"Although in my attempt at creating a ‘musical adventure in time travel’ across many different ancient cultures, ranging from ancient-themed Biblical music, ancient-themed Egyptian music, ancient Mesopotamian-themed music, ancient Greek-themed music and ancient Roman-themed music, the one thing all my ancient-themed lyre music has in common, is hopefully evoking a sense of inner peace and tranquility – if my music can in turn, bring about more peace and tranquility across all cultural and religious boundaries, then my time on Earth would have been truly worthwhile!"
Michael Levy: New Ancestral Music
Michael Levy is a prolific composer for the recreated lyres of antiquity, whose musical mission is to create an entirely new musical genre, which could best be described as a 'New Ancestral Music' - dedicated to reintroducing the recreated lyres, ancient musical modes and intonations, back into the modern musical world. Michael's musical vision was influenced in part, from the similar 'New Ancestral Music' of both the composers Luis Paniagua of Spain and Petros Tabouris of Greece, in addition to the work in just intonation and ancient Greek microtonal scales, by the late American microtonal composer, Harry Partch. Since 2006, Michael has focused his unique skills, at both intensively researching & recreating the ancient playing-techniques of the lyres of antiquity. Basing these techniques from both illustrations of ancient lyre players and the various playing-techniques still practiced today in Africa, he has independently produced 30 releases since 2008. The story of his music recently featured in international news releases in The Hindu and The Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) and his music has been featured as ancient-themed soundscapes to enhance museum exhibitions all over the world.
Michael has recently collaborated with the Grammy award winning Canadian composer, Rufus Wainwright - Rufus has arranged one of Michael's ancient lyre-themed compositions "Hymn to Zeus", in two scenes of his second opera, "Hadrian"; which premiered in Toronto 2018. Michael has also collaborated internationally with many other artists, including the Egyptian film score composer, Remon Sakr, the Californian multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Bettina Joy De Guzman - in addition to the Nevada Death Metal Band, "Blasphemous Creation"! Michael's arrangement for solo lyre of the oldest notated melody so far discovered in history; the 3,400 Bronze Age Hurrian Hymn Text H6 from ancient Ugarit, has been featured in many articles throughout the international press.
How has the ancient-themed music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you've taken?
Since becoming fascinated (some would say, obsessed!) about conjuring up ancient landscapes, though nothing but the timeless magic of music, the ancient-sounding melodies I attempt to evoke upon my recreated lyres of antiquity, (using ancient musical modes & intonations; based on what I have heard from some of the actual, rare surviving fragments of notated music from the ancient world which can still be interpreted and performed today) has influenced my appreciation of so many aspects of life, which in the modern world, are usually either completely overlooked or just plain taken for granted.
In ancient times, the surviving notated music we can interpret, reflected the awe and wonder ancient peoples had; when magic itself was perceived to be a very real part of the actual fabric of the universe! How amazing is that? Indeed, almost all of these precious, rare fragments of ancient notated music so far found, often reflected reverence to the ancient pantheon of gods and goddesses; whom ancient peoples from all societies attributed to every aspect of their understanding of the mystery of life. For example, the oldest surviving notated melody so far discovered in history; the 3,400 year old Hurrian Hymn, was a Hymn to Nikkal – the Ugaritic goddess of the orchards; whose fertility was invoked in the text of the Hymn, in an attempt to bring fertility to barren women.
In our modern world, yes, almost everything can now be explained by cold, clinical science – but sadly, in direct proportion to what we have gained in knowledge, we have lost in imagination, appreciation of the unfathomable enigma of our brief existence and worst of all, a loss of a sense of wonder. In the bold musical journey I have embarked upon since my first heavenly pluck of a lyre string back in 2006, it has been my aspiration simply to attempt to redress the balance - and to bring back to the sadly, mostly soulless modern world, just a hint of some of that archaic sense of wonder and awe that has been for so many millennia, so long forgotten.
How do you describe your mission and music philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?
