Monday, December 19, 2011

Record and Teach

I was recently at a talk at the Oriental Institute on seal images from the Persian empire (4th to 7th century BC). I won’t belabor the role of the Zoroastrian religion in these images -- if you’re interested I suggest you look up the fire altars and the digs at Persepolis. But as the different images were put up on the screen showing people sacrificing animals or tending the fire altar, a comment was made that images show the everyday and writing shows the extraordinary.

The idea is fairly straight forward. Images have to be understood by the viewers, therefore they have to be familiar. Whereas, everyone knows the everyday so when something is committed to writing it is because it is out of the ordinary. I am not sure if I agree. Even from an archeological perspective there are a lot of examples of the everyday that get recorded, mostly in the form of commerce or fiction.

So where do music, science and philosophy fit in? Like fiction they are a dynamic. They can grow and evolve or can die and be forgotten. I think one of the things that our society has going for it is that we have so many ways to record and collect ideas. Maybe this is bad, because everything gets saved and has equal weight to future generations.

For example, the oldest recorded music is a song to Nikal, the wife of the Syrian moon god. -- Ok, maybe not what we think of recording, this song was inscribed on a tablet in Ugarit somewhere around 1400 B.C. and translated by Prof. Kilmer in the 1970’s. Unlike older verse that has been found, this tablet contained instructions to make and play the instrument. So the musical score was actually recorded even though we cannot hear the original version. But I digress.

We do not know if this song was common of the style and imagery of the day or extraordinary. We know some one took the time to really record the details. So it had some significance. But, what was the other music like?

I am of the opinion, that music, like fiction has to strike a common note that people will connect to it. Or it simply fades away. So if we go to Ras Shamra today will we hear evolutions of the same sound? I would expect that the answer is a “yes,” although we might not recognize it.

Consider “Eyes on the Prize” AKA “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," which is a variant of the earlier "Gospel Plow", aka "Hold On", aka "Keep Your Hand on the Plow" etc… The latest version I heard was from Bruce Springsteen with a large dixi-land style folk band. The sound was fantastic. But it was very different from one man plucking six nylon strings. And, while on the subject of Mr. Springsteen let me say this: as he was doing these old folks songs, he added his own lyrics, contemporized them. So we see the evolution beginning.

Ok so now pull this idea back to science. Do we more often record the ordinary or extraordinary? We tend to skip the ordinary. Pick up any lab book and see how much common knowledge and practice is taken for granted. I once had a technician complain that the protocol was inaccurate, not her, because it didn’t say to cap the volatile solvents. Something I assumed everyone knew.

And do ideas grow, if they are not communicated in a way that the main stream can connect to them? For my part, I think not. Ideas will only live in their isolated community unless they can be put in a way that the society as a whole can grasp. So, in an uneducated society, complicated science will simply die out.

The upshot of this is: record in accurate detail and teach in a way people understand.

I will leave you this morning with Bill Withers. His professional career wasn’t very long only really running through the 70’s and mid 80’s. But in that time he wrote songs that could well find their way into the lexicon of traditional American music in a few hundred years. I realize it’s hard to predict what art will last into the future, but “Lean on Me” had that “always been around” feeling right out the gate. Like most great art it touches a genuine human emotion, and does it in a comforting way.

I expect it will undergo some evolution much like “Keep Your Hand on the Plow" because it is recorded and we all know what it means.

Peace and Happy Holidays,

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