About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

June 28, 2013

Syrinx and old goats playing flutes

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Notes for our Baltimore Winds concert Sunday, July 7:

Jupiter disguised his mistress, Io, as a heifer to hide her from his wife Juno. Juno saw through the disguise and demanded the heifer as a gift from her husband. Determined to keep Io as a heifer Juno enlisted Argus, who had 100 eyes and never went to sleep with more than two eyes at a time, to guard the heifer.

Commanded by Jupiter, Mercury put on his winged slippers and his cap on his head, grabbed his sleep-producing wand, and leaped down from the heavenly towers to the earth, presenting himself as a shepherd driving his flock. As he strolled, he blew upon his pipes, called the Syrinx or Pandean pipes. Argus listened to the pipes with wonder, having never heard them before. Hoping to lull all 100 eyes to sleep, Mercury played the most soothing strains and told Argus the story of how the instrument came to be:
“There was a certain nymph, whose name was Syrinx who was much beloved by the satyrs and spirits of the wood; but she would have none of them, but she was a faithful worshipper of Diana, and followed the chase. You would have thought it was Diana herself, had you seen her in her hunting dress, only that her bow was of horn and Diana’s of silver. One day as she was returning from the chase, Pan [a demi-god: half man, half goat] approached her.... She ran away, without stopping to hear his compliments, and he pursued till she came to the bank of the river, where he overtook her, and she had only time to call for help on her friends the water nymphs. They heard and consented. Pan threw his arms around what he supposed to be the form of the nymph, and found he embraced only a tuft of reeds! As he breathed a sigh, the air sounded through the reeds, and produced a plaintive melody. The god, charmed with the novelty and with the sweetness of the music, said, ‘Thus then, at least, you shall be mine.’ And he took some of the reeds, and placing them together, of unequal lengths, side by side, made an instrument which he called Syrinx, in honour of the nymph.”
--from Bulfinch’s Mythology

Before Mercury had finished the story he saw Argus’s eyes all asleep. As his head nodded forward on his breast, Mercury with one stroke cut his neck through, and tumbled his head down the rocks. 

Pan, of course, inspired the entire industry of woodwind instruments: the oboe, clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon, as well as their larger and smaller relatives all produce sound with a vibrating reed. Paradoxically, the flute has no reed, its sound comes from air alone passing over the mouth hole of a reed-like pipe, either across the open end of a pipe closed at the other end or at a hole in the side of a pipe near one closed end. Finger holes in effect lengthen or shorten the pipe so you don't need a handful of different pipes. The technical simplicity of the flute may explain why it is probably the oldest wind instrument; bone flutes, obviously longer-lasting than reed flutes date back to 35,000 B.C.E. 

In French "flĂ»tiste” means flutist, as does "flautista” in Italian--to answer your next question. My teacher answered it by saying, "depends on what the job pays."

Why Debussy wrote Syrinx in 1912 to accompany the death of Pan in a play Psyche by Gabriel Mournay is not clear to me. Pan is usually not in the cast of characters of that fable, at least the mythological one (Cupid and Psyche). In performance the flutist remains hidden, as did the musicians who provided dinner music for Psyche’s first night in heaven at the magnificent palace--before Cupid visited her in bed. Perhaps Mournay intended the flutist to be Pan and that he died of sorrow at the end of his song.

With its ambiguous harmonies and free rhythm, Syrinx sounds like the kind of music Debussy was thinking of when he wrote, “my favorite music is those few notes an Egyptian shepherd plays on his flute: he is a part of the landscape around him, and he knows harmonies that aren’t in our books.” The piece is loaded with whole-tone scales that contain no fifths and no half steps, making traditional cadences impossible and eliminating tonic-dominant polarity. Debussy used whole-tone scales often as a way to confound his listeners’ tonal expectations and to explore new harmonic possibilities. 

Debussy’s rhythms also confound. They can be based on length rather than on stress, on long-short rather than strong-weak. Some liken them to the rhythmic principles of French speech, which is differentiated by syllable length rather than syllable stress.

Last known location of the nymph, Syrinx, ~6,000 B.C.E.

Leaving us not only the reeds, Syrinx also left her name to be applied to the syringe as well as the condition called syringomyelia in which the spinal cord has the shape of a hollow reed. Psyche, of course, meaning both butterfly and soul in Greek, gave her name to the modern disciplines of psychology and psychiatry and their practitioners. As for old goats, they occasionally continue to play flutes.

It has taken far longer for you to read this than the duration of Debussy's Syrinx itself. Generations of flutists have played it because it is one of a very few works that a flutist can play alone. It lends itself to infinite interpretations.

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