My musical mission, is to reintroduce back into the modern musical world; the haunting timbre of the recreated ancient lyres of antiquity, the long-forgotten distinctive expressive qualities of the ancient musical modes and (as featured in more or less all of my recordings since 2012), the forgotten purity of musical intervals tuned in geometrically pure just intonation. I aim to produce an uncluttered, minimalistic music, in an attempt to reconnect the very essence of what music should be (the communication of elevated, aesthetic emotion through sound, to directly stir our higher cognitive appreciation of beauty) back into our cluttered, mostly aesthetically deprived 21st century lives – to literally rekindle a more primordial, ancient flame of the human spirit!
The beginnings of my creative drive began when I was just 14 years old. During that year, whilst browsing through a local record store, I came across a cassette tape featuring a recording of the late, great David Munrow’s recreation of medieval music – I was blown away! I had of course, up to that point, been to museums & was interested in the past, but when I heard the actual medieval melodies performed on reconstructions of actual medieval instruments, the transporting quality of music for the first time in my life, literally hit me in the face! When I heard this music, it was as if I was actually in some lofty medieval castle, enjoying a banquet whilst chucking chicken legs over my shoulder! In a flash, I realized that music is the only magic we still have – capable of transporting the listener in an instant, to far flung places & ancient realms; in a way so more direct than any dusty relic in a museum can ever do. Why might this be, I asked myself the question?
After decades of contemplation (and a degree in philosophy later!), it finally occurred to me, that the reason why music, of all the arts, has this direct and vivid impact on the listener, is that long before we developed spoken language, we communicated all our intentions and emotions through sound – due to this primordial auditory route to our emotions, music therefore has the unique ability to literally communicate directly, aesthetically refined emotions to our higher cognitive conscious experience! This, I believe, is what accounts for the distinctively vivid effect music has on the listener, when compared to other art forms.
In the same year I heard David Munrow for the first time, I also heard a haunting arrangement for two classical guitars of Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess”, on an old vinyl LP record "Together", by John Williams & Julian Bream. During this wonderfully evocative arrangement, there was a section of the melody which ventured into one of the distinctively poignant-sounding ancient Greek modes – in an instant, both the ancient ‘feel’ of this mode and the harp-like timbre of the two classical guitars made me imagine, that this is probably what the lyres of antiquity may once have actually sounded like!
It was also upon hearing the modal section of this piece, which made me realize what wonderful expression has been lost, with our monotonously standardized. Western 12-note major/minor tonality. Yes, this harmonic system has given us the music of Beethoven, but on the other hand, there is an entire palette of musical expression, unique to each of the ancient Greek modes & the exotic ancient Near Eastern modes, which has been long forgotten. Whereas modern major scales sound ‘happy’ and minor scales sound ‘sad’, with the ancient Greek modes, there are modes which sound introspective, masculine, feminine, dreamy, poignant, contented or playful and the ancient Near Eastern modes can sound mysterious, mystical & spiritual! These are the types of modes I use for all my compositions for solo lyre, in my attempt to fill the void created by mercilessly standardized, modern western equal temperament tonality.
The use of just intonation (using an ancient tuning system whereby musical intervals are derived by the division of only geometrically pure, whole number ratios), also creates a vivid, almost three dimensional quality to these ancient musical modes – and a truly distinctive effect that is noticeably both simultaneously more relaxing, yet at the same time, more inspiring to the listener! By contrast, the out of phase, muddy-sounding intervals of equal temperament to me, now are rather like a having a rose without its scent. I have been using just intonation, ever since I recorded my album, “Ode to Ancient Rome” in 2012 and in particular, being showcased in my 2012 release, “A Well Tuned Lyre – The Just Intonation of Antiquity” & my 2013 release, "The Ancient Roman Lyre".
How did I first acquire my first lyre? In 2006, whilst browsing Amazon for some interesting CD’s, I by chance found one called “Ancient Echoes: Music from the Time of Jesus & Jerusalem’s Second Temple” by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble. In short, this album was an attempt to evoke what the music in the Temple of Jerusalem may once have actually sounded like – and in the liner notes of the album, I suddenly realized, that the very musicians who once sang and performed in the ancient Temple services, where none other than the Levites; my very own, very ancient Levite ancestors!
