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Musical Heresies (Part 2)
Note: although this post is part 2 of the musical heresy “series”, it can be read as a stand alone piece. As I said in the preface of part 1, this will be less of an essay and more of a “working notes” post, and as such will feature lengthy quotes and be a little less expository than my typical writing. Take it for what it’s worth, YMMV, and all that jazz.
“Recorded music is an addictive superstimuli that causes us grave psychological harm, both individually and collectively. Music should only be performed live, and even then it should be reserved for special occasions (i.e. music should be regarded as sacred).”
I am rapidly becoming a huge fan of Ted Gioia—there are only a few other substacks I read regularly and his is one of them. Have you ever become curious about some ill-defined and relatively niche topic (in my case the deep esoteric history of music) and then you do nothing about it because you don't really know where to begin looking and then you stumble upon the perfect resource that tells you basically everything you wanted to know and it’s even more fascinating than you thought it would be? Gioia’s new book “Music to Raise the Dead: The Secret Origins of Musicology”, which he is slowly releasing chapter-by-chapter on substack, was that for me.
His thesis is a radical one and I want to do it justice, so I will quote at length from the prologue and first chapter before sharing some of my own thoughts.
There is a musicology you can’t learn at Juilliard or other music conservatories. The professors there don’t know it, or even suspect it exists, although it unlocks the mysteries of the oldest and most enduring musical practices in human history.
In this tradition, a path of radical self-transformation can be pursued through extreme experiences—rites of passage in which music plays the key role. This pathway involves techniques that have retained their efficacy and a surprising amount of consistency over the course of more than 2,500 years.
Perhaps most surprising of all, musicians who participate in this alternative musicology take on the mantle of heroes.
No, I’m not joking—I am deadly serious about this. Musicians trained in this hidden musicology can serve as reliable guides on our most momentous journeys, and conductors at key junctures in human life. The performers who master these techniques not only reveal but, to some extent, create the defining stages and milestone moments in our personal evolution as individuals. They have even made progress in charting the dark territory outside and beyond our everyday experiences.
Do you doubt that music lessons can do all that?
Well, here’s something even stranger. In every significant field of human understanding—religion, medicine, law, history, philosophy, psychology, even science and mathematics—the musicians associated with this tradition originally laid the groundwork. That’s a story the history books won’t tell you. And though their significance is mostly forgotten nowadays, the signs of their innovations are everywhere for those perceptive enough to see them.
Greek workers were simply trying to widen the road from Thessaloniki to Kavala. On January 15, 1962, the work crew had arrived at Derveni, a narrow pass six miles north of Thessaloniki in present-day North Macedonia, where they stumbled upon an old necropolis.
They didn’t know it at the time, but they had discovered a burial ground near the ancient city of Lete. Judging by the weapons, armor, and precious items, it had served as a gravesite for affluent families with soldiering backgrounds.
Here among the remnants of a funeral pyre on top of a slab covering one of the graves, they found a carbonized papyrus. Experts later determined that this manuscript was, in the words of classicist Richard Janko, “the oldest surviving European book.”
The discovery of any ancient papyrus in Greece would be a matter for celebration. Due to the hot, humid weather, these documents have not survived into modern times. In this case, a mere accident led to the preservation of the Derveni papyrus—the intention must have been to destroy it in the funeral pyre. The papyrus had probably been placed in the hands of the deceased before cremation, but instead of burning, much of it had been preserved by the resulting carbonization.
Mere happenstance, it seems, allowed the survival of a document literally consigned to the flames. And what was in this astonishing work, a text so important that its owner wanted to carry it with him to the afterlife?
Strange to say, it was a book of music criticism.
But this charred papyrus contained a very unusual type of musicology. To start, it analyzed a song by a composer who didn’t exist, or so we’re told. Even by the standards of reclusive star musicians of our own time, that’s quite a disappearing act.
To add to the mystery, the expert analyzing the song, the author of our Derveni text, was also anonymous, but clearly was a sage consulted for his deep theoretical and practical knowledge—expertise that gave the possessor a quasi-magical power—of hymns by Orpheus, the composer of the song in question. But most unusual of all were the claims made about this music—which, as we shall see, go far beyond the usual boundaries of song analysis and interpretation.
