It was also during this period before 1963, before I was invited to the University of California at Berkeley, that two visiting scholars from Belgium came to the Oriental Institute. They were both musicians. She, Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin was a music historian and musicologist, and he was a scholar of ancient Iran. They were both performing musicians. While they were visiting UC Berkeley they had spoken with Professor Hans Guterbock, an Assyriologist/Hittitologist who had worked with Landsberger at the University of Chicago, and they had asked “So what’s new in the ancient near east that might interest us?”
And he, Guterbock, had said, “Oh, there’s an interesting text ” since he knew about the Mathematical Text (CBS10996) and so forth, from my first publication, and he told them I was working at the Oriental Institute. During their visit to Chicago, they asked to see these materials. I had only photographs or a hand copy of them at the time, which may have been a disappointment for them. The actual tablet was in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Upenn.
At some point, I’ve forgotten the chronology, Professor Kramer, another well-known Assyriologist/Sumerologist, also visited Chicago and happily, he brought with him the actual tablet (CBS10996) from the University Museum in Philadelphia.Smith:
The actual middle first millennium clay tablet from Nippur? With him on the airplane?Kilmer:
Yes. These artifacts do not often travel outside their collections, especially with an individual, but Kramer was the head of the tablet collection at UPenn. The tablet will fit into a suitcase, after all; it is a medum-sized fragment, but not complete.
So we all were able to have a close look at it, which was a rare treat. In the end it was the Duchesne- Guillemin, who knew music but not Assyriology, who figured out that what I had referred to as chords in the paired string numbers on CBS10996 were better identified as two-note intervals on a musical scale. At first they were named “dichords”, but then later they were named “ditones” or string pairs.
In nineteen sixty-three Duchesne-Guillemin was able to publish an article called “Discovery of a Babylonian Scale”.1 Not everything was fully understood at that time, but she was now a participant in the process of interpreting the musical implications of translated texts.
I myself had tried unsuccessfully to get some help from the music department at the University of Chicago Institute, but they were not interested or helpful.Smith:
So you extended your undergraduate studies?Kilmer:
Well, in the early 1960s it was probably the rather unusual nature of my request, and the fact that I-ve always looked a good bit younger than my age. When I walked up to the front desk of the Chicago music department I probably looked like some young student. I simply said, “I’m working on ancient Babylonialn scales, and I think we have identified some heptatonic diatonic scales.”
The librarians just looked at me as though I were a “flake”.
I asked if they knew of someone in the music department I could talk to about ancient Babylonian music and stringed instruments . But I was unable to get help regarding the technicalities of music that might have helped me interpret our current information more accurately at that point.Smith:
How very frustrating!
But never mind, in 1963 I was invited to go to the University of California at Berkeley. While I was at UC Berkeley, in 1968 Professor Guterbock, (Landsberger’s former student) telephoned me and said, “Quickly, take a look at Ugaritica V, 1968; it’s about Hurrian hymns!” And he added “I’m sure you’ll find some of your musical terms in there”.
While I had some copies of Ugaritica, I did not have that particular volume with the Hurrian Hymns. I had never received that latest issue. So I wrote to the publisher and ordered it as quickly as I could, waited for a long, long time, until it finally arrived in the mail. Sure enough, there were several hymn texts in which I had a general interest because they were in Hurrian, which you recall had been the subject of my dissertation at Pennsylvania with Professor Speiser.
I studied the Hurrian hymns in that issue with great interest after the book finally arrived. By that time Gurney himself had already published an article in 19682 about the Tuning Text, (U7/80) which explained about tuning strings on the lyre from one mode to another in a particular sequence. Then Guterbock wrote an article in 19703 saying that the Hurrian hymns in a recent issue of Revue d’Assyriologie included some of the music terms I had published” previously. The complete hymn tablet with music terms was text h.6, now the best-known of the Hurrian hymn texts. It was these musical terms, of course, that interested me the most. How much could we understand from them in relation to the text of the hymn? Were they melodic terms?
Thinking about my next publication, in approaching the Hurrian hymn material I wanted to clarify what we knew about ancient Mesopotamian music theory to date, as a sort of preparation for presenting some ideas I was beginning to have of my own concerning h6. The Hurrian hymn text with music.
I also needed to learn more about music theory in general so that I could use more precise terms to describe what we were discovering in these ancient documents.
Working first on a general summary, I wrote an article for the American Philosophical Society in 19714. In the meantime I began studying text h.6, the only nearly complete Hurrian Hymn that included Akkadian terms now referred to as the ditone names, written in a Hurrianized form.
In the early 1970’s I had become Dean of Humanities, and since music was now one of my departments, and I could talk to all of the chairmen every day as needed, I was finally able to get some help from the music department at Berkeley.
Now I have to say also that when I was working on the one Hurrian hymn that contained musical terms, I began by writing out the given interval names and repetitions as they appeared on the tablet using the numbers for the strings as scale degrees, and I tried to figure out whether there might or might not be a melody somewhere in the sequence of the intervals.
For this I needed some help translating my findings into standard music notation. At my request the music department sent me a graduate student named David Callentine in 1972, who plotted my annotation of the ditones in the hymn text into musical notes. This was an important step in bridging the gap between cuneiform music texts and modern music notation.
David at some point looked at the plotted-out intervals and said “Oh, this looks like some kind of conjunct motion!” Of course I did not know what conjunct motion was. Conjunct simply means a line of notes that is not hopping all over the scale. As you plot these dichords on paper, the top notes of each interval move in a sensible, musical manner. So the top notes of the intervals were conceivably a melody. This was very promising.
With the musical notation now written out, I felt ready to present my findings to UC Berkeley music Professor, Richard Crocker, whom I approached with my results. He had never heard of any of this material, although he was very knowledgeable about ancient Greek music and medieval chant, and so forth. But he could make some sense out of the articles on tuning published by Gurney and Wulstan. And he certainly understood the music notation for the Hurrian Hymn tablet which I was presenting to him. He graciously accepted the challenge.
As Crocker and I began to work together, the material started to make even more sense. I realized that just as Crocker needed to have the cuneiform texts translated and put into music notation in order to understand them, Gurney the Assyriologist, would never have recognized the musical nature of the terms in the tuning text U7/80 if the other three texts that I’d described previously had not come to light. I was beginning to feel something truly significant was being discovered.
The hymn h.6 had Hurrian words across the top, about Nikkal, the wife of the moon god. But the tablet gives us no explicit way to relate the words to the music terms across the bottom. There are four lines of words and six lines of music terms.
You just have to guess how they combined, and that’s what all of us have been doing ever since. We’re trying to make educated guesses as to how that could have been. How could a series of tuning intervals tell us the melody of a hymn?
By this time Crocker had became very interested and started studying the published texts more independently. I in turn could ask him more musically intelligent questions, and he was quite willing to discuss the details. So it was in 1974 that I published the results of that work in Revue d’Assyriologie.5
This was my first publication about that Hurrian song and it suggested another method by which the text might be interpreted musically, differing from Wulstan’s 1971 article.