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  • Antonio Forte

Perdere e rinnovarsi

Losing and renewing. The main purpose of my being in Italy is to be in residence at the Museum of Loss and Renewal in a little place called Collemacchia, which offers the space and time which artists from all over the globe can use to their own ends. What I am utilizing this time and space for is to pursue the "big" question: who were the Samnites, culturally; and by extension, what were their musical practices? I've approached this question (roughly) scientifically with a few hypotheses. One of these hypotheses includes looking at the Samnite musical practices through the lens of ancient Greek ones. I call this the 'Pythagorean Hypothesis.' The Pythagorean Hypothesis states that, because there is a documented Samnite military leader, Gaius Pontius (who lived around 321 BCE), whose father Herennius Pontius was described as a "Pythagorean philosopher," Pythagoreanism, and in particular the Pythagorean musical ratios, may have had an influence on how Samnite instruments were tuned, and perhaps on Samnite philosophical thought more broadly--though I have yet to find anything at all regarding Samnite philosophy or literature.

[Caption: In and around Collemacchia. On a hike in the nearby mountains: a Roman well and (not-so-Roman) bath tub. Testing the acoustics of an old circular stone hut (thanks to Jacqueline Steinmetz for the photo.]

As an aside, and for context, Gaius Pontius had made a decisive military victory over the Romans in 321 BCE and had asked his father for advice as to how he should best deal with the defeated enemy. The Roman legion had been ambushed at a narrow mountain pass called the Caudine Forks, and after their surrender were made to take all of their armor and clothes off and march underneath a yoke. Apparently this was a terribly humiliating act to put your enemies through during that time. After the surrender and humiliation of the Romans, Gaius Pontius asked his father what to do with the captured soldiers. Herennius said to do one thing, but Gaius decided not to follow his advice. This eventually led to Gaius' later capture and execution at the hands of the vengeful Romans.

[Caption: I venti del Sannio (the winds of Samnium).]

Herennius Pontius is said to have known Archytas of Tarentum, and had been found in discussion with him. Tarentum is a city in Southern Italy first settled by the Greeks, in what is called Magna Graecia ("Great Greece"), the Greek settlements in Southern Italy from roughly the 8th to 2nd centuries BCE. Modern Taranto, called Tarentum in Latin, was founded by Spartans in the 8th century BCE, to whom it would have been known as Taras. Taras was the birth place of several important Greek philosophers, including Archytas and Aristoxenus, both considered Pythagoreans (followers of the philosophy and work of Pythagoras). Aristoxenus (born around 375 BCE) has been the focus of my Pythagorean Hypothesis, as his extant work The Elements of Harmony has been key in my understanding Pythagorean tuning and Greek musical aesthetics of that time period.

[Caption: Studio wall with various helpful materials. Timeline (special thanks to all my Quest students for inspiring this!). Lots of math, and translating the daily temperature into strange chords. "Tiny" concert in the library (thanks to Edwin Janssen for the photos and video).]

So picking up this (possible) thread of contact between, and influence of, Magna Graecia (Pythagoras) through Archytas and Aristoxenus, to Herennius Pontius, and into the wider Samnite population--there were many other Greek-Samnite cultural cross-pollinations, from painted vessels, shared language, religious practices, etc., not just a hypothetical musical one--I have taken to using the Pythagorean ratios/intervals as a foundation for musical temperament (the tuning of individual notes of a scale). Utilizing these ratios, I've constructed a computer instrument to allow me to more easily make this concept audible. Last Friday evening I held a small concert, followed by a Q&A, in the Museum's library to demonstrate this hypothesis/instrument, along with a few other pieces I have been working on. Below is the program.

[Caption: Short video of the live demonstration of my Πυθαγόρεια ηχητική ταπισερί (Pythagorean sonic tapestry) computer instrument. The instrument includes one of my sound-reactive spectroscopes for visualizing the sound waves in real time.]

Stay tuned (Pythagorically?...Pythagoreanistically?) for the next post.

More rocks, more notes.

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