The Secret Origins of the Musical Conductor
The latest installment of my new book 'Music to Raise the Dead'
Below I’m sharing another installment from my new book Music to Raise the Dead.
Each section can be read as a stand-alone essay or as part of the larger book. Today’s installment follows up on my previous inquiry into the original role and purpose of the musical conductor
As you will discover, the conductor is a much more powerful individual than you suspect, with impact that goes far deeper than an evening at the philharmonic. Even that little stick they wave has to be taken very seriously.
Before launching into the book, let me share the table of contents—with links to the sections I’ve already published on Substack. I plan to share a new chapter every month.
MUSIC TO RAISE THE DEAD: Table of Contents
What Did Robert Johnson Encounter at the Crossroads?
Where Did Musicology Come From?
Can Songs Actually Replace Philosophy?
Were the First Laws Sung?
Why Do Heroes Always Have Theme Songs?
What is Really Inside the Briefcase in Pulp Fiction?
Where Do Music Genres Come From?
Can Music Still Do All This Today?
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The Secret Origins of the Musical Conductor
(Part 2 of ‘What Conductors Really Do?’)
By Ted Gioia
As soon as you put aside your books of ‘literature’ and listen to stories as a kind of music, everything starts to change. We all knew that back as kindergarten students, when we sang many of our stories and lessons, but somehow we lose touch with these mind-expanding musical experiences as we grow older.
That’s not true everywhere—in some societies, sung performances of epics and cultural lore have survived into modern times. And here we find irrefutable evidence of the bard or conductor’s rhythmical powers, which border on the supernatural. In such settings, the ground beat underpinning a quest story is entrancing and inescapable. It is the engine that drives the story forward. And—as we will learn in the next chapter—our brains are hardwired to embrace this kind of music.
For example, The Mwindo Epic, a great masterpiece of Bantu culture, is mostly read as a text nowadays. But when Kahombo Mateene and Daniel Biebuyck encountered it among the Nyanga more than a half century ago, the bard was accompanied by three percussionists—and their role was so important, that one of them would eventually get selected as the singer’s successor.
The bard, enlivened by their rhythms, actually dances and mimes parts of the tale. This is more than mere storytelling or narrative enhancement, but a ritualistic transformation built on rhythm. And the story itself is transformative. “In this dramatic representation,” the observers noted, “the bard takes the role of the hero.” Here as elsewhere, the quest is embodied, and moves to the beat.
We encounter the same emphasis on rhythmic pulse in the sung yukar epics of Japan, where the only accompaniment is provided by both singers and listeners—who tap wood blocks on the hearth or floor. The pansori sung narratives of Korea are similarly propelled by the puk, a double-headed drum. And you will find the same thing in the biraha songs of India, which are accompanied by the khartal, a handheld clapper.
Melodic variety plays little role in songs of this sort—and you will seek in vain for those catchy hooks so essential to modern pop tunes, or even commercial folk music. The Kalevala, the great Finnish epic, for example, was traditionally sung to a simple five-note scale, and I’m sure that if I’d been around a thousand years ago to hear Beowulf, the most beloved ancient epic in English, the sound palette would have been much the same. Repetitive melodies enhance the mesmerizing, trance-inducing quality of the performance.
Just five notes? Isn’t that boring?
Maybe to some people, who don’t stay around long enough to get (literally) entranced. But this is as authentic as folk music gets. I’m reminded of the complaint of the old Suffolk singer who griped: “I used to be reckoned a good singer before these here tunes came in.”
Harmony may be the ruling musical metaphor of philosophers, but it also plays little part in the music or poetry of the quest. In the 1930s, when Harvard scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord recorded the epic singer Avdo Međedović—in their opinion, the closest modern counterpart to ancient bards such as Homer—they found that his musical accompaniment was a simple one-string instrument called the gusle, incapable of playing chords or providing harmonic support. If you watch the rare film clips of Međedović in performance—which I strongly advise you to do because they will completely change your views on the origins of Western culture (fortunately a few are now accessible online)—you will be struck by the huge gap between this music and what we generally consider epic literature, or even song.
The gusle is played not for melodic embellishment or even what nowadays we call a bassline, but generates a pulsating rhythmic drone. Međedović’s singing, for its part, sounds like an incantation, and he appears to have fallen into a kind of trance. You can easily imagine listeners falling into a similar trance given the hypnotic and ritualistic nature of the proceedings.
The gusle also served another role for these singers, namely as a mnemonic support. Međedović displayed extraordinary memory skills, far beyond what the Harvard researchers believed was possible—at one point he performed a song for his visitors that went on for seven days. When it was later transcribed, this one song filled up more than 12,000 lines (by coincidence, the same length as Homer’s Odyssey).
