Ghosts of the Past

I’m a little bit freaked out after this morning’s intellectual endeavor. I’m listening to a Teaching Company course entitled How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by an entertaining Berkeley professor named Robert Greenberg. He describes concert halls as “reanimation studios” where music from the past is brought back to life.

In lecture two the discussion centers on music from the ancient world, specifically Greece. Greenberg tells about a town called Akroteri that was buried under ash from a volcanic eruption around 1650 B.C. and that has only recently been discovered (it’s located beneath the modern town of the same name). Apparently the residents of the ancient town had enough warning of the eruption to get out because no bodies were found (unlike Pompeii) and personal effects are pretty much gone. However, their houses and apartment buildings are still there. Most interestingly, archaeologists have found evidence of indoor plumbing, including flush toilets and water heaters that employed volcanic fissures. This is 3,660 years ago, mind. Here’s a picture of some of the excavation:

Anyway, this volcanic eruption wiped out the entire Minoan civilization, buried their cities under hundreds of feet of ash, and may have been the genesis of the legend of the Lost City of Atlantis. The plumbing technology was lost with the Minoans. Makes you wonder where we’d be today had the eruption not occurred. Greenberg speculates that perhaps Julius Caesar would have watched the Olympic games on his 80″ plasma screen. After all, he lived in a time almost as far removed from the Minoans as we are removed from Caesar.

All of what I just told you is not what freaked me out.

These stories are all well and good, and thanks to movies and TV like Rome I’m able to imagine people of our (relatively) distant past as actual living people not so different from ourselves. But then Greenberg pulls out a recreation of music by Euripides, the Greek playwright whose Medea I read not too long ago.

That freaked me out.

It’s one thing to read people and quite another to hear their music. I can’t exactly put my finger on what it was, but something about the melody, the use of strange instruments, and the choral quality was haunting, and I mean that in a literal ghost-standing-in-front-of-me way. Suddenly Euripides and his contemporaries from 2,400 years ago were very present. The hair on my arms stood up, and I got a little panicky.

I know that’s weird.

Now that I think about it, though, what makes scary movies scary isn’t the ooky violence onscreen, it’s the score. A silent Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t get my heart pumping. Makes me think there’s some other, more primitive part of the brain that music taps into. Perhaps that’s why music resonates so deeply within us–it was a part of the human experience before literature and possibly even before language.

I feel better now. I’ll go back to listening to my favorite modern band, The Killers.

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Categories: Brain Workouts

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