“The Harmonies of the Sumerian Spheres: On the Music of Ancient Mesopotamia”
Sturday, 2:30 p.m.
Burton Memorial Tower, Room 506

What will people thousands of years in the future think of us if they listen to the music of today? What if they spin Hilary Duff and think none of us had any sense of rhythm or intonation? What if they hear Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus? With only these sonic artifacts to judge, they would likely write us off as a culture whose music was poorly produced mess of noise. But interpreting culture through music – whatever its quality – is a task that historians face regularly. For those studying ancient civilizations, it’s unlikely they’ll have a cohesive and intact database of music from which to study.

Tomorrow at Burton Tower, Piotr Michalowski, the George G. Cameron professor of the Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, is giving a lecture on rediscovering an ancient culture through music. Michalowski, who focuses mainly on literature but practices experimental jazz on the side, has used this topic to combine his hobby with his work. On Saturday at the Burton Memorial Tower, he’ll address Mesopotamian music, a form that hasn’t been heard for thousands of years. Yet it can still be analyzed and, to a limited extent, reproduced.

Michalowski is the recipient of various awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. His interests lie in ancient Sumerian literature, language and music, which can seen in his authorship of articles like “Literary Works from the Court of King Ishbi-Erra of Isin” and the in-progress “Learning Music: Schooling, Apprenticeship, and Gender in Early Mesopotamia.”

“It’s amazing how much we can know without actually playing a record. It brings to the fore what we already know, that music is not just sound,” Michalowski said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been no attempt to recreate Mesopotamian music or that structure of Mesopotamian music can’t be speculated on — in fact, some ancient instruments have been recovered, giving historians an idea of the types of sounds they produced. But in Michalowski’s mind, more important is the role that music played in Mesopotamian culture, both in ceremonies and in social situations. Archaeologists have discovered depictions of musicians everywhere, from courts of famous kings and queens to the insides of brothels. And, most likely, these differing locations spawned two different forms of music, a subject that Michalowski will explore further in his lecture.

It’s important not to equate “ancient” music with “primitive” music — in fact, according to Michalowski, there are records of Mesopotamian performance orchestras containing more than a hundred people, a number that rivals modern orchestras.

“They had to have orchestras,” explained Michalowski. “You have to remember, they had no amplification.” Recovered ancient instruments are not exactly today’s cellos, and without either structural or artificial amplification to rely on, pure volume was the obvious way to make music louder.

This is a vastly different picture from the stereotypical image of the solitary bard with a lyre that ancient music generally brings to mind. Studies show that a courtyard filled with ancient musicians playing a variety of instruments is just as accurate a representation. This small distinction is one of many that have yet to pervade the common consciousness.

“The musical world was larger than people think,” said Michalowski. “Musicians traveled, and there was an enormous amount of musical interchange.”

Elements of Mesopotamian music have been found as far away as Burma, and vice-versa. Just think: The globalization of music was happening over 4,000 years ago. It’s obvious that people were not as sedentary as, say, people in the middle ages.

“(The audience) will be surprised by how much there is to know,” said Michalowski. “And we’re just scratching the surface about what is to be learned.”

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