But there was a catch.
The researchers soon learned that these traditional singers couldn’t remember their songs if you took the gusle, that simple one-string instrument, out of their hands. The implication was clear: to go on this journey, the music is actually the vehicle (literally and metaphorically), and not just accompaniment in the background. This is the same phenomenon that Homer described thousands of years ago as the song-path, or that the Aboriginal tradition of Australia refers to as the “Songlines.” It appears under different names in other cultures, but in every instance the same larger truth emerges: namely, that music propels a dramatic or heroic quest.
For this reason, the use of the term “oral transmission” in describing stories that are actually sung to musical accompaniment is highly misleading. At the very start of his seminal book Orality and Literacy, scholar Walter Ong, asserts the primacy of “oral speech” and goes on to explain that “in every instance” language “exists basically as spoken.” But the word music appears in only one brief passage in Ong’s influential book. Many other scholars of ancient literature have made the same mistake: grasping that these defining stories of traditional societies are more than just texts, but still failing to understand how crucial the music is to their propagation and cultural power.
People familiar with the rituals and traditions of shamanism will have already recognized similarities with the musical practices outlined above. In fact, it’s uncanny how much the origins of music, epic poetry, and the hero’s quest seem to relate to shamanic practices—so much so, that you can’t really understand cultural history without grasping this connection. The shaman is the prototype of all later conductors.
What exactly is a shaman? The word is used very loosely nowadays, a catch-all term encompassing a hodgepodge of people and vocations, including witches, magicians, sorcerers, New Age mystics, spiritual leaders of various stripes, and a wide assortment of charlatans. Some might tell you that the only real shamans lived in Siberia long ago, and have mostly disappeared, except for a kind of playacting to impress credulous tourists. On the other hand, a quick Google search will show you that hundreds of shamans are available for hire on easy terms, ready to speak at your conference or lead your corporate offsite event. What’s going on here? Is shamanism an extinct superstition or a vibrant ongoing tradition?
The best definition of shamanism that I’ve heard comes from scholar Mircea Eliade, who insists that “not every magician can properly be termed a shaman,” and the true practitioner of this art is a “great master of ecstasy.” That’s an odd phrase, especially because we tend to think of trance and ecstasy as things that master us—almost by definition, we are overwhelmed by them, as by a powerful outside force—not as tools that can be manipulated and applied. But the shaman is not just someone who experiences ecstasy, but controls and applies it. In particular, as Eliade makes clear, the shaman induces a trance during which the celebrant’s soul can leave the body “and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.”
This is our music to raise the dead. Strange to say, there’s a direct connecting thread between it and tonight’s performance of the Boston Symphony or Berlin Philharmonic, or even the soundtrack music to Star Wars and all those Marvel superhero movies. In fact, the latter music is a better indicator of the actual historical origins of the hero’s quest than anything depicted on-screen.
As we have already learned, the descent to the underworld is the defining myth of the Orphic tradition dealt with in the Derveni papyrus, the oldest European book discussed back in chapter one. That was the first guide to conducting, you might say. And these same visits to the underworld or ascents to paradise are recurring elements—either incidents or defining structure of the plot—in most culture-defining epics and quest narratives, showing up not only in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Ovid, Milton, but in various scriptural documents, religious belief systems, and mythic traditions.
You will find this tradition where you least expect it. For example, one of the most intriguing Christian narratives describes the “harrowing of hell,” namely an account of Jesus descending to Hades in the interim between his crucifixion and resurrection, as part of his mission to chastise the devil and liberate souls. Theologians avoid talking about this as a variant of the Orpheus myth, but the congruence is uncanny. Similar narratives are found everywhere in the world, and are invariably connected to a wide range of ritual practices and philosophical musings.
When I first undertook an in-depth study of shamanism, almost thirty years ago, I was originally inspired by a mild curiosity about its possible role in music history. But nothing prepared me for what I found. In retrospect, I can see that this was a decisive turning point in my vocation as a music scholar, the rupture that forced me to recalibrate my sense of what songs really do and how their history ought to be written.
But at the beginning, I was motivated merely by scholarly inquisitiveness. At the first encounter, my initial shock focused on the widespread use of these shamanic techniques. This made absolutely no sense to me. After all, how many people really need to visit another plane of reality—call it an underworld or whatever you want? And even if some individuals did do this (or claim to do it) what was the likelihood that they would follow a codified set of practices, almost as if the shamans in different times and places were all working from the same playbook?
