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  • Antonio Forte

Piano, piano.

After departing from Battipaglia on the afternoon bus, and an hour or two driving through the Campanian countryside, in and out of tunnels going through the insides of rolling green mountains, making a few stops at small towns along the autostrada (highway), I made it to my destination: Padula. I was picked up from the bus stop by Melinda, the host of the Art Center Padula, where I would be staying as an artist in residence for the next couple of weeks. We hopped in her Panda car and zipped upwards through the cobblestoned, ever-narrowing streets. I immediately noticed an old baseball sitting in one of the cupholders. It was during this labyrinthine ascent that I finally felt my mind relaxing--or rather, overcome by the mental exhaustion of the day's events. Despite various landmarks and piazze (town squares) being pointed out to me, it was all a blur. Before I knew it, we had arrived at a green door whose knocker resembled the head of an ancient Egyptian, like Nefertiti or Tutankhamen. This was Casa Costantinopoli (Constantinople House), where I would be living and working.

[Caption: La porta verde della Casa Costantinopoli (the green door of Casa Costantinopoli).]

After settling in to the casa (house), and dropping my luggage in my camera da letto (bedroom), I was delighted to find an old piano, which was at my disposal, in the room adjacent to my studio room. It was a beautiful Aeolian upright from Paris, its shiny, varnished exterior hidden by a fabric coverlet and obligatory layer of dust. The next day I set about running it through its paces, first dusting, and then testing out all manner of techniques, taking the lid and frontispiece off to investigate its (and the room's) acoustics. Alas, despite its immaculate exterior, it proved to be pretty poorly out of tune. The felt on the hammers hardened over the years, and it has taken a few days of playing to 'break them in;' many hours and a few experiments to transform the wild-west-saloon-honky-tonk into something more, dare I say...Aeolian. In this moment I was reminded of a Molisan saying from my grandfather, "gana, gana," which was his way of saying "piano, piano," or "quiet, quiet," whenever the grandchildren were causing a ruckus, running around the house, or otherwise being boisterous while he was trying to play solitaire or listen to his Frank Sinatra cassette tapes or both.

[Caption: My view from the studio.]

While staring at the Aeolian insignia on the piano in front of me, I could not help but ponder my 'Pythagorean' hypothesis. As I continue to research the music and culture of the ancient Samnites, I have taken a scientific approach: asking questions, positing hypotheses, and carrying out experiments in order to answer or address (perhaps 'answer' is not the best term, as many of my questions can never be answered--so much of the archaeological record of the Samnites is lost--so I will use 'address' here) the hypotheses. The 'Pythagorean' hypothesis addresses this question: what were the musical traditions of the Samnites? This is a broad question that contains many smaller questions like: what instruments did they play? what tuning system(s) were employed? what did their music notation look like? From the physical, archaeological record (specifically the painted vessels the Samnites produced, dating to the 4th and 5th centuries BCE) we can see that there was dancing and certainly musical instruments being played (harps, drums, and the aulos, to name a few). Looking at the scenes painted on their pottery, and without any previous knowledge of Samnite pottery, one would be quick to assume that they were from ancient Greece. Although they are most assuredly Samnite, one can certainly see a resemblance, as they were living alongside, trading, at times warring, and of course being influenced by the culture of Magna Graecia, or the Greek settlements in southern Italy (modern-day regions of Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily, and Campania). Even their language and written alphabet, called Oscan, bares telltale signs of Greek influence. And thus, the 'Pythagorean' hypothesis: because of their proximity to the Greek culture of southern Italy, the musical traditions of the Samnites (may have) resembled that of contemporaneous Greek musical traditions.

[Caption: In and around Padula, including the Saint Antonio Door, vistas in various light, a map of the area, a goose, and a dog.]

Several well-known Greek philosophers lived in southern Italy at the time of the Samnites, including Pythagoras (c. 570-495 BCE) who lived in Kroton, modern-day Crotone, and Archytas (428-365 BCE) and Aristoxenus (born c. 375 BCE, flourished 335 BCE), who both inhabited Taras, also known as Tarentum, which is modern-day Taranto, Italy. The basis for the musical theories of ancient Greece are strongly attributed to these individuals.

