Music of the Ancients

Raw Story reports on an interesting effort to faithfully recreate the music of the millennia-old Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. Combining musical talent with meticulous archaeological research, this unique endeavor is delightful on both an anthropological and sensory level. You can hear haunting and elegant samples through the hyperlink or here.

More about the team behind this one-of-a-kind project:

…After completing a degree in music composition [singer and composer Stef Conner] got deeply interested in Babylonian literature and poetry—which was originally recorded in cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets.

But the words on the paper, the modern incarnations of these mineral etchings, were not enough for Conner. She wanted to know what these languages sounded like, to summon life from stone. Many of these poems and snatches of writings were sung and chanted, according to historians. The tunes played an important part in rituals in Mesopotamian societies, from funerals to lullabies, Conner says.

So she teamed up with Andy Lowings, who reconstructs ancient instruments and plays a mean lyre, a musical instrument with strings that resembles a harp. The two set out to create music that brings ancient Babylonian poetry to life, and The Flood is the result. It was produced by sound engineer Mark Harmer and can be found on Conner’s website; it will also come out on iTunes next month.

I strongly recommend giving their work a listen. It has been captivating me for the past two days now, especially during my busier working hours. Very soothing stuff.

Here is more about the music from the original website, from which you can pre-order the album:

Out in December 2014, ‘The Flood’ is a creative collaboration between Stef Conner, Andy Lowings (instrument-builder, harpist and creator of the Gold Lyre of Ur Project) and Mark Harmer (sound engineer, producer and harpist). Based on Mesopotamian texts from as early as the 4th millennium BC and composed for voice and the Lyre of Ur (a reconstructed 4500-year-old instrument excavated in the early 20th century from the Royal Graves at Ur), the album is the first ever CD of new music sung entirely in Sumerian and Babylonian. The incredible texts have inspired some of the strangest, rawest and most gripping, otherworldly songs you will ever hear, as well as some fun, amusing and often downright bizarre little excursions into the ancient Mesopotamian world, which reveal that in many ways, people in that remotest of times were actually a lot like us!

As the Raw Story articles notes, neither Conner nor her collaborators claim that these songs are a totally faithful recreation — after all, no human voice has uttered these compositions in thousands of years. But it definitely comes as close as one ever could. Conner studied the Babylonian and Sumerian languages deeply to determine the likely stresses and innotations, while Lowings built his lyre to be as similar to the ancient designs as possible. They even got help from Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who recreated the 4,000-year-old Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, considered the oldest song in the world.

Given all that, I think it is safe to say that this is accurate as the piece comes given all the time that has past. It is amazing that anyone even made the effort! And whatever its authenticity, this labor of love is a beautiful listen. It almost transports you back to the mysterious city-states that made comprised these cradles of human civilization.

Portrait of An Artist: Wassily Kandinsky

Today’s Google Doodle honors the148th birthday of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who is credited with being the first painter to produce purely abstract works. (Despite this pioneering role, he appears to be virtually unknown in the West, at least among non-artists; I only learned of him through Google!)

Kandinsky’s fifty-year career spanned such major movements as Impressionism, Fauvism, Pointillism, Bauhaus architecture and abstract expressionism. His vast collection of works thus reflect a wide variety of styles and influences, as well as the particular moods and thoughts put into each individual piece.

Kandinsky used shapes and colors as expression of emotion, and often likened the painting process to composing music. According to Wikipedia, he harbored a deep fascination with colors since childhood, which intensified during the course of his college studies:

In 1889, he was part of an ethnographic research group which travelled to the Vologda region north of Moscow. In Looks on the Past, he relates that the houses and churches were decorated with such shimmering colours that upon entering them, he felt that he was moving into a painting. This experience, and his study of the region’s folk art (particularly the use of bright colours on a dark background), was reflected in much of his early work. A few years later he first likened painting to composing music in the manner for which he would become noted, writing, “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul”.

By 1896, at the age of thirty, Kandinsky gave up a promising career as a teacher to enroll in art school in Munich. An encounter with the works of Monet at a Moscow art exhibit prior to leaving only further solidified this path — and the rest is beautiful and colorful history.

Wassily Kandinsky (Photo)

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Twenty words that once meant something very different

Eupraxsophy:

The interesting (and often hilarious) ways that language has changed. Some of these evolved meanings may some degree of sense (such as clue and flirt).

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:

Words change meaning all the time — and over time. Language historian Anne Curzan takes a closer look at this phenomenon, and shares some words that used to mean something totally different.

Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses (e.g., unique coming to mean “very unusual” rather than “one of a kind”) — and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?

The good news: History tells us that we’ll be fine. Words have been changing meaning — sometimes radically — as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them. Here is just a small sampling of words you may not have realized didn’t always mean what they mean today.

  1. Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish…

View original 802 more words

Why Do We Call Turkey, “Turkey”?

