THE SOUND OF 3000 YEAR OLD LYRE STRINGS

 

Trying to find authentic sounding strings for my lyre has so far been the most difficult challenge - although gut was generally used in antiquity, the polished gut harp strings used today, bear little in common with the closely wound gut fibre strings of antiquity. String expert Peter Pringle (a regular contributor to the fascinating new Facebook Group "The Lyre") suggested that natural fibre silk strings would sound closest match to the unpolished gut used on the lyre strings of antiquity & kindly made some for my lyre...


the one_resized


Peter explains some fascinating facts about the little discussed subject of ancient musical string technology:

 

"Silk strings are traditionally made by twisting pure silk filaments together using binders and glues of various sorts to produce a stable cord with the appropriate hardness and density (which is similar to a dried gut string).


The ancient string makers guarded their recipes and techniques with all the secrecy of modern industrialists. They added all sorts of things to their binders - powdered silver and gold, and minerals like rock crystal, jade, lapis, etc. - in order to impart certain sonic properties to the finished product.


Much of that was, I believe, based on the rather romantic, folkloric notion that the music would ultimately take on the metaphysical qualities of the substance used in the string making process. For example, if you were to use powdered pearls in your silk binders, the string would manifest the characteristics of the sea, while a small amount of the dried and finely ground heart of tiger would make your music more powerful and compelling. There are equally fanciful ideasof this sort associated with Chinese traditional medicine.



Interestingly, some of the substances they used (such as powdered metals) actually did change the acoustic properties of the string but they did so for physical, and not metaphysical, reasons. Putting silver into your string may give it a clear and incisive tone but that's because of the metal's specific gravity, not because it transmits the qualities of the moon!



The entire output of the very best silk string makers in China was often bought up by the Imperial Palace, so the finest strings were usually not even available to the general public and could be heard only in the Forbidden City. This was the case with the so-called "ice string" which is a translucent pure white silk"

 

Having now experimented with the sound of these silk strings on my lyre, I have discovered a whole new world of sound & have come one step closer to the actual sound of the lyres of antiquity.

 

MY EXPERIENCE OF PLAYING MORE AUTHENTICALLY MADE LYRE STRINGS


There are several conclusions I discovered about using these fascinating "practical archaeomusicological experiments" at playing more authentically manufactured lyre strings.


The basic tone of the lyre remained almost the same - this demonstrated that the most important component in the quality of the sound of a lyre, is the actual quality of the wooden soundboard upon which the strings vibrate. This is, of course, a common sense observation - even the most expensive hand-crafted gut violin strings will still sound like elastic bands, if strung on a cheap fiddle with a thick soundboard made from cheap, poorly seasoned wood with poor resonance!


However, due to the harder nature of wound silk compared to nylon, there is a much more interesting & crisper attack when the strings are plucked. The tone of natural fibre strings is also much more colourful & individual, in comparison to nylon. This is due to the the production process of nylon musical strings, as Peter Pringle explained to me:

"the nylon monofilament strings are made by "nylon/fluorocarbon monofilament is made by the extrusion process (forcing the liquid synthetic through a small hole, like toothpaste or spaghetti, so that it makes a single strand of absolutely consistent diameter). In ancient time, strings were not made this way and they were not quite so even. Regardless of whether they were of gut, hair, or some other natural fiber, slight inconsistencies gave the strings certain sonic characteristics - a certain "personality" resulting from the added overtones and harmonics produced by minute variations in thickness and density - that you will not hear from extruded strings whose sound may be far more pure but decidedly less interesting, not to mention less authentic. Even modern factory made gut strings are polished on a centerless grinder (a technology the ancients did not possess) which makes them far more even than gut strings would have been in Greece or the Middle East 3000 years ago. The only gut strings made today that might be comparable to ancient gut strings would be those made by African and Indian artisans for indigenous instruments like the adungu, the begena, the sarangi, etc."

 
A fascinating feature I discovered, was that this pleasant crispness of attack was most prominent in the bass strings of my lyre - the higher pitched treble strings were, in fact, almost indistinguishable from the tone of the nylon. The bass silk strings, though, sounded far richer in character & nuance than nylon & superior in tone. This is again a parallel phenomenon to violin strings - even if all the the strings are made of the finest gut, the top E string is almost always made of steel: yet it still manages to match the tone of the other gut strings almost seamlessly. 

The main drawback of any form of natural fibre or twisted gut musical string, though, is the lack of both tuning stability & durability compared to modern nylon harp strings - my lyre now only stays in tune for about 10 minutes at a time - I have a new-found empathy to the devotion to the constant re-tuning required by the lyre players of antiquity, in their efforts to attain "the Music of the Spheres"!