Adding further to the mystery, excavators also found in Derveni some of the oldest pharmaceuticals and medical tools ever identified in the Western world. Trying to put together the details is challenging—or even bizarre. What we seem to have here is the resting spot of rare individuals who were warriors and priests and healers—empowered by special songs with their own esoteric musicology.
But let me emphasize, here at the outset of our journey, that this is a much bigger issue than just one man and his magical songs. A key argument of this book is that the shape of Western society even today is the result of a battle in worldviews that took place 2,500 years ago. On the one side, you had the proponents of logic, rationality, and philosophy, and they defeated their opponents who put their faith in songs.
It seems like an unfair battle. How can music ever be more powerful than logic? But Plato—and the other leading ancients who laid the groundwork for our rational and algorithmic society—feared music for a good reason. They saw the hypnotic effect of the epic and lyric singers on the masses. For centuries, people learned life skills from songs. They preserved history, culture, and the entire mythos with songs. They tapped into their own deepest emotions with songs. They celebrated every life milestone and ritual with songs. They reached out to the gods themselves with songs. Above all, they used this music to secure personal autonomy and what today we would call human rights. So we should not be surprised that Plato, Aristotle and the other originators of Western rationalism had to displace this dominant worldview of their ancestors—mythic, magical, musical—in order for them to create a more rigorous, disciplined, and analytical society.
They won that battle, and we live with the consequences today in our algorithm-driven culture.
But authorities didn’t always need to destroy the songs. Cleansing and reinterpreting are more subtle tools, and especially useful when the music deals with the four forbidden subjects: magic, altered mind states, sex, and violence. The Orphic tradition celebrated in the Derveni papyrus dealt with all four of those matters on an intimate basis—an unfortunate situation for those who hope to understand the origins of Western music. In the case of that kind of hymn, the odds against survival were steep.
Not only is music of this sort endangered, but in many instances the musicians too. Orpheus, according to the myth, was torn to bits by angry Bacchic maidens because of his transgressions. And I note that Pythagoras, the most famous successor to Orpheus—and the innovator credited with inventing the tuning systems that define Western music—may have actually died in a fire set by his enemies, Details are obscure and imprecise, because they always are in these cases, but Pythagoras clearly had to go into exile along with his followers, and many of them perished when their house in Croton was burned to the ground by angry locals. Needless to say, that’s a fate far worse than just having your music burned.
In other words, the history of musical innovation overlaps closely with the history of dissidents and their rebellions. Mull over the implications of that connection.
But why do we destroy music? In the pages ahead, I will suggest that songs have always played a special role in defining the counterculture and serving as a pathway to experiences outside accepted norms. They are not mere entertainment, as many will have you believe, but exist as an entry point to an alternative universe immune to conventional views and acceptable notions. As such, songs still possess magical power as a gateway on a life-changing quest. And though we may have stopped burning witches at the stake, we still fear their sorcery, and consign to the flames those devilish songs that contain it.
And finally here is a summary of the claims in the first two chapters (some of which were not discussed in the preceding passages) from the 2nd section of the 2nd chapter, “The Secret Origins of the Musical Conductor”.
(1) Musicology originated as sorcery and divination.
(2) Songs were widely recognized as repositories of remarkable powers—although this view was later discredited and, in most spheres of musical life, eventually forgotten.
(3) Important songs contain secret information, and the most powerful practitioners not only could perform the music, but also understood the hidden meanings. They were, in a very real sense, code-breakers.
(4) Music is useful in decisive or dangerous situations, and at the most important interludes in human life—hence musicology must address this reality. At the birth of Western culture, the most esteemed musician, Orpheus, was also celebrated as chief protagonist in the most dangerous and ambitious hero’s quest known to ancients: the journey to the Underworld to bring back a dead soul through the power of music. As such, Orpheus was a role model for others who sought musical interventions in moments of crisis and uncertainty—both in this world and elsewhere.
(5) Music is the engine that empowers the hero’s quest. Those who hoped to surmount these obstacles in a transformative, decisive process —what I call here the genuine hero’s journey—need the right songs to make it happen.
(6) Everybody can participate in this. The musical intervention embedded in the Derveni papyrus made a kind of heroism and immortality, previously attainable only by deities and rare individuals, accessible to anyone brave or daring enough to pursue the quest. These heroes were the forerunners of today’s musicians, and they not only sang their amazing songs but defied authorities by advancing human rights and expanding personal autonomy.