From both the Biblical text and the first-hand description of the Levites in the 1st century by the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, it was clearly documented that the Levitical Choir was accompanied by the Levitical Ensemble of musicians – who played 10-string Biblical lyres, which in Hebrew, was called the ‘Kinnor’. From a photo of one of the modern evocations of a Biblical Kinnor which I saw in the album notes, I found the very same instrument – on eBay! This was how I first began my quest to teach myself to play the lyre of my Levite ancestors – now that’s what I call ‘Roots Music’!
"My main wish for change in the musical world, is that creative musicians and composers, particularly in mainstream popular music, overcome their fear of doing something different! Without taking the risk of change, nothing different ever happens – which is probably why in my perception, we have had to endure the omnipresent curse of guitar-less ‘boy bands’ and ‘girl bands’ for the last 30 or so years; with all the raucous rock ‘n’ roll appeal of a barber shop choir!" (Photo: Michael Levy, Greece 2015)
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
The most life-changing musical meeting I had, was back in November 1986, during my very first term as a philosophy student at the University of Hull – when I had the privilege of seeing the now late, great blues guitar legend, BB King; who was touring the UK at the time to celebrate his 60th birthday. Indeed, what I learnt during the remaining 3 years of my philosophy degree was almost incidental, in comparison about what I learnt about music during that amazing gig!
I had been to classical concerts before, but nothing has ever compared to the raw passion and power of BB King’s meticulously minimalist guitar style. So few notes he played – yet each and every note weighed 10 tonnes a piece!
It was during this gig, that I finally realized – great music has nothing to do with having any specific ‘genre’ & nothing to do with the number or complexity of the notes being played – but rather, how those notes are played! If music is played for the sole purpose of passion for the music as an end in itself, the resulting music will therefore have intrinsic worth. This is the bitter-sweet truth about creating great music; the very instant one starts making music with the end goal of simply making money out of it, then the resulting music will lose its intrinsic value. This is why I now prefer making my main living in between 4 part-time manual jobs & reserve my musical projects as my passion in life – the moment I decide to turn my musical creativity into a main source of income, my passion is reduced to just another job!
Another thing I learnt from that legendary BB King gig, is that in order to create really great music, one must feel some form of connection to the music being played – BB had quite literally lived ‘The Blues’; in contrast to the soulless ‘blues’ I have heard performed by countless ‘middle class school teacher types’ whom I have endured listening to in countless acoustic folk club settings over the years (whose only ‘hardship’ has more likely been, not being able to afford to go away on more than two foreign holidays in any one given year!)
The most important thing I learnt from that BB King gig, was that when it comes to improvising, less is always more - just a few of his uncluttered, raw guitar riffs had more musical expression packed into them than any ‘demonic demisemiquaver axe-thrashing’ solo could ever hope to express! As a similar analogy; given the choice of hearing a frighteningly complex Paganini Caprice; or some old guy in some old Irish bar fondly playing some old Irish air on his 'Guinness-stained' fiddle which he had been playing for the last 50 years – I would choose the Irish fiddler, every time!
Some of the best advice I had for my own musical projects, was not to try too hard to ‘make’ things happen – a good friend of mine expressed the curious metaphysical truth, that the more positive energy we create in the universe, it is almost as if the universe itself rewards us for our efforts. Indeed, every time I have actively attempted to contact anybody withing the music industry who could possibly take my music further, nothing has ever happened; however, when instead, I simply concentrate on creating as much music as possible and just keep ‘putting it out there’, wonderful things have kept on happening! These have ranged from the 2018 Roman-themed Mars M&M’s TV advert across the entire continent of the USA & Canada featuring my track “Ode to Ancient Rome”; to the almost surreal telephone conference I had in my humble hallway back in May 2017, with Grammy award winning composer, Rufus Wainwright whilst he was on tour in Bergen; about his desire to adapt my “Hymn to Zeus” in two scenes of his epic ancient Roman-themed second opera, “Hadrian”! If we simply strive to believe, we can achieve…
"Since becoming fascinated (some would say, obsessed!) about conjuring up ancient landscapes, though nothing but the timeless magic of music, the ancient-sounding melodies I attempt to evoke upon my recreated lyres of antiquity, (using ancient musical modes & intonations; based on what I have heard from some of the actual, rare surviving fragments of notated music from the ancient world which can still be interpreted and performed today) has influenced my appreciation of so many aspects of life, which in the modern world, are usually either completely overlooked or just plain taken for granted."
