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Timeline: Lewis Holmes and "The Mystery of Music"

Lewis M. Holmes
Used with permission
Learn about ancient musicians and societies in the new book by Vermont author Lewis M. Homes.

Lewis Holmes: I think musicality is universal, that is the ability to enjoy music, to make music, that’s universal. But there are a lot of differences between the types of music that you find in different societies. The interactions between one musical system and another has strengthened both systems.


James: We’re going to spend some time in the coming episodes exploring musicians from the ancient past; looking at composers and music makers from civilizations long gone. We’ll learn new names and discover how times have changed and how somethings about music, economy and society never change. All of this is thanks to the help of Vermont scientist and writer…

Lewis: I’m Lewis Holmes. I’m active as an independent scholar and as a writer. I’ve written a few books in the last 15 years. I started out as a physicist doing research on magnetism. And then I shifted over to working in editorial functions for various technical and scientific publications.

James: Lewis has just published a new book called “The Mystery of Music.” I’ve had a chance to read it and I personally learned so much. The book itself explores…

Lewis: ..the idea about music as a universal aspect of human existence and this is investigated by looking at the lives of ancient musicians. So the bulk of the book is taken up by brief biographies or profiles of 30 musicians of the past. There are 10 separate regions that are covered between Japan and Spain, I guess you’d say.

James: Only a few of the names of these ancient musicians are familiar. There’s a Mesopotamian princess writing religious hymns, an Arabian songstress of erotic odes and a blind Japanese lutenist composing war epics influencing the population. The scope and scholarship of this project stretches the mind.

Lewis: It might give some indication of why music is important to people and to our societies.

James: Lewis has dived into anthropology and archeology, digging up names, context and details that bring new insight to the surface. The book is a museum of forgotten musicians. In the early 20th Century, the field of musicology was focused on the study and preservation of folk music from various cultures. Today, the field has expanded into more historical studies.

Lewis: A few years ago the American Society for Ethnomusicology established a section on historical ethnomusicology and it’s quite an important part of the whole operation now. I think no one before has considered going so far into the distant past as I have. The musicians that I’ve studied lived really in ancient times, between about 2500 BC and 1500 AD.

There’s a problem with doing this kind of study which is that the people who are written about tend to be the rich and power, rich and power men, even.

James: Therefore, Lewis has gone out of his way to include the voices and names of the marginalized.

Lewis: People who were not independently wealthy, not aristocrats and so on, and I have several examples of that in the book.

James: We’ll look at a few of those examples together in the coming episodes of Timeline. So stay tuned.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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