accomplished flutist, Jelle Atema struts his stuff on a copy of the Neanderthal
We're talking Neanderthal flute -- circa 50,000 BC.
These codgerly instruments could answer some key questions: What scale -- relationship among notes -- did the ancients use? What did their music sound like, and why did they make it? Ancient instruments, says Jelle Atema, a Boston University biologist and flute fanatic, provide "a window into what people may have heard a long time ago, what they played and what they wanted to hear." Atema is an accomplished amateur flutist who -- if you have to know -- gets paid to study lobster communication. Lobsters make little music -- which is just as well, cuz otherwise we might have drawn a wrasse wearing a Walkman -- but they do have a habit of discussing social status with chemical signals in their urine!
The evidence is scantier for instruments that were constructed rather than found. Strings rot. Ditto drum heads. Thus, says Atema, it "may be that they long preceded flutes, but we'll never know."
In reality, Atema didn't get to play the original. Instead, he played the reconstruction shown in the photo, which he made from cave-bear bone. Nonetheless, he reports that the reconstruction "produced five sweet tones in odd intervals. Altering the pitches by blowing and fingering could make the instrument sound like a modern flute (although with a small range)."
Atema, who wanted to become a professional flutist before turning to the lingo of lobsters, found that the flute played well in modern scales -- as long as he partly closed holes and used unusual fingerings. "I can play a very clear pentatonic or diatonic scale with it because you can twist the sound any way you like," he says.
Diatonic scales are used in most Western music.
Musical training is both an advantage and a liability, Atema intimates, "You automatically twist [the tone] to make what you want." The resulting sound may be easier on our ears, trained as they are on Western scales, but the bending undermines the effort to pin down the ancient scales. Although some people think the instrument could identify the Neanderthal scale, Atema disagrees. "I don't subscribe to it. It's very frustrating -- that's what everybody is really looking for."
A bone cannot reveal motivation.
On the other hand, the flute does indicate technical prowess among the Neanderthals who made it 50 millennia ago. To understand why, permit a digression on the category "flute": All instruments that make sound by splitting an air stream are flutes. The category includes transverse flutes like the familiar silver flute, which are played sideways, and two models played straight-on: the recorder, and the quena used in Andean music.
Where does the Slovenian flute fit? Slight breaks in the bone make the answer ambiguous. Slovenian musical experts Ivan Turk and Drago Kunej reconstructed it as a quena, a flute in which the player directs the airstream precisely at the element that divides the air to make sound.
Atema thinks the geezingest flute is just as likely to be a recorder, a more complicated instrument that directs the airstream through a channel to make an instrument easy enough for a six-year-old to play (if "play" is defined as making any sort of sound).
If Atema's recorder hypothesis is correct, the flute probably represents the fruit of a musical tradition that started long before the instrument itself was crafted 50,000 years ago.
Whistling Dixie? Not in our birdsong, ancient flute bibliography.
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