Thursday, October 08, 2009

Keeping Score

I helped develop a website for the PBS program Keeping Score, specifically for the second season. I did some editing on the sections about three compositions -- Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, Ives' Holidays Symphony and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony -- and worked a lot on a map feature that shows classical music milestones of various eras on a Google map based structure. I think it's neat and I think you should look at it.

The programs themselves are excellent and will be airing on local PBS stations this October. Keeping Score was developed by the San Francisco Symphony and features their conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, who is an excellent ambassador for classical music. I learned a lot from the program about the composers but also about how to listen and what to listen for.

And, I can't recommend it highly enough, check out the program's own page (not on at There are super excellent interactive features. For example, listen to the music and read the score as it scrolls by. Not impressed? How about stop the score and click on a soloist's part to see a little video of the soloist talk about what the part means for that instrument and how it fits in with the rest of the orchestra. And there's more of that -- thoughtful interactivity that makes a point and teaches as it amuses.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Review of the Virtual Museum of Iraq

Now online is a review I wrote of the Virtual Museum of Iraq. It's a really beautiful, well thought out site but I hate it for reasons that become apparent in the review.

Here's the first paragraph:
The Virtual Museum of Iraq serves as an excellent multimedia introduction to the history and archaeology of Iraq, from prehistoric times through the Islamic period. Users can "turn" objects to see 360-degree views, watch short videos that explain concepts and introduce time periods, and have access to maps and plans of archaeological sites. There is, however, a major problem with the site that is big enough that it colors everything good about the site and makes it impossible for me to give a whole-hearted endorsement of this project.
There is no commenting feature yet at the CSA Newsletter site, but feel free to post comments here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Article on Sumerian Music

The Journal of Near Eastern Studies has just published my article on Sumerian music (including singing and iconography). Here's the citation and the first few hundred words:

Jack Cheng, "A Review of Early Dynastic III Music: Man’s Animal Call," Journal of Near Eastern Studies July 2009, Vol. 68, No. 3: 163-178.

A review of the texts, images and actual musical instruments of the Early Dynastic III period leads to new insights into how Sumerians understood their world, and to the fine line they drew between civilization and nature.

Well over half the total number of known depictions of music-making from the third phase of the Early Dynastic (ED III) period of Mesopotamia, ca. 2600-2350 BC, come from artifacts excavated from the Royal Cemetery of Ur; these artifacts provide an extraordinarily rich assemblage of music related evidence. The assemblage includes actual musical instruments excavated by Leonard Woolley—in many cases the only ones of their type whose excavation has been documented—and a variety of images of musical scenes. The data comes from only one segment of the society, however. Only the wealthiest and most powerful Sumerians were buried in the so-called royal graves at Ur, only the wealthiest could afford to commission and keep carved stone plaques, cylinder seals or inlaid mosaics, and only the most powerful wrote or commissioned literary compositions. So the music represented is the music of the elite; furthermore, it is a version of their musical practice that they chose to commemorate in burials, on artwork, and in royal decrees. Although we have a lot of data from this slice of Sumerian society, it should be kept in mind that we do not have much information about Sumerian music as a whole.

Whereas most studies of Mesopotamian music are longitudinal, tracing the sporadic appearances of one type of instrument over millennia, the Royal Cemetery and related Early Dynastic III material provide a lateral platform to consider music as a historical, cultural phenomenon of a localized area. Given this opportunity, the information here is presented in an ethnomusicological model rather than an archaeological one. That is, rather than present individual stone plaques and discussing all the musical elements in their iconography, I have synthesized the information and present ED III musical practice as a coherent whole. In that light, the sections to follow include Musical Contexts (the audience), Musicians, Vocal Music, Musical Instruments, and Decorations on Instruments.

Each of these categories leads to connections between music and the natural world. The association of music with animals in Early Dynastic art was immediately noted by scholars who examined the decorative plaque on the Great Lyre of Ur (U.10556 on fig. 1). The “animal orchestra” is a tradition that continues on through the Neo-Hittite period and into the modern era with the Brothers Grimm’s story of the musicians of Bremen and the Brothers Wilson’s final notes on the album “Pet Sounds.” It is possible the Sumerians, like other cultures, simply analogized the unique timbres of musical instruments with the unique vocalizations of animals. This review of Early Dynastic musical practice will show that this cognitive association was not simple, but rather deeply ingrained in all aspects of that culture. The material suggests a coherent metaphor for music as man’s contribution to the cacophony of the animal world.

Monday, June 08, 2009


After my nephew Harrison came to visit us, I wrote a short essay about being an uncle vs. being a father and it was published in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine yesterday. Here's the link.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Museum Review

A review I wrote of "Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum" has been published in the latest issue of Near Eastern Archaeology (vol. 71 #4, cover dated December 2008).

It's too late to see the show at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the review is not online, but it was a fun assignment because it was the second time I saw the show. The first was over a decade ago at the Met. The Met version was a lot more intellectual and had more scholarly information. The MFA version was incredibly beautiful and aestheticized. What surprised me, as a scholar of Assyrian art, is that I may prefer the MFA version.

The reasons I preferred the new iteration:
  • exhibitions like this are not for experts; they are to encourage the general public to learn more about specific areas of art,
  • more information can always be found in the catalogs of shows, and
  • it was just plain gorgeous and made me appreciate the art I have studied for years in a new way.