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Timeline: Elements - Fire

Emily Alfin Johnson/James Stewart

Join host James Stewart for the first part of a new series, Timeline: Elementsexploring the elements of antiquity: fire, water, earth and air. 

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


Over the course of three years doing this program we have assembled quite a catalogue of episodes discussing topics across the wide breadth of music history. We’ve looked at ancient examples of musical notation, followed the development of western music through the centuries and posited on the philosophy behind music itself.

When considering where to take the program from here, I found myself listening once again to Glenn Gould’s “Solitude Trilogy.” Starting in 1967, Gould produced three hour-long radio documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The broadcasts were rather experimental at the time, something Gould called “contrapuntal radio” — allowing multiple voices to speak simultaneously. When you listen it feels a bit like radio as music. A single topic is expounded on by different voices and explored, not linearly but in a stream of consciousness.

With that example, that blueprint, in mind, we’re are about to take a journey into history, music and expression exploring the four classic elements of antiquity: fire, water, earth and air. It’s fascinating how universal these elements are in cultures around the globe. Although there are many diverse religions and belief systems and numerous deities which personify the forces of nature, the idea of an elemental breakdown of the physical world appears universal and rather consistent in human thought. It has shaped the way we think, from the ancient Babylonians to Greek philosophers to today.

In these programs, we will explore history, look at concepts of philosophy and discoveries in science. We will listen to stories from people just like you and me, concert goers, composers, music makers. We’ll talk about how music has been used to express each element and explore where art, science, history and thought connect.

So join us as we dive into the first element together: fire.

Credit U.S. - Public Domain

For the Ancient Greeks, fire was the power of transformation, stolen from the gods by Promethus for the protection of humanity. The early philosopher Heraclitus believed that fire was the first element and the rest of the physical world was born from this essence which was not made by god or man.

Today, scientists have discovered that, from one point of view, Heraclitus was right. All the elements of matter — what we see on the periodic table (hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and the like) — are forged in the furnaces of stars under tremendous pressure and heat. The fusion that takes place deep with the heart of the stars is the crucible of the cosmos. Carl Sagan famously stated, “We are star stuff.” The life and death of these burning balls of plasma gives birth to all of the building blocks of creation.

Fire is at the same time destructive, frightening and beautiful. There’s something about it that fascinates us. I mean, it has to be an almost universal human experience to remember a time gathered with other people around a fire at night. We love to watch the flames dance and sparks fly. It’s mesmerizing. Even the sound of fire entrances us.

JAMES: Do you guys like campfires?


That’s my two sons Jeremiah and Isaac. We had a brief discussion about campfires.

JAMES: What do you like about campfires?

ISAAC: Roasting marshmallows!

JAMES: So, we got that you like the roasting the marshmallows, what else do you like?

ISAAC: Eating them.

JAMES: What do like about campfires?

JEREMIAH: They’re warm. It brings people together.

JAMES: What do people around campfires?

JEREMIAH: They sing.

If we're looking at revolutions of human origins, control of fire must rank among the most important of them.

In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the animals refer to fire as “the red flower” and they are fearful of humankind’s ability to wield this destructive power. Anthropologists believe that humans have controlled fire for almost a million years. It would have been one of our first inventions, how to harness this awesome power that consumes, burns, but also provides warmth, light and protection from the darkness.

Credit US - PD

Fire is considered a transformative technology, meaning that its discovery and use changes everything. With fire comes the ability to cook food, meat, making it tastier and safer. Scientists also speculate that cooking food unlocked and broke down important nutrients and carbohydrates within the diet of early humanity, which helped in the physical development of larger brains — literal brain food. But cooked food isn’t the only thing that fire gave us.

You know, the heat, the flame, the beginning of all conversation, still. You know, flame attracts people to talk to one another.

Cooking may have helped the development of the human brain, but anthropology professor Polly Wiessner, of Utah University, takes this a step further. She has spent 40 years of her life studying the Saan people of Africa’s Kalahari Desert. In 2014 she wrote an intriguing article positing how the birth of culture and society might have everything to do with the discovery and use of fire.

The Saan people of the Kalahari live in a hunter-gatherer society, much like our ancestors did so many millennia ago. The women forage and gather fruit, berries and wild eggs, while the men hunt using arrows and spears. Professor Wiesnner interviewed thousands of the Saan people over the course of decades and saw an intriguing pattern within their daily lives. During the day, most of their time is spent on the quest for food and necessities. Communication is all about survival. "Where are best berries today? Where is the herd headed? Is it time to prepare for the dry season?" Important questions about the business of the day.

But everything changes once the sun goes down.

