Thoughts on the project by Jerry Mayle
Discovering the Lyre
For more than 50 years, my perception of a lyre was something one saw painted on the side of a Grecian vase being played by a gentleman in a state of undress, or an instrument one would occasionally see in the hands of Nero. For me it was an old unused instrument.
My ideas would probably have stayed that way had I not met Andy who had been appointed as my composition tutor on a distance learning course. After exchanging a few Emails in the margins of my studies we discovered that we had a mutual interest in Old English and Anglo Saxon history. Andy told me about the Anglo Saxon lyre he had made and showed me photographs. It looked good and I was impressed but the lyre was still something of interest rather than an instrument to be written for.
I signed up to attend a composition workshop where the commission was to choose one out of a number of texts and then to set it to music for a mezzo soprano accompanied by piano. The text I selected was the opening four stanzas of the Voluspa an Old Norse/Icelandic poem dealing with the Anglo Saxon/Norse creation Myths and Sagas. It is a stark but beautiful poem and, incidentally, the source of Tolkein’s dwarves’ names in the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The texts we were given was in English but something drove me to look out the original and then the piece took hold of me. I could see and feel it being recited in a long house by an open fire during a northern winter’s night. The more the feeling took hold the surer I was that it had to stay in the original language and the less the piano seemed right. The image of some merry Vikings standing around the piano in horned hats, beer in hand, having a jolly sing song might have been good for producing fits of the giggles but they just did not fit the music. Then 3 AM one morning the light went on in my head – use a lyre and I just happened to know a player.
Andy was enthusiastic about the idea even though it was stepping outside the boundaries of the commission and sent me the academic work he had previously done on the Anglo Saxon lyre. We thought if just one person went away from the workshop with an interest in the instrument we would have had a little success story. In the event, the interest was unanimous and Andy ran out of hand outs.
We settled on a tuning of G, A B flat, C. D and E, I set up vocal and lute tracks in the notational software and got to work. My initial feelings can be summed up in one word: constraints. There were only 6 notes to play with (12 if their first harmonics were included) so the melody line was limited and unambiguous chords were restricted to g, C, C7 and A. The available techniques were plucking (melody and chords which could be arpeggiated or not) and strumming with blocked strings. Once the problem was turned on its head though all sorts of interesting possibilities came out one of the major ones being thinking in a sort of vague area between major and minor modes and having a piece of music that drifted between the two without having a firm foot in either camp.
Chord ambiguity in the lyre was a great help in producing
this sort of ethereal mist, but if ambiguity needed to be resolved it could
be done with the voice providing the missing note in the chord when two or
three stings were used by the lyre or, when just one string was used by having
the other two notes of the train provided by the voice in successive quavers.
Providing rhythmic stress was easy: a plucked arpeggiated chord or a strum.
I wanted two feelings for the song. The first and last stanzas were to have a slight Celtic feel (20 to 40% of the original settlers in Iceland were from Ireland or Scotland) and the middle two to be trance like. The Seer, having been summonsed back from the dead by Odin, begins by demanding silence with a declamatory “Hljods”; the lyre with a strummed chord provides the exclamation mark. She again uses the words “Hljods” but this time softly and it carries the meaning of “attention” rather than “silence” and the lyre provides a softer more melodic accompaniment. She then starts to tell in a trance state the creation story until, in the fourth stanza, she comes out of the trance and checks with Odin whether she should continue and we are back in normal mode.
The trance stanzas I left on the side initially because I wanted to check what I was writing was actually playable. Notational software is great but it does not respect limitations of the instrument one is writing for. So I sent it over to Andy to allow him to try it out. Now we set off on a voyage of discovery. The first thing we found out that upward and downward strums are not interchangeable. There are times when an upward strum has the right musical effect and vice versa. For the declamatory “hljods” upwards worked, downwards were non-descript. Apart from that, however, very few changes needed to be made.
Andy was enthusiastic and wanted room for a solo which I was happy to oblige and I started on the trance section. For the vocal line I used sprechstimme a technique that is between speaking and singing and Andy suggested having an indeterminate mobile played in the background. It worked: the mobile and the sprechstimme combined to produce an otherworldly effect of the Seer chanting in a trance like state and creating the tension of a story that was being listened to closely.
