What did ancient Babylonian songs sound like?
January 6, 2015 12:48 PM   Subscribe

But how does one reincarnate music that no human voice has uttered for millennia? Conner says a key step was to really understand the language. She carefully studied historical analysis of the stresses and intonations of Babylonian and Sumerian for hints as to how it may have sounded, and researched how language is converted into music in similar Semitic languages.
The Lyre Ensemble—singer and composer Stef Conner, ancient-lyre-builder and lyrist Andy Lowings, and engineer and harpist Mark Harmer—breathe life into ancient Babylonian and Sumerian literature and poetry.

The ensemble has released four songs (via Newsweek) and a part teaser, part making-of video from The Flood. (Warning: haunting, autoplaying music.)
posted by Woodroar (28 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is my first FPP. I missed this story when it was released last month, so I'm thankful that the Neal Stephenson Facebook page shared it today. I hope everyone enjoys it.
posted by Woodroar at 12:48 PM on January 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


Dude, that's a seriously badass lyre.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:19 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Needs more death whistle.
posted by resurrexit at 1:56 PM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


TAKE MY SHEKELS
posted by gwint at 2:11 PM on January 6, 2015 [12 favorites]


resurrexit: "Needs more death whistle."

DUDE! You beat me to it!

I look forward to Dead Can Dance doing covers of these.
posted by symbioid at 2:38 PM on January 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


That's an interesting effect created by the plucking, pulsating of the lyre and the sliding that Conner does with her voice. It sounds at once both ancient and modern, other and familiar.
posted by lharmon at 2:58 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sounds. I'm all for it, as long as the artist/research and the audience remember this is just an attempted recreation, aka an educated guess.

I even cringe at the Midas Touch beer that attempts to recreate a beer based on residue in a pot from Mumblemumblepotamia - the mixture of yeasts and bacteria (guaranteed "and") can have an overwhelming effect on the final taste, much as the choice of sweeteners would in sweet tea (More aspartame? Some Licorice extract, perhaps?). We're drinking the same nonliving ingredients, sure...

Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf is a beautiful example. At no point does he claim to have recreated the actual, specific way it was performed. He makes a lot of well-researched assumptions, and produces something wonderfully entertaining, that might be like what some of them did.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:31 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is the reason I read metafilter. Great job, Woodroar!
posted by harrietthespy at 3:37 PM on January 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is lovely - although you could take The Flood and make it sound very modern with only a few tweaks. Such recreations on such evidence make me wistful, because we'll never actually know. But even if you drop the recreation aspect and listen to it as a modern interpretation of something so inacessible but so temptingly envisioned, it's a great thing to have made.

On a distant-in-time-but-not-in-spirit note, a new find has pushed the known start of Western polyphony back from 1000CE to 900CE.
posted by Devonian at 4:30 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I knew this reminded me of something: "Music of the Ancient Sumerians, Egyptians & Greeks" by De Organographia. The streaming samples are unfortunately from the 2nd Century CE, more than a thousand years later than the OP's texts.
Video.
posted by Dreidl at 5:18 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


LVDI SCÆNICI

Nice post, thanks.
posted by clavdivs at 5:36 PM on January 6, 2015


That's a copy of a lyre excavated at Ur, the making of which is a totally fascinating story in its own right, if for no other reason than that a bunch of people decided that they needed a playable copy and then went to enormous lengths to make it just as fancy as the original. I could swear I read about it on Metafilter, in fact, but now I can't find the original.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:37 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


I just presume that there's a fair amount of interpretation and filling in blanks. It's still sounds pretty cool. A little old fashioned, but that's all right.

I'm also reminded of Synaulia, which I first heard just recently. (Wikipedia)

Perhaps undatable, but my Latvian friends told me that their oldest choral songs are "really, really, old!"
posted by ovvl at 5:42 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I like the music, but I'm a bit sceptical that it's been reconstructed in any meaningful way. The pronunciation of cuneiform texts is still partially guesswork; we don't know what the Hebrew psalms sounded like; and we only have a bare idea about ancient Greek music. Each of the latter are far better documented than anything from Babylonia.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:48 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm holding out for the real thing.

Which, granted, could be a while.
posted by BWA at 7:55 PM on January 6, 2015


Fascinating. Of course even if the music is spot on we won't be hearing it with Babylonian ears. A lifetime of modern western music leaves its mark on the way you hear things.
posted by Segundus at 3:21 AM on January 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Great post, very interesting and fun stuff, regardless of ultimately how accurate it is. However, on another note, and given the post that follows this one, I couldn't help thinking of this version of Mesopotamian music.
posted by emmet at 3:30 AM on January 7, 2015


...and researched how language is converted into music in similar Semitic languages.

