On February 24, 2014, Christopher Nogy joined Joshua Foer onstage at the Institute Library in New Haven, Connecticut, as part of the ongoing series “Amateur Hour,” in which various tinkerers, zealots, and collectors discuss their obsessions. Nogy builds medieval musical instruments such as lyres, harps, and rebecs at his home shop in Benton County, Arkansas. He bases his creations on thousand-year-old instrument fragments. The conversation that follows was recorded live and has been edited for brevity and meaning.
Joshua Foer: So, what is this harp-like cheeseboard of an instrument that you’ve been plucking so beautifully?
Christopher Nogy: This is a member of a family of instruments called the lyre. It’s a psaltery. The reason that it’s not a harp is that it actually has a bridge, and the strings do not emanate directly from the soundboard. More importantly, the class of lyre is the Anglo-Saxon medieval lyre, and this one is my interpretation of a Scottish lyre from approximately the early ninth century.
When you say “your interpretation,” what do you mean? How do we know that an instrument like this existed in the ninth century? Because, I imagine, it’s made out of wood, it wouldn’t have lasted for very long.
We have a real problem knowing that any of these instruments actually existed, because what we’ve found are fragments that identify it as the instrument. In history, there have only been three complete instruments found.
There are only three complete lyres?
Correct. There are somewhere in the upper thirties of fragmentary pieces found in various digs all over the place. The first complete lyre was found under the floorboards at St. Severin’s Church, but it was destroyed by bombing during World War II. Another one was discovered in Oberflacht, Germany. This one was very dry and very brittle, so it was preserved in alcohol. In World War II, when the Russians came through, they drank all the alcohol and it fell apart. So all we had were the photographs and the dusty remains of the instrument. The third one was found under the corner of the Hohner harmonica factory in the Black Forest in Germany. One of the construction workers accidentally put his foot through the floor, and when they shined a flashlight down there they found an Alemannic Germanic prince’s grave. And in that grave was a nearly perfectly preserved instrument, which is now on display in Germany. And it is so perfect that we can even still see tool marks on it. We know what kinds of tools were used to make it. We know what kinds of techniques were used to make it. It still has four of its six tuning pegs. The only part that’s missing is the tailpiece, and that’s because we’re still not sure if they even had them. We just put them on because it’s traditional and easy for us.
How many people are there in the world who can put on their business card, “I make lyres”?
That make medieval lyres? There are five big names. A couple of folks play around on the fantasy side of things and build lyres, but they’re not historically accurate. And then there are people who build violins and who have occasionally built a lyre because someone asked them to, but that’s not a thing they do.
If there are only three lyres in the entire world that have been preserved, how do we know that the way you just performed this is how one of these instruments was performed?
Of the thirty-seven fragments, we have enough pieces of various parts of these instruments that we know what their parts were made of. The Trossingen lyre—the extant example right now—is a beautiful piece that we can measure. Half of making an instrument’s sound is what it was made out of and how it was put together. So if we build exactly to the materials and dimensions, all we have to do is figure out what it was strung with and how it was strung. And we know in that time period that the two major string materials were horsehair and catgut—sheep intestines. Also, the same principles of musical physics apply today that applied back then. From here to here is a string. From here to here is the length of string that you can play. It can only have so many notes in it before it’s either too loose to sound or too tight to stay together. So we know the range of notes it could have.
We also know that there were two types of music: church music and not-church music. Church music was diatonic—C, D, E, F, G, A, B—and not-church music was usually pentatonic. And so now, if we take the fact that everybody’s playing and having a good time, and nobody’s really a professional musician, you’re going to tune the instrument to where you can’t sound bad on it, and that’s in pentatonic. So we have a really reliable theory that this was tuned in standard scale when it was played in small churches, and it was tuned in pentatonic when it was played for almost anything else.
So tell us more. What role did music play in society a thousand years ago?
Well, music today is your fame-maker. People very seldom play just to hear a little music. But back then, we didn’t have television, we didn’t have radio, we didn’t have newspapers. So if you’re a shepherd, or you’re a blacksmith, and things have got to heat up or cool down, you’ve got to wait for this and that to happen, what are you going to do with that time? You’re going to pull out a little whistle or a little pipe or a little stringed thing or you’re going to sing to yourself. Today, we sing in the shower. Why? Because there’s not much else to do. It’s no fun thinking about just a washcloth. So that’s what these guys were doing: They were using music personally to while away the time.
You look back and you can see where people having to face one another—people performing, people doing things for a group—was the normal social thing. And for me, the music of the time, the instruments and the interactions that went along with it, was the biggest part of that ideal. It was an integral part of an honorable society, because you didn’t do anything in a vacuum. You didn’t do anything in a studio and then send it out on discs. It was an immediate-feedback situation with people, and it was not done for fame or fortune, it was done communally. That seems to be missing today: a simple way that people can play. There were a lot of instruments in the Middle Ages that were created for that purpose, so that people could make music that they were able to listen to for themselves.
The professionals, they were not just musicians. They were the historians, the newscasters, the archivists of the day. They traveled from place to place and told the stories of what was happening in other places.
Are you talking about bards?
Exactly. The bardic scops and skalds for the Vikings were the great epic storytellers. Beowulf was not just printed and passed around. Beowulf was told, but everything was louder and more powerful. These instruments were used to provide emphasis, to draw your attention back as it wandered, because Beowulf’s a long story. So you would slow things down and start to put somebody to sleep, and then you’d wake them up when they needed to be woken up. This was your sound-effects box.