Andy then got to work on his solo passage putting all of his creativity into it and in doing so discovered, perhaps rediscovered is a better word, a number of playing techniques including what he called his “double handed plucking” in which both left and right hands play independently from different sides of the instrument. It produces an extremely rich wall of sound in which all of the individual notes remain distinct. We do not know whether ancient lyre players used this technique or not, but given that they were inventive musicians, it is hard to believe that it was unkown to them.
all of the bits together is a small story in itself. There were four
people involved and we all live in different places, in fact in two
different countries. The wonders of modern electronics enables us to
write and produce a piece of music featuring an ancient instrument and
in doing so to learn a little more about it.
When I planned the study day, for the OCA and iAM, with Chris Lawry it was decided to choose texts that may inspire or create ideas in the students minds. Alas only one student really jumped on the ideas given....Jerry. Everyone else played safe and wrote well within their skill and knowledge sets.
When he came back to me and explained the ideas he was thinking of, my mind automatically began jumping ahead and I offered the idea of making the songs something more akin to that of a Skald, or Scop, with the use of the Anglo Saxon Lyre. It seemed almost impossible to imagine bringing this wonderful instrument back into the original mode of expression that we know was enacted by our ancestors in the Mead Halls and Long Halls of the pre Norman invasion. Then if we didn't do it we both knew it would only annoy us and wrankle us until we did.
I wrote down all the performance ideas and shapes etcetera that I could along with a brief history of the instrument (see the next page with the 'Approaches' PDF) and what was and was not performable on the six strings. This I sent off to Jerry who then set about writing the work in the manner that he envisaged. This was very different to the way I would have written the song and so was a very valuable lesson for both of us in its collaboration I feel. He came back to me at one point and said he was not sure how to create the dream section so I at this point introduced him to the idea of mobile cells of notes being repeated which then have the voice declaiming in a Sprechstimme style. This is the style of semi speach, semi sung, melismatic technique developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century in his seminal work "Pierrot Lunaire". It worked beautifully.....in fact better than I thought it ever would. Especially when followed by a free improvisation section on the lyre allowing it to shine through instead of just supporting the voice at all times (time to shine and show off a little I suppose). This allowed me to develop the performance technique of what I have come to refer to as "Double Hand Playing" (see the performance techniques section)
Looking back on the project I do feel that we achieved something of a first with this piece. So often the pieces that are heard on Youtube are improvised or are not written down as a work of art but as a throw away piece of limited scope. This isn't of course entirely the case as a listen to Benjamin Bagby's "Beowulf" shows, where the instrument is used to set the atmospheres and punctuate the drama of the tale in a very poetic and effective way. With this project the aims were similiar but the methodology was very different in the fact that the work was notated in music score and thought out in a way that fixes the work as a classical piece would be done. This makes sure there are no ambiguities with the performance techniques or styles should someone else approach the performance of the piece.
I am proud of what we achieved with this piece and I do hope that we can work in a very similar way again oneday but until that day I am producing a new project that in its own way has stemmed from this work.
It is a project that is intended to highlight various aspects of the Anglo Saxon Lyre in a new, and hopefully enjoyably listenable way.
The album is available directly from myself on this site or via the Bandcamp site:
"Mead Hall: Laments, Lays and Idyls"
Each track is either a Lament, a Lay or an Idyll. They vary from one and a half minutes up to over ten minutes in duration and are intended to show the Lyre off in various guises and facets of its beauty. I attempted to approach the album from the opposite end of the usual fast tracks with one slow number and instead wrote mainly slow to medium paced tracks with only one fairly fast number.
