By Mariette Le Roux, Laurent Banguet
Thousands of years after resonating in caves, two dozen stone chimes used by our prehistoric ancestors will return to music in a series of concerts unique to Paris.
Known as lithophones, the instruments were dusted off from museum storage to be played in public for the first time to give modern man a sense of their ancestral sounds.
After just three shows – two on Saturday (March 22) and a third the following Monday – the gems will be packed again, forever.
“This will be their last concert together,” musical archaeologist Erik Gonthier of the Paris Natural History Museum said before the production.
“We will never repeat this, for ethical reasons – to avoid damaging our cultural heritage. We don’t want to add to the wear and tear of these instruments.
Baptized “Paleomusic”, the piece was written by the classical composer Philippe Fenelon to highlight the mineral sound and the echo of instruments from beyond recorded time.
They will be played like a xylophone by four percussionists from the Orchester National de France gently tapping the stones with mallets.
It’s about showcasing the musical side of our ancestors which, according to Gonthier, is often overshadowed by their prowess in rock painting and tool-making.
In fact, he thinks, there may have been a close connection between music and visual art in prehistoric caves.
“These were the first theaters or cinemas,” he speculated.
The instruments, carefully crafted stone rods up to one meter (3.2 feet) in length, have been part of the museum’s collection since the turn of the 20th century.
They have been dated to between 2500 and 8000 BC, a period known as the New Stone Age, characterized by human use of stone tools, pottery making, the rise of agriculture and the domestication of animals.
For decades, their sturdy, oblong shape led experts to believe they were pestles or grain grinders.
But that perception changed a decade ago, thanks to a fluke.
Gonthier, a former jeweler and stonecutter, discovered their true musical nature by tapping them with a mallet in the museum’s storeroom in 1994.
Instead of a thud, he heard musical potential and decided to investigate further.
“I thought back to my grandmother’s piano and the small supports that made the strings resonate.
“I found packing foam in the museum’s garbage cans. I made two supports that I placed under each end of the lithophone and I tapped on them. It made a clear ‘tinnnnggg’, says Gonthier.
“My heart raced like crazy. I knew I had found something awesome.
Gonthier baptized his first “Stradivarius” lithophone after the famous string instrument makers. The instrument was the result of a “grain by grain” shredding process that could have taken up to two years.
Five years after its discovery, “Stradivarius” and dozens of other stones in the museum’s collection have been officially recognized as lithophones, a known but obscure category of musical instrument.
The name derives from the Greek words for stone and sound.
Gonthier said he had a long battle to convince other experts that the stones could be used safely, with great care, for the upcoming concert.
The museum’s lithophones come mainly from the Sahara, many brought back by French troops stationed in colonies like Algeria and Sudan in the early 1900s.
Gonthier says that all lithophones, which can be made from sandstone or shale types, share certain characteristics.
Each always comes to rest in the same position determined by its center of gravity, and each instrument has two sound “planes” which can be found by tapping at 90 degree angles around its circumference.
Importantly, the instruments are short and slim enough to be easily carried with one hand – the first example of a portable PA system.
“They were the first man-made MP3s,” Gonthier said.
A concrete example: “Stradivarius” was discovered about 1,500 km (900 miles) from the rock in which it was probably carved.
To play, the instruments would have been placed on leather or vegetable fiber gallows, or even on the ankles of the musician, seated cross-legged, says Gonthier.
Mallets may have had wooden or bone heads, although none have ever been found.
The instruments were almost always found alone.
Music may not have been their only goal. They may also have been used to signal danger, “or even to call people to dinner”, laughs Gonthier. “They can be heard kilometers (miles) away in the desert or the forest”.
One thing is clear: “They were made to last, the proof is that we still have them today.”