Did you ever imagine that music could do all that? But we’ve just begun our journey.
It is obvious to us that musical styles vary between cultures and evolve over time, but what is less appreciated is that our entire conception of music—what we think about its fundamental nature, its role in the wider culture, its potential for effecting psycho-social change—evolves just the same. Us moderns assume that we regard music as it truly is and as it should be regarded; Gioia reminds us that the ancient had a very, very different understanding of song, but were equally convinced in the rightness of their view. Is it possible that we’ve got it all wrong, that the ancients knew something about the power of melody and rhythm that we have since forgotten?
Today, we know that there is nothing mystical or magical about music (or about anything really), it is is only “vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear.” The writing of new songs is an act of self-expression, an attempt on the part of the musician to communicate some aspect of their inner life (and this “inner life” is nothing besides the random bounce of molecules in the musician’s meat-computer…). With such a wholly secular view of music, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be commercialized and commodified just like anything else. In the same vein, there is no basic reason why any kind of music can’t be played anywhere at any time, and no reason (aside from hearing damage) why anyone can’t listen to music all day everyday if they like.
The ancient Greeks saw things (or rather heard them) a little differently: music was not a mere diversion, but an integral part of reality.
The concept of the musica universalis (“music of the spheres” ) incorporates the metaphysical principle that mathematical relationships express qualities or "tones" of energy which manifest in numbers, visual angles, shapes and sounds — all connected within a pattern of proportion. Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution, and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear. Subsequently, Plato described astronomy and music as “twinned” studies of sensual recognition: astronomy for the eyes, music for the ears, and both requiring knowledge of numerical proportions.
Songs did not originate with the musicians themselves but with the gods.
Archaic Greek poets such as Homer or Hesiod composed and transmitted their poems orally, making the past alive for their audiences. And they openly declared that it was not they themselves who were speaking, but the Muses who had initiated them into becoming poets. They invoked and evoked them at the start of every performance, conjuring them up in front of their audience through the fascinating rhythm and sound and vividimages of their poems…the awareness that a divine energy is the source of poems, songs and sermons is still to be found among oral poets, singers and preachers in many contemporary traditional cultures as well as among true mystics of every culture and time. (source)
There was no concept of an “artist”; the musician was an artisan, like a blacksmith who worked the soul with voice and lyre. To be an artisan of this kind meant that you were not merely a musician also a traveling warrior-healer-magician, the inheritor of special knowledge that could be traced back to the legendary Orpheus.
Try to put yourself in the headspace of ancient Greek peasant and imagine what it would be like to know that the following was true.
Orpheus was, without question, the most famous musician of antiquity, although also the most peculiar. He too was an adventurer and a healer and a musician. His songs were so remarkable that they charmed not only people, but also animals and trees, and even Hades, ruler of the Underworld, who rewarded Orpheus by allowing him to bring his dead wife Eurydice back to the realm of the living.
You’ve probably heard that story at some point. It’s one of the most famous tales in history. Orpheus literally knew music to raise the dead.
But this beguiling myth, still widely told today, could hardly be an actual historical event. You can’t really visit the Underworld, can you? Songs can’t really raise the dead, can they? That’s obvious, no? Maybe to us, it is—but 2,500 years ago, Orpheus was considered every bit as real as Homer, Hesiod, and other respected authorities of antiquity.
I’ve been researching the myth of Orpheus for almost 25 years now, and I’m not so sure he is merely a myth. Certainly the author of the Derveni papyrus was absolutely convinced of his reality. As far as I can tell, everybody back then believed that both Orpheus and his music were incontestably real, and capable of doing things that, today, would fall under the domain of medicine, or science, or philosophy, or even magic.
Another mythical but incontestably real figure was the aforementioned Pythagoras. The ancient Greeks’ view of Pythagoras was much closer to Orpheus than it was to our more secular, rationalistic view of him today.
