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Ancient Instruments in Modern Hands

Ancient Egypt Magazine August/September 2001.Vol. 2 Issue 2
© Ancient Egypt Magazine, 2001. All rights reserved.

Nov./Dec.2001, Douglas Irvine interview part II below


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Introduction and Background

Popularity of Ancient Egypt

Doug's Instrument Replicas

Radio Documentary

Ambient Egypt, Debut CD

From Egypt to Dinosaurs

Comparing Ancient to Modern & Conclusion

An Interview With Musicians Douglas Irvine, Creator of Egyptian-Inspired Replicas

Ancient Instruments in Modern Hands

Seattle-based musician and composer Doug Irvine makes his living with sound projects, but his unusual career, combining teaching and playing music with research into the instruments of ancient cultures, began in a far more down-to-earth way. Doug found time in a busy travelling schedule to talk to Miriam Bibby.

‘Upon completing my undergraduate degree in 1990 [in the Sound Department of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, concentrating on experimental music and sound composition and instrument making], I jumped right into a job working at the Artifact Center at Spertus Museum in Chicago,’ Doug explained. He stayed there for over eight years, starting with simple exhibits. ‘Since I worked in an interactive children’s exhibit on Middle Eastern archaeology, there was a lot of sand. Where there was sand, there was sweeping.’

Either the quality of his sweeping, or, more likely, his skills in designing and building ‘hands on’ exhibits, led to Doug’s promotion to Assistant Curator although ‘sweeping duties continued’. During this period, he worked with thousands of grade school students and parents and teachers, and the projects became the natural development of interests nurtured while studying in Chicago. While he calls his training at the Art Institute there ‘a pretty non-conventional programme, involving recording studio technology, digital sampling, midi-sequencing and building musical instruments’ he now acknowledges that it provided the basis for skills he uses on audio projects relating to ancient musical traditions. The Chicago students were the first to benefit.

‘I was always testing ideas with music and ancient civilisations. Music became a great way to guide even the most reluctant students into seeing history as a cool thing.’

This led on via workshops to an exhibit on ancient musical instruments. ‘The premise was simple: we don’t really know how ancient music sounded, so here are some instruments, and some background, and feel free to explore your own ideas about what ancient music could have been like.’ Five years on, Doug’s exhibit is still there, and still as popular as ever.

Ancient Egypt inevitably demanded attention: ‘My emphasis on Egypt is partially driven by the ancient culture’s continuing popularity in the eyes of the general public. Egypt as a subject is huge. At any given time, museums from all over the world are hosting some kind of exhibit on ancient Egypt. And new discoveries are made all the time.’ He admits that if there were as much interest in other ancient musical traditions, he would develop similar exhibits on the cultures of western Asia.

Doug explained that the Sumerians, for example, had strong musical traditions of their own, and that some of the instruments found in the Middle East predate Egyptian examples. ‘Wonderful stringed and wind instruments were uncovered by Leonard Wooley’s excavations in Iraq during the 1920’s. Our earliest glimpse of the lyre in situ comes from the great “death pits” of Ur, around 2650 BC. It’s almost a thousand years later before we see the lyre in the hands of Egyptians. Mesopotamia also had a pretty complex set of written musical terminology, written music theory that began with the Sumerians and continued with Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. So while Mesopotamia yields written records concerning music, Egypt went the oral route, as with many historic cultures, passing the music to new generations orally.’
The immense and on-going interest in Egypt provided further work. Doug put together a crate full of reconstructed instruments, slides and audio recordings and travelled to museums giving lectures and workshops. His approach has always been an inclusive and practical one, involving substantial amounts of research to create the replicas.

‘I’m a musician and composer first, so I let my musical curiosity guide me to interesting subjects and places like ancient Egypt. My work with Egypt is likely always to be related to music, which is, of course, only a small, though integral, aspect of Pharaonic culture. While I would love to dive into other aspects of this vast civilisation, I leave that for Egyptologists and archaeologists. To really explore all of ancient Egypt would mean that I’d have to put down my instruments and stop making music which I can’t see happening.’

Doug has lost track of the number of Egyptian-inspired musical instruments he has made: ‘Probably dozens. The accuracy of materials depends on how the instrument will be used. If I’m making an Egyptian angle harp for a children’s exhibit, I may decide that it should look like the real thing on the outside, but inside, I may add a lot of reinforcement so that it can withstand the thousands of curious little hands that want to make music with it.’

