Alluding to a rare career graph, Stef Conner, after completing her degree in music composition, was gravitated towards the veritable trove of ancient Babylonian literature and poetry. And this led to the Lyre Ensemble, a collaborative project that released The Flood, possibly the first known CD-based music album to be composed entirely in ancient Sumerian and Babylonian.
The aptly named Lyre Ensemble musical project does have its fair share of experts related to the vast field of both historical reconstruction and acoustics. To that end, Stef Conner fulfills her role as the main composer and singer; and she is accompanied by Andy Lowings, who plays the lyre and has reconstructed a bevy of ancient instruments. And finally, the arrangements were produced by sound engineer Mark Harmer. Interestingly enough, Conner was also guided by music scholar Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who is known for recreating the famous score of the Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, the world’s oldest known song, originally found in a 3,400-year old clay tablet composed of cuneiform signs in the Hurrian language, in northern Syria.
Now in case you are wondering, the songs in The Flood are derived from various backgrounds, ranging from romance, eros to lullabies and even dark themes. These compositions are interjected by various ancient Babylonian writings that have been translated into English. A few of them are light-hearted, while others plunge into ‘deeper’ territory –
I am a lady who wears large garments
Let me cut my loincloth
When I married a malicious husband
when I bore a malicious son
an unhappy heart was assigned to me
Now, of course, as a disclaimer, these songs shouldn’t be perceived as ‘direct’ recreations of their Babylonian counterparts from antiquity. Instead, they should be comprehended as reinterpretations of the ancient Babylonian songs and hymns, most of which were sung in various rituals ranging from religious festivals to funerals. In the case of The Flood, Conner specifically studied the historical assessment of the stresses and intonations of Babylonian (and Sumerian), and these crucial clues were used for the structure of the songs. The compositions were then given ‘life’ with the complementary melodies played with the help of reconstructed lyres and other musical instruments.
And lastly, since we brought up the historical side of affairs, it should be noted that Sumerian as a language almost died out by 20th century BC, and was only used in limited official capacity by scholars (much like Latin and Sanskrit in our modern times) – when the renowned Epic of Gilgamesh was compiled. However, at the same time, it heavily influenced Akkadian (of which Babylonian was a variant), the lingua franca of much of the Ancient Near East. This scope of common influence and lexical borrowings were so heavily pronounced that many scholars consider both the languages to have linguistically converged, known as sprachbund or ‘federation of languages’.
For example, in the following video, Canadian musician Peter Pringle has presented his reinterpreted version of the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Sumerian, covering the opening lines of the epic poem. According to the musician –
What you hear in this video are a few of the opening lines of part of the epic poem, accompanied only by a long-neck, three-string, Sumerian lute known as a “gish-gu-di”. The instrument is tuned to G – G – D, and although it is similar to other long neck lutes still in use today (the tar, the setar, the saz, etc.), the modern instruments are low tension and strung with fine steel wire. The ancient long neck lutes (such as the Egyptian “nefer“) were strung with gut and behaved slightly differently. The short-neck lute known as the “oud” is strung with gut/nylon, and its sound has much in common with the ancient long-neck lute although the oud is not a fretted instrument and its strings are much shorter (about 25 inches or 63 cm) as compared to 32 inches (82 cm) on a long-neck instrument.
In case one is interested, ‘The Flood’ album is available for purchase on their website, iTunes, and Amazon. And additionally, Conner’s research was originally published in the journal Archaeoacoustics.