It’s not often you get a glimpse into – far less a listen to – pre-history. Michael Wood‘s The Story of India (BBC4 this evening – sadly not available on iPlayer) visited Brahmin priests in Kerala taking young trainees through vocal preparations for a 12-day celebration of Agni – the god of fire. The prayers being passed on pre-date language and possibly music, as experts could find no matching analogue. The nearest comparison was with birdsong. It was certainly very interesting to see and hear a few moments of these normally secret teaching sessions.It is claimed that what is being notated cannot be notated. I found this difficult to understand, feeling that a mix of pitch, duration and phonetics must be able to be transcribed – after all Janacek notated the melodies of the Czech language and Messiaen notated birdsong. However, weighing in with the heavy hand of invasive research, however tempting, is scarcely a sensitive response to the privileged invitation.
More on this topic in paragraph 11 of this link.