- Engla Tocyme:Dageraad
- Lament For Beowulf
- Tricks of Loki
- Jennets Foss
- The Children of Ing (part I)
- King Radwald's Lay
- Spirit of the Wheat (Wheat Whytes)
- Forðspell - (an improvisation)
- Eostre's Prelude & Was Hael Eostre
- Edith Swanneck's Lament
- Two Ravens, Two Wolves
- The Children of Ing (part II)
- Snow Falls on the Mead Hall (bonus track on the first 50 copies of the album)
The whole album is a meditation on the limitations of the instrument, but by playing to those limitations it allowed for some very diverse atmospheres and expressions through the instrument and through the soundworlds created by the use of various field recordings and manipulations of audio in the Steinberg Cubase SX5 recording system. these very often create an ambience and add to the depth of the tracks as well as enhancing what is predominantly an ambient neo-folk album
As well as the wonderful Extinct Audio BM9 microphone, that was a revelation, I also used a Steinberg Zoom H1 microphone recording device to capture nearly all the sounds and music. I also raided a few sounds such as the crying woman, the waterfall, the ghostly childs voice and the wolves and ravens (have you ever tried to record Ravens in Britain....? Yeah.... an almost impossible task unless you want to risk your neck up the side of some shear mountainside) from the very fine Freesounds website project (https://freesound.org). I thank all those that contribute to that site and it is ever an inspiration to browse and hunt through the soundfiles it holds.
1, Engla Tocyme: Dageraad
Engla Tocyme: Dageraad basically means "Coming of the English: Dawning". It is a soundworld meditation with the lyre playing a starring role as the main character who lands on the shores of East Anglia and begins their slow ascent via the land to the domination of the nation and of the Romano-British in the mid 5th century.
"Beowulf". The great Anglo Saxon epic, that has over the years haunted many creative artists and enthralled many English language students who dare to study the story in its original, has been something of a near obsession of mine since I first read it in the Modern English translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland many years ago. My 'A' Level English teacher first peaked my interest when one day in class we were complaining about not fully understanding the language of Shakespeare. The following lesson she read the opening of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" (another revelation in Middle English) and explained about it. She then read the opening lines of "Beowulf" and blew us all away with its sounds. It has eversince been in my mind. (Thank you 'Aunty' Allbi')
With this track I draw the listener in with a call to attention as a Scop would have done and the sounding of the word "What!" trans':"Listen" (not the modern pronunciation of Whot). This leads to the opeing of the great poem in Modern English. As this is a Lament for the hero of the story, Beowulf, I have taken the ending few lines that are so evocative and tantalising in their beauty as the main idea for the piece. I have used Julian Glovers version for this that he has toured over the years and although slightly abridged it is still evocative and soul bending in its beauty. In the track you hear the horns and the dirges for the hero from the twelve Athelings sons, you also hear A Valkyrie descend and take the soul of our hero to Valhalla. This is not in the story but is poetic license on my part. The poem has been Christianised at some point but the undercurrent of the Heathen original still resounds through the whole epic poem.
Although this is not meant to be a programmatic piece it is extremely hard to avoid such temptingly descriptive words, even in a Modern English version.
For texts of the poem used then either read the Kevin Crossley-Holland translation, or for an amazing version then try Seamus Heaney's outstanding version.
The last section is a short summing up of the whole poem in a short verse text of my own:
He decapitated the Trolls mother,
with a mighty sword he took her breath.
Under Linden shield he hid
to slay the dragon of the mound.
As a King there were none around
such as he, ring giver and friend."
Loki, the trickster/deceiver in the Norse and Anglo Saxon Myths, is an enigmatic character that you can't help but love and hate in both equal measures. He is the father of the creatures and leader of the main antagonists that bring about the downfall of the Norse pantheon of Gods. Through his deceit and tricks the day of Ragnarok is brought about and the world changed forever. His son that most people remember is the gigantic wolf, Fenrir, that enters the great battle and kills Woden in the fight and closes the final battle by swallowing the Sun, whole. Loki is never to be trusted and yet Woden trusts him to do his bidding without seeing the backhandedness of Loki's treachery.
In the track I have tried to portray the dreams of Loki in his wantoness to bring the Gods down and how he devises many plans to do just this while his ever patient slavering, and fettered, son Fenrir pants happily in anticipation.
