Nero's Lyre

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

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Nero's Lyre

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My myriad of "Musical Adventures in Time Travel" would not be complete, without exploring the notorious Emperor Nero - the most famous (or rather infamous!) lyre player of antiquity, who we actually know by name! According to the timeless folklore, Nero famously played his lyre to accompany the Lament he sang as Rome burnt in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE: whether this event was fact or fiction is irrelevant - the concept of this unique single, is to evoke upon my own lyre, what Nero's famous lament may have actually sounded like...

Nero's notorious reputation often masks the known facts about his passion for music, and above all, his desire to master the Kithara - the large wooden lyre favoured by the professional musicians of both ancient Greece & Rome:

"The emperor Nero was noted for his love of music, and it is recorded that he played and sang. In 60 A.D. he instituted, apparently for the first time in Rome, musical competitions after the Hellenic pattern. In 65 A.D. he inaugurated a more elaborate festival, the "Neronia," which he planned to hold every five years.25 In both he appeared as chief contestant. To all appearances, Tacitus and other conservative Romans were more shocked by these actions than by his brutal murders. Of course, the desire for recognition in the musical world on the part of a Roman emperor was not original with Nero. His predecessor, Caligula, had performed as a dancer and singer, and planned to take part in tragedies. Whether he was trying to emulate Caligula or not, Nero's desire for artistic recognition was evidently quite sincere. He is said to have been exceedingly anxious over the outcome of the contests in which he appeared and to have observed strictly the "full rules of the cithara" ("Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned", Mary Francis Gyles - The Classical Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Jan. 1947), 211‑217)

Gyles goes on to say, "there can be no doubt that the instrument employed by Nero was the cithara. Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Sextus Aurelius Victor, Philostratus, and Juvenal attest the fact. Furthermore, most of them manifested the same revulsion as Tacitus at the spectacle of a Roman emperor appearing in public performances. But whatever the feelings of others, Nero enjoyed himself so much that he repeated the "Neronia" after a short interval rather than wait five years for its scheduled return. He even made a trip through Greece to gain more appreciative audiences for his musical efforts. Here he ordered the various local and national festivals to be held in the same year so that he could take part in them all."

NERO FIDDLED WHILE ROME BURNED?

As the violin was not invented utnil some 1500 years after the tme of Nero, the notrious Nero obviously did not literally play the fiddle as Rome burnt - the origin of this phrase, is from a mistlanslation of the original general Latin term a for string instrument, "fidicula" as "fiddled", as explained here, by Mary Giles "In the late Republic the Latin word fides, meaning string, is used by Cicero to designate some stringed instrument.18 Again, in quoting Zeno, Cicero uses the diminutive form fidicula.19 This form, fidicula, is employed by Pliny to indicate the constellation known as "Lyra."20 It is uncertain whether the term applied to the lyre or cithara type of instrument, or to both,21 though it is certain that it specified a stringed instrument. Since these terms are rarely found in Roman literature, it is probable that their use was largely confined to oral expression" (Mary Francis Gyles - The Classical Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Jan. 1947), 211‑217).

There are several souces from anitquity which tell of the story of how Nero played the Kithara as Rome burnt down - Dio Cassius, describing the fire wrote that "Nero ascended to the roof of the palace from which there was the best general view . . . and assuming the kithara-player's garb, sang the Capture of Troy. . . ." (Dio Cassius, 62.18.1)

Earlier, according to Tacitus, " the report had spread that, at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he [Nero] had mounted his private stage, and, typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, had sung "the Destruction of Troy." (Tacitus, Ann. 15.39.)

Writing at almost the same time as Tacitus, Suetonius wrote "Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas . . . he sang the whole of the Sack of Ilion in his regular stage costume." (Suetonius, Nero 38).

It was my was my aim in composing "Nero's Lyre" to transport the listener back in time, to relive once more, this timelss , classic moment from antiquity - enjoy your journey!

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The Sack of Troy: Paean for Ancient Greek Kithara

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

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The Sack of Troy: Paean for Ancient Greek Kithara

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"The Sack of Troy: Paean for Ancient Greek Kithara" - an improvisation for replica ancient Greek kithara, (the large wooden lyre once played by the professional musicians of ancient Greece) in the favourite ancient Greek mode of Plato himself; the ancient Greek Dorian Mode, which he considered the most 'manly' and noble of the musical modes, capable even of inspiring bravery in battle.