Like many, I initially associated shamanism with Siberia, where most of the early research into it took place. But, much to my surprise, I discovered that this tradition had flourished in every part of the world, and even the rituals, costumes, and mythology shared extraordinary similarities. Shamanism not only had deep roots in Native American communities—whose rituals were the original impetus, as already noted, for research into vision quests—but variants of the Orpheus myth have been documented in more than fifty tribes. Some 7,000 miles away in Australia, anthropologist A.P. Elkin studied and celebrated people known as karadji, or (in his words) “Aboriginal men of high degree,” and the similarity with the Native American and Siberian practices is nothing short of extraordinary. When I studied the detailed research into the black practitioners of hoodoo and witchcraft in the American South published by Harry Middleton Hyatt in the years leading up to World War II—dismissed by so many others as mere ignorance and superstition—I found that he viewed them in almost identical terms, praising these uneducated and often illiterate individuals as gifted and amazing experts “who had mastered a strange world,” even acknowledging them as doctors. And Hyatt was an Oxford-trained Anglican minister, hardly the person to celebrate practitioners of pagan dark rites.
Then I found the same thing with the mudang of Korea, the oko-jumus of the Andaman Islands, and among the San people of Southern Africa, or the Mapuche of Chile, and in so many other places, which seemingly had no cultural influence on each other. For the longest time, Europe was perceived by many as an exception, “immune” to such “superstitions,” but as we have already seen—and even more compelling evidence will be presented in the pages ahead—the shamanistic tradition not only can be detected in the early history of the classical Western culture of antiquity, but played a major role in creating it.
This is most clearly demonstrated by the Orpheus myth—with which we began our inquiry into the hero’s quest. Just as my research into shamanism surprised me by the global spread of these practices, the same thing resulted from my efforts to trace the lineage of this ancient myth, usually considered as inescapably intertwined with Western European culture. In fact, stories of trips to the underworld are found everywhere in the world. The Japanese legend of Izanagi and Izanami echoes the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as does the myth of Mataora and Nuvarahu from New Zealand. The Book of Taliesin, attributed to a 6th century Celtic shaman, tells of King Arthur’s descent into the underworld in a narrative that may have influenced the later Grail legend. The oldest Mayan myth to survive in complete form tells of the Hero Twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, traveling to the underworld, and describes the challenges and dangers faced on their journey.
In epic literature, stories of journeys to the realm of the dead play a prominent role—and it’s no coincidence that this trip shows up in the same works (by Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, etc.) we discussed earlier when looking at invocations of the Muse. The story is so prevalent that scholars have given it a name: katabasis literature— from the Greek words κατὰ "down" and βαίνω "go"—but it happens not just in stories but also in our heads, as will become of increasing importance in the alternative musicology presented in this book. Carl Jung believed he had found elements of this recurring myth deeply embedded in his own psyche, and speculated on both its personal and communal significance.
The shaman, a master of katabasis much like Orpheus in the classic myth, relies on music at every juncture—although books about this practitioner of ecstasy are almost always written from a spiritual or folkloric or anthropological standpoint, and rarely by musicologists, who seem to find the entire subject irrelevant or embarrassing. The future shaman is often first identified by a musical omen—for example, a youngster starts singing during sleep or hearing songs during dreams. The shaman’s training and initiation also involve music, which might include not just ritualistic singing and dancing, but perhaps a visitation by a totem animal who teaches a magical song, or grants a drum and stick with especial potency. There are also special ceremonies for animating the drum—usually connecting its force directly to the animal whose skin provides the resonating membrane.
And, of course, the full-fledged shaman always comes equipped with musical tools of trade, most often songs and drums although string instruments are also sometimes used—but, in those cases, frequently a one-string musical bow which itself is more of a percussive than melodic force. Even the shaman’s costume can be viewed as a kind of percussion instrument. Among the Yakuts, for example, the shaman’s clothing “must have from thirty to fifty pounds of metal ornaments,” and we are told that “these metallic objects have a soul, they do not rust.” From a purely functional standpoint, they ensure that whenever the shaman dances, a percussive beat propels each movement.
The most unusual aspect of all this—although highly relevant for our purposes—is the persistent connection between the shaman’s music and notions of a trip or journey, or what I call the hero’s quest. Among the Yakut and Buryat the drum is called the “shaman’s horse” and the Altaians refer to the stick as a whip. In Mongolia, this drum is called the “black stag.” Among the Tungusic peoples, the drum is considered the “shaman’s boat.” In other settings the shaman is described as flying away by means of the drum, which is frequently decorated with symbols of ascension, such as birds, rainbows, or heavenly bodies. To further emphasize this connection, the shaman’s costume might include feathers and other accouterments that evoke the appearance of a bird.
Any trip that was so important that countless societies around the world entrusted it to their most esteemed visionaries, healers, and spiritual guides must be a very important journey. But this raises the obvious question: What is the destination of this trip?
