Composing New Music For An Ancient Lyre

Music is the only true magic of the ancients which we have left - only through music, is it possible to spontaneously conjure up, literally from from nothing, the most sublime sounds, which like a magic carpet, can transport the listener, to mystical, ancient landscapes, so long ago forgotten...

Throughout my journey of musical exploration, I have discovered that the timeless lyre almost has a "Soul" of it's own - once it is possible to learn to tap into it, the most magical music will flow, with no prior effort, laborious notation and compositional deliberation! In this blog, I want to reveal some of the ways I have found of composing new music for an ancient lyre...


The first time I tried composing an original melody, was when I was 17 years old - as a lonesome, lovelorn teenager, in my incredible naivety, I thought it would be a really novel way to make my romantic intentions known to the very first girl I felt an attraction to, by going through the Herculean task of writing, recording and sending her a tape of a love song, complete with piano accompaniment! Here is a recent recording for solo piano, of this very same melody:


Alas, after all this frankly barmy amount of effort, naturally, the poor girl must have thought I was some sort of stalker (and told me in no uncertain terms precisely where she thought I should stick the cassette tape I had sent her!). All my aspirations as a young composer were not so much dashed, but just like my heart at this time, were broken beyond repair!


Attempting to write this first ever tune for piano also seemed to take an eternity. It certainly seems to be the case, that the more mental effort one puts into creating an original melody, the less inspirational the resulting melody will sound.

This is something I also discovered  a year later, in November 1986 at my first term of University, when I had the sublime privilege of seeing the living Blues legend and indeed, the father of what was to become Rock n' Roll, the one and only B.B King playing live, during his 60th birthday UK tour...

It was not the number of notes or the technique behind the notes which mattered in BB King's guitar epic playing - it was the incredible fact, that each and every note he played weighted about 10 tons a piece & seemed to originate from deep down, somewhere within the man's very soul! This is what makes music great music - the magic in music, is being able to communicate directly to the listener, the emotion and feeling being expressed by either the musician or the composer behind the music.

These lessons were something I carried with me over 2 decades later, when I finally picked up a lyre for the first time in 2006! Some of my compositions for lyre are therefore absolutely spontaneous improvisations, such as "The Music of Moses" (an improvisation on an ancient Egyptian scale) and "An Ancient Lyre" (an improvisation on a particularly evocative Indian Sitar tuning I had heard) 

For the majority of my original compositions, though, I use a compromise between pure, unplanned improvisation and pre-planned composition. Generally, I tend to first come up with a basic binary melodic theme based on the particular individual characher of the specific ancient musical mode I wish to use, then use the virtually limitless possibilities of the lyre to embellish and add heterophonic development of these themes, by use of a diverse range lyre playing techniques which I like to use. These techniques offer almost limitless possibilities for improvisation, for example:

1. Alternating between rapid plectrum & finger-plucked tones

2. Playing pure finger-plucked intervals with the left hand to accompany a plectrum-plucked melody in the right hand.

3. Playing plectrum-plucked bass notes to accompany a finger-plucked melody.

4. Playing a plectrum-plucked tremolo in the bass to accompany a finger-plucked melody.

5. Using tremolo in the actual melody line.

6. Strumming rhythm with a plectrum like a guitar - notes not required to sound are blocked by fingers in the left hand.

7. Hitting the strings percussively with a wooden baton like a hammered dulcimer - a technique I inferred from illustrations of lyre players seen in both the Bas Reliefs from the Palace of Nineveh and in the Pahos Mosiacs in Cyprus, who all seem to be using a small wooden baton to hit the strings of their lyres, rather than the usual plectrum to pluck the strings.

8. The use of harmonics by plucking the strings whilst lightly finger-stopping the strings at their centre with the left hand.

9. The use of accidentals, portamento and microtones by using the left hand thumb nail as a moveable fret on the string. This works even better, by also placing the middle finger against the string, so that it is pinched between this finger and the thumb nail.

10. The use of parallel motion - using finger-plucked and plectrum-plucked tones generally an interval of 3rd apart in sections of a melody.

With this almost infinite palette of tonal variations, coloured by the unique individual characteristics of each of the many ancient musical modes, almost an infinite number of wonderful melodies can be conjured out of the air with virtually no effort! The lyre truly was, the "magic wand" of the ancients...


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