This morning, I was listening to one of my favorite albums: Layne Redmond’s “Invoking Aphrodite,” which is inspired and built upon ancient musical traditions. Redmond, who died last year, was a master of the frame drum — one of the oldest instruments in the world, depicted in ancient tomb art, pottery and more.
“Invoking Aphrodite” is devotional music at its best, combining truly ancient texts — poems from Sappho, the Seikilos epitaph, Mesomedes’ “Hymn to the Muse” — with modern composition. The music is based on ancient traditions, when those are known; the music for “Hymn to the Muse,” for example, was preserved through an ancient notation system and dates back to the second century of the common era. You can hear a rendition of this song below:
Interestingly, Mesomedes was a freed slave from Crete. Several other musical compositions were preserved, including the “Hymn to Nemesis”:
In the ancient world, poetry was married to music. Bards — whatever you wished to call them — recited epic histories to the harp, the lyre, the kantele, the kora and a host of other simple stringed instruments. The words were not spoken, but tunefully chanted or sung in simple melodies, which in themselves served as mnemonic devices. At some point, the two became uncoupled — likely due to increased literacy, the printing press and the publishing industry. Despite this divorce, I find it fascinating when I realize that, say, the Homeric hymns all had melodies to them, and likely many other ancient texts, such as the Kalevala.
Ancient music, however, didn’t need to be simple. Listen to this rendition of a Hurrian melody — which would have accompanied a hymn — from 1400 BCE:
The Hurrians, in case you are curious, are believed to be the ancestors of some of the peoples of the Caucasus, at least in terms of language.
I admit, however, that I intended to write this entry on the Seikilos epitaph, believed to be the oldest complete musical composition anywhere in the world. It was inscribed on a funerary monument, possibly dedicated to a woman named Euterpe, in the second century CE. Here is a rendition:
It’s written in the Phrygian mode and sounds, at least to my ears, a bit chirpy. Redmond’s rendition is more haunting; you can hear a selection here.
The words are variously translated, but I prefer Redmond’s version:
I am an image in stone.
I was put here by Seikilos
Where I will remain forever,
A symbol of deathless remembrance.
As long as you live, shine, be radiant!
Let nothing grieve you beyond measure.
For your life is only too short
And time will call for you.
Redmond’s version, with its haunting drone and violin, brings tears to my eyes. In a way, it is a testament to her life; she died at the relatively young age of 61 from cancer. She did shine and shared her gifts with the world — and time called for her, too soon.
I don’t have a pinky-full of Layne Redmond’s talent, but the musical traditions she brought to the world inspire me. I have tried to do my own quirky version of them with my own project, Kwannon.