Jennets Foss is a secretive and beguiling waterfall dell in North Yorkshire very near to the more famous Malham Cove. You can approach it through the river valley that is wooded and steep on both sides until you can hear the water falling and suddenly over a rise of rocks the waterfall appears. It was a place of devotion and offering in the early Anglo Saxon period and Viking eras before Christianity destroyed such natural places of pilgrimage and prayer. The local goddess was Jennet who cared locally for the waters and the plants, and even today there is something very calming and beguiling about the place. The pool below the waterfall is deep and welcoming and must have contained the local offerings made to the deity. In the piece I have tried to convey an almost childlike wonder of the site and possibly the care shown it by the deity as well. To me it is a magical, secretive, and timeless place.
We are the ancestors of the Children of Ing, the Ænglisc that is. Ing, or Ingvar, was a God or Goddess (sexual orientation was not so important in Anglo-Saxon pre Christain belief as much). The God/ess Ing is known in the Baltic region and the lower Scandinavian lands, in particular what is now known as Denmark where it is believed s/he were a fertility God/ess and protector of people. A similar role in people protection as Thunor (Thor) became. It is from this region in Denmark that we as a people, the Saxons, Angles, Jutes and a myriad of smaller tribes originated and left to become the Englisc. This is an Idyl summing up the people.
Note the double handed playing in the second main section of the track where the accompaniment is doubled by the main theme played in the left hand of the player.
A happy and hopefully engaging duet between Lyre and Flute to create a piece for the great King Rædwald of East Anglia (7th century). King Rædwald is the king that was buried at Sutton Hoo and where the only ship burial has been found in Britain. It is also where the first Anglo Saxon Lyre remains were found. The piece uses a simple bitonal idea that the Lyre is very adpet at creating to get the contrasts.
Early spring days with a distant cuckoo while whiling away the time lying on one of the burial mounds of the site. Make your own images to this.
We have waited for your return
Yet during your absence
The ice grew thick, piercing deep in our hearts.
The only warmth came from the hearth,yet the logs are dwindled now.
Pregnant with the promise of rebirth.
Eostre's Baerns leap and chase,
They feel your energy rise within them.
For you have brought the warming rays of Sunne's light.
Our frost parched land comes to life at last.
Snowdrops and Daffodils emerge as one.
Birdcalls change to a happier ring.
Our crops shoot forth in ever longing hope.
Our bone hoard warms the Bitfrost from the marrow deep.
Sunne shines on distant shores
Helping us grow and live.
Eostre's way brings forth life in Midgard
The Leveret, lamb, chick, the fry in rivers deep.
The way of Wyrd is an ever thickening web leading us to the way of you.
Was Hael Eostre, Was Hael!
Goddess of new life, Goddess of rebirth."
The track is in two parts and is set to represent the promise of the coming of Spring and the second part as the arrival and calmness of the season as all new things beginning. The text is meant as a form of recreation of a the type of praising text a Scop may have written in pre Christian times to bring his listeners to the idea of the new seasons bounty. The track has a pounding drum beat that rises and rises in volume until it draws everything to a halt (part 1), "Eostre's Prelude" and the Lyre takes over (part 2) "Was Hael Eostre". This brings a joyous calm and is only enhanced by the sound of the distant Tin Whistle bringing our minds back to the beauty of the season and its meaning in its joyous simplicity.
This strange improvised track uses the same whole tone scale tunning as "Two Ravens, Two Wolves" and grows from a very simple idea to a crescendo of intensity. In Modern English it means "Descending", and is pronounced Forthspell.
Ten points to the first person who can state the Nursery Rhyme that this piece is reminiscent to. It was not intended to reflect this childlike innocence and yet it entered through a back door somewhere and became almost paramount by the near end of the track. Certainly not intended.
This is something of an oddity of a track in relation to the others on the album. It has both Classical Nylon strung and a heavily distorted Electric Bass Guitar as part of the main structure of the piece as well as a steel strung acoustic guitar. It was the first track to be written and the last track to be recorded due to the corruption of the file at one point. It is in an ABA Coda form which is not a genuine form found in Anglo Saxon music, although due to the destruction wrought on the Ænglisc culture after the Norman Invasion it is very difficult to say what forms were used to structure their musical arts.
