THE RISE OF BIT ENKI


Kilmer:

Perhaps you should say somethig about how you happened to become interested in the Hurrian Hymn project?

Smith:

It was also by accident! In 1987 I wanted to locate a picture of the oldest music notation as introductory material for a video I wanted to make about my instructor, Eugene Wolfe. Herr Wolfe was a revered autographer who taught how to prepare engraved-looking hand written music for publication in a course at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Because of Herr Wolfe’s failing health I unfortunately had to abandon the project.

But in the process of doing the research for introductory material, I had read about your work in a book entitled “The Notation of Western Music,” by Richard Rastall. He opens his preface with:

In 1974, after several years of decoding work, a Hurrian love-song dating from c. 1800 B.C. was at last transcribed and performed… In the University of California at Berkeley; the event was reported in Time and Newsweek (both on 18 March, 1974), and in various newspapers.

    (nb: The actual date is more like c.1400 B.C ADK.)

Seeing that this “oldest song” had been “decoded” by a professor working at UC Berkeley, which is within walking distance of my house, I immediately picked up the phone and was connected to your office in the near eastern studies department. You answered in person, and cordially invited me to come up to see your work for myself. It was all to good to be true!

The actual Hurrian Hymn tablet is in the Museum at Damascus, but your boxed album was available there in the office, After purchasing a copy and contacting you frequently with questions and ideas about its contents, I realized I was now thoroughly involved in a new project.

Eventually I got two major clues about other evidence of the early tuning procedure described in text CBS10996. The first was from Michael Cogan at Bay Records, who listened when I played him some of the intervals on that text's list of 5ths and 4ths, and said “That sounds like what my piano tuner does when he tunes the piano in our studio.”

The second clue came from Howard Goldberg, my own piano tuner, who suggested if I wanted to learn about tuning the bearing octave in the center of the piano (that is what he called it) I should read a book about that by W. B. White. Lo and behold, there was the same set of fifths and fourths that laid out the seven white keys, then added the next five to result in twelve half tones to the octave. As White goes through the procedure, he adjusts each new note using thirds and sixths, to end up with equal temperament.

After that is done, one simply spreads the middle set of tones out in octaves over the piano.

This became the basis for a paper, which we ended up publishing together in “Laying the Rough, Testing the fine.” 1

But returning to “Sounds from Silence,” the booklet covers much more than just one text; it presents and discusses all texts brought to light on the subject of ancient near eastern music up to 1975 in great detail, and gives an overall perspective with Richard Crocker’s own version of a tablature for the lyre tuning procedures.

It was especially helpful that Prof. Crocker has a good chanting voice, and was able to perform the song and accompany himself on the lyre on the recording.

That spectacular 12’ x 12’ photograph on the box is very intriguing. Isn’t it a photogrph of a freize from the palace of Ashurbannipal?

Kilmer:

Yes, a relief from seventh century Assyria, of marching harpists, possibly captives going to the royal palace of Ninevah.

The only thing that we needed after the album came out was some actual examples in each of the seven modal tunings. Since music texts of that era are so rare, we had only the one hymn to work with on “Sounds from Silence.” Lecture audiences always wanted to hear not only the sound of the lyre, but a bit of music in each of the seven tunings. The tape I asked you to make in 2001 or so for lecture purposes turned into a CD, “Seven Modes for an Ancient Lyre.”

Smith:

I’m glad it was of use. That CD with the sampled strings from your lyre replica travelled with the UPenn exhibit “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur” around the United States, even to the New York Metroplitan Museum’s “First Cities” exhibit. Do you still continue to be interested in ancient Babylonian music texts after all this time?

Kilmer:

Yes, actually since that time I have continued to publish on the subject; so of course I’ve had to learn more about musicology. It was professor Crocker who first helped me with the terminology. At that time I didn’t know the difference between a scale or a key or an interval. So Crocker sat me down at the piano one day in the music department and he just explained half steps and whole steps and why there were different names for different tunings, and finally I got it. At least I now have a rudimentary understanding of the concepts.

Smith:

I think you’re being too modest. I’ve had many conversations with you about such things, and you seem to be right on key (so to speak). When I talk to friends about this subject, however, I still run into disbelief from folks who don’t know what has been published about Sumero/Babylonian music in the last forty years. If I mention the Tuning Text U7/80, with its instructions for changing from one tuning to the next in a series, people always ask “But how can you be sure you are right about understanding the results?” What is your way of explaining this?

Kilmer:

In the tuning Text, which goes step by step through tuning all the seven modes, they have one interval that they call “the unclear interval” In each of the modes, which are diatonic; as are the white keys on a piano. You will find this “unclear interval” in a specific identifying position in each mode if the instructions are followed correctly.

In nīd qabli tuning (our C major mode) the unclear interval occurs between strings four and seven. That would be, translated into piano notes, between F and B. The unclear interval identifies each key. In kitmu, for example which we think is our A minor, the “unclear interval” is between strings two and six, again B and F. This is very substantial evidence that the “unclear interval” indicates the tritone, and thus its position in the scale identifies each of the diatonic modes.

We don’t use modern mode names with Greek terms in this context, because the names Dorian, Ionian, Phrygian, etc. got mixed up during the middle ages and are not applied to the same ancient Greek modes that they originally designated. In this pre-Greek context we say the “C mode” for a major scale, the “G mode” for a major scale with a flatted seventh, etc. That way we are clearer, simply specifying where to start on the white keys of the piano to demonstrate a particular diatonic modal scale.

The person who worked all that out with the tritone is the person who assisted Oliver Gurney in publishing the Tuning Text and that was David Wulstan, also at Oxford at that time. He was the musicologist whom Gurney consulted. So Gurney published the Tuning text, and Wulstan published the first musicological interpretation of that text, in the same issue of Iraq Vol.30, in 1968.

Smith:

Bringing the fields of music and Assyriology together in order to make the break-throughs, and finding a way to communicate across the subject gap seems to be a very productive way for scholars in vastly different fields ot work together.

As an Assyriologist you started the ball rolling back in the 1960s by noticing terms for musical strings written in a supposedly mathematical text. That was a very intriguing moment. You found these string names/music terms interesting, looked for more, and eventually published your results. There were obstacles, but you continued, and made sure your information was correct by collaborating with a musicologist. Others began to be intrigued as well, and some sent you or alerted you to material they thought exhibited the same terms. These were in effect more pieces to the puzzle. I admire this cooperation in your world of scholarship, particularly since there are also many stories of rivalry and lack of generosity between scholars. The results of cooperation have proved to be of great interest to the rest of the world today. Congratulations. JS

Addendum:

A further study of the information on the Mathematical text, CBS10996 was undertaken by Janet Smith in the 1990s at UC Berkeley, working to find other evidence of the generation of the seven diatonic musical modes in other cultures, including Chinese. Tuning procedures for harps and keyboards have also been published throughout European music history in tablatures and European notation, and can be shown to relate to the earliest recorded tuning instructions.

A bibliography for earlier publications on this subject appears at the end of the booklet for “Sounds from Silence.”

Since 1975, Prof. Anne Kilmer has continued to write articles for various publications, and has given talks at conferences throughout the world. Now retired, she lives in Arizona, and is still considered a world authority on this subject, remaining in touch with her colleagues and friends.

For more information about ancient music, and bibliographies containing works by Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, please visit the follwing web sites.

John Curtis Franklin - Babylonian/Mesopotamian Music - Cuneiform Texts

The International Study Group on Music Archaeology

VML Verlag Marie Leidorf

Professor Anne D. Kilmer, Ph.D