Saturday, September 26, 2015

One body - a reflection on the music of the accents

I have just listened to David's lament as set by Tomkins again. It is very moving. The heart-wrenching images superimposed on the music of this performance do not include the latest in the refugee tragedies that we have seen every day recently. But they make one ask if there is any healing possible.

Who will allow their minds to be changed from the pursuit of violence?

In considering this, I have written (again) on the music of the Bible to consider all the people on whom I am dependent to be able to do this work. There are millions. Clearly there is one body and yet for all its music, it is as Isaiah says a head of sickness and a heart of melancholy. From the sole of the foot and up to the head, there is no completeness in it: inflicted with wounds, and striped, and freshly stricken, neither closed up, nor bandaged, nor eased with oil.
Isaiah 1:5-6. Note that the opening B-f-d occurs in 28 verses in the Scripture:
8 times in Torah, 15 in the later Prophets and 5 in the Writings
It is abundantly clear in our interdependent body, that there is much that is not healthy.

What then should we do? Clearly we should learn to sing.

Who am I to say this? And what would I sing?

I am a small business owner whose life's work has been in the field of computer science. On retirement, my work continued the experimental use of our software to develop a system for analysis of the Hebrew Bible. The results of this are in process.

The first milestone was the publication of my book Seeing the Psalter, Energion 2013. This work was completed during a Community Fellowship at the University of Victoria in the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society. The database used to create my 500 page visualization of word repetition in Hebrew poetry has become the seed for a larger project: to read all the Hebrew Scripture in a concordant fashion.

The second milestone achieved in August 2015 changes the way in which the Hebrew Bible can be read. I have automated the transformation of the Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew pointed text into readable Music.


Yes, the Bible is a multi-thousand page art song. (I'm guessing about 6,000 pages).

The Hebrew of the Bible is marked with accents above and below the text of each line, syllable by syllable. The meaning of these signs was largely passed on through oral tradition which after the destruction of the temple became lost. The accents we have today appeared as a fully formed system in the eighth century Aleppo codex. No one I have read seems to know where they came from. People have discussed the accents and searched out their meaning as if they were primarily grammatical punctuation and as if they were created by the Masoretes. That is an assumption rather than a proven piece of history. The discussions are arcane, filled with unfamiliar words, and difficult to follow. Tradition has many differing ways of singing the text, but the cantillation, though florid, is less than revealing of the song.

I used the rules of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura, a student of Marcel Dupré (introduced visually here.) She inferred a deciphering key based on a superficially obvious characteristic of the accents: the accents below the text are always present. Those above the text are often absent. The accents below the text can describe a scale and therefore define a reciting note. She then interpreted those above the text as ornamentation. This transformation into music makes the grammar of the accents in the Hebrew text transparent. There is no need for arcane and difficult to understand explanations. The links to the many thousand pages of the 929 chapters are here. I have made them public because this music belongs to us all.

On what or on whom was I dependent to do this work?
  • First to my musical training over 60 years. Strange as it may seem, most students of the Bible are not musicians.
  • Second, to the creators of the MusicXML language and of the music software that can read it.
  • Third, to my trainers in language, English from my youth, even my troubled Latin teacher, my Hebrew teacher, Gidi Nahson of blessed memory, at the local synagogue in Victoria B.C.
  • Fourth, to my staff of research programmers.
  • Fifth, 
    • to the creators of Oracle, the database I use,
    • to those who built and maintain my computer,
    • and to the internet.
  • And then I am dependent on Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura who inferred the rules for the music of the accents in the last century and to her teacher, Marcel Dupré and even to the war that forced her exile and isolation.
  • And to her translator, Jon Wheeler, who was very supportive in my first halting steps and who still wants to correct my interpretations at times.
Surely this interdependency shows we are one body. No healthy creature desires to hurt its own body.

The myriad of factors that allowed me to create a program to transform the text into music includes people of every possible stripe.

One more dependency needs elaborating, but here is the secret motivation that cannot be expressed without seeming to exclude. That would be a misreading of my self-description and an imposition of what you think I must be like into your own thoughts. Why create either an enemy or a slot, hostile or friendly, for my being based on your reading of my words?

My religion is Christian. This is an inherited upbringing whether nominal or fundamental in the social structure to which I was appended in my youth. I have been through all sorts of manifestations of this structure, from a nominal United Church infancy, to a school in the English tradition where the Bible was read in a Church of England framework every morning and evening, to a recoil to atheism based on Bertrand Russel’s work from the fractured 19 years that home and school represented, to a call into the incredible fundamentalism and accidental typology of the closed-table brethren, to what I hope is a more sensible maturity – but who knows? The pear is still on the tree and has somewhat matured its shape and texture in spite of the pressures that were imposed on it.

Whatever else my history reveals, I realized just 10 years ago at age 60 or so, that the dialogue between Jesus and his Father, the inner dialogue of a human being, was a dialogue I could not understand in him as human without a reading that respected the use of words in his own language and a sense of how they fit together with their repeating sounds. What I knew was tradition and complex scholarly articles on texts. I did not find what I was looking for in any translation of the Hebrew Bible. In particular, the Hebrew of the Psalms presented itself to me as a primary problem in understanding the humanity of this Jesus, child of Mary, child of David, child of God. And Coverdale, though a piece of poetry in its own right, is not a translation that allows such insight into the character of the Anointed easily.

So I read Hebrew poetry as my first introduction to the language. I, who was impatient with English, French, or Latin poetry, began to learn a new language first by reading its poetry. Note: I did not learn its grammatical rules. I still don’t know them! But I can continue to report in English what I have begun to learn over the last 10 years.

So this is the primal and final influence on my project. To help me, I read with the tools outlined in this poster:
  • the music, now available to me completely and on a verse by verse basis,
  • an emerging dictionary of stems, allowing me to hear and see repeated sounds, and
  • a set of programs that enable semi-automated translation and a testing of my chosen English gloss against the Hebrew.
It is abundantly clear in our interdependent body, that there is much that is not healthy.

What then should we do? Clearly we should learn to sing.