In his Album for the Greek Theory of Music, Giovanni Piana investigates the phenomenological roots of the ancient Cosmos

martedì, giugno 8, 2010
Pythagora in a medieveal representation

Pythagora in a medieveal representation

O buono Apollo, all’ultimo lavoro
fammi del tuo valor sì fatto vaso
come dimandi a dar l’amato alloro.
Insino a qui l’un giogo di Parnaso
assai mi fu, ma or con ambedue
m’è uopo entrar nell’aringo rimaso.
Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue
sì come quando Marsia traesti
della vagina delle membra sue.

(Dante, Paradiso, canto I)

«Practice the monochord!». Apparently, it is with these words that the venerable master Phytagora addressed his disciples on his deathbed. And it is by means of this mysterious (at least for the moment) exhortation that we would like to briefly introduce Giovanni Piana’s most recent phenomenological work, a work made available as usual by the author on his online archive (in italian).

The title itself – Album for the Greek Theory of Music – is a good starting point for our reflection. An album is neither an essay nor a treaty: rather, it is a narration, the “token”, in words and wonderful images, of a journey through all the greek culture from a perspective – not new, but certainly interpreted in an original manner – made possible by a real comprehension of its music.

Therefore, we should neither be surprised nor deceived by the fact that the volume begins with a broad and detailed analysis of the Ancient Greece musical instruments and execution techniques. Apart from the ethnographic and philological – musical significance of these considerations, the author in fact aims at dealing with a primarily philosophical issue: outlining the ideal genesis of the greek musical system by moving from its lowest phenomenological origins, which lie in the musical experience and practice, in order to gradually show the various changes undergone by the mathematical and musical thought and by the metaphysical imagination which have contributed to the definition, from Philolaos to Tolomeo, of the notion of a universe according to the Greeks.

In order to place this work within a phenomenological framework, we could perhaps refer to Husserl’s famous essay on the Origin of Geometry, in particular with reference to the idealizing operations through which the mathematical reasoning builds its objects, moving from the possibilities and objects present in the experience. Besides, in a more relevant way, it is possible to mention one of Piana’s previous books – Number and Figure. Ideas for an Epistemology of Repetition, 1999 (in Italian: Numero e figura. Idee per una epistemologia della ripetizione, 1999) – where, although in a different context, it is exemplified the method, adopted also in the Album, of clarifying the laws which bind together the ideal objects and the expression of certain constructive procedures which can be repeated.

A modern monochord

A modern monochord

As far as the content is concerned, the exhortation «Practice the monochord» is of a cardinal importance. Indeed, the author’s description of the sonoric space of the Greek music moves from the comprehension of the monochord and its possible use as the perimeter of the music expressive possibilities. The monochord as the means to the determination and experimentation of consonant intervals (4°, 5° and 8°). But the monochord also as the instrument for the measurement of numerical relations, whose use goes beyond the purposes of music towards a mathematical and speculative research that in the Pythagorics is intertwined with the method of figurate numbers and the analysis of the Tetractys’ properties. Music as the «midwife of Mathematics», then, but also conversely, throughout theorizations, as the environment for the elaboration of the analysis of numbers’ relations and proportions.

The outcome, from a musical point of view, is the structuration in front of our eyes – or better, «in front of our ears» – of a sonoric space constituted by juxtaposed tetrachords (different from an octave then) circular and perspectival. In the fire, as Helios among the other stars, the diatonic genre (usually called doric mode), gradually accredited by the pythagoric-platonic tradition on the basis of ethical-pedagogical reasons as the most adequate; around, as its expressive variants, the chromatic-enarmonic genres (the other modes) which , it is reasonable to argue in opposition to many interpreters, were widely used in all the ancient musical practice. Indeed, Piana observes that as the genre changes, the melody remains perfectly recognizable, but its expressivity is modified.

Apollo and Marsyas, painting by Titian (1570)

Apollo and Marsyas, painting by Titian (1570)

The author, however, identifies also the mythical roots of this dialectic between center and periphery, again linking them to the concrete practice of musicians. It is the resumption of the myth of Apollo and Marsyas, which as a continuous bass accompanies from the very early chapters the development of the Album. Indeed, by challenging the God of lyre, the Silenus, virtuoso of aulos, echoes the triumph of the diatonic genre – more appropriate than the cold lyre – over the others, symbolized by the attractive aulos. Marsyas loses and Apollo punishes his hybris by torturing him and, in particular, by removing his skin, the element in which is visible the erotic, ctonic and bodily potential of his art.

However, we would be wrong if we projected on the myth of Marsia and Apollo the Nietzschean polarity of Apollinean and Dionysian. The similarity between the two perspectives consists only in the acknowledgement of the importance of music for the understanding of the greek spirit. That polarity, far from Nietzsche’s exigency to legitimize from the aesthetic point of view the poetics of Wagner, is more plastic, ambiguous and rich in fruitful contrasts and the author accounts for these characteristics with regard to both the interpretation of the myth and the concrete musical practice.

And it is this plasticity that perhaps constitutes the most peculiar feature of the greek music and culture, something which, thanks to Aristoxenus first and Tolomeus later, achieves its full theoretical maturity through the elaboration of a complete system, of a matrix in which all the spirit’s expressive possibilities are collected: a cosmos made up of sounds, in which what is identical and what is different are intertwined in accordance with specific rules, an immutable cosmos, because it is the locus where all changes take place. In Piana’s opinion, if this was not the case, there would be the chaos.

A muse who plays the lyre

A muse who plays the lyre

Now, despite the fact that we could be tempted to say that Philosophy originates in the spirit of music, this would be probably too much. Their connection and reciprocal influence, however, cannot be denied and so far they have been widely underestimated. It would be a mistake, then, to consider the Album interesting only from the aesthetic-musical or ethnographic and philological points of view (which are of course very respectable perspectives). In the wonderful image of an orderly horizon where, in conformity to rules, it is possible to clearly comprehend the possibilities of the spirit, we can view as united not only the meaning of the greek music and culture, but also that of Phenomenology or of Phenomenological Philosophy. Indeed, because of its original inspiration, this style of thinking which, over the last century, has produced – sometimes in a too discrete manner – real results, expresses its respect for the differences exactly along the lines which separate and, at the same time connect, being and becoming, the identical and the different, the discrete and the continuous. In the neverending phrasing of the sounds engraved in the lyre and the chromatisms of the aulos, it is then possible to find a significant metaphor of the phenomenologist’s work. But this is only a suggestion on the part of the author.

An aulos player

An aulos player

If you are interested in further investigating the issues analysed in the Album for the Greek Theory of Music (Album per la teoria greca della musica), you can examine Giovanni Piana’s online Archive, edited by the author himself. Moreover, in order to understand the principles and methods which characterize a phenomenological approach to the study of expressivity and musical theory, the volume Philosophy of Music (Filosofia della musica Guerini e Associati, available in Italian and Portuguese) is fundamental. Further insights are provided by the digital review De Musica, directed by Carlo Serra (University of Calabria, Italy) under the scientific direction of Giovanni Piana, Edoardo Ballo, Elio Franzini, Gabriele Scaramuzza.

(Thanks to Anna Bortolan for the English translation of this article. In this site, also the original version)

Nel sito, anche la versione italiana di questo articolo.

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Un commento a In his Album for the Greek Theory of Music, Giovanni Piana investigates the phenomenological roots of the ancient Cosmos

  1. Giacomo Sanna
    giovedì, aprile 19, 2012 at 10:28

    The abovementioned links are broken.
    The book is here:
    The philosopher’s archive, very rich in books and materials, is here:

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