“The Voice of the Pipes”—and a third Leslie

Notes on the auloi, the Hammond B3, and the expressive potential of musical mimēsis, ancient and modern

2015.10.03 | By Mark Griffith, UC Berkeley

Preface: My warm thanks to Gregory Nagy for inviting me to contribute a coda here this week. I was a part of the same conference in Berkeley that he mentions as the occasion for the presentation of his paper, “Genre, Occasion, and Choral Mimesis Revisited—with special reference to the ‘newest Sappho’,” which is now posted here. My own paper entitled, “Was korybantic/orgiastic performance a ‘lyric genre’?,” discussed forms of sung and instrumental performance in ancient Greece that were of especially affective and mood-altering impact.

It occurred to me as I listened to Greg’s delightful “keynote address” on Thursday evening that, in addition to Leslie Kurke (organizer of our conference, and author of an engaging article on Sappho to which Greg refers repeatedly in his posting) and Lesley Gore (singer of the pop hit “It’s My Party” in 1963, discussed and reproduced likewise in Greg’s posting), there is a third “Leslie” worthy of noting in relation to my own paper and its main gist. When I mentioned this to Greg, he suggested that I write up my thoughts, as a “guest author” in response to his own paper—and here is the result.

Greek song-culture, whether in the form of choral or solo performances, generally involved voices, instrumental accompaniment, and often a visual component as well—bodies moving in dance, gesture, instrument-playing, etc., often enhanced by some distinctive “costume.” But the texts that survive for us to read in D. L. Page’s Poetae Melici Graeci, D. A. Campbell’s Greek Lyric Poetry, etc., usually contain only the words (what in terms of contemporary English-language songs we call “the lyrics”), plus occasional book-titles or markers of stanza-end, changes of speaker, etc. These verbal texts may allow us to get some idea of the rhythms (meters) of the original performance, but they supply almost nothing concerning the original melodies or even the instruments used for accompaniment to the voices. Sometimes we don’t even know whether a chorus or a solo voice sang these words. (This was a topic discussed at several points during the Berkeley conference, with regard especially to Sappho’s and Pindar’s songs.)

Furthermore, these surviving texts of the “lyric poets”—fragmentary as most of them are, alas!—come almost entirely from the ace poetic wordsmiths of the Archaic and early Classical period, i.e. the great nine: Alcman, Stesichorus, Ibycus, Sappho, Alcaeus, Anacreon, Simonides, Pindar, Bacchylides. These must have been the cream of the poetic crop, and their words were already being sampled, critiqued and incorporated into the educational curriculum all over Greece by the 5th century BCE. (For example, we find Protagoras and Socrates discussing the interpretation of a passage from Simonides in Plato’s Protagoras, a dialogue set in the 440s BCE.) But there were hundreds of other song-composers (I don’t say “song-writers,” because presumably most of them never bothered to write their musical hymns, prayers, dance-songs, and laments down on papyrus or wax, and had in any case no interest in these performances being transmitted to posterity).

What were ancient performers and audiences primarily focusing on and enjoying the most, when they heard/saw a performance of a paian to Apollo or song to Artemis? They would hear thousands of these during the course of their lives, just as followers of the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox Church over the centuries would hear thousands of renditions of Kyrie eleison (“Lord, Have Mercy”) at Sunday Mass. For many of them, I suggest, it was more likely to be the quality of the singing voice, or of the instrumental accompaniment, as well as the physical attractiveness of the performers, that would make the biggest impression — not the words of the song, which would in many cases be extremely predictable, even banal.

In the modern era (let’s say, the 20th century Anglo-American popular music scene), those of us who have visited actual record stores (with 45s, or LPs, or even CDs) will remember that there are bins/sections for the different “genres” of song: country, rock, folk, soul, blues, heavy metal, indie rock, blue grass, etc. Some of these genres tend to involve more emphasis on the words of the songs than others. Thus in the record stores of the 1960s and 1970s, one might find some popular songs with sophisticated lyrics composed by wordsmiths such as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen—poets both, to be sure—and others by e.g. James Brown (“Ain’t it Funky Now”) or the Isley Brothers (“Twist and Shout,” subsequently covered by the Beatles) in which the words were not really the point, but rather the groove and the vocal and instrumental timbres.

