walk about, following song lines in my head. My ticket is still good, I'm sure. Maybe, maybe, maybe, I think as the birds and I whistle our way through the woods and watch the shy little clouds in the bright blue sky.

August 11, 2012

In the Palm of Our Hands - Origin of Solfege

The solfege syllables are one of those commonly used and accepted ideas that seem like they have always existed. These are the familiar do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti nonsense sounds for singing a major scale (“Do, a deer, a female deer”). The major scale, and therefor the syllables, can start on any note but C is typically used for examples for simplicity's sake. The syllables can be traced back about a thousand years to Guido d’Arezzo (c. 995-c. 1050 C. E., there are conflicting dates for him), a choir leader and music teacher who developed a new way of training singers to learn music quickly. He wrote a short melody for the chant “Ut queant laxis” (just the notes, not the words) with 6 phrases that all his singers memorized.
Ut queant laxis-Guido d'Arezzo
Each phrase starts one note higher than the last phrase and began with a different syllable. Each phrase is short enough to remember very easily. Singers used the syllables and notes that began each phrase as stepping stones to find notes in new music without hearing the new music first. This is where the first 6 solfege syllables came from. Do, the first syllable of the scale, was originally ut and the 7th syllable, ti, was added later but the rest are the same. There are a couple of different theories about how these syllables got started but this is the one that turns up in most music history books.
(For the curious, accidentals change the vowel sounds. With sharps, do becomes di, re becomes ri, fa becomes fi, sol becomes si and la becomes li. For flats, re becomes ra, mi becomes me, sol becomes se, la becomes le and ti becomes te. There are other systems and not everyone uses these at all.)
Sometime after these syllables came into use, each syllable/scale-step was assigned to the tips and joints of the fingers so that the choir leader could point to a joint and students would sing that note on cue. In this system, the entire set of syllables are repeated several times since most music has more than 6 notes. Additionally, the repeated sets of syllables are overlapped to show how to modulate to new scales. This technique does not seem to have been invented by Guido but it did use his solfege syllables. The notes, 19 in all, move in something like a spiral around the hand.
Guidonian Hand
Guidonian hand from a manuscript from Mantua, last quarter of 15th century (Oxford University MS Canon. Liturg. 216. f.168 brecto) (Bodleian Library) This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.
Somewhat easier to read solfege and note layout on hand. Some notes have more than one syllable because of the overlapping pattern of solfege scales. For more info, click here. Be warned, it's complex.
This is very complicated and intimidating looking even to professional musicians and not too surprisingly is not used very often these days. But I love the idea of holding two and a half octaves in your hand.

There is a set of hand symbols representing each solfege syllable that some people use today. The hand signs for the sharps and flats aren't used as often.






solfege hand signs

These are very similar to the sign language alphabet but the two systems have different meanings entirely and the signs for the music syllables are a little more flexible simply because there are fewer. Not every one uses the hand signs for solfege, there are different solfege systems in use and not all musicians use solfege at all.

I am fascinated by the ways we use our hands. It’s an instrumentalist thing as well as a human thing. There is a long list of systems that use the joints or knuckles in the hand as a way to organize, remember and communicate ideas such as musical notes, alphabets, calendar dates and on and on. It's all right there in our hands.

August 3, 2012

Apollo the One Man Band

August sunset
Apollo Helios
Apollo Phoebus
In Greek myth, Apollo is the God of Harmony, Music, Prophecy and Healing. When he first came to Olympus with his lyre, the Gods could think of nothing but music. The nine Muses burst out singing while the three Graces, the three Horai and Harmonia, Hebe and Aphrodite (another group of nine) danced in a circle with Artemis leading them from the center. Even Ares and Hermes dropped their spear and staff in order to leap and cavort among the dancers. Apollo was promptly declared to be the God who brings nature into harmony. He plucks the strings of his lyre with a plectrum made of sunlight.

Except, the lyre hadn’t been  invented yet.
On the day Hermes was born, he found a tortoise and used its shell to make the first lyre. He then stole Apollo’s cows for a small barbeque. When he was caught, Hermes gave the lyre to Apollo and taught him to play it as payment for the 50 cows he had already eaten. Apollo was delighted and felt he had gotten the better end of the deal saying the lyre’s harmonies caused bliss, love and restful sleep. He even used the string music to make the walls of Troy dance into place (unless that was Poseidon and his Godlike masonry).
Before the lyre lessons, Apollo played the aulos, a double-reed instrument that turned breath into flying notes and made all who heard it forget their worries. He played laments, music for sacrifices and foreign dances on the wild instrument. He even played country melodies in King Admetus's herding fields, were Apollo went to atone for several different wrongs.

Except, the aulos hadn’t been invented yet.
When Medusa was killed, her sisters wailed and keened for her so beautifully that Athena stopped to listen. She picked reeds and made the first aulos to imitate the Gorgons’ singing. The aulos became the wind instrument of choice in ancient Greece and aulos players were often kept on city payrolls just in case they were needed to appease a God or fight a plague (plagues were one of Apollo's special forms of revenge). The instrument was so common, today it is mistakenly translated as flute in English in spite of being played more like an oboe. Hermes even claimed he had invented it when he created the lyre, just to get in on the action. Apollo finally asked Athena to teach him the aulos so he could play harmonies and keep time for the antiphonal Muses in his role as their choir leader.

