35,000 Years in the Woodshed: Opening Day 2009

Roger H. Brown
November 13, 2009
Berklee president Roger H. Brown speaks to staff and faculty at the college's 2009 Opening Day breakfast.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Archaeologists recently discovered a 35,000-year-old flute with five finger holes, carved from the hollow bone of a vulture. This early flautist in what is now Germany was unlikely to have been motivated by big record contracts, royalties, touring revenue, merchandise sales, celebrity status, or TV or movie placements. She or he was likely unwinding after a busy day, playing for friends and family. He might have been trying to impress a mate—something of course still common with present-day musicians. Or she might have been joining a group of friends in celebration of a successful hunt, a fine meal, or the birth of a new child. Maybe a father carved this flute for his children and patiently taught them to play. In the same trench of artifacts, two broken ivory flutes were also found, suggesting that ensembles jamming together were also common. But maybe this early musician just wanted to be alone and create, to find a melody that said something that could not be expressed any other way.

Music began when our earliest ancestors, as yet unborn, listened to the heartbeat of their mothers in the womb. They heard the flow of blood like brushes on a snare, and the steady "ONE AND two and THREE AND four and" of the heart, and the layered polyrhythms of maternal breathing. And the tempo varied from ballads when mom was at rest, to up-tempo dance music when she was at work or dancing herself.

Who can doubt that chanting and singing existed among our earliest ancestors? Simple instruments must have followed. We now have physical evidence of this fact, but we can only imagine the percussion and other early instruments—wind, strings, maybe even reeds—that accompanied the chanting and singing that embedded the history of our clans and tribes and species into the minds of us all.

The epic poetry in our religious and secular texts such as the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic bibles; The Ramayana; The Epic of Gilgamesh; The Odyssey; Beowulf; and others preexisted written language by many millennia and could only be remembered in song and verse.

As the world's population and our ability to teach and learn from one another grew, we developed sophisticated new instruments and techniques of music-making and musical notation. The development of any single instrument makes for fascinating study—harpsichords, guitars and sitars, the violin family, koras, trumpets, the saxophone.

With the recent passing of Les Paul, who invented the electric guitar and multitrack recording, we are reminded of 20th-century innovations, primarily the amplification of voice and instruments that allow a small ensemble to perform for enormous audiences by historical standards. I believe that this return to smaller ensembles liberated once again the improvisational impulse that has been an essential element in all music—European classical music included, and certainly essential in blues, jazz, rock, Latin, bluegrass, and hip-hop.

You are here at Berklee to learn and grow as an artist. You need to feel your deep connection to John Coltrane, Little Richard, Igor Stravinsky, Tito Puente, Bill Monroe, Ma Rainey, and Thom Yorke—and to our oldest artistic and musical ancestors, whose names and music are lost to us.

You share a primordial motivation. That flautist in a cave did not fully understand why he was making music when life was indeed hard—when predators lurked in the dark shadows, when food was scarce, when winter threatened to starve the entire clan.

What we do is not a trend. It is not a fad, it is not a leisure activity, it is not a way to fight boredom, it is not a parlor trick. We are part of one of the deepest and most fundamental instincts of our species: to create music.

As you go about your education at Berklee, please remember to respect the tradition that you have joined. Value your place in this long line of music-makers. Be fearless, make music that is new and fresh and has never been heard before—that too is part of the tradition—but know that the creative activity you have chosen to embrace began when humankind began. Somehow it has helped promote our survival as individuals and as a community. Each of you has an important place in that tradition.