Fire extends the day, allowing us into interact in the darkness. The Saan people live in separate shelters with their families, but the nightly fire brings the community together around the light and the heat. Wiessner writes, “Night conversation has more to do with stories. … You have singing and dancing, too, which bonds groups.”

Credit US - PD
This is an image of drawings and paintings by the San People in Murewa, Zimbabwe.

During the day, 80 percent of the conversation among the Saan people is about the practicalities of survival, while at night 80 percent of the conversation becomes about sharing in story and song together. It’s here that stories are told and songs are born and sung, taught from one generation to the next. In the light of the flame they share in dance with one another, teaching each other something new about how they can move and express themselves.

And it’s not just about the fire itself; it’s about the space the fire creates. Professor Weissner speculates that control of fire in early humanity created the space for culture to form organically. Around the flames, in its warmth and protection, humanity was able to look at each other, circled around, shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, sharing their knowledge, their ideas and their dreams.

When you sit around a campfire as a group, you are creating, basically, the first school ever.

Campfires as the first school. Let’s explore that idea together. A while back we aired a short episode of Timeline titled Why We Sing. We asked what drives this human passion to make music either with our voices or with instruments. Since then I’ve been collecting stories from other people to get other voices involved, asking them, "Why do you sing?"

LINDA: It is the first art, probably. Don’t you think? Either singing or drumming…

Credit Glenn Moody Studios
Linda Radtke

JAMES: We’ll begin with part of a conversation I had with Linda Radtke, the host of the VPR Choral Hour. Linda believes strongly that singing …

LINDA: … is something about us being human and communicating with others as a heightened kind of speech. And I think for me it’s especially wonderful because it’s something you’re finding in your body.

JAMES: If you didn’t know, Linda is not only a wonderful host on the radio but also a talented vocalist, singing with many ensembles across Vermont. During our interview she told me a story about one of the first ensembles she ever joined.

LINDA: Larry Gordon’s Onion River Chorus, where there’s a range of people. Some read music, some don’t. Everyone is welcome. You’re learning from your partner singing next to you. And when I first started at Onion River Chorus I didn’t read music well. I sat next to someone who could, and I gradually started to figure it out, just as you do as a child on your mother’s lap. And then maybe many years later, I was sitting in Onion River Chorus next to a woman who was foreign-born and, I don’t know, her education had been spotty. We were working on Bach and we were getting better and better but still not there. We were getting to know each other just by being together, sitting together. And at the break she said, “Can I ask you something, Linda?” I said, “What?” She said, “I’m looking. So, the white notes are longer than the black notes?” And I realized that she hadn’t had any musical education. And that this opportunity as a person in her forties was available to her in her town where, as I had learned from my seat partner, she could learn how to do that; which opens all kinds of doors.

Linda’s story made me think about how we learn new skills or even how we learn in general. We learn from each other. It seems to me, the way that Linda describes it, that a choir, a chorus, is not just a performance group, it’s also a school: People of different skill levels coming together with a common interest and a common goal in mind — to make the best sound they can, to sound like one voice. This takes skill and training. And how are these skills learned? Linda said she learned by sitting next to others and following their example over time. Then, later, she became the teacher for others who joined after her.

Credit US - PD
Singing together is a skill learned by doing; a school of peers teaching and learning from each other.

This is one of the most powerful ways that we learn things — elbow knowledge, rubbing shoulders with one another and learning by osmosis the necessary skills. For a choir, or any ensemble for that matter, we gather around the music, the piece, almost like our ancestors would gather around the fire. There we are, side by side with other people, and we can jump into the task of music making with both feet. In an ensemble you know that the person on either side is either learning along with you, or they’ve been there and they know what they are doing. Together the group is stronger and bolder and can create something that one person could never do alone. Together the choir, the orchestra, the ensemble can extend itself, test itself, push itself to learn more and do more. It’s one of the reasons why we sing together. We learn from each other.

We’ve talked about gathering around flame of the campfire and music as a type of school. Now, let’s get a bit more personal.

Credit VPR.net
Annalise Shelmandine

ANNALISE: I sing because nothing else feels like, nothing in the world. My name is Annalise Shelmandine.

JAMES: Annalise is another voice you might recognize from VPR. She is also a very talented vocalist.

ANNALISE: So, one of my favorite arias to sing is “Porgi Amor.” It comes at the beginning of the second act of The Marriage of Figaro. It’s not a long aria. It’s not particularly difficult. But, the music starts and for me the character and the plot and everything doesn’t happen until the first note starts of just “Porgi.” As soon as I start, it feels like everything locks into place and I’m transported to a stage somewhere in Vienna and it’s just the music that exists. I’m gone. It’s just the music and the setting. Whatever I’m wearing, it doesn’t matter, because I’m feeling the corset of the artist who first sang that and the heartbreak the countess has because she loves this man and he’s hurt her repeatedly. All she wants is his love back.