Except, he wasn’t the leader of the Muses yet.
Artemis sang and danced with the Muses in all the earlier stories and she was considered their dance leader even after Apollo got the higher ranking title. Some say he was in love with all of Mnemosyne’s Muse daughters and decided to stay unmarried when he couldn’t figure out how to marry all nine at once. Others said he was the father of the three Muses at Delphi; Kephiso “of the river Kephiso”, Borysthenis “strength” and Apollonis, a female version of Apollo.

In all the stories of Apollo’s many conquests, there is not one mention of a possible mother for the singing poets. The Muses of Delphi may have accepted Apollo as their honorary father, but the story doesn’t seem to have been finished. Possibly this was because they weren’t the most popular Muses anyway. This left hints and gaps showing how Apollo had moved into a place already filled to the rafters with Gods.
When Apollo claimed the Pythian oracle, it already spoke in meters and poems, which the Muses had loved long before Apollo was born. Delphi’s three resident Muses, even had to be renamed for the low, middle and high strings on the lyre that Apollo played before Apollo was allowed to join their trio.
Speaking of lyres, there were two different kinds that were used strictly for different styles of music. Apollo only played one with his uplifting, character building music. Dionysus played the other for his drunken runs through the mountains and to pump up the emotions of his theater shows. The Muses of course loved all music, not just Apollo Approved chords. Its hardly surprising that “Apollo’s Muses” kept running off to see Dionysus’s latest plays with their toe tapping tunes. Two Muses, Thaleia and Melpomene, even claimed comedy and tragedy as their special musical areas.

The Contests: Reeds vs. Strings
One day, after Apollo gave up the aulos for the lyre, Marsyas, a goat-footed satyr, found Athena’s first set of aulos reeds which almost played themselves thanks to the Goddess’s breath having touched them. He naturally challenged Apollo to a contest, satyrs having very little sense. They met and played in Phyrgia near a lake full of reeds perfect for making aulos mouth pieces. Some say Marsyas won and Apollo was so furious, he skinned Marsyas and used the goatskin as a wineskin. Some say Apollo won and skinned Marsyas for losing but the little country Gods turned Marsyas into a stream. Some say Marsyas won the first round but then Apollo turned his lyre upside down and played again or he sang while playing, both tricks a wind player can’t do. In other words, Apollo the God of natural rules and order, cheated. In most versions, the Muses were the judges, making it seem even less likely to have been a fair contest. Some people have claimed this story was meant to show that the civilized lyre was a better instrument than the bawdy aulos which was used in the worship of various foreign Gods. Although how the versions with Apollo losing show that, I’m not quite sure. The tag to the story, that Marsyas’s aulos was dedicated to Apollo after the contest, raises even more questions. One or two versions even have Apollo feeling sorry for how he treats his competition and tearing the strings from his lyre in atonement. Finally, Satyrs may have been the mythical version of shaman-priests wearing animal skins. To “skin” one would be nothing more than taking off a heavy robe and returning the priest to his everyday life.

Pan playing double aulos
Pan playing the double aulos
Pan, the half-goat half-God famous for his syrinx/panpipes, also got into a contest with Apollo and his new lyre. This time Tmolus, the God of a mountain were Dionysus was worshipped, was the judge. Unless it was King Midas, a follower of Pan’s. Or perhaps the Muses listened in again or maybe all of them together formed a panel. But in any case, Midas alone declared that Pan should win. Apollo gave Midas donkey’s ears for ruling against him since he couldn’t really take it out on Pan, who was another God after all. (Perhaps Apollo should have waited till he had a little more practice on his new instrument before entering all these contests.)

Cinyras/Kyknos was a king of Cyprus, a priest of Aphrodite and sometimes a son of Apollo. He got into a lyre contest with Apollo, too, but this time, both seem to have played the same instrument. The challenge suddenly became much more personal. Cinyras lost, we’re told, and threw himself into the sea or was turned into a swan (sacred to both Apollo and Aphrodite). His 50 daughters also turned into birds, out of sorrow it was said. Though on a side note, the Muses, who were known to turn into birds themselves, had once or twice changed other musical contestants into birds.

Paean, The Music Therapist
In early Greece, many healers used paeans as musical charms that both praised and asked a God for help. They were performed as a prayer, for good luck, to avert evil, to ask for healing, before battles and after victories. The early formal paean had a solo leader and a choral response while later versions were mostly antiphonal chorus, both very like the description of the Muses singing. They were usually accompanied by the kithara (Apollo’s lyre), but on the battlefield they were accompanied by both aulos and kithara, the instruments from Apollo’s contests. Paean is also the name of the God who healed both Ares and Hades with herbs and music when no one else could. Eventually, Paean became one of Apollo’s more famous titles, though other Gods with links to healing used that title too.

Apollo Musagetes “of the Muses”
Apollo Kitharodos/Chithaeroedus “the lyre singer”
Apollo Nomius “of the meadow/pasture” who plays shepherd pipes/aulos
Apollo Pythius of oracles, meters and poems
Apollo Paean “healer” and song
Apollo may have gotten top billing, but he always ended up sharing music and roles with others. He learned music and song from anyone he could, civilized or not. He organized music, defined harmony and made music into the finest, most soothing balm. Apollo is the dabbler who learns new music for fun and the student driven by ambition. He is the patron of all the divas who are justly proud of their skills and all the musicians who can’t wait to learn a new instrument. He is the first music theorist and orchestrator, the conductor and the promoter. He dragged society round by the ears to honor musical accomplishments and made music something all people could share. He shows how to use music to bring peace and healing to the soul.