Ted Gioia’s ‘Music: A Subversive History’ (By the Book)

"Sound," writes musician, author, and historian Ted Gioia in Music: A Subversive History, "is the ultimate source of genesis... A song can contain a cataclysm." In this beguiling excerpt, Gioia leads us to the sound of the universe itself.

Music: A Subversive History
Ted Gioia
Basic Books
October 2019

Excerpted from Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2019. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

1. The Origin of Music as a Force of Creative Destruction

I’m not surprised the whole thing started with a huge bang, not just a big downbeat in bar one, but the biggest one of them all. How fitting that this initial pulse of rhythm came as part of an explosion both destructive and creative. That’s a symbol for all the later musical outbursts charted in these pages, those unruly sounds that shatter the existing order, cause turbulence and even chaos, only gradually coalescing into a new stability.

Our original downbeat took place some 13.7 billion years ago, the proverbial Big Bang in a still unfolding composition. But if matter explodes in the universe and no one is around to hear it— maybe couldn’t hear it, if it took place in a surrounding vacuum— is it really a bang? Do our histories even falsify this first beat, which really possessed no bang at all, not even an intergalactic whimper? Perhaps we should consider this opening galaxy-forming gambit as akin to the silent wave of the conductor’s baton before the concert begins. A look, a nod, a quick movement, and we are off . . .

That universal symphony continues even today, but as cosmic background microwave radiation, an almost silent echo, barely detectable even with the most finely tuned instruments. Yet it still makes music, even in a vacuum. I note that the scientists who discovered the faint reverberations of the Big Bang first heard it over the radio. A lot of strange things happened on the radio in 1964— from the British Invasion to Louis Armstrong topping the chart with “Hello Dolly”—but this was the strangest of them all: Tune in to the right station and you can hear the origin of the universe! These late-arriving listeners for the longest-running live musical broadcast wisely realized that a hit song needs a suitable title, and their new—but very old—discovery finally received one when they published their findings the following year: “A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Megacycles per Second.” That title, announcing the strange fact that somebody finally heard the bang a few billion years after it banged, was too long to fit on a jukebox label, but sufficient to earn a Nobel Prize for Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson.

But what modern science tells us simply repeats the Nada Brahma—that affirmation that the world is sound—of ancient Indian spirituality. In Hindu iconography, Shiva is even depicted as holding a damaru, or hourglass-shaped drum, in the moment of creation, a little bang doing the work of the big one surmised by physicists. This same vision of musical genesis is supported by countless creation myths around the world, with their tracing of ultimate origins back to cosmological compositions. More than one thousand references to music can be found in the Bible—in Judeo-Christian tradition, no physical icon or relic can come close to matching the potency of sound as a pathway to the divine and a source of transformative energy. Sometimes the power of music is brutally destructive—for example, the trumpet blasts of the Israelites sending the walls of Jericho tumbling to the ground—but more often, sound, in the Bible and in other traditions, is associated with creation and transformation. “In the Hebrew ‘Genesis’ the creating word is spoken,” explains Natalie Curtis, one of the first scholars to write about Native American songs. “In nearly every Indian myth the creator sings things into life.” In Australia, writes Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines, “Aboriginal creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path—birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterfalls— and so singing the world into existence.” Pythagoras turned this almost universal mythology into philosophy when, holding up a stone, he told his students: “This is frozen music.”

It’s worth noting how rarely myths describe music originating as entertainment or works of artistic expression. Those categories may describe how we view songs in the current day, but our oldest ancestors knew something we ought to remember and which should be the starting point for all histories of song: music is power. Sound is the ultimate source of genesis, broadly defined, as well as metamorphosis and annihilation. A song can contain a cataclysm.

Science tells the same story, whether we peer into the depths of the universe or study the world at hand. From the start, waves of sound came not just from a primal explosion, but from the smallest particles of matter. In the heart of the atom we find vibrations of extraordinary speed—up to one hundred trillion times per second—creating a tone some twenty octaves above the range of our hearing. Over the years, a host of serious researchers and borderline crackpots—Ernst Chladni, Fabre d’Olivet, Charles Kellogg, Hans Jenny, Robert Monroe, Alfred Tomatis, and others— have demonstrated surprising and sometimes enchanting relations between our intangible music and the surrounding physical world. And in 1934, scientists at the University of Cologne discovered that sound waves sent through fluid can create flashes of light inside bubbles, visible to the naked eye and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the stars in the heavens. This property of sound—now known as sonoluminescence—is accompanied by intense pressure and high temperature coinciding with bubble collapse and the release of energy. Here is the littlest bang of all, if you will. As with the creation myths, sound has become visible.

