ancient music, new lyres

We shared our stories; retold them generation after generation. They lived in the cultural memory. It was the accountants who were writing things down. The book-keepers of Mesopotamia used cuneiform script to keep records (from about 3200 BC). And many such records survive on clay tablets, but, eventually, they were joined by writings which told stories: heroic tales, exploits of the gods, cultural histories — myths. It is the earliest surviving literature we can read today, reconstructed and translated from excavated clay.

Evidence of musical culture has also been recovered: instruments and images of musicians. But we have no music.


12 clay tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh, from Nineveh, 7th century BC.
Now in the British Museum. Photo: Ben Pestell

The recent Ashurbanipal exhibition at the British Museum, as you might expect from an exhibition on the life of the king of the world, no less, focused on the great man, war, grand spectacle, and so on. Aspects of social history, however, were evident in the many examples of tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal. Moreover, the lions and hybrid human-animal figures depicted on reliefs and giant sculptures gave a sense of a life lived closer to nature: where the ontological boundaries between all things are permeable. This is the world of myth. King Ashurbanipal, reigning from 669 to around 631 BC, governed a society still negotiating one of the problems of Gilgamesh and Enkidu: the transactions between our human and animal natures which result in profound loss of each side.

Court musicians playing horizontal harps. Nineveh, seventh century BC.
Now in the British Museum. Photo: Ben Pestell

I was particularly interested in the occasional images of musicians. Though we don’t have a reliable means of reconstructing the music of ancient Mesopotamia, we do at least have the means of reconstructing some instruments. The most famous instruments are the Lyres of Ur: the Gold Lyre, with its gold bull’s head, and the Silver Lyre, completely covered in silver.

There are at least three replicas of the Silver Lyre in use today. One is by Richard Dumbrill, co-founder of the International Council of Near Eastern Archaeomusicology (ICONEA), and one of the curators of the Ashurbanipal exhibition. His improvisation on the lyre (which he claims would not have sounded incongruous to third-millennium-BC Sumerians) can he heard at the start of this video. Another is by Canadian musician Peter Pringle who has information, and his own improvisation, on his website.

An especially ambitious project is by The Lyre Ensemble (using lyres built by Jonathan Letcher). The Lyre Ensemble sets ancient texts (in Babylonian and Assyrian, and in English translation) to the music of three replica lyres (Gold, Silver, and the smaller Pharaonic Lyre). The ensemble’s CD, The Flood is an album of evocative new music by modern Europeans, but with reconstructions of ancient instruments and with ancient texts.

At times, The Flood cannot help sounding distractingly English, perhaps a little mannered, and with much of the music minimal and repetitive, the voice carries the lion’s (or the bull’s) share of each song’s emotive weight. The overall impression of the album is of a solemn and pared-back folk music.

The Flood brings out some shades of social history in the settings of brief proverbs, a lullaby, a love song, and a song to a mother, while also singing on mythological themes of the great flood, the civilising of Enkidu, the descent of Ishtar to the underworld.

Among the highlights are ‘Enkidu Curses the Harlot’ and ‘Ištar’s Descent’. The former takes advantage of the natural resonance of the lyre’s body to create a creaking-bed-spring metallic bass line.

The Descent transmits a tense forward momentum from the lyre’s taut strings, which creates a compelling backdrop for Stef Conner’s voicing of the katabasis: Conner’s usually clear and light voice is augmented by an assortment of growls and screams to accompany the eschatological moment — of a goddess at the very limits of existence. Although the lyres (played by Andy Lowings, recorded and assisted by Mark Harmer) may be the stars of this disc, it is Conner’s voice which brings them to life, whether in English or in Sumerian or Babylonian. If her phrasing sometimes sounds very familiarly English (she has sung with The Unthanks, steeped in English song), it is no bad thing to be reminded of the temporal and cultural distance between the tools (texts and lyres) and the players.

The great success of The Flood is in bringing these sounds and stories into the digital present, even as — by necessity — it avows its distance from the world it evokes. As such, it feels like the essential and compelling first step in expanding our understanding of what can be done with these ancient tools.

ancient music, archaeoacoustics

It began as a cry… ‘a cry expressing an urge and appeasing it at the same time.’ The first song: a performance of contradictions. So Ernst Bloch decided. Bloch looked far back into the past to discover the first instance of ‘musical differences’. He distinguishes between the ritual drum which accompanied these primal songs, and the pan pipe. The function of the pipe, Bloch argues, was not ‘to induce a stupor or to work magic like the wooden clapper, the cymbal or the magically painted and in itself magically venerated drum. Rather it was confined — pure entertainment apart — to amorous longing and the enchantment of love, the latter being a survival of magic’ (Bloch, Essays on the Philosophy of Music [1974], p. 196). For Bloch, the invention of the pan-pipe is of great consequence for its ability to make a ‘well-organised series of notes’, thus marking ‘the invention of music as human expression‘ (197).

Ernst Bloch (rarely photographed sans pipe)

Since Bloch wrote, many more prehistoric flutes have been discovered, some arguably also associated with Neanderthals. The oldest bone flute yet discovered is thought to date back more than 43,000 years (the ‘Divje Babe Flute‘, discovered in modern-day Slovenia).  To put that in context, it’s roughly contemporaneous (give or take a few thousand years) with the earliest known figurative rock paintings. Despite the efforts of archaeoacoustic researchers to recreate the prehistoric sound-world, it’s a long, long wait until we get to a point where we can confidently interpret a complete piece of musical notation (the Hellenistic Seikilos epitaph, dated to c. AD 100), and then just a short hop to the invention of sound recording in the second half of the nineteenth century. (On which see the First Sounds website for recoveries of the earliest sound recordings.)

Divje Babe Flute (thought to be the bone flute played by Neanderthals)

There are some fascinating archaeoacoustic projects out there which try to give a sense of the experience of palaeolithic, or other ancient musics. Here is an article accompanying the 2015 CTM Festival (Festival for Adventurous Music and Art) on recent work in archaeoacoustics. One of the participants of the 2015 festival was Rupert Till, who does a lot of work in ancient music. Dr Till is one of the people behind the Songs of the Caves website, where you can explore the sounds and prehistoric paintings of the caves of northern Spain. You can also hear audio and see a video on the EMAP (European Music Archaeology Project) website.

Who knows what sort of stories or rituals accompanied the paintings of hunted animals, or the music of the flute? Bloch recalls Ovid’s retelling of the myth of Pan and Syrinx the nymph (in Metamorphoses I). Syrinx is transformed into reeds to escape Pan’s desire, but Pan is then enchanted by the sound of the wind through these reeds. Sealing reeds of unequal length together with wax to form his pipe, Pan thus communes with the vanished Syrinx. In this tale, Bloch sees ‘something contradictory and utopian …. The vanished nymph has remained as sound … and sings in the face of want’ (197). This same want for the vanished people in the cave is the same that is expressed, and speculatively calmed in the archaeoacoustic performance. The vanished prehistory returns, only to insist upon its impossible distance from us.

Gerard Hoet, Pan and Syrinx (c. 1700) (Dulwich Picture Gallery)