The rest of the interview with the great Stef Conner (read part 1)
What was the process like of “reverse engineering” the music to go with the words? Does the music fit a Western 12-note scale, or something different? What are the instruments like?
We compiled a palette of musical materials quite thoughtfully from the various things that are known (or convincingly conjectured) about real Mesopotamian music… and then we got creative. We weren’t trying to reconstruct ancient music, but we did want our work to be informed on some level by how me imagine it might have sounded.
The Gold Lyre of Ur Project provided the instruments on the album. Two of them are reconstructions of ancient Mesopotamian lyres found in the Royal Graves at Ur and one is a reconstruction of a Pharaonic Lyre from ancient Egypt. You can read about the instruments here: http://lyre-ensemble.com/admin/?page_id=42
The music itself is modal, and mainly comprises 7-note scales, which were derived from Mesopotamian music theory but played in a modern tuning system. The album would have sounded very different if we had tried to play the same modes in something more historically authentic like Pythagorean tuning. It would have been closer to real ancient music, but it wouldn’t have allowed me to be freely creative because that’s not how my voice is trained. Taking inspiration from the ancient world was important, but being free with the source materials was my priority and I didn’t want to be constrained by a quest for authenticity that was doomed to fail anyway.
Enheduanna is widely considered the first author to attach a name to her writing, which she accomplished in the midst of a male-dominated society. Some parts of the Internet seem similarly one-sided. Do you have any advice for women today flexing their creative muscles?
I have come to realise that however much I want to believe I’m competing on equal terms with my male counterparts in the music world, the reality is that my experience as an artist, as well the level of resistance I face on the path towards the career I want, is conditioned by my gender and its history. I think that many of us are still enslaved to biological inclinations that haven’t caught up with western society’s ideals about gender roles in the 21st century and many people who outwardly subscribe to those ideals privately disdain them. In my career, time and time again, I come into contact with men who want to take ownership of my creativity. I see it happen to my female friends and colleagues too. Many men still have a deep-rooted need to possess women and many women (including myself) have to fight an instinct to allow ourselves to be dominated. We’re working towards the right idea, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have real gender equality now. The saddest thing is that a lot of the so-called powerful female role models out there are just manufactured by men. Look at the lamentable mirage of ‘girl power’ in the UK: what did the Spice Girls really teach my generation about being a woman in the modern world? How to express choreographed rather than real human sexuality? How not to write your own songs? How to wear what your male manager and record company bosses tell you? How to publicly become something invented by a marketing agency in order to be famous? How to become a consumable commodity? To put it simply, I think the music business is shockingly sexist… and the Youtube phenomenon is making it worse.
I suppose my advice to other women is this: don’t let anyone else try to take ownership of your identity or your creativity… otherwise you’ll end up licking hammers and humping construction equipment. The world doesn’t need that shit.
I’m fascinated by the Sumerian language. What has been your experience working with it? Do you find it an effective channel to express human emotion?
Because it’s impossible to know how to pronounce it properly, I suppose Sumerian is a bit of an inkblot – almost like making up your own language. I am a compulsive expresser of emotion and I could probably show how I’m feeling quite comfortably in that silly language the Martians speak in Mars Attacks (taaak tak tak), so I didn’t find Sumerian to be especially challenging, or indeed facilitating, in that respect. All languages seem perfectly expressive to me! The attraction of Sumerian was mainly the content of the texts.
Babylonian was a different story of course. It has been studied for a long time, but it’s only relatively recently that scholars have taken a serious interest in how it actually sounded. As a singer, I find that subject very exciting indeed and I love the idea of singing a language that hasn’t been sung for thousands of years. Who wouldn’t?
One of the themes in my book Broken Tablet is that ancient peoples were not rubes, but sophisticated people. In some ways, possibly more advanced than us of the modern age. What is the most important thing modern folks need to learn from the Mesopotamians?
Well, we already learnt a load of important stuff like mathematics, commerce, agriculture, music theory and how to make beer from them (indirectly of course). What else? The Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us that everyone, no matter how famous, rich, strong or successful, is shit-scared of death. If you waste your life trying to fight your own mortality (certain surgical procedures spring to mind), you’ll surrender the time you do have to misery and frustration. As Siduri says:
…Until the end comes,
Enjoy your life.
Spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savour your food.
Make each of your days a delight.
Bathe and anoint yourself.
Wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean.
Let music and dancing fill your house.
Love the child who holds you by the hand,
And give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.
What else do you have in the works?
Two projects are in gestation: one involving Babylonian and stars and another involving Old English (my other linguistic obsession) and early English folk songs. I’ll send out details via my mailing list (hint hint)! I’m also working on a big Shakespeare-themed project for November this year.
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!