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Timeline: Elements - Earth

Emily Alfin Johnson/James Stewart

Our third episode of Timeline: Elements focuses on our home, the ground beneath our feet: Earth.

Enjoy the podcast and experience the video of Timeline: Elements Live recorded in VPR's Stetson Studio One.


Crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living – Koyannisqatsi. This word comes from the Hopi language, a Native American clan of the Pueblo that live in the region of northeastern Arizona.

In 1982, it was also the title of a film directed by Godfrey Reggio. The film Koyannisqatsi is an 85-minute visual tone poem. There is no dialogue, no narration, just the cinematography of Ron Fricke and an original score by Philip Glass. The music is haunting, yet beautiful, matching the images and time-lapse photography of cities and natural landscapes. It’s the first of a trilogy of films that explores the relationship between humans, nature and technology.

Near the end of the film, Philip Glass utilizes three prophecies of the Hopi people, each warning humanity of its responsibility to the earth and to nature. The most ominous of these prophecies translates into English as, “If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”

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On Timeline, we’ve been exploring the four elements of antiquity: fire, water, earth and air. In this episode we’ll look at Earth, our relationship and our connection, our oneness with it. The word “earth” is used to describe physical matter within this terrestrial world. Earth is where all things blossom and grow, fed by water, air and light. For the philosophers of Ancient Greece, earth was the heaviest element, constantly being pulled to the center of the cosmos. This was their definition and explanation for gravity. Earth is represented by the geometrical shape, the cube. It’s solid, stable and resistant.

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The symbol of the yin yang is all about balance and harmony, the feminine and the masculine, centering the pulling together.

There have been many other symbols of earth in many other cultures. In sanskit the word for earth is Prithvi, which translates as “The Vast One.” You might recognize this title more in the name Prithvi Mata or “Mother Earth.” She is the companion and equal of “Father Sky.” These two create a duality, like two half-shells completing a whole. This is not unlike the Ancient Chinese philosophical view of the Earth element. The Yin and Yang is all about balance and harmony, the feminine and the masculine, centering the pulling together; which again is just like gravity.

Earth is our home, where we are born, live and die. It is our most obvious source of gravity; we are constantly being pulled towards the center. But Earth isn’t just our home or our place of origin; we are a part of it. In Judaism and Christianity, humans were formed from the dust of the earth. This is where we get that common saying, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” In other words, we are a part of this substance of matter. This face is something that modern humans tend to forget.

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Earth isn't just our home or a storehouse of resources. We are a part of this element.

Earth is also associated with the more sensual aspects of life and death. We could call them “earthly” pursuits, if you will. Air pulls our gaze upward, into skies of clouds and stars, the spiritual or heavenly realms; while earth pulls our eyes down to see ourselves as we are right now. Earth is the realm of our pursuits, interests and pleasures. It’s also the home of our pain, suffering and sin. What I’m trying to say is earth is the setting, the stage for the drama of our everyday lives, our comedies and tragedies, our passions and our art.

JOHN: This is something which would really become important to music since the end of the 16th century, on a very large scale. Where you could say that music, which beforehand had sort of looked upwards to the stars, in many respects, was now looking downwards to the actual happenings on Earth.

JAMES: That’s the voice of world renowned Bach scholar …

JOHN: … John Butt. I live in Glasgow, Scotland where I’ve been for some 17 years now as Gardiner [Professor] of Music at the University of Glasgow. Before that I was at the University of Cambridge and before that I was at U.C. Berkley. So, I’ve been around a little bit.

JAMES: I was so intrigued with John’s assessment, his visualization of skyward or earthward music. He believes that the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were written to point us to the sky, to the spiritual, to something outside of ourselves; while the music of the Baroque and after points us to the Earth. John said it was really a question of honestly portraying the human disposition in music.

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Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

JOHN: Well, I think particularly when we’re thinking of Baroque music, this question of the human disposition and how humans are, as it were, very much alive in the moment and across time have different characters and encounter different characters within the course of their life.

