Episode 3: Richard Dumbrill: Music in Mesopotamia: transcript

0:12  JT

Hello. And welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:30  JT

My guest in this episode was trained as a musicologist. That is, he’s an expert in music itself. He’s gained considerable expertise in non-western music, with an interest not just in the modern world, but the ancient world as well. He’s passionate about the power of music to drive positive change. He has a long history of putting this into practice in the Middle East, and has collaborated with some of the leading musicologists and performers of the region.

0:58  JT

The study of music in the ancient Middle East has been growing in popularity recently. Our guest brings an incredible depth of musical knowledge to bear on the problem. This helps us interpret the evidence that survives. He’s reconstructed ancient instruments using authentic materials and techniques, and has given us the most plausible reconstruction yet of a piece of music that’s over 3000 years old. In this episode, our guest mentioned three important cities. The first is the city of Nippur, which you could consider the religious heart of ancient Iraq. The second is Mari, an important city in the east of modern Syria. The third is Ugarit on the Syrian coast, where fragments of unique ancient texts were found. These contain the famous Hurrian hymn.

1:47  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea. Make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guest

2:00  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge.

2:03  RD

Hello, Jon. Nice to see you.

2:06  JT

Could you tell us please: who are you and what do you?

2:10  RD

Yes, I’m Richard Dumbrill, director of research with ICONEA.

2:16  JT

Now you’re an expert in ancient music; in particular, the music of Mesopotamia, right?

2:21  RD

Indeed I am.

2:23  JT

Music is one of those ephemeral things. There’s obviously no ancient recordings of music. And the musical instruments themselves, they’re made of materials that tend not to survive very well in Iraq, like wood, and leather and strings. So how do we know anything at all about Mesopotamian music first of all?

2:41  RD

Well, the good thing is the language. The languages of Mesopotamia were written with a system that was called cuneiform. And we have loads of them.

2:52  JT

Loads of texts in this cuneiform writing?

2:54  RD

Yes, indeed. And a few of them have some musical content. And how can music be written down? It’s quite simple. When somebody tells you 12345, you can expect it’s going to be a series of five notes. And then you make a hypothesis that they should be ABCDE or something like that. And then you cross examine what we have done with other texts. And when they come together, then you have something to start with.

3:27  JT

So there’s a kind of universality about music that gives you a foot in the door as it were. And then you can use the text to start to flesh out some of the detail?

3:35  RD

Well, we’re all human beings, you see. So if somebody walks on your toe, you say about the same noise in every language on the planet. So that constant factors, one of which is that most ancient civilisations would use the pentatonic system, like the Chinese do, or the Scots do to this day; that is, five notes. And then there was a transition period around the beginning of the Bronze Age, when they started to use the seven note system the same as we use today. And we have a tablet dating from the Old Babylonian period. And on this text, it gives all the scales as we know them, and which were as they were used from the Middle Ages onwards and the West.

4:21  JT

That’s a very lucky find.

4:23  RD

Yeah, it’s a continuity, which is most interesting. How can we say that it is exactly? Because, you know, by cross examining, by the fact the system works in a certain way, it cannot be anything else. That’s the thing. Furthermore, we were quite lucky, because we found in Nippur some mathematical texts, and these numbers happen to be the quantification; that is, the values of the pitches with a whole scale … the whole gamut. And therefore these happen to be, you see, I’ve got an instrument here.

5:00  JT

Ah, here’s one you made earlier.

5:01  RD

Which one I made earlier. And you see it’s got a ruler on it. And if you place the numbers on this ruler and you play the music, you have all the notes that the Babylonians used to have. And these happen to coincide with the values derived from the text. The one … the one proves the other. So they started by number 81, which was the … this pitch, the lower pitch. And the next one was 72. Then there were 64.8, then there were 60, there was 64 [54!], there was 48, 45, 40, 36. And that was it.

5:01  JT

Excellent. So we have the structure of the music, and we have the building blocks from which the music is made. So then it’s a question of working out how those building blocks were put together in any particular piece of music?