Another fascinating observation, is that the variety of lyre playing techniques I have inferred from my study of ancient illustrations of lyre players & the styles of lyre playing still practiced today in Africa & Egypt, work even better on the low tension, crisper-sounding silk strings - these include the "block & strum" technique still used by the Krar lyre players of Eritrea & the tremolo style of playing still practiced today by the Simsimiyya lyre players of Port Said in Egypt.  The hypothetical "String Blocking" method proposed by the musicologist Curt Sachs (using a knuckle of the left hand as a fret on a lyre string to play accidentals on a diatonically strung lyre) also works beautifully on these low tension lyre strings.

Harmonics can also be effortlessly played on silk lyre strings by lightly stopping the centre of the string. The combination of finger plucked & plectrum plucked tones on these strings is also virtually limitless - either finger plucked intervals to accompany a plectrum plucked melodic line, or a finger plucked melody with an accompaniment of single plectrum plucked notes.

I now feel that any ancient lyre player from antiquity, with any sort of musical imagination, would surely have used these very same lyre playing techniques, in their efforts to extract, as I have strove to do, every conceivable possibility that the instrument is actually capable of.   

 

GUT STRINGS VERUS SILK?


Peter explained to me more about the fascinating history of gut & silk musical strings, in relation to the music of the ancient Near East & Mediterranean:

"King David did not string his harps with silk because the silk-making process was unknown in the Middle East until roughly 500 A.D. when it was introduced to the Byzantines via the so-called "Silk Road". Still, I do believe that the closest sound you will get to handmade (as opposed to machined) gut strings made from the intestines of sheep or goats, of the sort that David would have used on his instruments, is probably going to be silk. 


Like gut strings, silk is brittle once it has been subjected to the hardening process. With both silk and gut, one must be careful when putting a new string onto an instrument not to bend, crush or crack any part of the the vibrating length between the peg and the bridge. The same thing is true with wire. If you accidentally get a kink or a twist in brass or bronze wire it can never be perfectly straightened and you will compromise the purity of the tone of your string.


A "filament" is the single strand of raw silk spun by the mulberry silkworm and in order to make a single .050" (roughly 1.25 mm) pure silk string, it takes nearly 11,000 filaments (the thickness of a human hair would be the equivalent of about 150 filaments). I know that sounds like it must be a humongous task but it isn't. Once you're set up and have all your materials on hand, it's actually quite fast. The most difficult and exacting task is done by the "bombyx mori" - the silkworm itself. Anyone can make a silk string but only the worm can make silk!" 

 


POSSIBLE EVIDENCE OF THE MANUFACTURE OF SILK MUSICAL STRINGS IN BRONZE AGE CYPRUS



I managed to learn some fascinating evidence of the possible manufacture of silk musical strings in Bronze Age Cyprus, in the correspondence I recently had with the archaeologist Maria Rosaria Belgiorno:

"I am an archaeologist who found some evidence on the use of wild silk in Early-Middle Bronze age Cyprus. I suppose that they used to make musical strings, in relations to local myth of king Kynira (belonging to Aphrodite family) inventor of music (knr), perfumes, copper ........

More evidence of wild silk cocoons comes from the Cycladic island of Thera (Santorini) Minoan site. Moreover from Cycladic art we have tens of figurines representing musicians playing lyres and hundreds of representations of moths on Minoan glyptic and jewels. Probably we have enough evidence to sustain your archaeological experimental reconstruction of a lyre with strings made of wild silk. 

My investigation on wild silk started some years ago, when we found fibres of wild silk excavating the Early-Middle Bronze age site of Pyrgos/Mavroraki in Cyprus: www.pyrgos-archea.it


The fibres of wild silk were inside the hole of some spindle whorls and under the microscopy they seem to belong to a Saturnide moth. Since then I spent some time in collecting possible documentation on the use of wild silk in East Mediterranean. The most interesting links regard the musical instruments of chalcolithic and Bronze Age in Aegean and Levant including Cyprus:


1° The Minoan seals with the butterflies incised on (Saturnides like Pachipasa Otus).


2° The cocoon fossilized found in Santorini-Thera (Akrotiri 1600 BC circa).


3° The famous marble Cycladic figurines of musicians who play the lyre. All of them have been produced not far from Amorgo (and in) and Coo, the islands mentioned in the famous paper of Gisela Richter about the wild silk.


4° Kynira the famous king of Cyprus grandson of Aphrodite, whose dynasty continue to be in charge of the Aphrodite temple at Paphos until the III century A.D. According to the mythology, Kynira invented the Knr or Cnyr, that corresponds to the most famous string instruments of ancient Greece. The legend goes back to the Bronze Age.


5° The today existence of different species of moths that produce wild silk in Mediterranean until today. A cultural association in Italy at Meldola (Forlì) is actually producing wild silk by Pachipasa otus and other moths to demonstrate that in the ancient times were no problems in finding and collecting their cocoons on the trees of Mediterranean forest.