So really from the time of Montiverdi onwards, well into the 19th century, this obsession with the human disposition, the different passions, the different ways of being in the actual time of one’s existence, become one of the crucial aspects of music. Which is really an element of musical expression, of musical being, which is still very much with us today.

JAMES: As John was describing these passions of human disposition, my mind went immediately to the Doctrine of the Affections. I clumsily mentioned this to John.

JOHN: I think it would be wrong to say there’s a doctrine as such, but many writers from a large number of fields, including the musical field, but also philosophy and so on, did assume that there was a measureable form of emotional scale. Descartes, I suppose, is the famous of these in his last treatise “The Passions of the Soul” from just before he died around 1649. There he actually posits the idea of there being an actual physical movement in the brain, in the penial gland, going one way or the other according to the stimulus one had, one’s disposition and also one’s will. So, that emotion is a very complex part of the human anatomy. It’s this physicalization of emotion that’s so interesting; this notion that it’s both there in the body in terms of actual physical changes and therefore actually measurable. These things become fascinating for many people of the day, even though there’s no catalogue as such.

JAMES: Ancient philosophers had a great deal to say about the power of music to affect and change the emotion within the listener. In the late Renaissance and early Baroque, composers were reading these treatises and they were discovering a problem.

JOHN: What worried them was that when you listened to polyphony, nobody seemed to change mood, they just sat there. They said, “Why? Why have we lost this ability to make music that will actually influence people and tie in with their emotions?” So, it was a real envy, you could say, of a music that didn’t actually didn’t exist, of which, though, there were several verbal records.

JAMES: So the music makers of the Baroque found an answer to this problem in monody. Monody is when the composer will —

JOHN: — direct the musical line in such a way that it consolidates more on a single melody supported by a bass and supported by harmony. Instead of having a five/six part texture you condense that into what’s essentially a two-part texture in which all the inner parts are somehow refocused into a more chordal kind of structure.  So it’s more linear, it’s a style of music which is meant to be more immediate.

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The madrigal "Perfidisimo Volto" by composer Giulio Caccini is a good example of Monody, a single solo line accompanied by chordal harmony.

JOHN: How does it do it? Well, this is of course where the big argument began. Monteverdi’s answer, which actually is not a bad one, seems to be you break away creatively from the rules you’ve got in order to create emotion. Yes, it’s creative breaking. And of course, last year’s "rule break” becomes this year’s “rule.” You could perhaps say that the history of Western Music since 1600 up to the 1960s or '70s was, in some respects, a continuous pattern of rule-breaking and creating new rules as a sort of dialectic, you could say of taking the past, turning away from it and then assimilating it.

JAMES: Every generation of artists takes the rules given to them and creatively breaks them for their own purposes. It’s an evocative idea and it makes me think of how we have shaped this planet, taken the raw materials of the earth and crafted buildings, roads, homes and structures. Look into archeological digs or study anthropology and you’ll discover there is layer upon layer of culture, one civilization after another building on the knowledge and foundation laid out before them. It’s true for art as well. One artist will push the boundary of form and technique and the next generation stands on their shoulders and reaches a bit farther.

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The Wheel of Fortune from the Codex Buranus.

In 1803, in a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria, a collection of writings was discovered. Dating back to the 11th or 12th centuries, these 254 poems and dramatic texts were written by students and members of the clergy in Latin and High German, covering very earthly subjects, such as sex, love, drinking and “The Wheel of Fortune.”

A quarter of these poems were already set to music, originally. There is an early form of nuemic musical notation in the original manuscripts. But that’s not the version or setting that we would be familiar with. In 1936, German composer Carl Orff took 24 of these poems and set them to music, creating his cantata Carmina Burana. So, we see 12th-century monks, breaking the rules and writing about ancient pagan practices and pursuits while satirizing the Roman Catholic Church. These works were translated by 19th-century scholars and interpreted by a 20th-century music educator. The result is a piece of music that feels both ancient and current simultaneously. The setting feels like it should be sacred, like Handel’s Messiah, yet the subject of the text is so secular it might make the more modest listener blush. Orff’s Carmina Burana showcases the power of multiple layers of culture working together.