…[there are] remarkable similarities between Pythagorean teachings and the shamanic worldview associated with Orpheus, which are so close that scholars sometimes refer to this with the single term “Orphic-Pythagorean.” I’ve claimed, in other settings, that Pythagoras “is the most important person in the history of music”—but that’s not how he is remembered nowadays. Conventional accounts focus on Pythagoras’s preeminence as philosopher, as well as his contributions to science and mathematics. Even today, students of geometry learn the Pythagorean theorem as part of their basic education. But there’s almost as much mysticism as mathematics in his life story, and he inspired a cult following of quasi-religious intensity. Indeed, the term philosophy fails to convey the true scope and sheer bizarreness of his doctrines and practices.
— “Can Songs Really Replace Philosophy?” (chapter 6 of Gioia’s book)
(For more on the sheer bizarreness of Pythagoras, see my ode to his life.)
In a culture that perceived music in this manner, it really did have the powers that they supposed—it really could, against all odds, turn the tide of a war, incite a tyrant-toppling revolution, or heal those whom conventional medicine could not help (i.e. raise the dead).
For many years now, I have built my research and writing on a very simple statement of purpose—which I repeat, almost as a mantra, on every possible occasion, in print or public lectures: Music is a source of enchantment and a catalyst in human life, and my vocation is to celebrate its often forgotten power, not just as music history but also as a latent potentiality in our own day-to-day surroundings. In other words, songs are not just songs, but agents of change for individuals and societies.
But how can music serve as a source of enchantment in a disenchanted world, in a world that is sure the planets and the stars produce no harmony and is certain that sound is only mechanical vibration?
The first step may be checking our hubris. Do we really suppose that the future holds no revelations which will transform our understanding of sound and song? We just recently learned that stressed plants emit ultrasonic sounds which may be detectable by other plants and animals. Would it be so surprising to learn that sound has a much bigger role in the biosphere than we now realize? Perhaps the connection between ecological harmony and musical harmony runs much deeper than we currently appreciate. Are we sure that humans don’t emit an inaudible-but-not-ineffectual tone when stressed, or that “discord” between us is not, in some way, sonically dissonant? And are we really so sure that there is no musica universalis, that the planets don’t sing as they orbit? I’m reminded of another ancient Greek, Democritus, who proposed an atomic theory of the universe, “By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void.” Maybe Pythagoras, like Democritus, also (somehow) intuited a profound truth about the nature of reality—that it is made of atoms, yes, but also music. I’m no physicist, but it seems to me that string theory offers something similar—if all matter arises from the vibration of strings, then what else is the universe but a symphony?
“Without music, life would be a mistake.” ―Friedrich Nietzsche
While we’re on the topic of music, I thought I’d share some songs/artists that I’m currently diggin. Enjoy!
edit: Reader Dawson Eliasen put all the songs on a spotify playlist
Alix Perez - Evermore
Aphex Twin - Windowlicker
Aphex Twin - Alberto Balsalm
Beats Antique - Skeleton Key
Beats Antique - Oriental Uno
Bonobo - Sapphire
Com Truise - I Dream (for you)
Eskmo - Cloudlight
Flying Lotus - Crust
My mom’s favorite songs
El Ten Eleven - My Only Swerving
Frank Zappa - Uncle Remus
Incubus - Aqueous Transmission
Incubus - Pardon Me
Minus the Bear - Knights
John Butler Trio - Losing You
John Butler Trio - Caroline
Mogwai - San Pedro
Mogwai - Rano Pano
Panic! At the Disco - I Write Sins not Tragedies
The Raconteurs - Level
Yes - And You and I
Dance Dance Revolution
Born Dirty - Check Your Bell
Chromeo - You’re so Gangster
CHASEWEST - Lonely Girl
Claude VonStroke (ft. Wyatt Marshall) - Youngblood
Madi Diaz - Down We Go (Jensen Sportag Remix)
Justin Jay (ft. Fabriq) - Rumors
Luude (ft. Colin Hay) - Down Under
Particle - Fall 2 Fast
What So Not (ft. George Maple) - Gemini
Zeitgeist (ft. Nia Archives) - Move On
Guapdad 4000 - Alpha
Goldlink (ft. Flo Milli) - Raindrops
Patrick Paige - If I Fail Are We Still Cool? (love this whole album)
Roy Woods - Cool J
Saba (ft. Joseph Chilliams) - Westside Bound 3
slowthai - focus
Stormzy - Mel Made Me Do It
Thundercat - Dragonball Durag
Vince Staples - The Shining