Wait, what? I mean, Akkadian is Semitic, but Sumerian's not similar to anything, is it?
posted by bokane at 4:56 AM on January 7, 2015


bokane: Wait, what? I mean, Akkadian is Semitic, but Sumerian's not similar to anything, is it?

Sumerian was an isolate, but it looks like there was significant cross-pollination between Akkadian and Sumerian, to the point where the languages became related. Wikipedia calls it "lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence". Whether this literature came from that convergence period, or the extent to which she studied these languages, that I have no idea.
posted by Woodroar at 6:20 AM on January 7, 2015


It's thought to be an isolate, yes. The only reason we can read it is that it was used as an official and diplomatic language for so long that later scribes needed to make word lists of equivalents in Akkadian. And Akkadian is Semitic, so we can figure out the correspondences to other Semitic languages and read that. But that gives us no hint to pronouncing Sumerian: for that we need transliterated names (SYMBOL SYMBOL SYMBOL = "OBAMA"), which (luckily) we have lots of. But cuneiform isn't an alphabetic system: a sign that represents a word that sounds like "SHEEP" might be used to represent the sounds "SH" or "SHEE" or "SHEEP". So if we have an unfamiliar name, we have to guess how the signs were meant to be read.

There are other problems with transliteration. For instance, sometimes scribes did clever things like using inherently meaningful signs to spell out a name. There's one king whose name was spelled out with signs that meant "HE BUILT A CITY" (URU-MU-USH), so modern scholars thought this was what his name meant. They translated it to Akkadian and decided he was called "Alu-usharshid". That seemed reasonable, until someone noticed that URU-MU-USH sounded like (and could be transliterated as) Rimush, the name of a king they already knew about. Oops. This was quite a while ago, but there are probably similar traps that are still out there.

So there's at least two levels of reconstruction going on, besides the fact that there's a certain amount of guesswork in transliterating things at the best of times. We simply have no idea how some signs were pronounced.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:27 AM on January 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


IAmBroom: "Mumblemumblepotamia "

I think I have a name for my first sockpuppet account.
posted by symbioid at 7:53 AM on January 7, 2015


"there's at least two levels of reconstruction going on, besides the fact that there's a certain amount of guesswork in transliterating things at the best of times. We simply have no idea..."

Joe, your literal meaning, yes. But there is more then mere transliteration going on, for example...

"Below this is found the Akkadian musical instructions, consisting of interval names followed by number signs.[13] Differences in transcriptions hinge on interpretation of the meaning of these paired signs, and the relationship to the hymn text"
posted by clavdivs at 10:31 AM on January 7, 2015


I'm not sure why there's such an issue recreating accurate Babylonian music, we already have a fairly good grasp of what ancient Assyrian and Sumerian music sounds like..
posted by FatherDagon at 11:52 AM on January 7, 2015


The Ancient Babylonians really peaked with their first 7".
posted by tommccabe at 2:39 PM on January 7, 2015


There's one king whose name was spelled out with signs that meant "HE BUILT A CITY" (URU-MU-USH)

URU-MU-USH
URU-MU-USH INA ROCK-AND-ROLL
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:34 PM on January 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


I like the music, but I'm a bit sceptical that it's been reconstructed in any meaningful way.

i really have to wonder if they've got the rhythm right - i don't see how they could, really, and i certainly don't have any idea, either

the flood sounds pretty non-modern to me - it's free enough rhythmically that it could be

ishtar's descent is basically a jazz waltz - which just doesn't seem likely, does it? - it's precise, very tight, it even swings - but having heard a lot of old field recordings and such, it seems like that kind of tightness is a modern thing

lullaby reminds me rhythmically of gershwin's summertime - and it's really tight, again

dumuzid's dream - once again, very tight

my hunch is the original music was probably played a lot looser than this, as a further means of expression

it's nice stuff, but it's western in a lot of ways - it probably couldn't be helped, but ...
posted by pyramid termite at 5:46 PM on January 11, 2015


It's mostly frog DNA because there's very little dinosaur DNA available, so you inevitably get velociraptoads.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 6:01 PM on January 11, 2015


"oh, she's my little dna ..."
posted by pyramid termite at 6:05 PM on January 11, 2015


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