Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Oldest Melody: 1400 BC?

The oldest written music we supposedly have is of a melody transcribed from a Hurrian tablet in cuneiform. Here is a link with more information:
The hymn was discovered on a clay tablet in Ugarit, now part of modern-day Syria, and is dedicated the Hurrians’ goddess of the orchards Nikkal.
The clay tablet text, which was discovered alongside around 30 other tablet fragments, specifies 9 lyre strings and the intervals between those strings – kind of like an ancient guitar tab.
But this is the only hymn that could be reconstructed – although the name of the composer is now lost.
Here is a translation of the associated text:
‘Once I have endeared the deity, she will love me in her heart,
the offer I bring may wholly cover my sin,
bringing sesame oil may work on my behalf in awe may I'
And here is a performance on lyre:

Because I have studied old notations (Paleography, a doctoral seminar in musicology) I know how rudimentary musical notation was before the invention of the staff and rhythmic values around 1000 AD. So I tend to listen to these "reconstructions" with a jaundiced ear. A remarkable number of the more ambitious ones end up sounding a lot like Carl Orff because he wrote music that he wanted to suggest ancient music. In other words, we are not hearing or reconstructing anything with any authenticity, we are mostly just projecting.

This rendition is a little bit different. Frankly it sounds (and looks) exactly like what someone might have improvised at Burning Man! Modal improvisation given a few rudimentary notes may have remained pretty much the same throughout human history. Thank god we invented something better!

Here is another realization of, I think, the same melody. This one is more ambitious and manages to sound like an introduction to Kashmir by Led Zeppelin:

Bear in mind that everything you hear, apart from the single notes, everything else, the rhythms, the drones, the arpeggios, is the complete invention of the performer (s).

Mind you, it does make you want to rub sesame oil all over yourself, doesn't it?

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