Of course, by “we” I mean English-speakers, and there are several theories, all of which seem plausible. From The Atlantic

The linguist Mario Pei theorized that more than five centuries ago, Turks from the commercial hub of Constantinople (which the Ottomans conquered in the mid-15th century) sold wild fowl from Guinea in West Africa to European markets, leading the English to refer to the bird as “turkey coc” or “turkey coq” (coq being French for “rooster”), and eventually “turkey” for short. When British settlers arrived in Massachusetts, they applied the same terms to the wild fowl they spotted in the New World, even though the birds were a different species than their African counterparts. The etymology expert Mark Forsyth, meanwhile, claims that Turkish traders brought guinea fowl to England from Madagascar, off the coast of southeast Africa, and that Spanish conquistadors then introduced American fowl to Europe, where they were conflated with the “turkeys” from Madagascar. Dan Jurafsky, another linguist, argues that Europeans imported guinea fowl from Ethiopia (which was sometimes mixed up with India) via the Mamluk Turks, and then confused the birds with North American fowl shipped across the Atlantic by the Portuguese.

It gets more interesting: the Turks called the turkey “hindi” because they thought it origined from India. The French had also called the bird “poulet d’Inde” (literally “chicken from India”), which has since been abbreviated to dinde, and similar terms exist in languages ranging from Polish to Hebrew to Catalan. The Dutch called it kalkoen, which means “hen from Calicut”, a major Indian city at the time. The Indians, for their part, called turkey “piru” or “peru” in some dialects, the latter being how the Portuguese refer to turkey. Malaysians call turkey “ayam blander” (“Dutch chicken”), while Cambodians opt for “moan barang” (“French chicken”).

Whatever its etymology, most people would call it delicious (although — not to put a damper on Thanksgiving — the modern turkey has unappetizingly deviated much from its original stock).

The Last Hero

Russian Veteran (James Hill)

The Last Hero, Gorky Park, Moscow, May 9, 2007. Credit: James Hill.

The Atlantic adapted Hill’s account of this shot (and others) from his new book, Somewhere Between War and Peace, which chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer’s work across the world.

Of the hundreds of Russian World War II veterans I have photographed, Yuri Stepanovich Zaguskin remains for me the most charming.

Members of the public traditionally give flowers to the veterans, in gratitude for their valor and sacrifice, and Zaguskin, resplendent in his naval officer’s uniform, had already collected a sizable bouquet by the time he entered the park. I asked him to stand in front of the white backdrop I had set up, and since I needed a minute to change my film, he asked if there was time for a smoke.

When I had reloaded the camera, he was still puffing away. I took just one frame before he noticed that I was pointing the camera at him, whereupon he stubbed out the cigarette and returned his attention to the shoot. I finished the whole film, but that first image, in which he was looking off, lost in his thoughts, was far richer than the others. It was not a naval officer in front of me but an old matinée idol, caught unawares on the set.

I cannot get enough of how much personality there is in this photo. I wager that this man has no doubt lived an interesting life, even beyond his highly decorated service during history’s largest conflict.

Poppy Field

My thoughts and reflections related to Veterans Day, and on war in general, have not changed much since the last time I shared them. This year’s post will not be any less somber, however: as the one hundredth anniversary of the end of history’s first (but sadly not last) “Great War”, the commemorations are especially solemn and reflective.

To mark this grim centenary of the First World War, an independent project called Poppy Field was launched to visualize just how devastating this conflict was — a reminder we sadly never need enough of, given how many other horrific conflicts have transpired since the “war to end all wars”.

Using the opportunity to highlight the brutality and tragedy of war as a whole, the project moves beyond WWI to show every conflict that has every occurred in the 20th century onward, from the lesser-known civil conflicts of Colombia and the Philippines, to the present strife in Syria, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic (notice how most of these wars tend to occur within states rather than between them).

The infographic is as beautiful as it is informative, creatively displaying the length, fatality, and location of each recorded war through the use of stylized poppies (the flower became a symbol of commemoration because it was among the first plants to emerge from Europe’s devastated battlefields after WWI, with its blood-red color and resilient yet delicate nature evoking war).

screenshot-poppyfield.org 2014-11-11 13-00-35

There are several patterns to note here. As mentioned before, most wars have become “internal” in nature — usually fought between governments and rebels, among different ethnic or religious groups, or between breakaway regions and a central power; tellingly, these types of conflicts are especially common in post-colonial Africa and Asia, a legacy of ancient grievances combined with the arbitrary borders that ignored such histories and diversities imposed by European powers.

It also seems that wars have become more frequent since the mid-20th century, although comparatively less deadly than the two great wars that dominated the earlier half (and that for most people serve as a common point of comparison, despite their anomalous nature in terms of scale). Modern wars also appear to last much longer, often drawing out into what are known as “low intensity” or “fourth-generation ” conflicts, in which the lines are blurred between civilians and combatants, and fighting is conducted in such a scope as to become normalized.