What are the lines that connect the ancient 'string' instruments from Africa and Greece to Pre-Columbian America and Asia?
Surprisingly, the cultures of the ancient world were far more connected than we might have naturally first assumed. The ‘information superhighway’ of antiquity, in so many ways analogous to our modern Internet, was trade routes! The raw materials of copper and tin were imported from northern Europe to the ancient near east for the production of bronze during the entire epoch of the bronze age – which probably accounts for how the lyre, originating in Mesopotamia, found its way into northern Europe; with an example of an actual lyre bridge recently discovered on the remote Isle of Skye; dating to at least 300 years before the arrival of the Romans in the British Isles!
A fascinating example of how another ancient Mesopotamian cultural habit; that of drinking beer through a reed straw, was passed on to the African continent; presumably during the trade in African gold from Nubia (modern day Sudan) to Egypt then on to Egypt’s ancient near eastern trading partners – this distinctively ancient Mesopotamian drinking habit can still be seen today in Kenya, where beer is still drank through a straw to this day!
Indeed, this exchange of cultural ideas between the ancient near east and Africa almost certainly explains why the lyre, with its origin in ancient Mesopotamia, is still played throughout the continent of Africa to this very day; from the begena lyre in Ethiopia, the krar lyre in Eritrea to the nyatiti in Kenya.
From its origin in the ancient near east, the idea of the lyre then found root along all the major ancient near east trading partners throughout the Mediterranean, including ancient Greece & Rome.
The Silk Road linked Asia to the rest of the ancient western world – where along with silk, the ‘invisible baggage’ of musical cultural ideas were almost certainly shared en route. Indeed, The "phoenix-headed konghou", known in China since at least the 3rd Century BCE, is an almost exact copy of the Mesopotamian processional harp, with the sound box carried against the shoulder and the post parallel to the ground – the only way such a distinctively Mesopotamian-looking arched harp could have found its way into China, would have almost certainly been via the Silk Road trade routes, linking west and east.
Although the lyre itself never arrived in the pre-Columbian continent of America, the ‘invisible baggage’ of musical heritage has been passed around the world for as long as there have been people moving around the world who have been creating music. For example, Afro-American blues/jazz music only came into being due to the tragedy of the slave trade routes between Africa and America during the 16th – 19th centuries. The banjo, adapted by the Scots/Irish settlers in the Appalachians was also originally another African instrument; the cherished memory of which, was the ‘invisible baggage’ brought over with the original Afro-American slaves themselves.
"The issue of the socio-cultural implications of music cannot be under-rated. Despite the fact we may think we live in a civilized society, at the core, we are still nothing more than tribal animals - and music is so often one of the main means of emotional connection in how we bond with our own particular ‘tribe’!" (Photo: Michael Levy, live at the Roman Baths / Bath Spa, England 2012)
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
In terms of modern popular music, what I miss most, is the almost complete lack of originality and experimentation – almost all ‘bands’ nowadays (which mostly comprise of ‘boy bands’ or ‘girl bands’; none of whom can even play a single, solitary guitar riff anymore and whom I personally blame for the virtual death of the raucous, raw power of rock ‘n’ roll!) continue the awful downward trend, of producing music which will appeal to the most number of people for the most commercial gain – which as a consequence, leads to creating the most bland, uniform and unimaginative which pretty much, all sounds exactly the same!
My hope for the future, is that musicians who still possess a creative soul, will increasingly attempt to reverse this trend; to fight the tide of bland, musical uniformity and instead, to not be afraid to make their music sound distinctive and ‘niche’ once more.
Indeed, this is the very reason I decided to be bold enough to attempt to create an entirely new musical genre, of ‘New Ancestral Music’ - new composition for the exotic timbre of the recreated lyres of the ancient world, using the long-forgotten expressive qualities of ancient musical modes enhanced by the clarity of geometrically pure just intonation.
Taking my experiments to the limit, in 2017, I created my album, “Ascension of the Lyre”. Inspired by the Star Trek character, Spock, who played the 'Vulcan Harp' (which was essentially a futuristic lyre!), going boldly where no lyre player has gone before, this album literally aims to ascend the possibilities of the recreated lyres of antiquity into the music of the far-flung future!
