Cook and The Captain of Music

By Leigh Dayton - The Age, Senior Writer

panflute history

Captain James Cook

Intrepid explorer he may have been, but Captain James Cook also had a gentler side as a lover of pan-pipe music.

The secret is revealed by a tiny pan-pipe the captain collected in 1768 in the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu, which a music professor believes shows a "surprising" musical bent.

"He may have collected them as a gift, or maybe he simply liked the sound," said Professor Michael Atherton, a musician, composer, author and professor of music at the University of Western Sydney.

Above all, he said, the bamboo flute reflected the scientific mission of Cook's second voyage of discovery.

"It was all about knowledge and spirit. It was to look, to see, to learn."

Professor Atherton has just begun a three-month fellowship at the Australian Museum, during which he hopes to study pan-pipes, along with many of the 700 other instruments in the museum's Pacific collection.

The musical objects range in size from a tiny flute made from a human bone to a huge log-like "slit drum" played for the Queen at the official opening of the Opera House in October 1973. In between is a decorated fighting horn made from a conch shell, jingly leg rattles and an assortment of nose flutes.

If the results these instruments obtained were anything like those heard in the traditional music of today's Pacific peoples, they were full of complex chords and polyphonic sounds. "Any composer would recognise the sophistication, yet we have identified it as primitive," Professor Atherton said.

Initially, he will document the instruments in the collection. Later, the information could be put on a Web site for public viewing.

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