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.