5:59  RD

Well, you could play (plays notes) Play anything you want for the moment, you’ve got the scale they used, that’s fine. Now we know things about how they wrote music, they very much like modern music, they use what is called a maqam. And that maqam consists of groups of notes, which are called ajnas in the plural, jins in the singular, which are a group of four or five or six notes, sometimes three, and the Babylonians did the same thing. They had names of scales that we know well. They had seven of them. But they also have got these series of notes, which had different values, similar to the values that are used by maqam. Nowadays, that we know the first writings about it during the Abbasid, the early Islamic period. And the thing which bothers us is we’ve got the names of intervals. But we do not know what these intervals mean except for one, qablitu, which is the middle, and it happens that this qablitu in the tablets gives this interval right in the middle of the scale. So we know that qablitu is the correct term at the correct position. And we know that another one is pitu–it means “the opening”, and it’s indeed the opening scale. And then we had nish tuhri, which has something to do with the foot. So sadly, we only have two names of intervals of which we are sure. The rest are completely hypothetical. But we know from Mari, around 1700 BC, that they prefer the singers from Halab, from Aleppo, because they sang this tune, for instance nish tuhri, this little elements of notes, better than they did in Mari. And today, it is still the case that the singing from Aleppo is slightly softer than for instance the city of Damascus or Baghdad. So we have continuities also in all these little delicacies.

8:02  JT

So there’s a genuine continuity?

8:05  RD

Yes, indeed.

8:07  JT

As well as the ancient texts, we have evidence from art of depictions of musicians, and some of the instruments. And there are some musical instruments and parts of them that have actually survived. How did they help us reconstruct music?

8:22  RD

So the oldest instrument, we have found the oldest stringed instrument was the lyre. And lyres looked like cows or deer, so were horned animals. And obviously, they were totemistic. So therefore, they used the skin of the animal to make the soundboard, they used the guts of the animal to make strings. And they use the sculptured face board to put on the front of the instrument. So when you played this instrument, it was addressed with the bull or what have you. And these instruments were observed by the first scribes who were asked to write about music. And how could they write down music? It was something terrible. Music is etheral. It’s in the air. You cannot grab notes here and there, it’s impossible. But the scribes were clever. So they observed, and they noted “Oh, there’s a lyre. It’s got two uprights, and a yoke. And along the yoke you have different strings, which are attached”. So they probably would have asked to the player, “Oh, what’s the string?” And they said, “Well, this is the first string, it’s called qudmu. And then you’ve got the second string, then you’ve got the third thin string–shalshu qatnu–and you’ve got the hamshu and you’ve got the strings of the back. And strangely enough the Sumerian for the strings on the back are called “the strings of the big bottom”. So therefore, we knew that the strings of the big bottom were at the bottom of the animal. So we know which part was the bass and which part was the treble. Of course, the system had to be linear, because the yoke of the instrument is linear. So music was linear for quite a while. And then I mean, it’s a bit more complicated than all this, obviously, because there are specific objectives which are given to each string, which gives an idea of what they would have sounded like. For instance, the first string of the front is corrected by the god, Ea. The god Ea has the value of 40 in numbers, because the gods have got numbers attached to them. And it happens to be also the fourth string of the instrument. And in relation to the first one, it can give us numeric values for the string in question. So this is most interesting. Of course, we cannot know anything about the real value of the pitch. Which pitch? Where they’re playing in concert pitch at 442 Hz? This we cannot know. But we have ideas. If you take the guts of an animal, for instance, cow, and this is the small intestine that we use. And if you take this and you twist the gut in question, and place it on the instrument and pull it in the middle of the instrument, you will realize that its sound is the best at about 80% of the breaking level. So therefore, we have an idea of what pitch would have been the constant pitch there, noting that they would have used different lengths of sting twisted together for the bass strings. So you can make an estimation of what the sound would have been like. So we can say that in the middle of the instrument, a string would have sounded something in between D today, but with a tolerance of a semitone on each side.

12:03  JT

Do we know how performance worked? Did the musicians play solo? Or should we imagine groups or orchestras, something like that?

