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Transcript: Ancient Acoustics

Narrator: When he's not teaching Latin or the Greek comedies, classics professor John Franklin likes to contemplate antiquity with his ears. What did the music of the ancient Greeks sound like, his scholarship asks, and what can it teach us about them as a people? Franklin calls himself a music archeologist. Like others in this emerging field, he's working from limited source materials.

Franklin: We have 60-some fragments of music, depending on how you count them. For instance, we have two pieces of papyrus that probably went to the same piece of music, but they're different pieces; that's two fragments. They survive in three media, like all other ancient literature. Papyrus, which is ancient paper, stone inscriptions, and manuscript — books that were written and copied by monks over the generations.

Franklin: We have a work by a certain Alypius — we know nothing about him — from the 4th or 5th century AD that gives us the key to the notation. The notation is based on the Greek letters but in a very complicated way, where a letter can appear normally or rotated in several positions.

Narrator: Given Franklin's background, it's not surprising that he chose ancient music as his area of special scholarship. A serious pianist growing up, he earned an undergraduate degree in composition from the New England Conservatory. Later, returning to a subject that had always interested him, he pursued graduate work in classical studies, first at the University of Washington then at University College, London, where he earned his doctorate and immersed himself in the study of ancient Greek and Near-Eastern music. Franklin has a third area of expertise: synthesized music, which he studied seriously at the MIT Media Lab and also played in pop settings, which has allowed him to make a unique contribution to his field.

At a conference presentation in Vienna, which led to the publication of an influential paper, he debuted an electronic instrument he called the "virtual lyre."

Franklin: Here's the instrument. It consists of a front panel, a user-friendly front panel, and then a very garbled structure underneath it. It's essentially a sample playback instrument, so whenever I hit a key on the keyboard, the keyboard goes — computer goes — and looks for a recording of a lyre. And in this case, it's a replica built by one of my colleagues, named Susanna Rühling. And she let me record each of her seven strings on her instrument. So now when I play the keyboard, the computer is playing the recording I made of those strings.

Narrator: Franklin has sampled a number of authentically recreated ancient instruments, giving his Virtual Lyre many personalities.

Franklin: This is my proudest sample. It's a replica of one of the famous Sumerian lyres from Ur that was built in 1975, when these cuneiform tablets were first discovered. The lyres from Ur had actually left — their wooden frames had left — an impression in the ground and Sir Leonard Wooley filled those impressions with plaster and thereby got exact dimensions replicated.

Narrator: One of Franklin's key contributions to his field is made possible by the virtual lyre's tonal flexibility and the computer that drives it. The virtual lyre's talents make it masterful at rendering microtones, those notes that lie between the piano keys. Greek music is full of these strange sounding tones, which contemporary performers have trouble playing because they sound out of tune to modern ears.

Franklin: These microtones are not notated in the ancient fragments. They give us simply the ballpark intonation. But we know from other ancient writings that they had these intervals because they give us the exact ratios that were intended. The advantage of the computer is that you can simply have it calculate them, and you don't really have to worry about it. You can say, here is at least ideally is exactly what they intended it to sound like and remove your own modern aesthetic from the picture and replicate that sound quite directly. Here is what the scale sounds like in modern equal temperament (plays lyre). Here is one of the Greek intonations (plays again). Whatever sounds out of tune is the microtones that you're hearing.

Narrator: Franklin sees value in studying ancient music for its own sake, but also views it as a lens to better understand a remote civilization. Music helps show us, for instance, that Greek society wasn't so different from our own.

Franklin: We know of a certain Pronemous, who is a double oboe player who received enormous sums and did tricks with his instrument, sort of like Hendrix, and people went crazy for it. Also there was a conservative reaction against it. Just like against Elvis or the Beatles.

Narrator: Franklin made a CD to popularize the music of the ancient Greeks, featuring several of the fragments performed on virtual lyre, with fanciful, but scholarship-based, accompaniment. It speaks — one suspects — to an underlying reason he's devoted his life to the music: its strange and haunting beauty.

Watch the Ancient Acoustics video.

Last modified March 20 2009 11:20 AM