Michael Levy speaks to Simon Broughton about his ‘lyre of Apollo’ explorations, which follow in the exalted footsteps of the ancient Greek masters
“When I was about 14 years old I heard this recording of Ravel’s ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’ played by Julian Bream and John Williams on two classical guitars. It sounded so beautiful and its modal tunes made me think of what an ancient lyre might sound like.” For Michael Levy, this kick-started his obsession with the lyre, although it was almost 25 years before he actually acquired an instrument on eBay. “The timbre of the instrument was like a musical magic carpet ride back in time. But it took me a long while to create music myself, to emulate this feeling the music gave to me and give it to others.” He’s now made over 30 recordings, created music for exhibition soundscapes and had his ‘Hymn to Zeus’ incorporated into Rufus Wainwright’s opera Hadrian.
“My musical mission is to carry on where the ancients left off – creating new music for the recreated ancient lyre, using ancient modes and intonations, with my melodic ideas often based on surviving ancient Greek musical fragments,” including the complete ‘Song of Seikilos’. Seikilos is the name of the composer of music written on a Hellenistic stele dating from the first or second century AD, which is the oldest documented complete musical work.
The ancient Greek-style lyre Levy uses, made by Luthieros based in Thessaloniki, Greece, is called the Lyre of Apollo III. “It’s known as a chelys lyre – that’s the ancient Greek word for tortoiseshell. They used a tortoiseshell as a resonator over which a skin was stretched to make the soundboard. The strings pass over a bridge and protruding out of the top are two horns, like the Elgin lyre in the British museum [dating from the fifth to fourth century BC].”
Professional musicians in ancient Greece generally played wooden kithara (from which we get the word guitar) because wood offers a much richer sound, but they copied the form of a tortoiseshell. “I do have an actual tortoiseshell lyre that Lutherios custom-made for me,” he explains. “No animal was harmed in the process as in Thessaloniki there are lots of tortoises hanging around in the forest and, when they die, they leave their shells lying around. It’s got a very delicate, stifled tone because tortoiseshell is like a very thin bone, which isn’t a very good resonator at all.”
“This notion that the ancients didn’t have harmony is a myth”
Levy’s Lyre of Apollo has 11 strings (ancient versions had anything between four and 12). He avoids equal temperament and prefers just intonation, which gives a purer sound. He’s also been inspired by contemporary lyres in Africa, including the simsimiyya in Egypt, as played by El Tanbura, and krar players in Ethiopia. “One of the techniques is called ‘block and strum.’ It’s like playing guitar in reverse. You block strings you don’t want to sound and strum the open strings with your right hand (as practiced by krar players). If you look at pictures of ancient Greek kithara players, the left hand is in exactly the same position as that of a krar player. There are ancient texts that describe how specific intervals like the fourth and fifth sweeten the notes of a melody and, playing a lyre, are very ergonomic to pluck. You can pluck them easily with your left hand while playing the tune with the right. In just intonation you don’t need any fancy stuff, because a fourth and a fifth weigh ten tons apiece. This notion that the ancients didn’t have harmony is a myth, because you have those fourths and fifths and the aulos (double flute), which accompanied the lyre plays two notes at the same time.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Songlines magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today