12:10  RD

It’s very difficult to imagine a great orchestra without a common pitch. And to have a common pitch, to be all in tune, then there must be agreements within the instrument makers, so that the instruments are all made to sound from an initial pitch. And that’s quite difficult to imagine at that time. However, there are other systems which we call heterophonic, which means that it doesn’t matter if they are tuned in an other system. They will gradually by playing together … they will eventually synchronize together and render what they play audible rather than being a total confusion of sounds. This system is observed in certain tribes of Africa today, where one starts singing and the other sings something totally different. And then other ones start singing something different, and they will gradually synchronize to one another and make something coherent. So I believe that this is what might have happened in the orchestras. What we know from the archives of Mari, we know of the lives of a couple of hundreds of girl musicians. We know where they were trained, in which music school, we know who was their teacher, we know what was the instrument they played. And we know how much they were paid when they finished after their graduation. And they were paid, obviously, in pots of fat. We know some of them got of course earrings or silver or gold. These would have been the really good ones. So we know quite a lot about all this. And most interestingly we know about instrument makers, because among the archives of Mari we have little tablets which said, “Oh, Mr. So-and-so has ordered two hides of goat to mend an instrument x. But as we don’t know the instrument, we can guess the from the size of the hide, it must have been not too big an instrument. So this helps us knowing what type of instrument and also we know about the glues they used. We know also how they treated the leather. Was it tanned? Was it oiled? If obviously the leather was oiled, it couldn’t be glued because glue and oil do not work well together. So therefore the hide had to be nailed, as on a drum. And if the … on the lutes … it could have been glued simply. So therefore we know that it would have been tanned and not oiled. So we know quite a lot about it. And we know about a dozen instrument makers during this period at Mari. We don’t know how much were paid. They were not specialists makers. So you see therefore, we cannot assume that instrument makers agreed all together to have instruments sounding the same. So therefore, the notion of orchestra is difficult to understand the way we understand it today.

15:12  JT

What different kinds of instruments did they have and what were they used for?

15:16  RD

We are quite sure, for instance, that the big lyres were mainly used earlier and in the temple and with big drums. That’s for certain. Then we know the smaller ones was for the court. And the lute was not a very popular instrument of the court, it was considered more as a vulgar instrument for street players and the like. And the same thing went for the flutes, which were considered more as the shepherd’s instruments and we’re not freely accepted at the court. And indeed we have very few terms for these type of instruments. Now the Hurrians were a short lived civilisation in their location at Ugarit. And their city was burned down by the Egyptians. And there was a library in the corner of a room where the French discovered in the 1950s, fragments of 29 tablets. We were only about to reconstruct one tablet out of this lot. And this tablet contains a song. There is the musical notation on the top part. And on the bottom part of it, we have the lyrics. And this is the oldest song ever written.

16:27  JT

So what date is this tablet? How old is it?

16:30  RD

1400 BC, 1300. But the Hurrians had the language. Nobody knew what it meant. And I had a look at it. And I discovered that it was Babylonian terms that were used to hold the music. But the case ending of the word was not Babylonian. Instead of a qabli-TUM, it was qabli-TE. And you got the term of an interval. And then you got numbers after each of these intervals. So the reconstruction consisted in taking the number of notes in the name of this interval. And the number is the length by which the last note of the interval is to be prolonged. For instance, if you’ve got a “qablite three”, it would be da-da-da-da one, two, three. “Qablite two” will be da-da-da-da, one, two. And “qablite one” will be da-da-da-da dum. And having done this throughout each of the lines, I realized that the first line has 72 beats, and the other lines in the middle had 36 beats each, and the last line had 72 beats. So the first line consists of twice 36 beats, the two lines of 36 beats and the last line of twice 36. So this is not to be taken coincidentally. So as we did not know much about the Hurrian language, I could try to fit in the lyrics with the music. This enlightened us as to the vocalization of Hurrian. And this was most interesting. But not being an expert in Hurrian, I left this to the specialists in the current language. But it gave us an idea for how it worked. So I was able to reconstruct the piece from this. It took me ages to do it, of course. I first produced publicly this piece in 2011, in Damascus, at a festival in front of the leading musicians of the Middle East. So I was quite worried about this. I said, “I’m going to play it”. I said, “They’re going to hate it”.