[Caption: The Aeolian piano.]

An important Samnite figure, Herennius Pontius, father of the Samnite general Gaius Pontius (born around 321 BCE), is described by Aristoxenus as a "Pythagorean" and an acquaintance of Archytus and Plato (c. 427-348 BCE). Aristoxenus is significant to my work, and to this hypothesis, for his extant treatise Elements of Harmony. This writing is a window into the Greek musical traditions, and theories of harmony, happening in that part of the world at that time, and thus may offer some insight into what scales were used and what type of harmonic and melodic language was popular, among other musicological and music theoretical subjects.

[Caption: Padula and its surroundings viewed from the mountainside above. Photo taken on a morning hike.]

Considering that there was a strong connection between the Italiote Greeks (pre-Roman Greeks living in southern Italy and Sicily) and the Samnites, via figures like Herennius Pontius ('the Pythagorean'), who shared various aspects of Greek culture (like his presumed 'Pythagoreanism') with his fellow Samnites, one may draw the conclusion that the Samnites' musical theories and traditions were influenced by those of the Greeks (i.e. those found in Aristoxenus' Elements).

Now that a hypothetical connection between the cultures of Samnium and Magna Graecia has been established, the following conclusion can be made: that the notation of ancient Samnium may have resembled that of ancient Greece. In looking for ancient Greek music notation, there are two examples that I am considering. The first is the contemporaneous Orestes papyrus fragment written by Euripides (c. 480-406 BCE). The second is the Epitaph of Seikilos, which dates from the first or second century CE. It was carved by Seikilos in memory of his departed wife Euterpe. While the Epitaph is not quite contemporaneous to the time period my research focuses on (roughly sixth to first centuries BCE), or even geographically proximal to the Samnites (it was found in modern-day Turkey), it is perhaps a more solid example of Greek music notation; it was inscribed into a marble column (or stele) and represents a complete composition.

[Caption: Euripides' Orestes papyrus fragment (left), (Source: World Digital Library). Epitaph of Seikilos (right), (Source: Creative Commons License).]

I am still in the formulation phase of creating a Samnite musical notation, and intend to utilize it for my future compositions in the Oscan language. It is very inspiring to think what type of graphical, visual interface a musical tradition such as that of the Samnites would take, utilizing their alphabet and, for instance, writing from right-to-left. I intend to make a 'two-pronged' approach of sorts. That is, firstly to utilize the 'Pythagorean' hypothesis to notate 'reimaginings' of traditional Samnite music (more on this later), and secondly to utilize the same notation to compose my own Samnite-inspired compositions. The poetics will also play a part in my vocal compositions, and in writing lyrics in Oscan. For example, I intend to include influence/inspiration from the extant and fragmentary poems of Sappho (c. 630-570 BCE), as she was exiled in Sicily for a time (c. 600 BCE), and therefore may have had interactions/influence on either those Greeks living in Sicily or Samnites living in Sicily, or both. But more on this later as well.

[Caption: Transcribing the Epitaph of Seikilos into modern music notation. The Ionian scale, Diatonic genera, found in a modern publication of The Harmonics of Aristoxenus (bottom). Tope left: The words to the song are in the large Greek letters, while the notes to be sung are above in smaller Greek letters, and the line/dot symbols above those indicate the rhythmic value of each note. (Sources: Creative Commons and Public Domain.)]

In thinking so much about the music of ancient Greece, by way of a performative approach to Ethnomusicology, I was inspired to play the Epitaph on the Aeolian...

For the left hand, I've interpolated a simple chordal harmony consisting of the root, the fourth, the fifth, and the octave. These intervals are based on the principal Pythagorean ratios of the division of the octave, which are 1:1, 4:3, 3:2, and 2:1.

And I would be remiss if I did not include an improvisation, à la impromptu, inspired by the melody of the Epitaph of Seikilos...

In conclusion, the words inscribed by Seikilos, dedicated to Euterpe, translated here:

while you live, shine

have no grief at all

life exists only for a short while

and Time demands his due


Stay tuned for the next post. Working remotely.

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