I’ve talked about the genesis of this song on the podcast it was written for, The Family Tree – if you’re more inclined to hear an audio recap of how this was written, have a listen to the episode where I talk about it.
The Family Tree is a story I don’t want to spoiler – there are three seasons, and some major reveals happen towards the end of the first season – so better to start from the start. I’m going to have to skirt around the main plot points, and instead vaguely allude to the themes of the show that I picked up on here, and why. The first important thing to know is that a huge theme of the podcast is intergenerational continuity of memory and culture. Another is, well, trees – at least oak trees.
When Dave and Jen approached me to write a song that would round off the series, I started to wonder about a piece of music that could have been passed down generations. We have nursery rhymes and songs that go back hundreds of years, but it turns out there is a definite answer to the question of “what is the oldest piece of music?”. It’s called the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, and it was written (down) in Northern Syria in about 3,400 years ago. Nikkal, the goddess of orchards and fertility, was the great-grandmother of the perhaps better known god, Gilgamesh. The oldest piece of written music in the world being about fertility and procreation and trees – apple trees – was too compelling not to include in a song for a show called The Family Tree.
Unfortunately, the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal doesn’t have a 3,400 year oral tradition to go along with the sheet music – and music notation was standardised relative recently – and only for certain kinds of European music, really. This means that there isn’t it a definitive version of the melody – or even agreement as to whether the notation represents a single melody, or multiple lines of melody.
This page has a very detailed discussion of both the lyrics and music, and not being a scholar of ancient manuscripts or a musicologist, I decided on aesthetics alone – and plumped for Dumbrill’s 1998 interpretation. This version also had the advantage of aligning with a modern mode, the Dorian (I went for D Dorian) – which, if you’re not a music nerd, is like the notes in C major, but you start and end on D instead (D-E-F-G-A-B-C, a minor mode). More importantly, Dumbrill’s reading is kind of hooky – you can hear it at the beginning of my song, and at the end, or in a slightly different version on a more traditional instrument here:
I was recording this in a weird Melbourne loft in the middle of Australian winter. Most of Australia doesn’t ever really get properly freezing, but places like Melbourne do get reasonably cold and rainy, and aren’t great at insulation, so I was tired from travelling and cold and gloomy and slightly soggy. And I made the decision to use the sound of the loft instead of adding artificial reverb – all the echo on the voices are the sound of the space itself, and most of the instruments use an artificial impulse-response reverb based on the same room. The fact that I was recording in a room I was only going to be in for a week really sharpened my mind, and I think led to some good performances. Yeah, I know, that’s how most musicians record when they go to a studio….
In keeping with the theme of a melody that had existed for thousands of years but maybe had slightly changed shape in the intervening time, I searched for other songs that were in D Dorian, and thankfully many of them were out of copyright. Most notably, “Scarborough Fair”, which I know from Simon And Garfunkel, but apparently is closely entwined with a piece from 1670 (some 300ish years before The Graduate) and “What do we do with the drunken sailor”, which shares a tune with a song about Bonnie Prince Charlie from 1745 – and which apparently became a sea shanty some time around the 1820s – a mere 200 years ago. Most recently it morphed in Drunken Whaler in the surprisingly whale-centric Dishonored games.
Obviously they’re a big part of the oral folk tradition in the British Isles – and the idea that the song is preserved, but evolved, between generations. But never, perhaps, perfected. I’d been hearing variants of a phrase on social media a lot – particularly in the context of civil rights and social justice:
“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”.
I find that sentiment very moving in the context of the work of improvement not being ego-driven, not being glorious, and not being the work of a generation. And so I wanted to set that to music. On the way, I found that the quote comes from the Pirkei Avot – a book of ethical and moral principles. The above quote is attributed to Rabbi Tarfon, who died about 1900 years ago. In as much as it reflects intergenerational desire for change – and that’s why I find it compelling – I feel like it also reflects continuation of culture, and the way that culture is alive, and preservation has to be active and performative and continuous – and probably changes the culture in the process. It’s not a printout in a filing cabinet, it’s someone copying poetry from a chapbook into a notebook as the ink fades on the printed page.
And so I recast that line to be explicitly about the oral tradition of song and music – a tradition which has failed to keep the Hurrian Hymn alive (3400 years is a tall order): – it’s not your burden alone to finish the tune, but that doesn’t mean you stop singing the song. And that’s where I landed with this song – an active reinterpretation of the Hurrian Hymn and its tribute to Nikkal; an interweaving the Hymn with the music that shares its lineage; and a reminder of that active process. That all said, I think it’s a cracking tune; and I hope you like it too.