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Dante's Divine Comedy Cities and Memory Project 2020

In the Middle of the Journey

Divine Comedy on Bookshelf
Photo By Tbel Abuseridze @tbelabuseridze Unsplash

For the last couple of months, I have been working towards a piece inspired by Dante's Inferno for the collaborative music project Cities and Memory. Cities and Memory is the brain-child of Stuart Fowkes, a sound artist and field recordist from Oxford, UK. Fowkes describes the project as "a global collaborative sound project encompassing field recording, sound art and sound mapping – remixing the world, one sound at at time." Participants are encourage to share field recordings of sounds from across the Earth that they, or another sound artist, transforms into a new piece of music.

(I participated in the project previously, creating Endless Cry for a protests around the world themed project. The field recording was recorded at a protest in Hamburg, Germany. The piece was included on Sounds From Germany this past July.)

Dante's Divine Comedy Illustrated by Sandro Botticelli
Dante's Divine Comedy Illustrated by Sandro Botticelli

While previous projects featured sounds from real places that were re-imagined as memories, this project features only imaginary places. For this project, the sound artists and composers answer the question: "What might Dante’s Hell have sounded like?" For the project, different areas in the Inferno map were chosen/assigned to different sound artists and composers. My area was a mythic version of the real world city of Jerusalem. Since I was not very familiar with the Divine Comedy before I started thinking about this project, I took the time to listen to Dante's Divine Comedy audio lectures by the Great Courses and presented by Professors William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman. (I highly recommend listening to The Great Courses while walking the dog or driving in the car. You can learn a lot in a short amount of time.) I also perused the Dante's World from the University of Texas and Digital Dante by Columbia University.

Dante Alighieri (c.1265– 1321) was a poet from the Republic of Florence, which is now in modern-day Italy. The Divine Comedy is considered to be the most significant work of poetry of the Middle Ages and the greatest literary work in Italian. (Dante wrote in the Tuscan dialect.) At the time of it was written, Italian literature was written in Latin rather than the vernacular Italian dialects.

Political unrest in his home of Florence lead to Dante being exiled in 1302 until his death in 1321. During his exile, Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, beginning in 1308 and completing it a year before his death in 1320. The Comedy tells a story of a mythical journey that Dante takes along with guides through realms of the afterlife. The mythical journey is said to take place in 1300 as Dante's real-life exile began.

For the composition of this piece, I aimed to combine elements of the Divine Comedy, such as the frequent use of the number three which represents the ABA BAB rhyme scheme of the poem, three regions of the afterworld (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), his three guides (the poet Virgil, his lost love Beatrice, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux), the three beasts that represent the types of sins (the leopard is lust, the lion pride, and the she-wolf represents avarice), as well as the Roman Catholic trinity. The musical piece has a ABA structure with smaller three-part themes within the structure and there are groupings of threes throughout the composition.

The Real Jerusalem Today
The Real Jerusalem Today

The city of Jerusalem is described as being the middle point of Dante's world, equidistant from the Pillars of Hercules on the West and the Ganges on the East. For this reason, I chose to play an acoustic guitar with a passerelle (an additional bridge) that turns the guitar into a harp-like instrument that sounds vaguely Eastern. Its timbre is similar to that of a medieval zither. Additionally, I used tympani mallets on the guitar strings to create percussive hammered dulcimer-like effects.

Interestingly, as Jerusalem in the graphical midpoint in Dante's world, Dante is meant to be at the midpoint of his life expectancy at the time he takes his metaphorical journey. At 35, in 1300, he is entering middle adulthood and exploring his mortality. For this reason, I chose to keep the pitch range of mostly limited to keep the music feeling like it's lingering in the middle until it dives into the depths of hell when the forte bass synth enters at the end.

On the Inferno map, Jerusalem lies directly across from Purgatory. For this reason, I added long-lasting, static ambient pad-like sounds which I created by manipulating recorded guitar. Listen closely to hear other samples including the sounds of Dante's steps, the roars of beasts, the doors to the gate of hell, and church bells in the distance.

Dante's Comedy has inspired imaginations since he published it 700 years ago. I am looking forward to hearing the sounds of the entire descent into hell once the full project is released this month. For the video below, I used public domain footage from the 1911 Dante's Inferno film.

For should something return to memory
   and sound but faintly in my verses here,
   the clearer will they see your victory. (Paradiso XXXIII.73-75)


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Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.


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