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Reaching out to the distant past

We are all the sum of past experiences. And with a little effort, we need not limit these to our own personal going-ons. Through the arts we can absorb all of humanity, and draw upon the insights of great geniuses in a direct, yet mysterious way.

After spending several summers in the ancient town of Siena, Italy, I have found a special affinity for medieval history. It is not that I fashion myself a scholar in any way - rather I have a fascination with the seeds that were sown for later, great discoveries. And a deep appreciation for accomplishments that endure to this day; beautifully handwritten manuscripts, impressive architecture, and delicate jewelry.

What really gets to me, though, are the glimpses of real human life - the opportunities to get to know an actual individual from distant times, a portal for time travel where we learn that although the world might be unrecognizable on a technological level, the human experience, with its desires, joys and disappointments is and was much the same.

In Jostein Gaarder's excellent book "Sophie's World", the author compares the timeline of modern timekeeping (A.D.) to a human life. Equating each century to a year in development, the Middle Ages correspond loosely to school age (5-15). A time when the foundation is laid for who you are and what you know. At the same time we don't necessarily save much of our work from this age - and if we do, it is more for curiosity's sake than for its own merit. (Following this analogy, I guess that Antiquity would be our genetic heritage/knowledge from our ancestors. But more interestingly, it places us now in our reckless early twenties: An age where you have full physical powers, but typically little wisdom, and seem prone to rash and short-sighted decisions. The age where mental illness will manifest itself and accidents abound...)

Isidore of Seville wrote: "unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down." Yet a few hundred years later systems were developed to achieve exactly this. Scholars will argue about what exactly the meaning of the "neumes" are, and even when they think they have a good grasp on this, we will have to accept that the practical realization of the earliest, Western music manuscripts are largely depending on an oral tradition.

My fascination has taken me further and further back in time exactly for this reason: As we reach backwards to try to remember that pure, innocent experience and expression, sediments cling to the material, shrouding it in obscurity. There is something there that is completely a part of us all - a heritage that we cannot deny, a language that we intuitively understand. Yet when we try too hard to focus in on it, it gets blurry.

Maybe Medieval man was the true Renaissance man? Notker Balbulus ("Notker the stammerer") was a musician, poet, author, and historian. He was described by his peers as "delicate of body but not of mind, stuttering of tongue but not of intellect, pushing boldly forward in things Divine, a vessel of the Holy Spirit without equal in his time." From this Swiss monk of the ninth century we have some of the earliest examples of written music. In trying to get to know him, converse and engage, share in his experience, humanity, and devotion - I wrote the piece that you can hear in the video.

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