In ancient Greek Classical literature, there was a lost ancient Greek epic by the title of "The Sack of Troy" - which was one of the Epic Cycle, which told the entire history of the Trojan War in epic verse. In creating this this new composition for replica ancient Greek kithara, it was therefore my intention to evoke the sort of ancient Greek 'paean' style melody (an ancient Greek hymn of thanksgiving) to which that lost epic of ancient Greece could have been recited!

Regarding the ancient Greek Dorian Mode, this was misnamed the 'Phrygian' mode in the Middle Ages. This intensely introspective mode is the equivalent intervals as E-E on the white notes of the piano. I also use authentically pure intervals tuned in just intonation.

In "The Republic" by Plato, Book III (398-403), in a classic philosophical dialogue of argument and counter-argument between the characters in this passage, the text is as follows:

"The harmonies which you mean are the mixed or tenor Lydian, and the full-toned or bass Lydian, and such-like. These then, I said, must be banished; even to women who have a character to maintain they are of no use, and much less to men.

Certainly.

In the next place, drunkenness and softness and indolence are utterly unbecoming the character of our guardians.

Utterly unbecoming?

And which are the soft and convivial harmonies?

The Ionian, he replied, and some of the Lydian which are termed “relaxed”.

Well, and are these of any use for warlike men?

Quite the reverse, he replied; and if so the Dorian and the Phrygian are the only ones which you have left."

(https://theoryofmusic.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/music-in-platos-republic/)

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Microtonal Music for Lyre (Etude in the Archytas Enharmonic Genus)

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

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Microtonal Music for Lyre (Etude in the Archytas Enharmonic Genus)

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This single features a completely spontaneous improvisation for solo replica ancient Greek chelys (tortoise shell form) lyre based on a hauntingly evocative documented microtonal scale from ancient Greece, known as the "Archytas Enharmonic Genus":

http://www.ex-tempore.org/ARCHYTAS/ARCHYTAS.html

The use of quarter tones in this ancient Greek scale adds an intensity to the resulting music improvised in it in an entirely different dimension to the artificial constraints of our monotonously standardized 12 note chromatic system. The feeling of intensity in this microtonal scale is further enhanced by the authentic use of the clearly focused intervals, tuned here in just intonation.

The lyre I am playing is a replica ancient Greek chelys (tortoise shell form of lyre) - the "Lyre of Apollo III", hand-made in modern Greece by Luthieros:

http://www.en.luthieros.com/product/the-lyre-of-apollo-iii-ancient-greek-lyre-chelys-11-strings-top-quality-handcrafted-musical-instrument

In this improvisation, I also demonstrate the rhythmic potential of the reconstructed tortoise shell form lyre by using the greater mass of my replica ancient Greek carved bone plectrum to also occasionally beat rhythm on the skin soundboard; in much the same manner that acoustic guitarists today can beat rhythm on the soundboard of their guitars whilst they play:

I sincerely hope that Apollo would approve of my effects to bring both his lyre and his long-forgotten ancient Greek musical scales new life!

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Orpheus's Lyre: Lament For Solo Lyre in the Just Intonation of Antiquity

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

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Orpheus's Lyre: Lament For Solo Lyre in the Just Intonation of Antiquity

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This composition for solo lyre, was inspired by the timeless ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice:

"Eurydice and Orpheus were young and in love. So deep was their love that they were practically inseparable. So dependent was their love that each felt they could not live without the other. These young lovers were very happy and spent their time frolicking through the meadows. One day Eurdice was gaily running through a meadow with Orpheus when she was bitten by a serpent. The poison of the sting killed her and she descended to Hades immediately.

Orpheus was son of the great Olympian god Apollo. In many ways Apollo was the god of music and Orpheus was blessed with musical talents. Orpheus was so sad about the loss of his love that he composed music to express the terrible emptiness which pervaded his every breath and movement. He was so desperate and found so little else meaningful, that he decided address Hades. As the overseer of the underworld, Hades heart had to be hard as steel, and so it was. Many approached Hades to beg for loved ones back and as many times were refused. But Orpheus' music was so sweet and so moving that it softened the steel hearted heart of Hades himself. Hades gave permission to Orpheus to bring Eurydice back to the surface of the earth to enjoy the light of day. There was only one condition - Orpheus was not to look back as he ascended. He was to trust that Eurydice was immediately behind him. It was a long way back up and just as Orpheus had almost finished that last part of the trek, he looked behind him to make sure Eurydice was still with him. At that very moment, she was snatched back because he did not trust that she was there. When you hear music which mourns lost love, it is Orpheus' spirit who guides the hand of the musicians who play it" (Taken from Thomas Bulfinch and retold by Juliana Podd in Encyclopedia Mythica)

In this piece, I explore transposing between the incredibly poignant-sounding ancient Greek Phrygian mode (this was misnamed the "Dorian" mode in the Middle Ages) to evoke the yearning of Orpheus for his forever lost love, and the dreamy, sensual & feminine-sounding ancient Greek Hypolydian mode (misnamed the "Lydian" mode in the Middle Ages), to paint a picture of Eurydice - the lost love for which he forever yearns...