Let’s look at another example from the world of poetry…

Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day Life in the world is but a big dream I will not spoil it by any labor or care So saying, I was drunk all the day Lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.
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Li Bai (701-762)

That is quite a human experience, basically describing a bad hangover. It could’ve have been written last weekend. It’s actually the opening stanza of “Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day” written by Chinese poet Li Bai during the golden age of Chinese poetry. Li Bai wrote thousands of poems about every subject you could possibly imagine. He and fellow poet Li Po helped to define the forms of poetry used in the Tang dynasty during the 8th century. That’s right, that poem about waking up hungover on spring day was written over 1,200 years ago.

In the early 20th century, Western culture began to slowly wake up to the beautiful world of poetry from the East. The poems of Li Bai and many other Chinese masters were translated into German for a publication called The Chinese Flute. This book of ancient poetry inspired the composer Gustav Mahler to create one of his monumental masterpieces.

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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

1907 was a horrible year for Mahler. There was a wave of antisemitism in Germany that forced him to resign his position as the director of the Vienna Court Opera. He lost his oldest daughter to scarlet fever. And to make matters worse, he himself was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. His very days were numbered. He wrote, “With one stroke I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps like a new born.”

That’s when Mahler found the poems of The Chinese Flute. He was captivated by the poems’ description of beauty, the earth, suffering and just the reality of being human. He selected seven of the poems and set them to music in his 1909 The Song of the Earth.

Native Stone Octavio Paz Light is laying waste the heavens Droves of dominions in stampede The eye retreats surrounded by mirrors Landscapes as enormous as insomnia Stony ground of bone Limitless autumn Thirst lifts its invisible fountains One last peppertree preaches in the desert Close your eyes and hear the song of the light: Noon takes shelter in your inner ear Close your eyes and open them: There is nobody not even yourself Whatever is not stone is light

“Native Stone” by Octavio Paz is another example of poetry shaping music. It is the inspiration for John Luther Adams 2018 Become Desert, a symphonic exploration of land and light, the follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean.

Imagine entering into a symphony hall for a concert. The orchestra is prepared yet not all on stage. They are in groups or choirs surrounding you. Each choir of instruments begins to play. The music isn’t dissonant, but it’s not happening together. The players are in different time signatures, playing different material. Colors and textures approach your ears from all sides, the sounds morph and change as you listen. You can’t take it all in, you don’t know exactly where to look, you are “fully immersed and swimming in the light” — that is exactly Adams' intention.

Adams' earlier work, Become Ocean, puts the listener in the middle of a wave. Become Desert suspends you above the Earth, like an eagle soaring over the sand surrounded by the walls of a great canyon.

Close your eyes and hear the song of the light; noon takes shelter in your inner ear. Close your eyes and open them: There is nobody, not even yourself, whatever is not stone is light.
All the world’s a stage and all men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts…

In this familiar monologue from As You Like It, Shakespeare goes on to list the “ages of man.” The Bard is describing the stages of one person’s life from infancy to death. This fascination with categorizing human development was not new, even for Shakespeare. Around the 7th century B.C., the Greek poet Hesiod wrote his Myth of Ages, not about one life but about all mankind.

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A page from the 1539 printing of Hesiod's "Works and Days".

According to Hesiod, the first, the Golden Age saw humanity at one with the gods and the earth. The earth provided food without toil and people lived long, peaceful lives while maintaining their youth. The birth of the god Zeus saw the dawn of the Silver Age. Humanity lived 100 years in strife and war with one another. They refused to worship the gods and were punished. Zeus recreated mankind from the ash tree and thus began the Bronze Age. Humans became hard and tough and died in battle. What followed was the age of heroes, the time of Homer’s Odyssey and the battles of Thebes and Troy. Finally, Hesiod described the current age as the age of Iron. This is a time of great misery and strife, when the gods have forsaken humanity.

