by Thomas Larson
In 1994, Chauvet cave was discovered near the township of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in southern France. The cave is a spectacular venue for the earliest known rock art made by our ancestors and in no way “primitive.” Deep inside the limestone cavern are hundreds of highly animated wall paintings of bison, bear, ibex, lion, rhinoceros, hyena, wooly mammoth, and horse, “signed” by the red-ochre handprints of the artists. The darkly etched charcoal drawings were sketched in the cave’s smoothed chambers, their walls rounded and pocked from water’s eonic hollowing. In the space are also pudding-like towers of calcium drips, whose conical shapes record the geologic heaping of age. The images, now protected as a World Heritage Site, were done between thirty-thousand and thirty-three thousand years ago.
In the first ten minutes of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), the film director and his crew hike up a rock face and squeeze through crawls spaces into the cave. Inside, the artists, paleontologists, and filmmakers don hardhats, test flashlights, and review the rules they must follow. The group’s one-hour descent, guarded viewing, and exit are filmed; afterwards, Herzog edits the footage by using two sound guides: the eerie, improvised evocations of cellist-composer Ernst Reijseger, to accompany the images, and Herzog’s voiceover commentary. Like a choirmaster, his soft, German-inflected, baronial English accompanies us through this sonic and architectural marvel. His voice warms and mystifies the claustrophobic space like a nurse talking us through an MRI.
In the documentary, Herzog, apparently the only commercial filmmaker allowed in, lingers on the vibrantly drawn images. Illumined by lamps, the two-dimensional animals seem to lope, companion, and pose. The texture and curve of the walls add muscle to the figures as do the artists’ brushwork. A group cast emerges, as though we’ve stumbled on a sumptuous vale of mammalian life. This species abundance mirrors their density during Europe’s last ice age. Most striking, Herzog says, the images are rendered in motion—the cartoon-like running of feet, the overlapping shapes of herded bodies. Under the original firelight, the images animate like film frames. Herzog wonders whether these rhythmic renderings comprise the first motion picture.
As cave artists painted, they were accompanied by music. Small flutes have been found in and near the entrance; they are made of bird or bear bone with three to seven holes. Held and blown clarinet-style, they were tuned to a pentatonic or five-tone scale; their mesmeric melodies are common to musical ensembles around the world. In addition, oval bone instruments with a hole at one end were discovered on the cave floor. Whirled on a string, these hum and whine at a high pitch. Batons made of bone may have been drumsticks. The paintings’ animation may also have issued from “aural” brushstrokes, hand-and-arm alive to the sounds of flutes and drums and drone instruments. Convoys of sound may have led the artists to paint their realistic subjects evocatively.
All this suggests these early creations were—from the get-go—multimedia. The drawings were probably the work of artist-specialists who employed calligraphic-like brushstrokes on the walls’ scraped clean surfaces. Unlike other “naïve” cave art, the animals are fluid, feel instinctively present. The art was rendered via the communal, the ceremonial, the incantatory—the bedrock of animist ritual. Such collaboration releases the energy of the male ibex’s mighty curved horns, for example, into the person or the tribe, to aid a woman giving birth, an old man dying.
Rituals in the cave relied on a kind of ensemble intimacy in which one’s usefulness to the group is also a mark of one’s ability to converse aesthetically. Many etchings in Chauvet cave were made by an individual whose crooked finger, seen in a handprint, shaped many images with his or her “style.” With such a stamp—Bach’s singular voice emerging out of the collective elegance of the Baroque—the animal figures richly contain the tension between a talented artist subsumed by the whole and distinguished from the whole.
Such incantation may also have been its own end: sound effects, human cries and gasps, bodies spirit-possessed, the quick-etched wall figures became the language of rendering events or history, real and imagined—mixed media enacting an operatic democracy and, eventually, a backdrop for the sung recitation of the Homeric or hero’s tale. A panoramic dynamism was intensified by the cave’s reverberant rooms. In fact, what they believed in probably arose from what they produced in the antiphonal resonance of the cave. Here is how John Pfeiffer describes it in his book, The Creative Explosion.
“Think of the acoustic effects that can be produced in caves, sound waves like surf rolling and ricocheting through winding passage-ducts, sound waves trapped and bouncing back and forth off jagged reflecting surfaces in natural echo chambers, sound waves muffled and scrambled and reverberating . . . A song sung inside a tube-like corridor would not be heard until someone passed directly in front of the opening. . . . [Such] sound can be used in many ways to arouse emotion and control movement, to frighten and confuse and steer people, to make them stop short, turn around, come closer, back away.”
The pertinent point is that the media used is inseparable from the site; the site grounds the media by which the media, in turn, animates its participants and audience. The larger idea is that the cave’s coming to life out of the dark sphere suggests its use as a quasi-religious conversion or recruitment tool, perhaps by a Shaman to channel spirits into the tribe. I wonder which came first, the religion or the art. The only thing we have proof of is the multimedia work itself, unmistakably done by an exceptional class of humans whose left a trail of their craft and their enchantment.
Centuries on, storytelling joined the space, sound, and visual stimuli of the cave, hut, kiva, and campfire. Storytelling is never far from its original intonation. In the set-aside, sound-compelling, and image-activating amphitheater of Chauvet, singing bards used representative figures and their metaphoric suggestion to express the human condition. Such expression is endemic to Maasai ululation or Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde; these feature sound patterns that arise from the earth, sky, seasonal change, animals, and the loving and painful initiations of children.
Tribal elders have always known this power. As have spiritual practitioners. As have those who follow the blessing way, the quest, the pilgrimage. Those who yoke such sound to mass ends and communal purpose have known this power as well. Our incantatory natures never change; they are re-grounded by gospel, folk and popular music, twelve-bar blues, and the Hallelujah Chorus. I think of how the medieval cathedrals of Europe impelled such feeling with Gothic vaults and stained-glass light, with organ blasts from balcony-perched pipes, animate pulsations that stoked the congregation’s awe. Church as cave, as reanimation of origin. The venue is the sound of the venue—same music, different venue, different sound.
But I want to make a distinction between the original artistic venues and their later appropriated stages. How was the multimedia artwork transferred from their native chambers and enacted elsewhere? Among the first to move a performance out of the original space was the priestly and ruling classes. Like a traveling circus, the original site was displaced—for good reason. If the original venue was sacred because of its unique sound chamber as well as the artists who worked in it, then the ceremony enacted there became sacred, its lofty feast movable. Thus, the ruling class’s claims that its mystery has its own autochthonous sacrality is nothing more than the artist’s sacrality borrowed from Chauvet.
But that’s too pat and neglects dozens of other venues that, though appropriated, still exist in their aesthetic containers.
I’m speaking of the concert hall, the vaudeville stage, the jazz club, the park bandstand, the electrified stadium. All these sites, products of the last two centuries, return us to the purity of the venue and its primal expressive architecture. Such spaces are not in service to religion or to God or to kings or tyrants. They are aesthetic—of the moment and of the thousands of moments in their acoustic history. They retain the miracle of Chauvet cave. What was created and heard there thirty-thousand years ago and continues to be heard is the touchstone of our collective artistic natures.