In this composition, I tune my lyre to the wonderfully pure just intonation of antiquity - unlike the horrible compromise of equal temperament, whereby each semitone is artificially made equal, in order to seamlessly transpose between different keys, in just intonation, the correct & exact ratio of pitches in a scale is precisely calculated, resulting in a wonderfully pure sound. In just intonation, the intervals have a unique density & music performed in just intonation is at the same time transformed into a sound that is both calming yet at the same time, inspiring. Just intonation was perhaps, one of the little-known wonders of the ancient world?

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Ancient Lyre Strings

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

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Ancient Lyre Strings

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INTRODUCTION

This experimental extended length single is actually a practical "archaeo-musicological experiment, in discovering what techniques are possible to perform on a replica wooden Kithara-style lyre of antiquity, when strung with authentic natural fibre strings. The lyre is also tuned to the wonderfully pure-sounding just intonation of antiquity.

Trying to find authentic sounding strings for my lyre has so far been the most difficult challenge - although gut was generally used in antiquity, the polished gut harp strings used today, bear little in common with the closely wound gut fibre strings of antiquity. String expert Peter Pringle (a regular contributor to the fascinating new Facebook Group "The Lyre") suggested that natural fibre silk strings would sound closest match to the unpolished gut used on the lyre strings of antiquity & kindly made some for my lyre...

ANCIENT MUSICAL STRING TECHNOLOGY

Peter explains some fascinating facts about the little discussed subject of ancient musical string technology:

"Silk strings are traditionally made by twisting pure silk filaments together using binders and glues of various sorts to produce a stable cord with the appropriate hardness and density (which is similar to a dried gut string).

The ancient string makers guarded their recipes and techniques with all the secrecy of modern industrialists. They added all sorts of things to their binders - powdered silver and gold, and minerals like rock crystal, jade, lapis, etc. - in order to impart certain sonic properties to the finished product.

Much of that was, I believe, based on the rather romantic, folkloric notion that the music would ultimately take on the metaphysical qualities of the substance used in the string making process. For example, if you were to use powdered pearls in your silk binders, the string would manifest the characteristics of the sea, while a small amount of the dried and finely ground heart of tiger would make your music more powerful and compelling. There are equally fanciful ideas of this sort associated with Chinese traditional medicine.

Interestingly, some of the substances they used (such as powdered metals) actually did change the acoustic properties of the string but they did so for physical, and not metaphysical, reasons. Putting silver into your string may give it a clear and incisive tone but that's because of the metal's specific gravity, not because it transmits the qualities of the moon!

The entire output of the very best silk string makers in China was often bought up by the Imperial Palace, so the finest strings were usually not even available to the general public and could be heard only in the Forbidden City. This was the case with the so-called "ice string" which is a translucent pure white silk"

Having now experimented with the sound of these silk strings on my lyre, I have discovered a whole new world of sound & have come one step closer to the actual sound of the lyres of antiquity.

JUST INTONATION

Just intonation, is to me, one of the little known wonders of the ancient world! First devised some 5000 years ago, during the development of the first fretted lutes in ancient Mesopotamia, in just intonation, the ratio of each interval of a musical scale is precisely calculated in rational numbers, so that each semitone is unique and very slightly different in proportion to the other semitones in the scale.

The result is a wonderfully pure sound - intervals played in just intonation have an almost 3 dimensional depth, when contrasted with the same interval in modern equal temperament. In equal temperament, all the semitones are artificially made equal, so that it is possible to seamlessly transpose from one key to the next, without any change in the proportion of the intervals. However, this is at the expense of the purity of the sound of the musical intervals!

For example, whenever a triad is played on a piano tuned in equal temperament, the 3 tones are always very slightly out of phase with each other, resulting in noticeable "wooowooowooo"-sounding beat waves.

Music in just intonation, is, thanks to the purity of the intervals, magically at the same time more calming to the ear, yet also inspiring! In short, compared to just intonation, equal temperament is like a rose without it's scent...

MY EXPERIENCE OF PLAYING MORE AUTHENTICALLY MADE LYRE STRINGS

There are several conclusions I discovered about using these fascinating "practical archaeomusicological experiments" at playing more authentically manufactured lyre strings....