It’s very much the emotion that drives it. And I don’t think about where you’re standing or who’s in the audience or anything like that. It’s just the music, but it’s also ... I don’t know how to describe it. You know, you’ll hear a lot of teachers say, “Ooo, imagine you have a string coming from the top of your head.” It feels like light comes through the top of my head and comes through my body and then comes out. Not in any one spot, but just goes forward. I’m not a religious person, but when I sing classically it’s the closest that I feel to any kind of higher power. It just feels like I just let myself get taken over. I feel like I’m a vessel; which has a very religious connotation, but that’s not how I mean it.

Credit US - PD
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

JAMES: Annalise’s description of being transported by song and the transfer of light from outside herself, through her voice, made me think of the writings of 12th century abbess, visionary and composer Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard is one of the first composers we know of by name, and in recent years her life, writings and music have become an inspiration to many. I asked Annalise if she had read any of Hildegard’s writings or listened to her compositions. Her face lit up.

ANNALISE: My first big term paper thing, we had to write on, I think it was, a women in history. My 504 coordinator said, “You know, you should look up Hildegard von Bingen. I think you would find her interesting.” So I did, as a freshmen, and I discovered her chants … so unlike any other Gregorian chant; which I had heard before, but this had some fire to it. And the fact that she was a woman who was highly regarded by the pope. That was a very small point in time when a woman was highly regarded by the pope. There is something to her. I don’t know…

“And I … saw something like the most brilliant fire, incomprehensible, inextinguishable, all alive, and all filled with life, having within itself a flame the color of air. I heard, from that living fire, a voice saying to me: O you who are only wretched clay … but embraced by my light, who touches you from within with a fire like the burning sun: shout and tell and write these, my mysteries, which you see and hear in this mystical vision.” Hildegard von Bingen (Scivias, Part II, Vision 1)

Hildegard wrote those words over eight centuries ago as part of her musical composition “The Origin of Fire.” Music, fire and religion have long been connected in our history.

“Why is Music a Religious Experience?” That was a question posed by Michael Graziano, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University. Graziano is an atheist, yet he remains empathetic to religion mainly because of his attitude towards music. He wrote in a 2011 blog post, “When I am listening to certain pieces of music I feel a reverence creeping over me, an awe that has a spiritual quality.” He writes that he does not see any contradiction between his scientific atheism and his emotional reverence. He writes, “When I listen to Mozart … I sense a presence … not the mind of Mozart the man, but a kind of soul that invests in a particular piece. The piece has a persona. It has a palpable spirit, and I feel as though I can have a personal relationship to that spirit.”

Credit US - PD
A hymn of praise to the Semitic goddess of orchards, Nikkal, predates all the other early music we know by nearly a millennium, dating back to 14th century B.C.

Michael isn’t alone. Our earliest examples of musical notation (songs that stay) are hymns, religious songs from cultures and people long since lost to time. There’s an early episode of Timeline describing some of these hymns in detail. It’s not surprising that cultures would want to preserve not just religious texts but also the liturgy that goes with them. This is why we have hymns from the ancient Hurrian and Greek cultures. This is why the Christian church began the practice of musical notation to begin with: to pass along these mysteries. It’s this passion that has led to the long legacy of writing down notes in time, sharing music from one generation to the next. As Hildegard stated in her vision, when you have been touched by “the fire” you have no choice but to shout.

And we, as humans, have been touched by fire. I mentioned earlier that fire is considered to be a transformational technology. I want to break that down a bit further. Scientists believe that the creation and control of fire is not an evolutionary adaption: We aren’t born knowing how to make or use it. This is learned behavior, and it doesn’t happen by instinct or accident. However, the use of fire through the millennia has been the catalyst of numerous adaptions within our species. We’ve talked about quite a few already.

I bring all of this up because I recently came across a book by Aniruddh Patel, a professor of psychology at Tufts University. In his 2008 book Music, Language, and the Brain, Patel makes a bold statement equating music with fire, saying that both are examples of transformative technology and not evolutionary adaptations. Patel writes:

“The notion of music as a transformational technology helps us to explain why music is universal in human culture. Music is universal because what it does for humans is universally valued. Music is like the making and control of fire in this respect. The control of fire is universal in human culture because it transforms our lives in ways we value deeply, for example, allowing us to cook food, keep warm, and see in dark places. Once a culture learns fire making, there is no going back, even though we might be able to live without this ability. Similarly, music is universal because it transforms our lives in ways we value deeply.”