Fortunately we already have the answer to this—outlined in our first chapter on the oldest book in Europe. This trip goes to another world, but a very special one where extraordinary things happened and transcendent powers can be mustered. It is called by many names—the Underworld, Mictlān, Duat, Hades, Elysium, the Fortunate Isles, the Land of the Ancestors, or nowadays just some generic label with pseudo-scientific overtones such as “near-death experience” or “alternative mind state.”
The name is less important than what you find there and, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter, the geography of this elusive realm—and the challenges it present—are markedly similar across cultures, even if they otherwise have very little in common. Although the most dramatic stories deal with raising a soul from the dead, these journeys are made with a wide range of goals, including healing, divination, exploration. and other matters of importance. And the most striking aspect of this metaphysical terrain is its clear connection to notions of fateful choices and the most momentous turning-points in a quest. For even if different cultures dispute its name, all agree that this is not a trip for mere sightseeing or idle amusement, but a journey to the place where the most critical decisions are made.
Some readers may feel I have veered too close here to fantasy and superstition. So, in the next chapter, I will turn to the world of contemporary science and peer-reviewed research—with all its impressive array of control groups, quantifiable results, and statistical analysis. Over the last several decades, these researchers have literally put music under the microscope, studying every aspect of its impact on the human organism, measuring brain waves, body chemistry, heart beats, and every other metric, objective or subjective, in an attempt to answer the most fundamental questions about songs and our lived experiences of them. Surely their results have nothing in common with the mystical mumbo-jumbo I’ve shared here from the Derveni papyrus and other ancient sources, responsible for so many myths and fallacies?
In fact, we will discover the exact opposite. A rapidly expanding body of research on music, and its impact on our brains and bodies, confirms almost every detail of these old sources—yet even the scientists pursuing this work often have little sense of this larger dimension to their pursuits, because these traditions have been so marginalized and hidden from view. Yet these new findings not only validate my bold claims about the power of rhythm and song, but also make clear why these have always been so closely linked to momentous journeys and transformative experiences.
But before proceeding, let me first summarize what we have learned in this chapter.
(1) An ancient tradition, going back thousands of years, tells us that decisive journeys require a conductor, and that musicians possess special skills for this role. This is where the two definitions of conductor—a guide on a trip and a leader of a musical enterprise—overlap and merge.
(2) The way this conductor is depicted has varied over the millennia, but the connections with music always come to the forefront—whether we are talking about Orpheus in various cross-cultural myths, the Muse in literary history, blind harpers in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, harp-playing angels in the Judeo-Christian tradition, women playing frame drums in ancient societies, or other assorted rituals found around the globe with their reliance on percussion for their trips to transcendental realms.
(3) Arguments over whether angels play harps or drums may seem irrelevant, but this is a serious matter. Drums are closely linked to journeys, ecstatic trances, and altered mind states. Harmony instruments are invariably embedded in traditions that emphasize social cohesion, discipline, and unified behavior patterns. Over time, drum-driven spiritual traditions have been prohibited or marginalized as religions become more codified and organized, but the trance-based traditions never really disappear—for the simple reason that they have more efficacy in achieving altered mind states associated with vision quests and momentous experiences.
(4) Even as ancient narratives lost their music, the rhythmic pathway to transcendence persisted in poetry through its meter. A surprisingly consistent pattern of rhythmic propulsion can be traced in poetic traditions found in all parts of the world, with a convergence on poetic lines that take around three seconds to recite.
(5) The names and rituals associated with these rhythm-driven conductors for transcendent experiences vary in different times and places, but the most widespread techniques can be collected under the title of shamanism. The shaman is a practitioner of ecstasy who can control music-driven trances to achieve extraordinary things.
(6) Myths and ritualistic traditions typically present this journey as an actual trip, with a destination in a strange new world, described perhaps as the underworld or a ‘land of the ancestors’ or maybe even explicitly as heaven or the afterlife. But the key aspects of our inquiry also apply with equal validity to what we nowadays describe as enhanced mind states or alternative realities. As such, these music-driven journeys can be defined in mythic, spiritual, psychological, or scientific vocabulary, and are thus extraordinarily flexible in adapting to our specific worldview and cultural setting. In the truest sense, they never go out of date.
the bard takes the role of the hero: The Mwindo Epic, edited by Daniel Biebuyck and Kahombo C. Mateene (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), p. 13.
I used to be reckoned a good singer: Quoted in Keith Bosley’s introduction to The Kalevala, translated by Keith Bosley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. xx.
scholar Walter Ong: Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 5, 7.
“and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld”: Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), pp. 4-5.
who had mastered a strange world: Harry Middleton Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, Volume 2 (Hannibal, Missouri: Western Publishing, 1970), p. 993.
These metallic objects have a soul: Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), pp. 148-149.
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