In any case, war’s every changing nature in terms of tactics and characteristics does little to change the awful human cost. Looking at these beautiful poppies and the data attached to each of them, it is easy to forget that they represents millions of full, individual lives snuffed out just this past 114 years alone. Especially from this physical and psychological distance.

The Haunting Paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński

This Halloween, I want to highlight the creepy and captivating works of Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor Zdzisław Beksiński (24 February 1929 – 21 February 2005). Describing his style as ‘Baroque’ or ‘Gothic’, the first and most well-known period of his work — from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s — consisted largely of surreal, post-apocalyptic environments and/or very detailed scenes of death, decay, and deformity.

Beksiński stated, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams”, and was known for his meticulous attention to detail. He claimed music, namely the classical genre, was his main source of inspiration, and that he was not influenced by literature, film, or other artists.

Despite the grimness of his work, he saw them as humorous and even optimistic, though he also noted that even he did not know their meaning. In fact, he was uninterested in possible interpretations and subsequently refused to provide titles for any of his drawings or paintings, going so far to often avoid the openings of his own exhibitions.

Although shy and low-key, Beksiński was known to be a pleasant and gregarious person with a great sense of humor and keen love of conversation.

An Ottoman Map of North America

As long-time readers know, I love maps, especially the vintage kind. There is something aesthetically pleasing about them, especially when the reflect an interesting snapshot of what their makers (and thus society at large) knew about the world at the time.

Courtesy of Slate is an interesting map that shows our part of the world from a perspective that is rarely given much acknowledgement: the once mighty Ottoman Empire, formerly at the center of global affairs, with dominance over major swathes of three continents.

'The Country of the English People' ('İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi'), an 1803 map of the U.S. by the Ottoman Empire. Various Native American tribes are also identified

“The Country of the English People” (‘İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi’), which depicts the United States in 1803. Neighboring Native American nations and tribes are also identified. Click to view a large, zoomable version.

As the Slate article points out, the Arabic-inspired script used for Turkish at the time works particularly well on maps, because it allows cartographers to label wide regions by elongating the lines connecting individual letters. I can definitely concur, especially given the artistry and aesthetic beauty of Arabic and Islamic calligraphy.

At the time this map was drawn, the Ottoman Empire was already well on its way to becoming the “sick man of Europe“, shrinking precipitously in territory and influence since its peak during the late 16th century. It was declining just as the U.S. was beginning to rise, though the Eternal State would endure for over another century before expiring after six centuries of existence.

Slate offers some more interesting historical background:

This appears to be the first Ottoman map of the United States, but Ottoman maps of North America have a much longer history. The first were the 16th-century nautical charts of the famous Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis. Some of the last, drawn before the new Turkish Republic switched to Latin script in 1928, show air routes spanning the continental U.S.

American relations with the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century were either commercial or missionary. American missionaries to the empire first tried to win Christian converts. But after meeting with little success, they turned to creating schools to spread the much more popular American gospel of English fluency and engineering excellence.

At times, the mercantile and missionary impulses came into conflict, such as when Greek Christians rebelled against the Ottoman sultan. Many Americans felt their government had a moral duty to stand with co-religionists against a Muslim despot. The U.S. government, however, felt a more pressing duty to stand with its merchants and sea captains, who’d been doing brisk business with the sultan. Supposedly, it was in recognition of U.S. support of the establishment that the empire later sided with the Union during America’s own civil war.

In addition to its scholarly significance, for sheer aesthetic reasons, I would love to have a map like this my room or study.

World’s Biggest Economies — GPD Per Capita

In a previous post, we looked at the world’s largest economies during the past 2,000 years. To recap, China and India both overwhelmingly dominated the global economy for much of this period, being superseded only 100 years ago (only to begin rising once more at the turn of the 21st century).

This time around, we will see the world’s top three richest economies during the same period, but based on GDP per capita (e.g. adjusted by population). As before, The Economist is the source, and the results are pretty interesting.

Since I am busy today, I will not have the time to weigh in on these results as before — I will leave that to you all!

Cantino Planisphere

Another featured photo from Wikipedia: the Cantino planisphere, a map completed by an unknown Portuguese cartographer in 1502, during the European Age of Discovery. It depicts the world as it became known to the Europeans after voyages to the Americas, Africa, and India.

It is considered one of the most valuable cartographic documents of all time, displaying a remarkable degree of accuracy for its period, and being the oldest surviving map to show Europe’s early geographic discoveries. It provides us with unique historical information about the way maritime exploration was conducted and how nautical cartography evolved.

It is now kept in the Biblioteca Universitaria Estense, Modena, Italy.