In Anglo Saxon culture the idea of a Spirit ever present in the crop of wheat was a strong one and there is evidence, as explained by Kathleen Herbert in her book "The Lost Gods of England" that it was considered to be one of the most important Whytes (spirits of the land and home) to be honoured. This honourification was usually dealt with by very complex and detailed rituals that were never entirely destroyed by the Christian Church which claimed them to be 'witchcraft' to try and break the belief in the ancient old ways that had already lasted over 40,000 years. In fact today we still make Corn Dolls which are supposed to be made from the last few stalks of standing wheat in a harvested field. In these corn dolls the spirit of the wheat is supposed to be captured and honoured to bring a good harvest and bountiful crop for the following year. These are then hung above doorways or barn entrances to bring that luck. At the beginning of the planting of the following year these are then buried in the corner of the field so that the spirit is released back into the land and the new crop flourishes as the spirit is re-released back to the world it inhabits.
Also in many folksongs of England the name of John Barleycorn is known and mentioned, especially in drinking songs celebrating the crops and produce of the wheatfield. This is a name given to the spirit of the wheat by the people of the land. As recently as the Edwardian period the land workers would gather together and ritually shout out with a leader just before the final stalks were cut in a harvested field of wheat:
Leader: "I have him, I have him."
Group: "What do you have, what do you have?"
Leader: "I have the spirit of John Barleycorn by the beard and ear."
Group: "What shall you do with him?"
Leader: "Turn him into beer, turn him into beer"
Group: "Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah for John Barleycorn."
There are various variations on this known throughout England but with mass mechanisation of farming much of this and other rituals are now a rarity to be heard or seen anywhere in England and are only kept alive by Heathens or New Age believers as well as Folklorists and the odd old style farmer.
In this track, even though the spirit is meant to be a good spirit, I have tried to portray it as not just a welcome entity but one that we should be wary of as a bad harvest due to lack of care of the tending of the land could bring disaster if the spirit in the crop was insulted or displeased in some way. Listen out for the darker sounds in the track. As a piece it is a light easy going piece of music that should be enjoyed for its simplicity of sound, even though recording it was far from that.
Edgyth Swann-hnacce (Edith Swanneck) was the wife and Queen of Harold Godwin-son the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, he of the arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings fame, or misfortune depending on your point of view. She was renowned for her womanly virtues and beauty and was highly regarded amongst those who knew her. She had six children by Harold before he was murdered by the Normans, and even after the slaughter of the Earldomen and Houscarls by "William the Bastard" she stood as a beacon of hope for the Ænglisc peoples. This though was shortlived and she was burned out of her home on Williams orders and fled to Flanders taking with her her remaining children. In the Bayeux Tapestry an image of her with her youngest sone, Ulf Godwin, can be seen fleeing a burning structure, their home.
The track is a lament not only for Queen Edgyth but also for the Ænglisc nation and the oppression suffered under the Normans. The Scop enters the Queens chambers to try and sooth her grieving for her husband but unfortunately after the music the Queen remains irreconcilable still, and so does the Scop. Some unearthly voices can be heard part of the way through the track...........?
On the battlefields of England during the Anglo Saxon period an Oath was usually said to confirm fidelity to the King, or Lord, for whom the men were fighting and it is known that one such oath was the one presented below at the bottom of this section.
In the old Pagan belief system of the Scandinavian (Norse and Anglo Saxons) it was believed that any warrior who died in battle was collected and taken to Valhalla, by the Valkyrie's, to feast with his comrades and the Gods in the Great Golden Mead Hall where eating, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and general boasting and oath swearing would take place along with Mead Hall games and daring do. All favourite pass times of the Anglo Saxons. As the period changed to a Christian one the oath took on new importances of allegience and so before the conflict that saw the Anglo Saxon period come to an abrupt end on the ridge of Senlac Hill in Sussex on the 14th of October 1066 it is said that the whole Ænglisc army swore the oath to stand and fight to the last man. They did and we have rued the day ever since.
The track is a fantasy on this idea of Woden's two Ravens, Huggin and Munnin, ("memory" and "thought") and his two untrustworthy Wolves, Kerrie and Merrie, waiting to feast on the dead of battle before the Valkyries come and take the souls of the dead warriors off to Valhalla.
