Spotlight on Research: Rhythm and Melody behind the Visual Narrative: Reconstructing Cultural Memory from the Past

By Dr. Anna Boshnakova

Recently, Dr. Anna Boshnakova was invited to take part in the 9th Symposium of the International Study Group on Music Archaeology (ISGMA) titled “Sound, Object, Culture, History”. As she gratefully acknowledges, her participation at the Symposium and presentation of the paper “Rhythm and Melody behind the Visual Narrative: Representation of Melographers and Rhythmographers in Ancient Greek Art” would not have been possible without the support of Sheridan’s Professional Development funding.

The ISGMA Symposium

For many years, the ISGMA Symposiums have been a venue for both scholarly discussions and demonstration of experiential knowledge through experimental professional performance-oriented skills in practice. It has also been an ideal gathering place for experts in Philosophical Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Biomusicology, Archaeology, Classics, Ethnomusicology, Neuromusicology, Cultural, Religious and Gender Studies, Music Performance, Digital Humanities, and state-of-the-art Technologies. Experts from Germany, Austria, Brasilia, Canada, China, Italy, Netherland, Peru, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the USA participated in a variety of issues and events: to discuss 40 papers and posters, to choose from four workshops on cutting-edge technology topics, and to enjoy musical performances on the newly produced replicas of ancient Greek and other traditional cultures’ musical instruments.

Conference Paper & Presentation

At the ISGMA conference Anna presented her current paper, “Rhythm and Melody behind the Visual Narrative: Representation of Melographers and Rhythmographers in Ancient Greek Art”, which will be published in the Proceedings of the 9th Symposium of the ISGMA (Studien zur Musikarchäologie IX) takes aim at presenting, in brief, the preliminary results of a larger research project, entitled “Anthropological and Cultural Analysis of Ancient Greek Musical Records: ‘Meaningless Inscriptions’ in Musical Context”.

In this stage of the larger study, the author looks for solid interdisciplinary methodological foundations. The paper examines the practical applicability of the four-field methodology of anthropology as well as general and specialized methodology of analogical reasoning based on conclusive examples of Greek Late Archaic and Classical vase painting (6th – 5th centuries B.C.), which represents music performers, composers, lyricists, music teachers, and music students in very specific and extremely rare scenes of their professional and creative activities. The author assumes that the earliest notation of vocal and instrumental music as well as the providing of lyrical works with musical rhythm, just like in the then contemporary Archaic and Classical literature and mathematics, did not demand a commonly accepted and strictly unified system of signs and symbols (letter-notes), but only general literacy, interest in the musical theory of intervals, closely linked to mathematics, and appropriate media for capturing musical ideas, sound images and melodic lyrics. The latter cultural and historical conditions were already in place in the second half of the 6th century B.C. and abundantly recorded around the turn of the century to the Classical period in the leading Greek poleis (city-states) and religious centers.

Boshnakova photo

Lekythos, Attic, early 5th century B.C. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Inv. No. 2985: A professional aulos-player, enhoploos orchesis (weapon dance) and instrumental musical notation. Image: Anna Boshnakova

This promising viewpoint can lead research to a profound revision of the early history of musical theory and practice in Europe. The first pieces of proof came up with Anna’s discovery of specific Late Archaic epigraphic material on Greek vases from the National Library of France, Paris, representing most likely earliest musical notation in strings of Greek letters and situated in explicit contexts of professional musical performances.

This finding substantially expanded the scope for topic-related primary sources of information, which have been thought non-existent heretofore. The paper draws scholarly attention to the so-called “nonsense” or rather unreadable inscriptions on Greek vases along with the illustrations of musical myths and real-life performances, as well as to all scenes of music classrooms and music studios, which all together can provide us with valuable and detailed information about the creative production of professional music. Attention is drawn also to specific representations of artists such as the Brygos painter, Onesimos, Douris and his student Akestorides, Kleophrades, Achelous painter and the so-called Leagros group.

As a result, the investigation determines a chronological gap, which covers the period between the Late Archaic with sporadically appearing testimonies of musical notation and the first epigraphic information about contest winners in disciplines such as melography and rhythmography from the Hellenistic second century B.C. To explain the historical and cultural phenomenon, the author focuses on the specific role of each participant and the actual recovery of the professional production of music in the pre-Hellenistic period before any unification of the educational programs and the emergence of the so-called common Greek language (koine).

Thus she arrives at the conclusion that only the most talented musicians put themselves to the test of melography and rhythmography, which may also explain the fact that, with a few exceptions, only texts without notes and rhythms were copied throughout the centuries and remained present in today’s historical tradition.

Researcher Profile: A lifelong Dedication to Research, Music and Culture

In 2002 Anna became one of the first invited members of the ISGMA, but Anna can in fact trace her keen interest in music culture back to early childhood when she started learning harmonics and practicing both vocal and instrumental music. This early passion to arts along with an interest in broad theoretical and practical experience gained throughout the years, determined later on Anna’s decision to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Cultural Studies with an emphasis on history and theory of culture throughout all ages of humanity and from around the world and with focus on the four subfields of Anthropology: Archaeology, Cultural, Physical, and Linguistic Anthropology.

Early Research Focus

Anna’s master thesis offered both contributory analyses and interpretations of one of the greatest scholarly conundrums in world archaeology and history of culture: deciphering the figurative language and the pictorial narratives in the artwork of ancient Thrace, homeland of Orpheus, the legendary poet, charming musician, king-priest, sorcerer, and founder of mystical teachings for both Thracians and Greeks. Her early research results along with cultural phenomena from other traditional cultures examined by analogy, led her beyond the trivial understanding of music solely as a tonal art and an entertaining tool.

She started searching for answers to increasingly complex questions: Why did prominent ancient statesmen, brilliant strategists, and distinguished philosophers and scientist have musicians for educators? Why did ancients believe that the entire universe was built upon numbers, respectively tonal intervals? How did it happen that the concepts of Encyclopedia (from Greek, “education in a circle) and Mousike (from Greek, the “art of the Muses”) were diligently passed down to the present day and taken as a basis for the Liberal Arts?

Dissertation & Ongoing Research

Answers to these and many other questions are provided in Anna’s doctoral thesis from philosophical anthropological perspective, along with the first comprehensive reconstruction of the so-called “Perfect System” of Pythagoras (6th c. B.C.), one of the most educated (“mousikos”) figures in the history of humanity.

Dr. Anna Boshnakova has also authored monographs, peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, and teaching materials. She is convinced that creating new knowledge in her field of expertise would give her the opportunity to apply research results in her teachings through creative learning modules and activities.