Armand D'Angour: All kinds of new

Classics scholar and musician Armand D’Angour explored the links between innovation, Ancient Greece, and music in his talk at the School.

The talk was part of Oxford Saïd’s Engaging with the Humanities series.

We tend to think of Ancient Greece as a hotbed of creativity and invention. Over a period of only 300 years this collection of city states produced a series of innovations that underpin the history of western civilisation. The Greeks invented money, the alphabet, philosophy, the sciences, and many tools of the arts, government, and warfare.

But, as Armand d’Angour told an audience at Saïd Business School, far from rejoicing in all this novelty, the Greeks paradoxically had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards innovation. ‘Generally, if you read the texts they say – “it’s all new and it’s terrible”’, he summarised.

One of the few areas in which they said ‘it’s new and it’s better’ was music. Aristotle wrote about music theory from a mathematical standpoint, recording the ratios underlying tuning and harmony. There was a huge theoretical literature about what music should be like. They developed a system of musical notation, fragments of which survive today. Yet even in music innovation could be risky: when Timotheus of Miletus added some additional strings to his lyre he caused outrage.

D’Angour showed a video in which he and some colleagues discussed how they worked to recreate the sounds of classical Greek music – and rehearsed and performed some of this music. They used the fragments of notation that exist, combined with their knowledge of the meter of Greek poetry, and the visual clues given in vase paintings. Intriguingly, the music sounds quite a lot less western than perhaps many might have imagined, and it was also interesting to discover that the singers and instrumentalists play in unison.

What did this experience teach us about innovation, he wondered? And what does it mean for something to be really new?

He considered that there were three main types of innovation, and all of them were based on engaging with the past – or at least the present. 

Adaptation, for example, is building on the past; disruption is reversing what exists; and interconnection involves bringing disparate things together. ‘What also matters is that you have the right conditions for innovation to take place. For example, at a university there are lots of clever people working together.’

He questioned one of the English words associated with innovation: ‘radical’. We could refer to a radical innovation as being something new, ‘roots and all’. Or we could be saying that it is ‘from the root’ – a new stem from the old root, and what is new is what flowers.

Finally, d’Angour explored the role of repetition, and why we should not be ‘too afraid’ of it. Playing a Bourree from one of Bach’s suites for solo cello (as one audience member observed, ‘every lecture should conclude with a cello recital’), he showed how Bach used repetition to give the impression of two lines of music being played simultaneously, and also how it created a solid base from which to develop the musical subject.  

Armand D'Angour: All kinds of new