He warns against assuming that just because the instruments that inspire his replicas are ancient, they are also simple. ‘Until one attempts to reconstruct one, the complexities and infinite number of decisions that go into the final product are tough to imagine and replicate. I may end up with very accurate dimensions and wood thickness, but my methods for achieving that accuracy might have overlooked a whole tradition of craftsmanship and technique. There is no way truly to gauge the accuracy of the sound of a reconstructed instrument. In the end I build replicas and they are just that, replicated.’

Doug takes what he describes as ‘liberties’ in order to produce a reconstruction that is practical, evocative and sturdy: ‘They are fairly accurate inside and out and reflect all the information that I have compiled; however, as a modern instrument maker, while I sometimes use gut string to record with, it’s not very practical to travel with a set of stringed instruments made of organic material. Instead, I will use nylon string, since it stays tuned the way I want it, and is less susceptible to breaking. Not to mention that plastic is much more affordable than organic string. I also use modern machine heads to tune my strings, simply for convenience, since I’m always playing with tunings, and it’s easier for me to use guitar tuning heads instead of more traditional methods.’

He continued, ‘Some musicians grow up tuning instruments with very similar methods to the ancient Egyptians. It’s part of their culture and they don’t give it a second thought. I use what’s familiar and convenient.’

The interactive exhibit Doug designed for the Artifact Center set him on a road that led to Egypt, both ancient and modern
. From it developed a 30 minute radio documentary about music in ancient Egypt, on which he worked with Egyptologist Emily Teeter from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. ‘The documentary describes, with Emily Teeter’s resourceful participation, various aspects of ancient Egypt, the different kinds of instruments and contexts in which music was made.’

Doug also interviewed musicians and instrument makers in modern Egypt. ‘The documentary has yet to be broadcast in its entirety, and more than likely I will make a steamed version that people can access from my upcoming website (under construction!),’ he said.

As with many first-time visitors to Egypt, the land and the people captivated him, and he found an especial affinity with the musicians he met.

‘I really saw the incredible power of music when I was in Egypt. I had the chance to play with some musicians living between Giza and Saqqara. My Arabic is pretty much non-existent, but I do play Egyptian drums like the hourglass-shaped tabla (not to be confused with the tabla from India). I also know some of the basic Egyptian rhythms. I played tabla with this local group, and without ever speaking a word, we shared this incredible experience.’

As Doug Irvine described it, it became clear that music does more than cross or overcome barriers; it transcends them by scarcely acknowledging their existence. ‘With my American looks and Scottish/German ancestry, I looked like so many of the tourists who go and visit and take pictures and admire the ancient monuments. Perhaps it’s not often, especially in tourist areas, that a westerner comes in knowing aspects of modern Egyptian culture and hangs with local musicians and plays with them. Our faces lit up and there was a connection that couldn’t have been made even if I had spoken the language. It’s music. It’s communication on a completely different level.’

He continued, ‘So many of the ways in which I communicate with musicians in improvised situations at home totally applied with the villagers I made music with. There was a lot of eye contact and verbalization of musical sound. I was right at home as we made our way through a tune, and before a change in tempo or rhythm, everyone would look at one another. The energy was incredible and it was an experience I will never forget. We all totally bonded.’

Doug’s experience led on to an evocation of the music of ancient Egypt in a CD, Ambient Egypt. When asked about the possible contribution of ancient music from Egypt to the modern world, he shows an admirable scholarly caution: ‘We need to be a little bit careful when recognising similarities between instruments of ancient and modern Egypt. In a broad sense, the evidence of ancient Egypt’s musical impact on the modern world is all around us, as some of the culture’s instruments appear in evolved forms. Today, Egyptians use end blown flutes (the nay) and frame drums (the duff) and, remarkably, those instruments are held the same way they were thousands of years ago. Coptic Christian ritual in Ethiopia, for example, incorporates the use of the sistrum rattle, an instrument associated with Hathor. It was used in Mesopotamia as well.

‘However, it’s too easy to form romantic notions of thousands of years of musical practice continuing into the 21st century when we see an Egyptian nay (flute) player performing on an instrument that looks so close to its ancient cousin. First of all, the cultures are very different in many respects, even if certain aspects of daily life along the Nile remain intact.

