Hydraulis

From the Pythagorean monochord – the first theoretical unification of art and science – to the technological bunker of IRCAM (the Institute of Acoustic and Musical Research and Coordination in Paris) where the immutable heirs of Pythagoras digitized sound at the end of the 1970s, music always has accommodated and accompanied scientific and technological advances. An odd dialectic between the discoveries of physics and the immediate use of these discoveries to play music characterizes the symbiosis between music and science. In some ways, the physical world has been the playground giving birth to musical symbols, whose needs in turn have driven technology. Major breakthroughs in both spheres are closely related. In his book on pneumatics, Heron of Alexandria describes the inventions of Ktesibios 2,300 years ago: the piston, the syringe for extracting fluids from the body, the hydraulic pump, and of course the hydraulis – literally “water flute” – ancestor of the organ, whose presence in ancient times is confirmed by several very detailed mosaics, in particular one in Syria at the end of the Roman era, five hundred years after Ktesibios. This perfect mosaic displays a group of musicians: a flutist, a percussionist with a table of melodic cymbals, a harpist, and an organist. The instruments can be seen in luxurious detail down to the hydraulic systems of the organ, but not the keyboard, whose existence is deduced from the extremely modern posture of the performer sitting in front of it.

The principles of physics, embodied in technical advances, are immediately absorbed by music in the most sophisticated manner. The history of the organ, from the hydraulis of Alexandria to the Syrian-Roman keyboard, the mediaeval positive organ to the organ of Bach, the Moog synthesizer of Wendy Carlos to the multitimbral keyboard of numerical synthesis, reflects the immediacy with which the community of inventors and musicians reacts. We also see that the ancestor of the computer and of all mechanical music reproduction – the intelligent machine that reads pre-programmed instructions – was conceived from the mechanical organ’s perforated card readers whose extensive use in Handel’s England bequeathed to us the first recordings in history, perfectly playable today on replicas of 18th-century mechanical organs. The concept of the computer keyboard comes directly from the organ. The idea of organizing sounds through finger control is the precursor of the computer keyboard; it should not surprise us that Bach’s fugues stimulate intelligence – they embody one of the earliest forms of enjoyment in a virtual space blessed with multidimensional coordinates. The modern orchestra founded, organized, and nourished in repertoire by organists and keyboardists is the incarnation, the social prolongation of this high intelligence and all the associated technological advances imaginable, including metallurgy, precision metal mechanics, polymer chemistry, and forest engineering (the production of wood and reeds applied to countless traditional crafts such as violin or woodwind-reed making). The educational revolution launched from Venezuela’s systematic formation of orchestras starting at the pre-school level represents perhaps the boldest and most complete step in pedagogy since the integral formation of the human being. In the center of the orchestra, in its nucleus, lies the historical key to intelligence.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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