18:43  JT

Oh no.

18:43  RD

I was quite tense. And I played it. And suddenly they were humming with it, and clapping their hands, as if they had known it from all their lives. They said, “Oh, this interval, that third note should be like this, and this should be like that”. So they gave me indication of how it should be played. And therefore the indications helped me to modify certain pitches in the groups of notes on the intervals and to reconstruct it. And I submitted the reconstruction to them, and they were quite pleased with it. And was it the way it was played 1400 years BC? I’m not sure. But the way they guided me through the reconstruction of this piece was certainly guided by a long heritage.

19:29  JT

Terrific. So you have a plausible piece of ancient music?

19:33  RD

Of course, there’s a lot of opposition to my interpretation. Some people are of the opinion that all the intervals of the note should be played as harmony, which is highly doubtful. But nevertheless, they prefer to hear bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling than something melodious.

19:52  JT

Can you say something more generally about how we assess the various different modern reconstructions of ancient music? If you search YouTube, for example, you will find all sorts of different reconstructions of the same piece of music that sound very different. How do we tell how plausible each one is?

20:09  RD

Well, it’s quite simple. When you are plagiarized, that’s a good sign. And I’ve been plagiarized a few times. It is a good sign of authenticity, I think,

20:21  JT

OK, very philosophical.

20:23  RD

Well, there are mainly two schools. There’s the school of Professor Kilmer, who thinks that the intervals are to be paired together as sounding harmonic. But this is a proposition which is rejected by most serious musicologists. And also the way she understands the intervals. For instance, she uses intervals for 13-, 1400 BC, from what she knows about a text, which is from the middle of the first millennium. So it’s very difficult to be certain that the way in which music theory worked, you know, with 1000 years difference. Therefore this I cannot accept.

21:04  JT

We’re going to play an excerpt from your reconstruction of the Hurrian hymn. Could you just introduce it for us please?

21:10  RD

The Hurrian hymn is probably written in 1400 BC or there around. It is written in the Hurrian language. And it turns out that the singer, whose name is Sevan Habib, comes from Armenia. And it’s most interesting to have, basically, a woman singing and she is originally from the place where these people came from. And she is a remarkable, very nice soprano. She’s doing a PhD at King’s College right now, but studies musicology with me, and especially in respect of the Armenian heritage.

Sevan Habib  22:30 

(sings Hurrian song)

25:07  JT

What do we know about the musicians themselves? Is this the kind of job that would run in the family? Or could anybody do this? And what kind of training would you get as a musician?

25:17  RD

We do not know. We know that they had conservatories at the court. That’s like later harems. It was a tradition for the girls to play a musical instrument. This was the case in Mari. Girls from a good family were sent to the harem, where they received a very good education, where they studied music, and then entertained at court or other places. On the other hand, with Sumerian, we’ve got quite a lot of names of pieces of music and types of music, such as a balbale and other terms. Also, there were tablets on which you had incipits of songs. An incipit is simply the … a bit of the introduction, or the first line of a song, which is written as a title of a song. So we have incipits of songs on tablets, with the … what type of song they were. Many songs were breast songs, as they were called. And we have their numbers and we have the indication in which scale they were played. For instance, you go back to the Hurrians. We know that the songs that were played were called zaluzi, but we don’t know what a zaluzi is. We know that zaluzi was played in nid qabli. Therefore we know in which scale it was played. Zaluzi, we haven’t got an idea. And also you see something interesting with the Hurrian song, it is a song. It means that this song by the voice, and the voice cannot play two notes at the same time. Therefore those who play chords must be wrong, because I’ve never have a song playing two notes at the same time. If it’s a song, sung zaluzi in the scale of, then it must be a solo singing.

