Ancient Rites of Spring

This is an extraordinary story to me, the discovery of bone flutes dating back approximately 35,000 years.  I have discussed before how music is the glue of society, and that the making of music coincides with the evolutionary development of homo sapiens sapiens; i.e. mankind became what it is today, imaginative and self-conscious, when mankind began making musical sound and listening to it.  What I find thrilling about this discovery is that mankind didn’t just sing and make percussive beats, but also had some sense of harmony.  If you listen to the tune played on a replica flute, you’ll hear a fairly well-tuned diatonic scale, notes that relate to each other in a way that creates a key, or at least central tone, of sorts.

Harmony is the mysterious, powerful, pervasive and inexhaustable component of music.  It never goes away for long, it’s the “ready made boomerang” as John Cage described it.  It’s harmony, more than anything else, that gives music its abstract structural content and emotional, and changing, context.  And there it was, 35,000 years ago.  The story mentions possible social uses for the music that was played, and that makes sense to me, but I would also argue that with harmony as an available tool, music was also made abstractly, just for its own sake, 35,000 years ago.  It took about 2,500 years of development in Western Civilization to get back to that point.

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Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

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