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A Look At Greek Lyric Poetry And John Cage Essay

Music goes beyond language barriers; it speaks no language but that of the heart. However, like all art forms it has tenets and principles as to what is good music and what is simply noise. How about when artists claim that their works are music when it seems that these are perceived to be avant garde, not the kind of music that dominates the cultural period and worse, does not come from tradition?

This paper seeks to take a look at the music in Hellenistic Greece, in particular a lyric by one of its known muses, Sappho, with her only surviving complete work, Ode to Aphrodite, and compare it with what is considered to be experimental composition from John Cage, his 4’33”. Both pieces were meant to be performed – although how these are performed also raised questions. Ancient Greece is revered to be a center of learning, where arts and culture flourished.

It was one of the places where the earliest treatises on the different art forms were written, and they were keen to what constituted good and bad art, giving raise even to debates as to what is the function of art. Plato was known to promote the arts that will inspire people’s thinking, not their emotions, for he considered human emotions a weakness, and also because during that time musical scales developed from the study of the harmony in the universe, the mathematical equations used by the Pythagoreans (Henderson, 1957).

It was because of this that he did not approve of the poets’ lyrics, because it deviated from the musical modes they were used to and relied on what sounded good to the ear, making music became accessible to the people (Anderson, 1966). Sappho was one of those poets whose lyric poetry when sung communicated the love and sensuality it contained, as with her work Ode to Aphrodite, deviating from their traditionally highly mathematically composed melodies where people were supposed to be quiet and listen to rigidly, for her lyric love poems were made to be felt and inspire emotion.

In this way, Sappho, and her contemporary poets at the time helped create a turn for Greek music. Like Sappho, John Cage contributed to music with his compositions, characterized as avant-garde especially his chance pieces. However, his work that challenged perceptions and definition of music is his notorious 4’33”, a piece where for four minutes and thirty-three seconds the orchestra plays nothing.

John Cage wrote this piece when he realized that there will always be sound, and deliberately wrote “Tacet”, to instruct the musician not to play. What Cage wanted for the audience to hear was the different sounds that occur during the interval the piece is played – all the various sounds that one does not pay attention to because they listen to something else. This is different from silence, unless the figuratively the sound of silence, since Cage’s point was that there is always sound if one listens intently (Cage, 1973).

Both Sappho and Cage’s music differed from one another in that Sappho was expressing herself through her poetry, while Cage was making the listener turn to his environment. Although created in different environment and cultures, both musical pieces can be interpreted in a personal way, making it a unique experience. Sappho’s Ode to Aphrodite can mean something else to a modern listener than it used to in ancient Greece, and of course Cage’s 4’33” would always conjure something unique for each individual.

What this shows us is that although music is made in a certain era, it can transcend the boundaries of time as long as it resonates with what is human and universal, as an appreciation for the sounds around us and those that speak of love, and that although music is governed by principles of what makes it good, it will always be a matter of personal experience. SOURCES: Anderson, W. (1966). Ethos and Education in Greek Music.

Cambridge, HUP. Cage, John. (1973). Silence: Lectures and Writings, Wesleyan Paperback. Henderson, Isobel (1957). “Ancient Greek Music” in The New Oxford History of Music, vol. 1: Ancient and Oriental Music,” Oxford, Oxford University Press. http://homoecumenicus. com/ioannidis_ancient_greek_texts. htm, Accessed on June, 15, 2009. http://www. greylodge. org/occultreview/glor_013/433. htm , Accessed on June 15, 2009.


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