Soundscapes of the Ancient Greek World
Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece
June 15-18, 2017
Despite the recent surge of interest in ancient Greek music, the broader auditory culture of the Greek world and its various representations in literature, philosophy, and art have yet to be fully examined. The development of Sound Studies, however, now provides us with a variety of methodologies for approaching sound, even for cultures from which no recordings survive. This conference aims to bring classical scholarship together with Sound Studies by focusing on the topic of soundscapes, a term first coined by R. Murray Schafer to refer to our sonic environment. Our aim is not so much to reconstruct ancient soundscapes as it is to think about their literary and artistic representations, as well as the various forms of interaction between these acoustic representations and the physical environment or performance context within which a work was produced or displayed.
One way of addressing this relationship is to explore the ways in which different sounds—human, animal, elemental, technological—are incorporated within Greek poetry, and how they interact with other senses. What role can sounds play, for example, in an ecphrasis like that of Achilles’ shield in Iliad XVIII, with its depictions of the two cities, the one at peace and the other at war? What effects might descriptions of sound have on the sound of the poetry itself and the reception of its performance? In the case of inscriptions, such as inscribed paeans or epigrams, how might references to sounds interact with the object’s physical landscape?
This approach could also be applied to artistic representations of sonic production. What role might the image of an instrument or an inscription representing sound or song play within the narrative of a vase painting as a whole, specifically in terms of the environment it is meant to evoke? How might depictions of a choral song like the dithyramb correspond to the soundscape of its performance, and what levels of interaction might there be between the object itself, its pictorial design, and the sounds it represents?
One might also think about different types of sound in terms of signifying, defining, and even creating space. Following the work of Alain Corbin on how bell ringing can mark territorial identity, participants might consider how sound is linked to social space and specific civic and religious structures or rituals, such as the Theater of Dionysus or the Eleusinian Mysteries. To what extent can the soundscapes generated by site-specific performances shape an audience’s experience of their immediate landscape? In what ways can sounds demarcate different types of space, marking out, for example, a pastoral scene from an urban one?
We also invite participants to think about the reception and reconstruction of Greek soundscapes in later art and literature. How, for example, did early opera reimagine the sounds of the classical Greek theater as it attempted to recreate the tragic chorus? Or how and to what purpose is Dionysus’ musical departure from Alexandria, as narrated by Plutarch (Antony 75), adapted in the poetry of Cavafy or Leonard Cohen?
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