In Greek antiquity the most widely used musical instrument was the double reed-pipe (auloi). Much easier to carry around and keep in tune than a lyre or kithara, the auloi were also more versatile, could be played more loudly, and made a more exciting sound. As many ancient authors attest, the warm, affective, stirring quality of the auloi‘s timbre, and its expressive range, made it the instrument of choice for all Dionysian occasions (including the theater) and also for many occasions involving lament, charms, exuberant dance, and other emotional ceremonies. (The auloi are being played for example among the mourners in a house which Jesus visits to bring a dead girl back to life: Matthew 9:18–26.) Some conservative critics in Classical Athens even argued that their use should be restricted because the effects on listeners (and performers) were too emotionally stirring and hard to control; and they made up grisly stories about kithara-playing Apollo defeating aulos-playing Marsyas in a competition—but this disapproval of aulos-playing may partly have been a matter of jealousy at the fact that Theban auletes were so much more accomplished and successful than Athenian ones.

The Greek term most often used to describe the “expressive, affective” capacities of the auloi was mimeisthai or mimêsis: the reed-pipes, it was widely agreed, could “express” emotions and affects, moods, and feelings in ways, and to a degree, that no other instrument could. (As Greg notes in his own posting, mimēsis has a wide range of meanings indeed!) The divinities who presided over the most emotive and affective music included Dionysos, Kybele, and the various groups of daimones known as Korybantes, Kourêtes, Kabeiroi, or Idaian Daktyls. Often their music involved percussion as well: tumpana (frame drums made with animal skins), krotala/krembala (wooden or ceramic hand-percussion, i.e. castanets), seistra (metal or vegetable rattles), and bronze cymbals (sometimes shields used as percussion). And for the most part, as far as can be determined, the musical/choral performances that employed these instruments did not rely on a very formal or fixed “script/libretto”: voices were indeed involved, but the vocalizing of such cries as euoialalêktl, did not require much or any knowledge of the Greek language, let alone any poetic skill in verbal arts. This kind of music is referred to by Aristotle (Politics Book 8) as “sacred” or “orgiastic” music (i.e. music employed to facilitate the sacred rites (orgia) conducted in celebration of Dionysos or the Mother). And like Plato and others before him, Aristotle characterizes such music as inducing enthousiasmos in its audiences, i. e. making them entheos (“filled-with-the-divine,” “inspired”).

Many human societies over the centuries have employed musical forms that bring about such “enthusiastic” or “trance” states, often in religious contexts. Well-known examples in the modern era include: Sufi performances in the Dervish tradition, or the Qawwali devotional singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; the Zar ceremonies of Sudan and Upper Egypt; Haitian voudoun; American “gospel” music. Secular manifestations are common too: e.g., in the USA, the 1930s Lindy-Hop (Jitterbug) craze in response to the big swing bands; or more recent techno-house-trance grooves. The “korybantic” experiences of Classical Greece, which, as our sources unanimously agree, depended heavily on the expressive powers of the auloi, and usually percussion too, seem to have been along these same lines, inducing what anthropologists and ethnomusicologists call “trance” states. Aristotle acknowledges that such exciting, “enthusiastic” musical experience/activity is normal and important for any given society to incorporate.

To get some idea of how the auloi were constructed and what they sounded like, one can visit the website of Dr. Stefan Hagel (researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences), who has expertly reconstructed several instruments according to original-type materials and design. There are also other YouTube sites where he can be heard and seen performing:

By way of comparison to similar-sounding and closely related reed instruments in the modern era that are renowned for their affective qualities, one can sample the launeddas of Sardinia:

also the Uilleann pipes, as played e.g. by virtuoso Paddy Keenan:

Or of course one can revisit clips of some of the leading saxophone soloists of the 20th century: e.g., Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane, Maceo Parker.

