(read also part 2) A special treat this week: an interview with musician Stef Conner. She has worked on many interesting things, but what caught my eye during my research for my upcoming novel Broken Tablet was her work on The Flood. For more background on this including an audio clip, see this Newsweek story, What Did the Ancient Babylonians Sound Like? Thank you for answering these questions, Stef. Take it away…
First off, tell us a little about your background. How did you get into Mesopotamian music?
I became interested in Mesopotamian literature by accident to begin with. While studying for my PhD in Music Composition at the University of York, I was looking for poetry about war from female perspectives, for a composition project that never happened. I bought a poetry anthology called ‘Women on War’, which contained a ‘translation’ (I will explain the quotation marks) of a war poem by the Sumerian Priestess Enheduanna. The anthology presented the poem as a searing lament on the horrors of war and destructive power of the God of War and I couldn’t believe my luck when I read it. I knew nothing whatsoever about Sumer, but I had enough of a general interest in antiquity to understand that an anti-war poem from such an early civilization (THE early civilization) was an exciting text to come into contact with – a Mesopotamian Lysistrata or something. I wanted to know if it was possible to read the poem in Sumerian, so I tried to look it up in the Oxford Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature and struggled to find it. Eventually I realised it was because the ‘translation’ in the poetry anthology was at best a fanciful reimagining and at worst a barefaced lie: the expert OETCSL translation presented the same text as an invocation to Inanna (a Goddess NOT a God) to unleash the horrors of war on the enemies of Ur. Far from an anti-war poem it was in fact a powerful war cry. That’s a huge digression, but it sort of explains why I became fascinated by the Mesopotamian texts – knowing that such discrepancies of translation could fundamentally change the way we think about the ancient world made me crave a second life as a philologist! I didn’t set that particular text, for obvious reasons, but while I was searching for it I found so many other exciting poems I wanted to work with that an enduring interest was born.
For me personally, reading texts from the ancient world and deriving a sense of commonality from the experiences they portray feels deeply comforting, at a spiritual level. I’m an atheist, but I still need source from which to draw comfort, meaning and morality, so I put my faith (so to speak) in human empathy and compassion. Knowing that aspects of the human experience were felt and perceived by people in the ancient world in ways that make sense to me today feels profoundly uplifting. There is nowhere more foreign, more ‘other’, than antiquity and finding glimmers of familiarity in the vestiges of that alien world reminds me that even though we human beings often feel very much alone, we are connected in so many important ways, and we can draw strength from those connections. That’s what I try to communicate by singing ancient texts – the sense that a very long time ago there was an animate, thinking, feeling human being, who conveyed some aspect of their subjective experience of life into what is now an inanimate clay tablet.
Are there any mainstream musicians you feel that capture the spirit of Mesopotamian music?
I have to give two answers to this question – an unashamedly subjective one, and something approaching a considered, objective one:
First, my subjective answer. When we were preparing to record The Flood, I listened to lots of amazing singers, representing a wide range of genres and cultures, for inspiration: Fairouz, Soeur Marie Keyrouz, Warda, Bjork, Diamanda Galas, Rachel and Becky Unthank, Chino Moreno, Benjamin Bagby, Stevie Wishart, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Zhou Xun on the soundtrack to the film The Banquet… the list goes on. Its an utterly diverse list and I wouldn’t say that the music of these singers particularly ‘captured the spirit’ of ancient Mesopotamia (although in the case of Marie Keyrouz, there’s a strong argument that she represents Mesopotamia’s living musical legacy – I’ll come back to that), but rather that when I imagined the sound-world I wanted to create for each Mesopotamian text, those singers came to mind… so I listened to their work to try to understand how they achieved the sounds I had in mind, and tried to incorporate them into my own idiom. That process helped me to produce my own made-up version of Mesopotamian spirit.
However, that’s not to say that I haven’t given a lot of thought to the real music of ancient Mesopotamia. And it’s because I have thought about it a lot, and researched it for a few years, that I know I cannot even begin to understand what the real spirit of Mesopotamian music would have been! This brings me to my partially objective answer. There are things that are known and things that will probably never be known about the Mesopotamian musical world; the details that the archaeological evidence does provide really only scratch the surface, so I don’t think we can truly access it’s spirit – what we can do is represent some of the known elements, whilst filling in the gaps with our own subjective imaginings. It is possible to make reasonable educated guesses about some characteristics. For example, we know from cuneiform literature that music played an important ceremonial role in society. Mesopotamian societies had hymns, incantations and praise songs (among other things), music and magic were clearly closely associated and musicians were in many cases exalted for their skills. It seems likely that a long oral musical tradition preceded the invention of writing and songs were memorized through repetition. Ceremonial singing would have made people feel connected to something ancient and sacred. So, music that today plays an integral part in rituals that connect people to traditions predating their own lifetimes seems like a good place to start looking for connections. And one of the traditions with strong links to ancient Mesopotamia is the chant repertoire of the Syriac Orthodox Church… which brings me back to Soeur Marie Keyrouz, an exceptional singer of Syriac chant. Whether or not it represents the spirit of the ancient world (and I think it probably does), her singing is beautiful and well worth a listen! Another singer I have come into contact with since recording The Flood is Merit Ariane Stephanos. I’m glad I hadn’t heard her music before I made the CD because I would have wanted to give up! She’s absolutely amazing.
Are the words in the compositions of The Flood taken exactly from ancient writings? Did you need to adapt anything? (If yes, what was the process?)
All of the words in the compositions are taken exactly from ancient writings, with the exception of the first track, ‘Come Sit Closer’, which is a setting of a poem by a Canadian guy called Chris Green, inspired by the Gold Lyre of Ur. I also sing some English and Arabic translations of Mesopotamian texts. They were used with permission from the scholars who made them. There’s no way I would attempt it myself.
Translation aside, even getting from cuneiform symbol to spoken text is a horribly complicated process. First, a transcription of the exact symbols on the tablet is made, and then that transcription is ‘normalized’, which means working out which of the written syllables would have represented real spoken sounds and which had other functions. It takes a mind-blowing amount of expertise to get to that point, and even then, the top experts still cannot be sure how the Babylonian language sounded. They work out a best guess through comparison with other related languages that are still spoken today and by studying pedagogical texts (e.g. texts used to teach reading and writing in ancient Mesopotamia). Our Babylonian tracks are taken from the SOAS Babylonian and Assyrian Poetry and Literature Archive of Recordings – an amazing online archive of Babylonian poems, read aloud by the people who know the most in the world about how they might have sounded. What a resource! As far as I know, we’re the first people to use it to make music.
Our Sumerian tracks involved a lot of guesswork: no one really knows how Sumerian sounded, so I just tried to make it sound like Babylonian. Sumerians would probably pee their pants laughing if they heard me! I doubt they’d recognize it as their language. The Babylonians would think I had a rubbish accent, I’m sure, but they would probably understand the words. I read a few chapters of Martin Worthington’s ‘Teach Yourself Babylonian’ (yes, it really does exist!) and he’s confident that we could make ourselves understood in ancient Babylon with what we know about the language today! His book doesn’t explain how to ask for directions to the bus station, or how to order a cappuccino though – maybe that’s in the next edition.
Where can readers learn more about your work and support you?
Andy Lowings also deserves special mention for his work on reconstructing and playing an ancient lyre on these tracks.
Thank you Stef! (continue on to part 2). -m