THE WORLD’S OLDEST SONG!


Smith:

Just as Cuneiformologists may not recognize or know what to do with esoteric string names for the Sumerian lyre, musicians seldom read journals about Assyriology or Ugaritic texts. And the general public probably knows very little about either subject. How did word get out about your findings beyond the academic community?

Kilmer:

At that time on the Berkeley campus there were regular faculty lectures, where members of the faculty would talk about their research during the noon hour. I was invited to do a noon faculty lecture -- it must have been some time around 1974, close to the time of my article in Revue d’Assyriologie. So I said I would do it, and present some material on ancient Mesopotamian Music in general, and that I would have some assistance from Professor Richard Crocker in the music department.

Smith:

I just love this part of the story.

Kilmer:

I also knew Richard Brown because he and I were on the Berkeley Committee on Research together at UC Berkeley. He was a physics professor, but his hobby was building musical instruments. So when I wanted to make an instrument to demonstrate my findings, he said “I will build it for you”, which he then did.

In fact he built two instruments; one a sort of a replica of the Sumerian Silver Lyre from the Ur graves, based on measurements from a hand copied version of Leonard Woolley’s drawings of artifacts from the royal tombs of the Ur Expedition in the 1920s, stored in the British Museum. (They were kind enough to let me have a set of Woolley’s drawings and measurements). The other was an instrument that would be closer in time to the actual Hurrian Cult Song being performed. This second lyre was a replica of the Megiddo Lyre, an image that appears only on an ivory panel dating to the late second millennium B.C., currently in the Rockerfeller Museum in Jerusalem. So Prof. Brown was able to build those two instruments; the Sumerian one from actual specifications, and for the Megiddo lyre, he simply used the ivory drawing as a reference.

The Sumerian lyre is a very successful, very resonant instrument. It had the register of a ’cello; deep and rich, and sort of ponderous because it’s strings were quite long and a bit slow to speak when plucked. The Megiddo did nothing but ping, ping, ping, no doubt because the strings are inserted into the top of the sound board, instead of riding down the side and over a bridge. Brown built it without a bridge, because the picture didn’t show one. But I would like to restring that over a bridge and then I’m sure you’d get quite an improved sound.

Smith:

Building instruments is not something one does in a day. There must have been a gradual build-up of interest among the faculty as this ancient musical information came to light.

Kilmer:

True. We had been planning this for awhile and I didn’t schedule my lecture until everything was ready.

At any rate, the day came and I gave the noon lecture, presenting my spoken part about the texts, and musical terms and so forth in the first week, (we had asked for two separate lectures, one on the research, and the other a performance). I believe it was on a Monday or a Tuesday. I gave my part first, which was the lecture about our findings.

After my first noon lecture, the University’s information office was telephoned by the local press, as it always is, and asked “what’s new on campus?” The man who was in charge of that office said “Well, we’ve just had an interesting lecture by Professor Kilmer on ancient Babylonian music.” The local press said “That’s exciting?” When they heard there would be a demonstration at the next noon lecture in Wheeler Auditorium, they sent a number of people from the press to Wheeler Auditorium where Crocker played, and somehow that got into the international media. It was a “Big Event” at Berkeley.

Richard Crocker gave his performance the following week. He played the Hurrian Cult Song (the new title for the hymn) plucking the intervals on the large Silver Lyre replica, according to my interpretation, and he sang the Hurrianized words to the hymn by following my plan to use the top note of each successive interval for the melody, one syllable per pluck. It came across very well; very simple, but very clear, reinforced by the lyre accompaniment which he also played well. The auditorium was completely quiet during his performance. Robert Brown sat in the front row and seemed content to hear it all being performed on an instrument he had built. The applause was somewhat overwhelming, but very gratifying to all three of us of us.

Smith:

You became known internationally after your and Richard Crocker’s lecture/performance with the silver lyre from Ur! Did you sing also with the Megiddo lyre, as you do on “Sounds from Silence”? Did you wear costumes?

