November 14, 2009 John Burkhalter:  “Breaking Wind: the Trumpet and Conch Horn in Maya and Aztec Art”

The following information is not available for use without permission of Mr. Burkhalter.
            John Burkhalter presented a talk on the trumpet and Conch horn in Maya  and Aztec Art that was illustrative and informative, enhanced by the display and playing of Pre-Columbian musical instruments from his own collection and several on loan from the magnificent collection of Gillett G. Griffin. Unfortunately, the Spanish systematically obliterated most of the culture that once flourished in Mexico and Central America, with only some examples of Aztec poetry remaining. Additionally, although musical artifacts and depictions of instruments survive, no forms of musical notation or didactic sources remain; sadly, there is no way that the music will ever be re-created.             
            Mortuary ceramics illustrating scenes of daily life, from the Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit cultures, are a rich source of information on musical instruments and their means of implementation, as many of these portray musicians or musical groups. In addition they exemplify the role of music in Pre-Columbian societies, as in many cultures musicians were viewed as shamans and music was a means of communication with the dead. Conch or marine shell horns figure prominently in West Mexican art. John first recreated the sounds of Pre-Columbian music by playing an ancient Tlatilco whistle, the only known surviving Tlatilco wind instrument, which was made in the iconic image of the old man emerging from a turtle shell. Images of conch trumpets are seen throughout Teotihuacan. In a mural in the Palace of the Butterflies, jaguars play conch trumpets with mouthpieces, which John sonically reproduced by using a copy of a 16th century ivory cornetto mouthpiece inserted into the end of a conch. Using ancient three-chambered flutes from Vera Cruz, John was able to evoke a beautiful recreation of possible Pre-Columbian music, and he also demonstrated a one-tubed duct flute also from Vera Cruz.
            In the Mayan culture, the Bonampak murals are the most well known illustrations of ceremonial Maya music: they show musicians with drums, plumed rattles, an ocarina and long wooden trumpets celebrating the inauguration of a ruler. Turtle carapaces were also used as percussion instruments. The turtle is often associated with rain, and when John played a "red earred slider turtle" shell from Guatemala with a white-tailed deer antler, it seemed to mimic the sound of raindrops hitting the  rain forest canopy of overhead leaves.  To recreate the sound of the long wooden trumpets, John utilized a similarly shaped Swedish wooden trumpet. Jaina mortuary figurines are also a rich source of depictions of musicians, and Maya ceramic musical instruments, such as whistles, rattles, and small hand drums survive today.  Many whistle or rattle effigies depict musicians with trumpets or marine conch horns some linked to shamanic transformations, but others are representations of gods or reflective of the eco-system depicting birds and animals.  A major source of Maya musical depictions is, of course, ceramic pots, many of which show musicians with both wooden and conch trumpets. An excellent example is the Ratinlixul Vase from the Penn Museum, which shows a lord carried in a litter accompanied by musicians bearing long trumpets with mouthpieces, and conch trumpets tied around their necks. Also displayed were a delightful coati whistle and a Maya Jade flute. John speculated about the common depictions of the old God N emerging from marine shells. In many, the conch is missing its pointed distal end, which is analogous to the manner in which a conch trumpet is created. Could these be representations of conch trumpets?
            Many images from Aztec art and later codices show a large standing drum, with the distinctive chevron cutouts in the lower half, and a large cylindrical drum that was placed horizontally upon a separate stand. Also illustrated primarily from the Florentine Codex  were rattles, conch trumpets and  single chambered  flutes with a flared bells. John demonstrated a remarkable sounding Aztec polychromed flute from Gillett's collection. Recorders were certainly among the first instruments brought by the Spanish to the new world, and would have seemed  familiar to indigenous flute players.  At the end of his presentation, John also  favored the group with a rendition of a late 15th century Spanish  Alta danza composed by Francisco de la Torre and performed on a copy of a Renaissance recorder.  The society thanks John for his talk and musical performance, and Gillett G. Griffin for the generous loan of a portion of his extensive collection for our presentation.
             John Burkhalter has lectured frequently on music in the ancient cultures of the Americas, including presentations at Princeton, Rutgers, Yale, Dumbarton Oaks and the Chrysler Museum.  He has also served as a musical consultant for the National Geographic Society.  Mr. Burkhalter studied early music at the New England Conservatory of Music under Daniel Pinkham and Baroque performance practice with noted Dutch recorder virtuoso Frans Bruggen at Harvard University. He has composed and prepared music for film, video and audio projects produced by NJN, Encyclopedia Britannica, PBS-WNET-13, Antennae Audio; as well as for the following exhibitions: Maya Monuments - Rise and Fall at the Newark, NJ Museum; River of Gold and the current exhibition  Painted Metaphors, at the Penn Museum.  Mr. Burkhalter was co-curator with Gillett G. Griffin of the Princeton University Art Museum exhibition, Music from the Land of the Jaguar.

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