The title of this album features a pun on the ancient Greek legend of the ascension of Orpheus (the most famous lyre player in the literature of Classical antiquity) from the Underworld - and my musical mission in this album: to literally ascend the lyre from its previous status as a dusty, long-forgotten ancient museum relic; onto a new musical journey into the 21st century and beyond, literally giving it a new voice, by metamorphosing it's ancient timbre with a host of contemporary studio effects.
In creating this album, my main aim was to illustrate that the recreated lyre of antiquity also has the hidden magic to transport the listener to the distant future as well as the ancient past, a 'musical spaceship' to take the listener on a fantasy voyage to strange and remote alien worlds…
This album fulfils the primary objective of my musical mission - to ascend the iconic lyre of our ancient past into what may one day become, the musical instrument of our distant future, wherever in the solar system and beyond our descendants may one day find themselves.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
My main wish for change in the musical world, is that creative musicians and composers, particularly in mainstream popular music, overcome their fear of doing something different! Without taking the risk of change, nothing different ever happens – which is probably why in my perception, we have had to endure the omnipresent curse of guitar-less ‘boy bands’ and ‘girl bands’ for the last 30 or so years; with all the raucous rock ‘n’ roll appeal of a barber shop choir!
Iconic bands, such as ‘The Beatles’, ‘Queen’ and magnificent artists such as the late great Jimi Hendrix made truly great music - because they did not bow down to the pressure of record companies to literally manufacture the type of bland music which always appeals to the most number of people for the most commercial gain – they were never afraid of the risk of being experimental!
As far as music goes, I always relish the aesthetic flavour of something more exotic and spicy, akin to a Vindaloo…rather than a bland, banal and forgettable Korma!
What touched (emotionally) you from the ancient lyra? How does music affect the healing and mood?
What touches me on an emotional level about my lyres, is how, with just a maximum of 10 strings, there are infinite musical creative possibilities which can literally be plucked from the air! Unlike any other instrument I have played, the countless possibilities in how the actual timbre of the sound can be changed, results in a spontaneous improvisatory style I have developed over the years, which, instead of resembling the more regular means of improvisation in jazz or blues, based on adding different passing notes and harmonies; my lyre improvisatory technique is based more on varying the texture of the melodic line in an almost infinite number of possibilities.
Indeed, on the same instrument, I can produce guitar-like plectrum plucked tones and mandolin-like tremolos. By blocking specific strings with my left hand whilst strumming the open strings with a plectrum in my right hand, I can produce either Appalachian dulcimer-like strummed drones or regular guitar chords.
By simultaneously pinching and plucking the strings at specific locations across the string length, I can produce a full range of harmonics with one hand or simultaneously both. With my left hand I can produce a harp-like timbre, with either finger plucked melodic lines or wonderfully minimalistic pure 5ths in just intonation, which can seamlessly frame any melody. I can produce microtones, simply by using either my plectrum or the knuckle of my thumb as a moveable fret on the strings whilst plucking the string with my free hand.
Since I use authentic replica ancient lyre plectrums, made of either carved bone or wood, the greater mass of the plectrum allows me to use the plectrum as a baton to hit the strings as well as to pluck them; resulting in a sound more akin to a hammered dulcimer (which can be heard in my track “Hammered Harps of Nineveh” from my forthcoming album, “Echoes of Ancient Mesopotamia & Canaan” – due for general digital release on 1st March 2020).
I can also use these large plectrums to create a sound similar to blues slide guitar - by plucking a string with my left hand whilst sliding the edge of my plectrum up and down the string being plucked!
Music certainly does have a healing quality, as so timelessly told in the Biblical story of how David's lyre soothed the troubled mind of King Saul. Music can literally heal the Soul, because due to our truly archaic, pre-linguistic ability to express emotion through specific sounds, it follows that music is the only artistic medium which communicates the beauty of aesthetic emotion, directly to our higher cognitive faculties - in this way, like a magic carpet, music can transport us from our own inner sufferings and take us on a fantastic journey of inspiration and imagination whilst simultaneously instilling in us, an appreciation of the timeless geometrical symmetry of harmonious musical intervals and in doing so, music can in time, like it once soothed the troubles and tribulations of King Saul, restore the inner harmony of our very own Souls once more.
