Howell to speak on the archaeology of music

Published 2:25 pm Sunday, May 20, 2007

In the visually motivated field of archaeology, inroads into musical anthropology are turning some heads and honing new senses of the past.

Mark Howell, director of Winterville Mounds Park and Museum near Greenville, is coming to Natchez to present a program on ethnic music findings that are making ripples in the archaeology world.

The program, 6:30 p.m. on May 31 at Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, will focus on Howell’s discoveries in Maya music found during research in Guatemala.

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“This is a kind of wide open field,” Howell said. “I’m surprised there are not as many in the field.”

His fascinating journey from a career in musical performance and composition in New York City to the Maya villages and cities of Guatemala is one of discovery and enlightenment.

As a composer, Howell favored serious music. He began to study Western art music. “That’s classical music, basically,” he said.

He found that music history was fluid, indeed, that some music had never been recorded on paper.

“To be honest, we don’t really know what Gregorian chants sounded like. Probably the ones you hear today are not rhythmically correct,” Howell said.

“Saint Augustine (Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 A.D.) developed 20 rhythmic modes, but all of these were not carried over to the modern age,” he said.

Music was recorded in writing beginning about 800 A.D. “mostly as a bookkeeping tool,” Howell said.

So what happened in the period between Gregory I, whose name is associated with the chant and who lived about 540 to 604 A.D., and the time when scribes began to put music to paper?

Howell turned his attention to this area of lost music during his studies in graduate school.

His music background is solid. With a bachelor’s in jazz music from the University of Southern Mississippi, he returned to school during his professional period in New York. He received a master’s of fine arts in music composition from the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Finally, he attended The Graduate Center, City University of New York and received his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology.

“I studied with the musicologist who cracked the code of the Gregorian chant, Leo Treitler,” Howell said.

As he focused on Western music that was not as well know and not well understood, he started to think about music of the Americas, Howell said.

“I am really bonded with America as an artist,” he said. “You have to understand where you come from to create valid art.”

He began to tap into the roots of the Maya sources, picking not into the earth or rock but into the soundtracks of the ancient people to find “some ideas no one had used for 500 years.”

His fascination grew. “I wanted to know more. I was pursuing a degree in ethnomusicology and I had decided my dissertation would be ancient American music,” he said.

One of the turning points in his research came when he found a 1940s recording at the Library of Congress of Maya music from Guatemala.

“It was an accompaniment to a Precolumbian dance play, ‘Man of Rabinal’ or ‘Rabinal Achi,’” he said. “It was such a strange coincidence. I noted the name of the person who made the recording and decided to see if she lived in New York.”

She did. He called on Henrietta Yurchenco, known in the music world for her scholarship in the WPA period of American history and as the DJ of the first public radio station in the United States.

“She was very happy to hear that I wanted to learn more about the recording,” Howell said. “She was 82 then, elegant, attractive and engaging.”

Yurchenco had made recordings of folk music in the mountains of Mexico and in Guatemala.

Meanwhile, Howell began researching the dance play and found that a script for “Rabinal Achi” had surfaced in the 1850s and was believed to be authentic Precolumbia in content.

“The way the words were structured is the way a lot of known Maya documents are structured,” he said. “There are things in it that archaeologists have used to find sites.”

In 2001, Howell went to Guatemala to the little town of Rabinal. “I didn’t know if anyone would remember,” he said. “Henrietta hadn’t been there since the 1940s.”

Howell met the town maestro, who played for him music similar to the recordings made by Yurchenco. He was captivated and made plans to return the next January for the town’s big patron festival.

On his return, he recorded the music, which was produced by valveless trumpets and drums made by hollowing logs into an H-shape. Howell knew the instruments had their beginnings in Precolumbia times.

“This was an instrument not really known to be in existence,” he said of the drum. “To end up in a place like this and to find that what I had hoped to find indeed was here was amazing.”

The music he recorded inspired his own compositions, he said. He studied the patterns and made new discoveries.

Meanwhile, some profound findings are arising among archaeologists who are studying sounds.

“Some people in music archaeology are looking into sound environments. A lot of the Maya ruins have interesting acoustics,” he said.

One archaeologist became curious about the unique sounds made by clapping one’s hands in front of a Precolumbian pyramind.

“He recorded the clapping. Then he was able to record he quetzal bird, which lives only in Middle America,” Howell said. “It’s remarkable on the recording how close the sounds are.”

Sensory data is being overlooked in the archaeology field, Howell said. “A lot of experiments along those lines are under way.”

Howell has been director at Moundville since September. He and his wife were ready to move south, he said.

Recently, he studied the various bell types recovered from French explorer LaSalle’s flagship, which sank in a Texas bay in the late 17th century.

Howell has published and lectured widely during his career and is the recipients of many awards, grants and fellowships.

In 2002, the City University of New York Dissertation Research Committee Award helped to finance his fieldwork for the Maya music research in Guatemala.

He is accomplished both as an instrumentalist and a composer.