The basic tone of the lyre remained almost the same - this demonstrated that the most important component in the quality of the sound of a lyre, is the actual quality of the wooden soundboard upon which the strings vibrate.This is, of course, a common sense observation - even the most expensive hand-crafted gut violin strings will still sound like elastic bands, if strung on a cheap fiddle with a thick soundboard made from cheap, poorly seasoned wood with poor resonance!

However, due to the harder nature of wound silk compared to nylon, there is a much more interesting & crisper attack when the strings are plucked. The tone of natural fibre strings is also much more colourful & individual, in comparison to nylon. This is due to the the production process of nylon musical strings, as Peter Pringle explained to me:

"the nylon monofilament strings are made by "nylon/fluorocarbon monofilament is made by the extrusion process (forcing the liquid synthetic through a small hole, like toothpaste or spaghetti, so that it makes a single strand of absolutely consistent diameter). In ancient time, strings were not made this way and they were not quite so even. Regardless of whether they were of gut, hair, or some other natural fiber, slight inconsistencies gave the strings certain sonic characteristics - a certain "personality" resulting from the added overtones and harmonics produced by minute variations in thickness and density - that you will not hear from extruded strings whose sound may be far more pure but decidedly less interesting, not to mention less authentic. Even modern factory made gut strings are polished on a centerless grinder (a technology the ancients did not possess) which makes them far more even than gut strings would have been in Greece or the Middle East 3000 years ago. The only gut strings made today that might be comparable to ancient gut strings would be those made by African and Indian artisans for indigenous instruments like the adungu, the begena, the sarangi, etc."

A fascinating feature I discovered, was that this pleasant crispness of attack was most prominent in the bass strings of my lyre - the higher pitched treble strings were, in fact, almost indistinguishable from the tone of the nylon. The bass silk strings, though, sounded far richer in character & nuance than nylon & superior in tone. This is again a parallel phenomenon to violin strings - even if all the the strings are made of the finest gut, the top E string is almost always made of steel: yet it still manages to match the tone of the other gut strings almost seamlessly.

The main drawback of any form of natural fibre or twisted gut musical string, though, is the lack of both tuning stability & durability compared to modern nylon harp strings - my lyre now only stays in tune for about 10 minutes at a time - I have a new-found empathy to the devotion to the constant retuning required by the lyre players of antiquity, in their efforts to attain "the Music of the Spheres"!

Another fascinating observation, is that the variety of lyre playing techniques I have inferred from my study of ancient illustrations of lyre players & the styles of lyre playing still practised today in Africa & Egypt, work even better on the low tension, crisper-sounding silk strings - these include the "block & strum" technique still used by the Krar lyre players of Eritrea & the tremolo style of playing still practiced today by the Simsimiyya lyre players of Port Said in Egypt. The hypothetical "String Blocking" method proposed by he musicologist Curt Sachs (using a knuckle of the left hand as a fret on a lyre string to play accidentals on a diatonically strung lyre) also works beautifully on these low tension lyre strings.

Harmonics can also be effortlessly played on silk lyre strings by lightly stopping the centre of the string. The combination of finger plucked & plectrum plucked tones on these strings is also virtually limitless - either finger plucked intervals to accompany a plectrum plucked melodic line, or a finger plucked melody with an accompaniment of single plectrum plucked notes.

I now feel that any ancient lyre player from antiquity, with any sort of musical imagination, would surely have used these very same lyre playing techniques, in their efforts to extract, as I have strove to do, every conceivable possibility that the instrument is actually capable of.

GUT STRINGS VERUS SILK?

Peter explained to me more about the fascinating history of gut & silk musical strings, in relation to the music of the ancient Near East & Mediterranean:

"King David did not string his harps with silk because the silk-making process was unknown in the Middle East until roughly 500 A.D. when it was introduced to the Byzantines via the so-called "Silk Road". Still, I do believe that the closest sound you will get to handmade (as opposed to machined) gut strings made from the intestines of sheep or goats, of the sort that David would have used on his instruments, is probably going to be silk.

Like gut strings, silk is brittle once it has been subjected to the hardening process. With both silk and gut, one must be careful when putting a new string onto an instrument not to bend, crush or crack any part of the the vibrating length between the peg and the bridge. The same thing is true with wire. If you accidentally get a kink or a twist in brass or bronze wire it can never be perfectly straightened and you will compromise the purity of the tone of your string.