Kilmer:

Only Richard Crocker played and sang at the concert. He is quite a singer of Gregorian chant and his voice worked very well with the range of the lyre. We did not wear costumes. Getting the material together and learning how to play the instrument and sing the Hurrian syllables without knowing what they meant must have been quite a task, but Richard did an excellent job. All sorts of magazine reporters turned up with big flash cameras and the auditorium was absolutely packed.

After that, Crocker and I became celebrities of sorts; we even had a TV team from Brazil who came to interview us, with photographs, video tape, everything. We had no idea it would turn into such a big deal!

All this got out into the media and things started happening: German Television and radio did a big program after the Brazilians left, and others I don’t remember. All the newspapers picked it up and several well-known magazines ran articles. Audio and music magazines called for interviews and photographs. We had the instruments sitting in the faculty lounge of the music department, and the press would come by to interview us together there. Richard would play and he would also sing, and sometimes Robert Brown would show up to stand beside his instruments for the photographs. With all this media attention, we began receiving orders from all around the world for record albums via the music department at Berkeley.

The problem at this point was, there was no album.

Smith:

A worldwide customer base, huge free publicity in international magazines and television, an enormous historical event with educational/religious connotations, but pre-biblical in origin. I take it the words were not totally understood, but related to the godess Nikkal. We now have the women’s ancient goddess movement becoming interested. International orders coming in from the mail and by telephone, and no product! So, then what happened?

Kilmer:

At that time we decided we should make some kind of a recording.

Smith:

Good idea.

Kilmer:

By ’76 my then husband, Harlan Kilmer, created a business called Bit Enki Publications specifically to produce this record album. bīt is an Akkadian word meaning “house” and “Enki” is the Sumerian name of the chief god in charge of the arts and crafts and music. So we created “Bit Enki Publications” (BTNK) and produced an LP record album, “Sounds from Silence” with its illustrated booklet that summarizes how we figured everything out. It has a good bibliography up to 1975, the time of publication, and even contains Richard’s suggested way of writing an instrumental tablature for the lyre. “Sounds from Silence” sold all over the place, through orders that were mosty forwarded to us by the University.

Smith:

If I didn’t know how long it took to do the research for this project, I would say “Sounds from Silence” (BTNK-101) was an overnight success!

Just out of curiosity, did a copy of it ever find its way back to the music library at the University of Chicago? I’m now imagining a note that might have accompanied the album, courtesy Professor Anne D. Kilmer…

At any rate, I’m sure they are glad to have it in their collection by now.

Were you sponsored by the music department at the University of California in the production of this album?

Kilmer:

No, we just did it on our own and so the authors of this were Kilmer, Crocker and Brown. It was widely disseminated. As you know I was invited by the Iraqi consul in Washington just yesterday to come and talk about this material. I won’t be able to go, but apparently the interest is still out there in 2007, over thirty-five years later.

Smith:

In those days there were no such things as web sites where you could post this kind of information to the world.

Kilmer:

It was probably just the Chronicle or the Oakland Tribune, maybe a Berkeley paper, but somehow Newsweek and Time Magazine, I believe, were on hand by the second lecture! Word really got around quickly.

I’m not sure but as I remember we started out with an edition of a thousand albums. They all sold out and Harlan ordered more. There are still some left, as you know because now your company is distributing them, since both Harlan and I have retired. We began to get requests for a CD version about the time we retired, but I’ve left that up to you to put out.

Janet:

That was quite an honor, thank you. “Sounds from Silence” however, sold best during its first edition because of its unique and absolutely new disoveries at that time, together with the authentic nature of the research that brought this information to light. The public was absolutely fascinated.

In the process of telephoning museums and finding out what they expected of their associated merchants I suddenly became aware that we needed a website, and shrink-wrapped product available to sell immediately, plus all the complexities of shipping and wholesale prices, setting up a PayPal account, and even filling out customs forms for overseas orders.

Bit Enki has a very popular product! I do make custom CDs of the album now, but the 12" x 12" record box with its cover and booklet are so beautiful that I simply ship the homemade CD in with the boxed album. One day I will have to redesign that 24 page booklet in a smaller format, but that’s down the road.