As matter coalesced and cooled following that inaugural Big Bang, larger sounds and rhythms were superimposed on this microscopic chorus. Just as the cosmos offers its astral soundscape, the earth below supplies a terrestrial rhythm section. This is the ultimate ground beat: the movements of terra firma are not haphazard rumblings, but follow set rhythms—even today our seismographs can detect ongoing and consistent periods of vibration lasting between 53.1 and 54.7 minutes, producing a tone twenty octaves below the capacity of the human ear to hear. Indeed, each of the four ancient elements—earth, air, fire, water—conveys its own particular musical personality, made manifest in the crack of thunder, the roar of waves, the steady drone of the waterfall, the sporadic crash of a falling boulder or tree, and other natural events large and small.

These inanimate sounds were matched by their earliest organic counterpoints, a living orchestra constructed from the rich vocalizations of animals, birds, and insects. “Each creature appears to have its own sonic niche (channel, or space) in the frequency spectrum . . . occupied by no others at that particular moment,” writes musical ecologist Bernie Krause, who sees this aural territoriality as the foundation for the earliest human musical compositions. The first hunting and gathering societies must have paid close attention to this ever-changing aural tapestry—shifting every few meters, every few minutes. Long before aesthetic considerations came to the fore, the Darwinian struggle for survival ensured that our progenitors were careful listeners of their ambient soundscape.

Krause describes a memorable encounter with an elder of the Nez Perce tribe named Angus Wilson, who chided him one day: “You white people know nothing about music. But I’ll teach you something about it if you want.” The next morning, Krause found himself led to the bank of a stream in northeastern Oregon, where he was motioned to sit quietly on the ground. After a chilly wait, a breeze picked up, and suddenly his surroundings were filled with the sound of a pipe organ chord—a remarkable occurrence, since no instrument was in sight. Wilson brought him over to the water’s edge and pointed to a group of reeds, broken at different lengths by wind and ice. “He took out his knife,” Krause later recalled, “and cut one at the base, whittled some holes, brought the instrument to his lips and began to play a melody. When he stopped, he said, ‘This is how we learned our music.'”

Lynne Kelly, an Australian researcher, encountered a similar surprise when her friend Nungarrayi of the Warlpiri tribe explained that even trees, bushes, and grasses can be identified by their songs. “I found this hard to believe,” Kelly later explained, “but was assured that if I gave it a try I would discover that it is possible.” That afternoon, when she began listening to vegetation, she found that the passing breeze imparted a distinctive aural soundscape to the trees around her. “The eucalypt to my left, the acacias in front, and the grasses to the right all made distinctly different sounds. I could not accurately convey these sounds in writing. In subsequent sessions, I’ve been able to distinguish between different species of eucalypt. . . . The experience convinced me that the sound of plants, animals, moving water, rock types when struck and many other aspects of the environment can be taught through song in a way that is impossible in writing.”

Biologist David George Haskell has trained students how to hear this tree music, and as an entry point he advises them to wait until a rainstorm, when the melodies are easiest to discern. Some present the listener with “a splatter of metallic sparks,” others “a low, clean, woody thump,” or “a speed-typist’s clatter.” When teaching ornithology, he issues a challenge to the class: “Okay, now that you’ve learned the songs of 100 birds, your task is to learn the sounds of 20 trees. Can you tell an oak from a maple by ear?” Their homework is to “go out, pour their attention into their ears, and harvest sounds.” For him, “it’s an almost meditative experience. And from that, you realize that trees sound different, and they have amazing sounds coming from them.” Moreover, the music of nature guides us through life cycles and seasonal patterns. “Our unaided ears can hear how a maple tree changes its voice,” Haskell explains, especially when the soft spring leaves grow stiff and brittle with the approach of winter. As we shall soon see, this same cyclical process from life to death (and back again) has shaped human music-making for thousands of years.

These stories make clear that a natural history of sound preceded its social or aesthetic history. You simply can’t understand the latter without paying close attention to the former. For our earliest ancestors, this was a matter of survival, plain and simple. If they paid attention to the wrong soundscape, they might not survive another day.

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Ted Gioia is a music historian and the author of eleven books, including How to Listen to Jazz. His three previous books on the social history of music — Work Songs, Healing Songs, and Love Songs — have each been honored with ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. Gioia’s wide-ranging activities as a critic, scholar, performer, and educator have established him as a leading global guide to music past, present, and future.