‘Weave, sweet phorminx’: the sound of imagery and the imagery of sound in Pindar

The notions of ancient soundscape and auditory culture have met in recent years with growing scholarly interest: classicists have fruitfully engaged with the (reconstructed or evoked) sonic spectrum of particular environments, religious practices, and poetic texts (Butler & Nooter 2018). What has emerged is the rich potential, in terms of literary interpretation ‒ broadly taken as investigation of aesthetic devices, rhetorical strategies, intertextual allusions, references to contemporary philosophy ‒ of a wider understanding of the multifaceted phenomenology of ancient sound: this may be especially true for late archaic choral lyric, where poem as performed song, its rhythmic design, and the range of sound-related imagery generate a complex interplay of different layers of acoustic perception.

 

The symposium ‘Weave, sweet phorminx’ (Pind. Nem. 4.44): the imagery of sound and the sound of imagery in Pindar, which has taken place on May 15th-16th at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve (here the programme), has aimed to explore ways in which the sonic, auditory and musical dimension of Pindaric poetry, in both epinician and cultic songs, seems to interact with a number of different domains of reality: while this is effected via literary imagery through a broad spectrum of tropes (e.g. metaphor, choral projection, personifications) and via aspects of performance pragmatics linked to specific song-types (victory odes, partheneia, paeans), the focus of the symposium has been on a number of practices, technologies, and human activities that Pindar links to the soundscape of his poetry, and which are key to appreciate choral song’s distinctive engagement with its own phonosphere, as well as with the material culture shared by the poet and his audience.

Greek woman with plaiting frame

While metamusical imagery in Pindar’s poems have attracted a fair amount of scholarly attention, with references to particular harmoniai or rhythmical patterns being scrutinized (Prauscello 2012), the idea behind this symposium has been to broaden the picture as to encompass a range of potential areas of interaction between the auditory, sonic and musical events taking place within the performance of a choral poem, or evoked/conjured up by its text, and specific domains of reality.

A case in point, and the reason why I, together with my friend and colleague Francesco Bué, have thought of organizing this symposium as something deeply integrated into the PENELOPE project (which is one of the supporting institutions of the event), is represented by Pindar’s craftsmanship imagery for song-making, in particular weaving/plaiting: on the one hand, textile craft and technology (with πλέκω as a sort of umbrella-term) convey and conceptualize a specific mode of composition that may bear relevance to the structure of the choral poem, and at the same time are markedly interconnected with the performance of victory odes (through the pervasive image of the plaiting of crowns, for instance) and in general of any type of choral song, in that dancing may be conceived of as the interlacement of the choristers’ steps. On the other hand, a number of auditory and mechanical features of weaving seem to be appropriated by the language of instrumental music (e.g. the sound of the aulos in Pyth. 12.8), and recent research suggests that the notion of rhythmical interweaving (surfacing in Plato, Rep. 400a and later in the metrical doctrine of ἐπιπλοκή) might be projected back to Lasus of Hermione (Lomiento 2004).


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