27:06  JT

You reconstruct both instruments and music. Are you working on any new reconstructions now?

27:12  RD

Yes, well, when the … I was about to have a good agreement with the Ministry of Culture in Iraq, where I would start to recreate instruments with a musical culture, and reconstruction of also the Sumerian material. And it was planned that we would produce Sumerian lyres, and have teachers teaching them how to play it … try to start a new fashion in Iraq playing the Sumerian lyre. The Sumerian lyre is very popular as we know, it’s on packets of cigarettes, it’s on different things. You find it everywhere in Iraq. And also to reconstruct the ancient Baghdadi instruments, which are no longer made in Baghdad, because the artisans simply moved away from the city after the invasion. And there was also the question of making musical illustrations for some of the rooms at the Iraqi Museum. But of course, after the troubles in Iraq, the whole thing vanished. So sadly, we are not going to do this with … in Iraq. But I’m doing part of it in England with a team of volunteers, who will with me do reconstructions of the Sumerian and the Babylonian instrumentarium, as far as we know it. And then when this is ready, to go to Iraq.

28:40  JT

There have been regular cultural festivals at the site of Babylon. And you’ve been involved with that, haven’t you? Could you tell us something about your role there?

28:47  RD

I’m involved. Yes. I’ve been there from beginning. At the beginning, it was a very small thing. We used to have a few hundred people on the opening, closing days. Now we have stopped. At the moment we are online, we are like everybody else. But the last festival we were over 1500 people on both occasions, opening and closing. So we have acquired a great interest in the country. And I remember something very funny. I recited a poem in Akkadian, an ode to the goddess Ishtar, which is well known among cuneiformists. And I recited it in Babylonian, and there was oud-player who improvised between the quatrains. Then I had an Arab actor who translated it liberally in Arabic. And it’s a very long piece to recite. And formidably, everybody was silent. They were all listening to this very, very quietly. Usually, it was … a tradition is that when you hear music, they start caranating or speaking, whatever. But no. For this poem, in Akkadian, they remained silent. And when I finished it, that was a huge applause. And of course, this was on the TV. So whenever … when I left the festivals, to have dinner with my friends and colleagues in Hillah, which is the next nearby town, I was recognized by everybody.

30:21  JT

Signing autographs, were you?

30:23  RD


30:24  RD

So the festival is dealing with the arts in general, with a strong emphasis on poetry, which is a national pastime in Iraq, as you know. But we also deal with the reconstruction of old houses in Baghdad. And we have reconstructed one house near the Abu Nawas boulevard, completely from scratch. And I’ve catalogued about 70 houses which need to be rebuilt. So it’s hard work ahead, especially, it’s expensive. But we are getting mayors of different towns of the west to get involved. And name these houses. For instance, if a city [house] is being reconstructed by Milan, for instance, called Dar Milan, or London or whatever, so that people can use it as a cultural center in Baghdad. And we deal with paintings and we had a marvellous filmmaker, an Iraqi filmmaker who is in Paris, who has done absolutely wonderful films about southern Iraq during the horrible reign of Saddam Hussein. And so we do a lot. The festival lasts for one week. And it’s held in Babylon, in the gardens mainly. And in the disgusting, reconstructed amphitheater, reconstructed by Saddam Hussein. But it … it is really … you get more and more people. And what I do like about Babylon, is that it attracts a lot of people. Now we see families coming, women with their black abaya, with their family you know, having picnics in the grounds of the … the gardens of Babylon, and asking, “Oh, come on”, you know, “you are foreigners, so come on”. They offer you a cup of tea. I was even kidnapped by women all dressed in their abaya on the boat, because they were campaigning for women’s rights in Iraq. And I got a special document from them. Very interesting things are happening nowadays in Iraq. Hopefully, things will be better. And I’m still in touch on a daily basis with them.

32:28  JT

Yeah, there have been a lot of really tough years recently. Let’s hope the future is a happier place.

32:34  JT

Well, thank you very much, Richard, we really appreciate your time and your insights.

32:38  RD

My pleasure.

32:41  JT

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