A "filament" is the single strand of raw silk spun by the mulberry silkworm and in order to make a single .050" (roughly 1.25 mm) pure silk string, it takes nearly 11,000 filaments (the thickness of a human hair would be the equivalent of about 150 filaments). I know that sounds like it must be a humongous task but it isn't. Once you're set up and have all your materials on hand, it's actually quite fast. The most difficult and exacting task is done by the "bombyx mori" - the silkworm itself. Anyone can make a silk string but only the worm can make silk!"

ANCIENT LYRE PLAYING TECHNIQUES PERFORMED ON NATURAL FIBRE LYRE STRINGS.

The diverse range of ancient lyre playing techniques I use, are based on both an inference of playing styles depicted in ancient illustrations of lyre players, observation of lyre playing techniques still practised today in Africa, as well as an imaginative "process of elimination" - to see what is actually possible to play on the lyre, given a little musical imagination.

These techniques include "block and strum" - a technique still practised by Krar lyre players today in Eritrea, whereby strings not required to be heard are dampened with the left hand, whilst the open strings can be strummed to form basic rhythmic chords. I also use tremolo - a technique used by Egyptian Simsimiyya lyre players today.

I also experiment with an ancient Mesopotamian percussive lyre playing technique, whereby the strings are hit with a small wooden baton like a hammered dulcimer. This can clearly be seen in illustrations of lyre players found in the Bas Reliefs from the ruins of the Palace of Nineveh, c.700 BCE. The same playing style also can be seen 1000 years later, in illustrations of lyre players in the ruins of the Roman villas at Paphos, Cyprus.

Other possible styles I experiment with, include a hypothetical ancient Greek lyre playing technique proposed by Cur Sachs, called "string stopping" - by using a knuckle of the left hand thumb as a fret on the strings, it is possible to play the accidentals clearly indicated in ancient Greek musical notation, on a diatonically strung lyre.

Evidence of this same technique can also be found 1000 years before the rise of Classical Greece, in a depiction of an ancient Egyptian harpists, who can clearly be shown to be bending one specific string to presumably raise it's pitch by the required semitone or microtone - the illustration is of a relief from tomb 11 in the Ta-Apet (Thebes) area (New Kingdom 1520 BCE) which actually seems to illustrate this unique ancient harp-playing technique : a harper shortens the string with one hand,and plucks with the other - this is surely the first unambiguous pictorial evidence of the technique of string-stopping from the ancient world! The bent string is clearly shown.

Other techniques I experiment with, include harmonics & creating heterophonic development in using a combination of guitar-like, plectrum plucked tones and harp-like, finger plucked tones.

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In an Ancient Roman Garden

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

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In an Ancient Roman Garden

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IN AN ANCIENT ROMAN GARDEN

An evocation of the lost serenity of Classical antiquity...

This single features a completely spontaneous improvisations for chelys (tortoise shell form) lyre, recorded, live in my own garden at the height of summer, with nothing but the soothing, timeless background sounds of flowing water and birdsong...

The lyre featured in this single is the wonderfully rich and resonant "Lyre of Apollo III", handmade in modern Greece by Luthieros:

http://en.luthieros.com

Unlike ancient Greece, from which we are lucky enough to have at least 60 fragments of actual written music (notated in the unambiguous alphabetical system of ancient Greek musical notation, whereby specific alphabetical symbols represented specific pitches), there is strangely not a shred of written music to have survived from ancient Rome.

However, as the Romans so obviously borrowed so much from the artistic culture of ancient Greece, particularly in art and architecture, it goes without saying that when it came to music, it is therefore incredibly likely that they also borrowed many musical ideas from ancient Greece as well. This is evident by the similarity between depictions of the ancient Roman kithara and tortoise shell lyres (for example, in the fresco's found preserved in Pompeii and Herculaneum) to their ancient Greek counterparts.

Therefore, in putting together this single, I used an ancient Greek mode; the distinctively warm and contented-sounding ancient Greek Hypophrygian Mode - this mode was the equivalent intervals as G-G on the white notes of the piano, (misnamed the 'Mixolydian' mode in the Middle Ages). I also tuned my lyre in the ancient, authentically pure tuning system of just intonation.

The main challenge of recording this piece, live in my own garden, was avoiding also recording the almost omnipresent, tinnitus-like 21st century background noise - to those with more sensitive ears, a few tiny snippets of '21st century auditory blemishes' may have very slightly stained the image of the purity of Classical serenity I was trying to portray, but in general, I think I accomplished the monumental task to the best of my ability! Enjoy a taste of my evocation of the lost tranquility of the Classical world...

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