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Playing: Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz
BBC Radio 3

Faith Without God: Musical Notes

Author and broadcaster

On at 645pm on Sunday 9 February, writer and broadcaster Michael Goldfarb presents the first of two Radio 3 documentaries which investigate the first secular thought systems. Here, he explains the background.

My programme, Faith Without God came out of a decades-long fascination with this historical coincidence: the first Greek philosophers (Thales and Pythagoras), Buddha and Confucius all lived at precisely the same time: the sixth century BCE.  They were the first to found thought systems in which man, not the gods, was the measure of all things. It was one of the great leaps forward in human consciousness.

Why did this happen? Might there have been some kind of contact between the Greek cities of Asia Minor, northern India and China in that time?  My programme explores the evidence. The big problem for me in making Faith Without God was that the written historical record doesn’t extend that far back.  Reliable history for all three civilisations isn’t available for at least 150 years after my subjects’ death.

The same is true for the music of this period. 'Harmony', for the Greeks, Buddha and Confucius is the essential nature of the universe. Music is its human expression. But no music from the 6th century BCE was written down.

This created another dilemma. One of the tools for radio feature-making is music. A sting, a taste of melody can set off an idea, give listeners time to take in a new concept, herald a change of scene.  So I needed to find music that was as close to this period as possible.  And I needed to find examples from Greek Asia Minor, India and China. 

I got lucky. Before I went to China, I had been told that Confucius was a musician.  At his school in Qu’fu, which I visited, he would sit in a little pavilion shaded by an apricot tree, and lay his Guqin (goo-chin), a zither-like instrument, across his lap and make music while his pupils studied.

Michael Goldfarb with colleague, Prof Hou Pingping at Confucius Temple in the philospher's hometown of Qu'fu.

I visited Shandong University in Jinan, near Qu’fu.  It is a centre of Confucian scholarship. I met with Professor Yan Bing Gang. Professor Yan can trace his ancestry to Yan Hui, Confucius’ favourite pupil. I asked him if knew of any compositions attributed to the Master (as Confucius is called) that had been recorded. He didn’t know of any but he kindly provided me with two pieces of music he assured me might have been heard in Confucius’ time. They provide the musical framework for the sections of my programme on China. 

Bodhgaya, India, is the site of the Bodhi tree. Prince Siddhartha Gautama was meditating under its leafy canopy when he achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha. Today Bodhgaya is a place of pilgrimage.  It is an awfully noisy place considering the heart of Buddhism is quiet meditation. Music is part of the general background din. Din and music are the radio programme maker's best friends.  I recorded hours of both in Bodhgaya. While wandering around  the Tibetan vihara (monastery) I heard dungchens being blown.  These are the long, long, long horns which sound like elephants calling to one another. I walked into a prayer hall and found some teenage monks practicing. They very kindly let me record them playing. It is a starling sound to western ears and I used it sparingly.

On the other hand, Buddhist chanting is something more familiar. It’s mesmerising, repeating pulses influenced the popular minimalist composer, Philip Glass. I recorded different groups chanting at the Mahabodhi Temple next to the Bodhi tree - Thai pilgrims and Tibetan monks. But mostly what you hear in the documentary is a recording of chanting playing at the Root Institute health clinic on the outskirts of town. It isn’t exactly tuneful but quite mesmerising and I find that it drifts into my head for no reason in the way pop songs used to slosh around up there when I was a teenager.

This brings me to the first Greek philosophers.  It’s slightly confusing to say Greek - since Thales actually lived in Miletus, a city on the Aegean coast of what is today Turkey. The truest documentary sound for what remains of Miletus is silence. At the time philosophy began it was the  greatest trading port of the Greek world. But the harbour silted up more than a thousand years ago and the sea is now a couple of kilometres away. Archaeologists dig at Miletus for a month or so each year but otherwise the only noise is wind rippling across fields of cotton and stands of olive trees. 

Looming over the site are the mountains of Samos, a Greek island, a mile off-shore. It was here that Pythagoras lived at roughly the same time as Thales. Pythagoras was the first western theoretician of music. He translated sounds into numerical ratios, from this theory of numbers, he created the series of pitches that form the basis of much our music.

I searched for some music that could legitimately be traced back to this era and came across the work of Michael Levy, an Englishman, musicologist and ancient music obsessive. He blogs about ancient music but also builds instruments with approximations of the strings used at the time and records tunes based on surviving manuscripts from antiquity.

I used a piece Levy arranged called the Lament of Simonides based on a manuscript fragment attributed to Simonides of Ceos, who lived at precisely the same time as Pythagoras - and Buddha and Confucius.  

An amazing epoch, that sixth century BCE.

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