My pronunciation of the Oath in Old English on the recording is not perfect as I am still struggling to get to grips with its finer points, but the idea of the Mead Oath as the catalyst of the track is the main idea. The Lyre plays a supporting but integral part of the piece in its consistent rocking and ominous presence.
“Iċ swere befōran þisse dryhte þæt iċ tō þǣm dēaþe fōr mīnum cyninge feohte. Ġif mīn cyning oþþe mīn eorl ācwele, iċ nime his stede and feohte swā swā hē fuhte. Ġif æniġ man hēr sēo mē mid wācode heortan and iernende on weġ hē mē ġemanian sceal þæt þes āþ hēr befōran mīnum cynne dōna wæs”
Literal verbatim translation:
“I swear before this company that I to the death for my king fight. If my king or my lord die, I take his stead and fight as he would fight. If any man here see me with weak heart or running away he me remind shall that this oath here before my kin made was.”
“I swear before this company that I shall fight to the death for my King. If my King or my Lord shall die, I shall take his place and fight as he would have fought. If any man here see me taken with weak heart and run away he shall remind me of this pledge made here before my kin.”
This track takes the same idea as part I but uses the idea of the people arriving . The flute was recorded as a secondary line at the same time and is in untempered tuning (out of tune to the uninitiated) which makes it sound slightly strange to the Lyre that actually appears to be in tempered scale but is in fact not.
This piece is a bonus track on the first 50 copies of the album and is as it says, an impression of the snow lying on the old Ænglisc Mead Halls. It starts with a warming log fire and then a chirpy improvisation on the two themes that make up the piece. An enjoyable and happy track written during the Siberian blast that England suffered in early March 2018. Not so enjoyable and pleasant as this piece is.
In developing and progressing with this project I discovered many things about this wonderful instrument. Considering just how old the instrument is I was astonished that even in todays more immediate access style society the Lyre is a versatile and changeable instrument that commands respect for its versatility. Imbued with great finness, class, subtlty and beauty, but capable of creating more depth than just that. In the "Lament for Beowulf" it acts as Fanfare and attention maker, ambient creator, protagonist, story teller and support actor as well as lead. Something many instruments today appear incapable of doing. Maybe I am wrong, or just biased in this belief. In the track "Tricks of Loki" it was capable of an almost evil soundworld in its directness. This was also helped with some sound manipulation in the software but the general idea did not alter thus creating an effective darker world than I would have thought imaginable. In some tracks it acted as a foil to the sounds around it and drew the ears into the piece. In "Snow Falls on the Mead Hall" there is its almost traditional role of tune-smith. Something I doubted it could perform so effectively until it was tried. In "Eostre's Prelude and Was Hael Eostre" the world it creates was expansive and welcoming in its patterns. In "Jennet's Foss" it created a world of dreaminess and otherworldly ambience that suited the track to its core as a support and mood creator.
So overall I was astonished at its flexability and wide ranging ability to create different worlds. With this whole project I have been amazed at its flexability and subtle changes of directional moods in ways that can far exceed its simplicity in its limitations. For myself this was a project full of revelations and serendipitous synchronicities like no other. I can see why the instrument was so loved by our Ænglisc ancestors as the mainstay of their culture. I just hope people will feel the same when they hear the whole album of tracks. (for sale on the Merchandise page or from the Bandcamp site)
Anglo Saxon Lyre, "Two Ravens"
Concert Flute in C
10 Keyed Simple System Flute in D by Zimmerman circa 1880
Clarke's Sweetone Tin Whistle in D
Classical Guitar (maker unknown)
Clarissa six string Acoustic Steel Strung Guitar
Peavy Bass Guitar (+ Peavy Micro Bass Amplifier)
Irish Bodhran 18"
2 Norse Rainsticks
Yamaha Portable Grand DGX202 Keyboard
Vocals both spoken and sung
Steinberg Cubase SX5
Extinct Audio BM9 "Viking" Microphone
Steinberg Zoom H1 Recording Microphone
Special thanks to the following for inspiration advice and recording:
Martin Mitchell for recording the Lyre and Flute parts on the track "Children of Ing (parts I and II)"
Jerry Mayle for being a foil to bounce ideas and the final mixdowns of tracks off.