‘From the perspective of scholarship, specifically ethnomusicology, which studies music of living cultures, the idea of making active comparisons between ancient and modern is a road less travelled. So much time has passed, and large gaps in the evidence exist in all that time, that a responsible scholar has a difficult task, at best, to somehow prove that what existed long ago, still exists today in any continuous form.’

Doug pointed out that just since the 19th century AD, musical changes have occurred in Egypt that would seem enormous by ancient Egyptian standards. ‘Innovations have been made in the instruments. Many of the Egyptian instruments of today didn’t exist in ancient times, and the innovations that have occurred would seem enormous by ancient Egyptian standards.’

The deities with the strongest association with music in ancient Egypt are Hathor and Bes, and one of the tracks on Doug’s CD evokes the god Bes in music, with a fast and mesmeric drumming track. While he does not come from a family with particular musical associations, and did not receive a typical formal training as a musician, his percussive skills were developed early on. At the age of 13, his interest in rock music led him to become a self-taught drummer and his parents encouraged him, so long as he played in the basement ‘of course!’

Even with his latest project, a CD devoted to the world of dinosaurs, there is a Middle Eastern connection. ‘It’s a bit of a leap from Egypt, I confess, but what’s really interesting are the similarities between ancient Egyptian music traditions and dinosaurs!’ How can that be? ‘Well, in the sense that it involves taking loads of research and information from the archaeological and/or fossil record and speculating on the exact sounds made thousands or millions of years ago! I seem to be drawn to turning silence into sound. We don’t know what ancient Egyptian music sounded like. Imagine walking the streets of ancient Egypt at night and hearing the sounds of all the people who entertained themselves with songs and music. I’m sure there was quite a range of sounds and emotional expression. It must have been incredible.’

The new CD, Soundscapes of the Dinosaurs, features an accompanying Middle Eastern score for dinosaur discoveries from North Africa. Ancient Egypt will not be neglected, however, because Doug is planning a follow-up CD to Ambient Egypt with ‘a wider historical palette of sounds and instruments.’

His own musical tastes are completely international, and he collects music from cultures all over the world. ‘Some of my favourite music comes from West Africa. Mali and Senegal, and many other countries, all have such incredibly strong traditions. One of my favourite instruments is the kora, a kind of harp or lute from West Africa, which contains a couple of dozen strings. I’ve been into a couple of great artists from Zimbabwe for the last few years, Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi. I could go on and on about music from a lot of places in Africa, and that’s just one continent.’ He retains his rock roots too, and is a fan of ambient composers such as Brian Eno.

While cautious about discussing direct musical links between ancient Egypt and the modern world, he believes that there is an undeniable legacy left by ancient Egypt. ‘That’s my feeling. The instruments they created, imported and developed have carried on into the modern world, whether traditions were continuous or not. Each generation has something to say, and sometimes that means that evolution and change takes place. It’s human nature, and not something we ultimately control. It just happens.’

Could it be that the one constant is the nature of the musician, and the empathy that exists between musicians from very different backgrounds and experiences? ‘Even with change and evolution, it’s great to see instruments from tomb paintings still being used, for example, by a Kenyan musician. The songs and music focus on the musician’s own experiences and upbringing. The instrument has deep roots in antiquity, and the music is a living, breathing art from that emanates out of the instrument. Ancient instruments in modern hands: the legacy in some way does continue.’

Doug Irvine will describe in detail, in a forthcoming issue of AE magazine, the musical instruments of ancient Egypt and the contexts in which they were used.

You can visit the Ancient Egypt Magazine website here.
Ambient Egypt
Sounds from Ancient Sources
"Music became a great way to guide even the most reluctant students into seeing history as a cool thing..."
"I really saw the incredible power of music when I was in Egypt. I had the chance to play with some musicians living between Giza and Saqqara...without ever speaking a word, we shared this incredible experience."
"From the perspective of scholarship, specifically ethnomusicology, which studies music of living cultures, the idea of making active comparisons between ancient and modern is a road less travelled."
"Imagine walking the streets of ancient Egypt at night and hearing the sounds of all the people who entertained themselves with songs and music. I'm sure there was quite a range of sounds and emotional expression. It must have been incredible."
November / December 2001
Ambient Egypt
Sounds from Ancient Sources