Patel is saying that music making, like fire making, is intentional, not accidental. The making of music requires invention, study, practice, time and skill. It doesn’t just happen. Here’s where I disagree with Patel on one key aspect of this comparison. There are many ways to make fire: borrowing from another, using fuel, flint, the sun or any number of methods. The method really doesn’t matter as much as the end result, the warming flame. However, with music, the act of making it, the process of composition, rehearsal and performance, is just as rewarding (if not more rewarding) than the end result of the sound itself. The process of music making is transformative.

The town of Cateura, Paraguay, isn’t really a town. It’s a slum alongside a massive landfill that serves that nation’s capital. Every day, 3 million pounds of garbage are dumped into a community of 10,000 people. These families survive by scavenging the waste and selling what they can. Over 10 years ago, the Argentinian musician Favio Chavez began spending his free time teaching music to the children of Cateura. These classes became so popular that it wasn’t long before Chavez ran out of money and donated instruments.

That’s when he approached a carpenter friend and they began to use the garbage around them to create new instruments for the children. They call themselves the Recycled Orchestra. Today they have an international reputation, playing their unique instruments for monarchs and dignitaries and with many famous musicians from around the world. There’s even a full-length documentary film called Landfill Harmonic chronicling their story. This fame, attention and money has brought new life to their community. Now there are better homes, schools and opportunities available. Chavez says, “…music has such a great power that it can’t be just for musicians. Music can transform society.”

Credit US - PD
An 18th Century depiction of the legendary phoenix.

Recycled instruments, a transformed community. It makes me think of one final image of music and fire, the legendary phoenix. The name “phoenix” comes to us from Greek mythology, but many cultures around the world have a similar legend. Native Americans call it the “Thunderbird;” in Ancient Chinese culture the “August Rooster;” and for the Slavic people of Russia it is known as the “Firebird.”

It’s fascinating that no matter where this story is told, the phoenix (or whatever’s called) is always a portrayed as a bird, with coloring like fire — bright red, orange, yellow or gold. But the most universal and perhaps the most enticing aspect of the phoenix is its ability to resurrect. According to legend, it lives for anywhere between 500 to 1,000 years, then perishes in fire to be reborn in the ashes.

The firebird isn’t just a creature of mythology; recently biologists have observed intriguing behavior in birds of prey in the bush country of Australia. These raptors have been observed using fire in order to feed. They will carry a burning branch in their talons or beak for a half a mile and drop it in a new area. This serves to flush out the insects, rodents and other creatures hidden in the brush. As these creatures escape, the birds feast. This isn’t a new discovery; the aboriginal people have known about this behavior for 40,000 years. That’s why they call these birds “Fire Hawks.” The behavior of the fire hawks not only feeds them but also helps replenish the savanna. Each year, roughly 10 percent of the savanna burns.

Credit US - PD
Wildfires are necessary for a healthy ecology.

As modern humans, we fear fire. We fight to control blazes that rage in our forests. Every year the news is filled with stories of acres and acres that have been burned. Yes, out-of-control fire is dangerous and destructive but the truth is fire is also necessary for a healthy ecology. Fire clears the way for new growth and keeps the cycle of life for each new generation of plant and tree.

They may be frightening and desructive forces of nature, but wildfires are also vital to the existance of healthy boreal ecosystems. By coming to terms with that we can protect ourselves from their more damaging effects while enabling the forest, like the legendary phoenix, to rise reborn from its own ashes.

For as much as we pride ourselves in our modern ability to control technology like fire, I don’t think we fully grasp the lessons that fire teaches. Regardless of how hot or damaging a wildfire is, the forest bounces back. Trees have adapted by creating seeds that are only released in the intense heat of a fire. The ashes of the dead plant life become the fuel in the soil for a new generation. Insects and animals either scatter, spreading out their populations, or burrow deep into the earth to emerge later and rebuild. Nature finds a way to adapt and begin again.

Fire not only destroys; it transforms and purifies. It is the ultimate symbol of irretrievable change. Maybe I’m only speaking for myself, but I fear change, I fear death and decay. But, maybe the lesson of fire is that change is inevitable and death is transformative, or can be. The death of stars gives birth to the elements that make up everything. The death and preparation of food in a fire helped develop our own brains. By embracing this powerful force and utilizing it, humans found ways to grow as individuals and as a society. Fire shows us a power that is beyond ourselves. It is almost, but not quite, knowable and controllable. We embrace it and we fear it simultaneously. The ancient Greeks believed that fire was the first element; from the uncreated flame all of creation was formed. I feel we might have a lot to learn from our ancestors and from fire.

Explore the rest of Timeline: Elements.

Credits (in order of appearance):  Isaac Stewart, Jeremiah Stewart, Linda Radtke, Annalise Shamendine and Kari Anderson.

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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