6° A native Pachipasa Otus of Cyprus is known as Pachipasa Cypria.


7° The golden scales found in the Tomb of Circle A at Mycenae. They are three, in pure gold, intact and one of them has its disks decorated with a moth incised on. What about they have been used to weight something more precious than the gold as silk strings for precious lyres?


8° You realized replicas of ancient string instruments using silk strings according to the Bible and…….more.


9° To spin the wild silk you need to use a tiny spindle whorl and a sort of comb. Probably is not a case that a sort of comb represented in small clay models and picrolite (green steatite) pendants became the symbol of Cypriot gender in Early-Middle Bronze age.

The research is only at the beginning……….Otherwise we have many recent Archaeometry analyses that confirm the use of wild silk in many European countries in ancient times, before the Chinese silk arrived"


If silk musical strings were indeed manufactured in Bronze Age Cyprus, then it follows that it may indeed be likely that their use throughout the rest of the ancient Mediterranean may also have been a possibility, due to established trade routes between Cyprus and these regions...

 

AN EXPERIMENTAL RECORDING USING SILK LYRE STRINGS

Before all but the last 4 of these brittle wound silk strings 4 bass strings snapped, I released an experimental single "Ancient Lyre Strings" - here is a little slideshow I put together featuring a clip of this extended length single:


A fully illustrated PDF booklet of my research into ancient musical string technology & my experimental recording "Ancient Lyre Strings" which uses these unique strings can now be downloaded here

 

ANICENT MUSIC PERFORMED ON ANCIENT LYRE STRINGS 


Below is my new series of videos featuring these silk strings. The first video, features a live performance of track 7, "Holy of Holies" from my album, "King David's Harp" - this my arrangement for my evocation of the Biblical lyre of a traditional Shabbat melody: 

 


The next video features an experimental arrangement for my lyre strung with these wonderful natural fibre silk strings, of a fragment of ancient Greek music
(Poem. Mor 1, 11f. Migne 37, 523 ), from my album "The Ancient Greek Lyre":


For the remaining videos, I had to tune the lyre down a minor 3rd from its usual tuning, due to the fragile nature of the strings - John Wheeler kindly provided me with some MIDI tones in the authentically pure sounding just intonation of antiquity, to re-tune my lyre to.

 

The third video features an experimental performance on these silk lyre strings, of the most famous surviving piece of ancient Greek Music (Epitaph of Seikilos, 1st century CE) - track 7 from my album, "A Well Tuned Lyre - The Just Intonation of Antiquity"


The fourth video features my experimental arrangement of a fragment of ancient Greek music (Kolon Exasimon, Anonymi Bellermann 97) for solo lyre, strung with natural fibre silk strings, tuned in the just intonation of antiquity - track 5 from my album "A Well Tuned Lyre - The Just Intonation of Antiquity":


The final video features my experimental arrangement for lyre, in just intonation, of "The First Delphic Hymn To Apollo" - track 8 from my album "A Well Tuned Lyre - The Just Intonation of Antiquity":

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


Special thanks to Peter Pringle for kindly making these amazing silk strings for my lyre & to John Wheeler, for providing me with the new lower pitched just intonation MIDI tones to tune my lyre to whilst using these silk strings.

 


 

HOW THE STRINGS WERE ATTACHED TO THE LYRES & HARPS OF ANTIQUITY

 

The use of harp-like metal friction pegs for the strings on my own evocation of the 10-string Biblical Kinnor is certainly a concession to modernity...which certainly helps for accurate & stable tuning for studio work! The use of friction tuning pegs on harps & lyres is a relatively modern innovation - the harps & lyres of antiquity originally had their strings attached & tuned by a quite elaborate system of leather wraps, knots & quite often, tuning levers. 

The same ancient system can still be seen today in the many types of lyres still being played throughout Africa, as can be clearly seen in this illustration of the leather wraps holding the strings on the Ethiopian Begena:

Begenna_resized.


The harpist Andy Lowings, has been involved with the fascinating project to recreate the fabulous 4600 year old Golden Lyre of Ur, the original reconstruction which was tragically destroyed in 2003 during the Gulf War:

 


Andy has created a series of videos to demonstrate exactly how this ancient, intricate  system of wraps, knots and tuning levers actually works:





 
An absolutely fascinating series of videos, this is the most valuable source I have so far been able to discover, which describes in such detail, how the lyres of antiquity were once strung & tuned!

Another very similar system of leather wraps & knots is similarly used on the Burmese Saung Gauk - an incredibly archaic arched harp still played in Burma today, which is astonishingly similar to the arched harps once played throughout ancient Egypt:

 


I find it remarkable, that in several very special places in the world today, both the harps & lyres of antiquity, along with the very same method of tuning & string attachment, have remained unchanged, for literally thousands of years... 

 


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