These titles sound familiar because they closely follow the three-age system of archeology. We know these ages as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. They’re simply loose categories used in the early days of modern archeology to help categorize the various artifacts discovered from ancient cultures. I mention them because it fascinates me that when we seek to define our development as a species, we look at what resources we were pulling out of the earth at a specific time. The progress of technology seems dependent on our ability to mine, refine and sculpt the earth beneath our feet.

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Do we ever ask if human progress is sustainable?

Even today, we seem to see ourselves as masters of the earth and its resources while simultaneously standing outside of our own habitat. Here’s what I mean, there is such a thing as the Human Development Index. This statistic looks at factors such as life expectancy, income and education for an entire population, like a country. It rates a country’s development on a spectrum; whether individuals in a culture would have the freedom and ability to “be” and “do” quote-unquote “desirable” things in their life. I can certainly see how such a tool or index could be useful from a sociological standpoint, but it doesn’t seem to ask if this level of human development is sustainable.

What is the environmental cost of modern human development, and why isn’t that cost taken into account? This is a question that Australian composer Brett Dean has asked in his 2010 Pastoral Symphony. Dean evokes Beethoven with the title, but this piece is much more like a tone poem, incorporating live instruments and pre-recorded sounds that surround the audience. It begins with bird calls and the sounds of wild nature, which are interrupted and trampled by rhythm, pulse and harsh dissonances. You can hear the sounds of speeding vehicles, alarms, airplanes and engines that overtake the music. It’s as if a human-made machine is stomping out the wildlife and natural sounds.

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Composer Brett Dean calls the song of the butcher bird one of the most beautiful sounds on the Australian continent.

Brett Dean’s program note for the Pastoral Symphony sums up his intention well. “Sure, we all ‘love’ nature,” he writes. “But what we love more are all the trappings of modern living … certainly more than the desire to stop and bask in the glory of a single butcherbird, perhaps the most magical sound found on the whole Australian continent.”

Music has the ability to draw our focus, to make us look up into the sky or down to the earth. The desire to affect an emotional response from the listener led the philosophers and composers of the 17th century to create a style of music that touched something immediate in the human soul. From the Baroque onwards, we see a continuing fascination with nature itself portrayed in music. Beethoven, the composer of THE Pastoral Symphony, got his best ideas during his daily walks, scribbling down ideas in his notebook. He famously stated that he preferred the company of a tree to that of a man. Mozart wrote everywhere, but he preferred to write outside in an open garden.

Throughout this episode we’ve looked at how the earth and nature have inspired composers through the centuries; especially how modern composers have used their works to commentate about our relationship with nature and the earth. We began by looking at Philip Glass’ score to Koyannisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, and I’m reminded of that prophetic warning coined by the Hopi people, “If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”

For me, the lesson of looking at Earth as an element is to realize that I’m not separate from it. You and I, we are a part of this substance. The ground beneath our feet isn’t a resource to exploit but a treasure to preserve. That’s not saying we don’t progress or mine and craft the materials of the earth, but it does mean that we challenge ourselves to consider that our development as a species is also dependent on our ability to steward and maintain a sustainable balance with our surroundings. Human beings should not be a virus on this planet. We must find balance in order to continue to survive and grow. We invite disaster when we see the world and the people around us as nothing more than fuel to fire our own ambition. We should seek sustainability. As theologian Matthew Fox so famously put it:

Sustainability is another word for justice, for what is just is sustainable and what is unjust is not.

Explore the rest of Timeline: Elements.  

Credits (in order of appearance: Dr. John Butt, Jen Jerecki, Mitch Wertlieb and Michelle Owens

Timeline, hosted by James Stewart, is a program from VPR Classical, a service of Vermont Public Radio. Special thanks to Kari Anderson for her support of this project. Learn more and follow the Timeline at VPR.net/timeline.

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