The Lyre of Ur
As US military forces pierced Baghdad on 11 April 2003, images of an ancient “Harp of Ur” saturated international airwaves. According to early reports, nearby American forces stood by as mobs despoiled the Iraqi National Museum, which held the lyre. In total, more than 170,000 priceless artifacts were reported missing.
The lyre—formally cataloged as U. 12353—was one of two bull-headed instruments which British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley recovered from the so-called Death Pit during his highly publicized excavations of Ur’s Royal Cemetery in the 1920s and 30s. The excavation, dominated by a massive ziggurat dedicated to the Sumerian moon god Nanna, attracted attention from the popular press because it was believed to be the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham, and because its elaborate ceremonial burials sparked fantasies of mass ritualistic .
Woolley cleverly recovered the instrument by pouring liquid Plaster of Paris into the delicate recesses by its decayed wooden frame. Brushing away the dirt from the hardened mold, he discovered an instrument ornamented by a golden-sheeted bull’s head and geometrically inlaid Lapis lazuli. The hardened mold even reproduced the instrument’s thin strings, although the wind immediately eroded them completely.
Hearing the early reports from Baghdad, I became intrigued by the 4000-year-old instrument, and deeply disturbed by its loss. I imagined how its strings might have rung at the banquets and burials of a forgotten age. At the same time I was developing a mathematical technique for producing melodic material: roughly speaking, my idea was to realize music with a large-scale sense of direction by explicitly constructing hierarchical structures mimicking those elicited by Schenker.
To compose each movement of this piece, I constructed a hierarchical structure representing a melodic fragment, and then embedded that structure within itself. The resulting movements might therefore be called weakly self-similar. (A truly self-similar movement would result only if this embedding process were carried out many times.)
So in each movement, listen for a single melodic fragment to be repeated at diatonic transpositions and tempi that outline a large-scale instance of the very same fragment. Notice, too, how the perception of that repeated fragment evolves: at higher tempi it begins to resemble compound melody.
My favorite parts of the piece are the second and last movements, especially the ascent to the last movement’s climax beginning around 1:26, and the following descent.
The piece was realized by a custom program written in the purely functional programming language Haskell and makes use of the Ξ operator (cf. the brief paper). This program produced a so-called score , which was then rendered by cmix with the strum instrument. The resulting audio was then compressed with the programs oggenc and lame. All programs and tools used are free (e.g. gpl’d) .
Fortunately, early accounts of the Museum’s plunder proved hyperbolic. A 13-member team of US investigators lead by Colonel Matthew Bogdanos eventually learned that museum curators had safeguarded many of the museum’s most precious holdings in the weeks and months preceding the American assault. The lyre’s gold-sheeted bull’s head was recovered from the vaults of the Central Bank of Iraq three weeks of pumping. (The lyre’s reconstructed wooden body was found damaged in the museum’s restoration and registration room.)
Many objects from the National Museum and other cultural sites are still missing, however.