Back in classical antiquity, in "The Republic", the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato used the analogy of lyre strings to represent how the ideal society ought to live - although the timbre and tone of each string is different, they can still work together to produce beautiful harmony and order - society should aim to literally be like a well-tuned lyre.
Bringing this idea new life in my quest for a 'New Ancestral' musical revolution, in January 2020, I released “New Ancestral Music – Rebirth of the Ancient Lyre”. In this album, the limitless creative musical possibilities of the 10 strings I have on the lyre with which I recorded this release with, are analogous to the maximum of 10 decades with which our brief human lives span - even although the present human species has a maximum of 10 decades of natural lifespan, there are almost limitless possibilities in each of them, for each and every one of us to shape our precious years of conscious, sentient beings in any way we can possibly imagine!
Even If there is no God or gods, we alone still miraculously have the power within our 'Inner Shaman', to create our own meaning in life; even if all our religions prove eventually to be wrong and the universe itself, of which we are briefly a part, exists for no particular cause or reason.
Each of us must create our own form of harmony and order out of the chaos of this world in which we briefly find ourselves in - therefore, we all need to ultimately strive to literally become ‘the lyre players of our own lives’...
"My musical mission, is to reintroduce back into the modern musical world; the haunting timbre of the recreated ancient lyres of antiquity, the long-forgotten distinctive expressive qualities of the ancient musical modes and (as featured in more or less all of my recordings since 2012), the forgotten purity of musical intervals tuned in geometrically pure just intonation." (Photo: Michael Levy, Butser Ancient Farm 2011)
What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?
The issue of the socio-cultural implications of music cannot be under-rated. Despite the fact we may think we live in a civilized society, at the core, we are still nothing more than tribal animals - and music is so often one of the main means of emotional connection in how we bond with our own particular ‘tribe’!
The most unsettling example of how music can be manipulated to sinister effect on an entire society as a whole, is probably during the propaganda machinery of the Nazi regime, which saw a complete ban on both Jewish musicians and composers; instead promoting across the airwaves to the masses, ‘Aryan’ music more appropriate to emotionally connecting the entire German people with the new Nazi ideology; such as the proliferation of military marches & the works of Wagner etc.
Conversely, there is also the danger of losing all our cultural identity, with the modern trend of ‘importing’ so much popular music into the mainstream, that there is literally nothing indigenous left with which we can identify with. For example, any young person in the UK could probably hum along to almost any American hip hop hit – but they certainly would be at a loss to think of even one traditional English Morris Dance tune!
How would I like me own music to affect people on a socio-cultural context? Although in my attempt at creating a ‘musical adventure in time travel’ across many different ancient cultures, ranging from ancient-themed Biblical music, ancient-themed Egyptian music, ancient Mesopotamian-themed music, ancient Greek-themed music and ancient Roman-themed music, the one thing all my ancient-themed lyre music has in common, is hopefully evoking a sense of inner peace and tranquility – if my music can in turn, bring about more peace and tranquility across all cultural and religious boundaries, then my time on Earth would have been truly worthwhile!
Let's take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
On the one hand, the more ‘spiritual’ side of me would dearly love to connect with my ‘extreme roots music’ and be magically transported back to either hear exactly what David played upon his lyre to sooth Saul, or to hear the original music once sang to the entire text of the Hebrew bible, including the original music of the Psalms of David; sang by the Levitical Choir in Solomon’s Temple; accompanied on an entire orchestra of Biblical lyres by my very own, very ancient Levite ancestors.
On the other hand, the experimental musician in me, would instead, love to travel back in time to witness, first-hand, the virtuosity on display at an actual ancient Greek kithara contest; when back at the height of classical Greece, around the 5th century BC, the kithara; the large wooden lyre played only by the true professional musicians of ancient Greece, was venerated in pretty much the same way as the electric guitar is venerated by lovers of rock music today – if only I had been around back then…in the spirit of Jimi Hendrix, I probably would have set fire to my lyre!