As might be deduced from my last piece by the astute reader, I am, to say the least, into music. In my main music room one may hear barbershop, classical Chinese opera, Buddy Holly, Pete Fountain, a mechanical band box, and a Beethoven symphony in a single evening. The next evening may bring an equally eclectic mix.
Saturday was a day I’d awaited for a couple of weeks. The bright red padded container with custom markings from Deutschland arrived and I had it open as I bounded up the stairs to my music room. I popped it into my CD drawer, grabbed the thick, beautiful booklet that had come with it, and placed myself into the center of the curved sofa that marks the “sweet spot” in my system.
Got there just in time to hear a flute appear right in front of me from inky, acoustic darkness. It was playing in a magnificent first century triclinium, or Roman dining room that looked very much like the one pictured here…at least that is what my mind constructed. The flute was soon joined by a tympanum, a low pitched Roman drum similar to a large congo drum or African djembe. The warm summer air in the room was rich with the smell of sweet oils on the ladies as well as the men, all fresh from the baths and a good anointing with these fine oils and scraping down with a strigil. It was also heavy with garum, the fermented fish sauce, similar to that found in Thailand and Vietnam today, which served both as flavoring and as salt. In this fine home, of course, this wasn’t just ordinary garum, but garum sociorum direct from Spanish mackerel. Platters piled high with the fattest Dormice, fruits, exotic eggs, and fish. The sounds of the flute and tympanum rebounded effortlessly from the marble walls and stone floors without ever competing with the freshly minted sounds and returned to delight the ear several times before fading away like a sweet memory. The tympanum, when struck dead center by the master musician playing it, gently and provocatively vibrated my body physically.
It is metaphysically absurd for me to think I know what you hear, and equally insane for me to attempt to describe high-resolution audio’s effects on me directly. Therefore, the prose is a feeble attempt to transfer an experience that really has to be, like sex, experienced rather than talked or written about. All those images, aromas, and sensory experiences occurred on my first listen to this extraordinary recording I don’t think I moved for the first 5 or so tracks as images like this dinner party, an Entr’acte from the arena, temple musicians singing a hymn to the goddess, and street music not heard in 20 centuries filled the room.
In my previous post on “What Happened to Hi-Fi?” I mentioned compression as a “stealth” weapon that has undermined music. Musica Romana, on their website, (link at end of post) has samples you can listen to. I’d done this and, by mp3 standards, they sounded really good on the excellent near-field speakers I use on my home office PC. In near field, about 3 feet, they are comparable to my big system upstairs and what I heard was good enough to get me to order a copy. However, I did not see anything like the visions above and the sensory impacts described above as CAN happen with these little speakers when fed truly high resolution material. At least for myself, point proven. Compressed music looks like food, and tastes like food, but you starve to death on a steady diet of it without even realizing it. My mighty Klipschorns, on the other hand, opened a window directly to 20 centuries ago.
Back to the CD. I am not going to provide really in-depth detail on Musica Romana as if you are interested you can find out more on their web site, but a brief description is in order. They call themselves “musical archaeologists.” They are made up of musicians, craftspeople, and academics all dedicated to resurrecting the music long thought completely lost. They have discovered that both the Greeks and the Romans had written musical notation, something we’d not known until their work. Further, they’ve worked from remaining fragments of ancient instruments as well as from mosaics and written descriptions to reconstruct these instruments. Even more impressive, they have mastered them, and I mean mastered. Those readers who’ve struggled to learn an instrument from even an excellent teacher, or even harder, from a book, will certainly realize it must be REALLY hard when you don’t really know what the damn thing is supposed to do. Nonetheless, the evidence is on this disk they’ve done precisely that. I’d rate the performance as “A.”
I am giving the engineering an A- for one reason: Use of some process echo in a few places. It’s amongst the most tasteful I’ve ever heard, but it’s still obvious to the critical listener and I really don’t understand why they did this. They are from GERMANY, fer cryin’ out loud. It’s ROTTEN with fine old stone buildings with incredible acoustics very similar to those one would have found in a fine Roman theatre or building. Now, they only did this on a couple of tracks and the rest are in places like the marvelous old wine celler in the picture. Now, this place is a dead ringer both in materials as well as architecture for a Roman construction and perfect for such performances and recordings. Actually, Europe has existing Roman ruins of these structures where the acoustics remain awesome. After all, the Romans were masters of natural amplification as they had to be in order to build large performance structures. That minor quibble aside, the engineering is incredible. On a high quality system every nuance of these ancient instruments comes to life right in front of you and the sound recorded in real spaces absolutely divine.
I wish to mention one of the reconstructions in particular as it joins with another passion of mine, that of the pipe organ both in the present and in history. That is the water organ, or hydraulis. The pressure used to sound the pipes in a modern pipe organ is still measured by “inches of water.” Weighting by water was used in these ancient organs to keep the wind pressure constant. Most are familiar with the “coming and going” sound of bagpipes. While charming enough for the Scots, this varying amplitude and pitch really doesn’t work well for an organ. Today, we use weighted chests pumped by electric blowers to achieve a constant pressure. In ancient times, they used ingenuity. The hydraulis appears several times on the CD, but my favorite was one that feature a duet, aulos, a double pipe reed instrument, and the hydraulis. It’s a great piece of music and these two instruments seem to be made for each other. “EUREKA!,” some 3rd century or so hydraulis builder said as he listened to this piece or one just like it. “I’ll just add a bunch of single note aulos to my hydraulis, a switch to sound the pipes, the reeds, or both, and only a single musician will be needed to play this music.” And the first reed stop came into being and the modern organ is born. While there are many varieties of each to provide specific qualities of sound, the classic pipe organ has only two kinds of pipes: reeds (like the aulos) and flues (basically whistles as shown in the hydraulis image). Frankly, I expect some other researcher reached this conclusion well before me as it is so obvious once you hear this piece. However, this piece hadn’t been heard in 20 centuries before this recording so perhaps not.
It should be obvious by now I REALLY like this CD that has it all: great music, well performed, and masterfully recorded. Most of all, a window closed to us for 20 centuries into the roots of western music and the realization that it was not only highly developed, but truly beautiful and capable as no statue, ruin, or even beautiful mosaic of transport us to another time and place. If you don’t get out much, this may not do much for you. However, if you really want visit the ancestral civilization of all cultures of the western world, this CD will provide stimuli that you will find no other way short of peyote and a copy of Petronius Satyricon. If you are of that bent, I strongly suggest you don’t combine those with this recording or you may not be seen again.
Two caveats: The beautiful 28 page, profusely illustrated booklet is all in German. Also, the link provided for ordering the CD on the MR site goes to another German language only site. Grooves did a great job for me and was in English. One other note: When I uploaded this CD to my music server where all my CDs reside, I skipped tracks 14-17. It’s only two minutes or so and consisted of what sounded like angry Roman bar patrons attacking the band. With only the German description I have no idea what they were trying to accomplish here, but it didn’t work for me. Your mileage may vary.