But there is another instrument that also deserves to be considered in this context, for its similarly “reedy” sound and strong affective capabilities, especially when employed in religious contexts: the Hammond B3 electric organ, amplified (as it regularly is) through a set of Leslie speakers.

The pipe organ, employing reeds, long metal pipes, and air pumped by bellows, played on a piano-type keyboard, was of course ubiquitous in European churches and concert halls between the 16th and 20th centuries. One favored “stop” amidst the wide repertoire of sounds that an organ can produce is the so-called Vox Humana, which incorporates a complex tremolo effect designed to replicate the timbre, breathiness, and slight unsteadiness of a singing human voice. As electric organs by the 1930s, built by companies such as Hammond, Wurlitzer, etc., began to catch on and to be used widely in churches and movie houses instead of the massive older-style pipe organs, similar effects were sought. American gospel choirs in particular began to rely heavily on the distinctive sound of the Hammond organ, often in combination with a piano, to accompany services; and in due course soul musicians, many of them already trained in church choirs, began to follow suit in recording studios.

In the 1930-40s, an American sound engineer, Donald Leslie, seeking to replicate or outdo for the Hammond what the old Vox Humana did for the pipe organ, designed a new type of amplifier and loudspeaker that employed rotating speaker-horns within the wooden cabinet, producing a Doppler effect of slightly rising and falling pitches, all mixing with one another and thereby creating a distinctive swirling effect that could be switched on and off during the course of any particular tune, if the performer wished (somewhat as a vibrato can be, for a singer or instrumentalist.) Together with the development of a new, bigger, more complex Hammond organ (the B3 model, possessed of a greater range of harmonic “drawbar” settings than the thinner-sounding M model), the Leslie speaker was found to produce an almost irresistibly exciting, warm, emotional sound that was ideal for church, jazz, or soul music — with a “mimetic” (expressive) effect on listeners, that corresponds, I suggest, quite closely to what we are told about the ancient auloi, whose paired pipes likewise could produce the swirling, skirling “voice” that we sometimes hear when we hear bagpipes. The motto on the Leslie speaker was: “Pipe Voice of the Electric Organ.”

Information plate on the Leslie organ speaker. Image: by eyeliam from Portland, United States [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Information plate on the Leslie organ speaker, model 21H. Image: by eyeliam from Portland, United States [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
To hear the distinctive features of the Hammond B3 played through Leslie speakers, I recommend listening first to Booker T’s famous “Green Onions” (from 1962, when the organist was just 16 years old and obviously deeply influenced by Ray Charles), played on a Hammond M (with no Leslie):

Then, five years later, Booker T and the MGs explore the full the potential of the Leslie’s effects on another Stax instrumental classic, “Hip Hug Her” (1967), played on a Hammond B3:

(You can hear the swirling Leslie effect being switched on and off, for dynamic and emotive effect, throughout the tune.)

And for the same band accompanying a vocal track (again with B3 enhanced by Leslie speakers), here we find Sam and Dave, whose “You Got Me Hummin'” (1966) once again confirms the expressive (mimetic) power of the human singing voice, even without words:

Booker T. Jones plays an organ with a Leslie speaker.
Booker T. Jones performs using a Hammond B3 organ with Leslie speaker.

Meanwhile, in a church setting, we find Mahalia Jackson: “Move on Up a Little Higher” (1955, an early example of Hammond & Leslie):

and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” (1970):


Finally, to bring this brief excursus concerning the “third Leslie” back into a Classical focus—and into a context of “enthusiastic/orgiastic” performance of Greek song—I recommend this scene from the marvelous production of “The Gospel at Colonus” (Sophocles’ OC, adapted by Lee Breuer and composer/organist Bob Telson), recorded live here in 1988 with a star cast that includes Carolyn Johnson White:

The Hammond B3 and Leslie can be heard throughout, as Oedipus’ miraculous ascent from below, towards salvation and bliss, is captured musically and visually. The voice of the pipes, along with the glorious human voices of soloist and chorus, does indeed “Lift Him Up” to the heights.