Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Myth of Orpheus and the Future of Music, Pt. I


 It has been said of science fiction that any attempts to define the future will only result  in "more of the same," a projection of the current period, only dressed up in space age splendor. It is also believed that any attempt to predict the future will rest on the identification of absolute values, or universal truths. Speculations on the future of music are not immune to these criticisms. The word "universe" traces its etymology back to joining of the words "unus" (one) and "verse" (meaning "to turn", which was used as a metaphor for the turning effect from one line to another in poetry.). Knowing this, it is not surprising that music has been the subject of many Platonic myths and quests "in search of the lost chord" to harness "the music of the spheres."
  In light of this, is worth asking what is expected of future musicians: To seek "brave new worlds" of sonic possibilities or a refinement of existing aural expectations? The clue to the answer may lie in the myth of Orpheus.
  Orpheus, the son of a muse and in some accounts, the son of Apollo,was said to be the greatest musician and poet in Greek mythology, and his songs could charm wild beasts and coax even rocks and trees into movement. It was his music that was powerful enough to keep the Argonauts from being lured by the Sirens. But it is his descent into the underworld and his tragic end that have the most significance.
 Orpheus, saddened by the loss of his wife Eurydice on their wedding day, ventures into the realm of Hades to bring her back. Moved by the power of Orpheus's song, Hades agrees to release Eurydice, on the condition that he must not look back until they've reached the surface. Of course, he does, and Eurydice fades back into Hades, with no chance of a reprise.
 Orpheus is left an empty shell, withdraws his once beautiful songs which turn to songs of grief. Legend has it that the Maenads, female devotees of Dionysus, came upon him in the forest. Refusing their drunken revelry, they tore him to pieces and threw his dismembered head, which was still singing, down the river, where it floated to the Isle of Lesbos.
 The myth of Orpheus  is an archetypal myth that symbolizes our questions of musical progress to this day. On the one hand, we look to the great composers as the epitome of musical advancement, and point to them as the model of where the next breakthrough will begin. On the other hand, we have an example of an attachment to the past leading to a loss of vision of the future. The morose Orpheus is dismembered for his refusal to let go of his love for Eurydice. And yet, Orpheus introduces a new style to his music as a result. The irony is that the Maeneds want Orpheus to play the songs he was known for, while Orpheus's new style was based on a desire to hold to the past. The same happens every day on some scale, with appeals to tradition and "the good old days" bringing the past into conflict with the future. This was a central theme of Ayn Rand's fiction; when her heroes invent a new musical form, or a new metal alloy, or a new architectural design, they are met with the hostile response "we don't do that here." Tradition is invoked, the work of the masters cannot be surpassed. And those who dare to break with the past often meet the same metaphorical fate of Orpheus.

Go to PT. 2

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