As you move up into a little bit bigger instruments, like the bardic harps, the people who carried the bardic harps around were still storytellers, but now they were news people. And more than news people, they were Fox News or CNN. They were antagonists, protagonists, insiders. They were people who shaped the opinions of all the folks around, because this is where you got your information. You didn’t have fact-checking, where you could go to another source and hear another version of the story. The guy who came through your village? What he told you is what you knew. He was a very dangerous person to the powers-that-be, because if he didn’t like you, nobody liked you.
Did the powers-that-be ever try to censor the bards?
All the time. The first line of defense against the evil bard was the church. That didn’t work in the case of the Welsh bardic harpists. They carried around an instrument called a telyn rawn, a strange-sounding triangular instrument strung up all in horse hair. The wind blows and it goes out of tune. In medieval times, they weren’t really friendly to the English people, and they weren’t really friendly to the English crown.
Here’s a little story about Welsh history: Let’s say the queen develops a real interest in the telyn rawn. She says she wants a big collection of them, and she’s willing to pay a lot of silver for it, too. Well, you didn’t get a telyn rawn unless you were a Welsh bard, and you didn’t get rid of it, because if you lost it, you didn’t get another. You had to bring the broken pieces from where the wagon fell on it for your harp builder to build you another one. You had your one. So this request by the queen is really just a bounty on the Welsh bard. And the queen says, “I don’t want this guy’s head, I just want his harp!”
This system got rid of a lot of Welsh bards, and it wasn’t the first time musicians were censored by either their own or other governments, or bountied. Almost every country that had an epic storytelling tradition ended up turning on their musicians, and that was because they were creative and intelligent and imaginative people who got everybody else into trouble.
And they were playing a wide variety of instruments that looked nothing like the instruments that we know and listen to today. Tell us about what some of those instruments were and how they came to be.
The two instruments that were the greatest in the bardic tradition were the harp and the lyre. These were instruments that, when tuned properly, most people could play. But a real master could get something great out of them.
About the end of the Crusades, a lot of the instruments that were native to the Middle East or Saracen lands started to make their way back. In the Crusades, you had an hour’s worth of battle, and then the crusaders would mingle with Arab locals outside the gates of whatever Saracen palace and have a big barbecue and talk with one another and hand off instruments and tell stories until they went back into battle. And sometimes these interludes lasted months. People came home and they brought instruments back with them. The rebec is one of the earlier ones that came back. In the Middle East, this thing was called a “rebab.” And the rebab was a spike fiddle: a gourd with a skin, a bridge, a stick through it, a tuning peg, and one or two strings. And the Europeans were like, “What’s that?” They have no concept of crafting an instrument organically—gourds and skins—but they were great woodworkers. So they made wooden gourds and wooden skins, and they came up with an instrument like such.
The rebec is the practical predecessor of the violin, but it has nothing in common with the violin, technically. It’s a single-piece, hollowed-out body. Very thick, reasonably heavy. There’s no bracing, no soundposts, no base bar. It’s a flat top, not carved, not curved. All of the things that give a violin everything that it has are missing from this instrument. But it did teach Europe to play a bowed, stringed instrument 500 to 600 years before the violin became possible.
In the Middle Ages, we’ve got all these strange-looking instruments that are highly individualized, that are made by these craftsmen to be performed by amateurs, in a lot of cases. And then something happens to musical instruments, and we end up with violins and violas and all the instruments that we know and still have today. How did that transformation happen?
There were about a dozen things that happened all at once. Mostly, the idea of playing with more than just one or two people together caught on. We go back to Pope Gregory: According to legend, he figured out a way to write down music. It’s not exactly like what we’ve got, but it’s close. It’s got staffs, and it’s got intervals, and it’s got notes. With portable music, you started to have people writing for the parchment rather than writing while performing. They’re writing for posterity, and they’re starting to make things a little more complex. You now have harmonies. You now have multiple overlaying things. Things that were done in choirs all through the Middle Ages are now being done with instruments. So, your performer who was the centerpiece of music is now taking a backseat to your writer.
One thing that has to happen is that you have to build instruments that play within the range of their part of music. You can’t just randomly build and say, “Tune this to your voice.” Now, all of a sudden, you have to build something that’s a fifth below here and a fourth below here, and that’s where orchestral music started. With standardizing instruments, now you no longer have to work with your customer first. You just build a bunch of instruments that are to standards, and then people come in and they get the one that they want to play. And it will fit with whatever group of people they go off to play with. And the composer can now write.
This is about the beginning of what we call the Renaissance. Now we’re moving from just an occupation that you were rewarded for, as a wandering bard, into the commercial venue of the modern composer.
Oh, and Stradivarius was a hack.
His violins were technologically advanced because they were some of the first violins. They were technologically advanced over the rebecs. But no one has a Stradivarius anymore. In the almost 400 years that these Stradivariuses have been around, they have been adjusted, rebuilt, remade, recalibrated, re-soundposted, rebridged, re-everythinged by the best in the industry. You take one of the cheapest Chinese violins today and you put it through 400 years of upgrades by the most talented technicians out there, and at the end, it’s going to sound incredible. You play one for 400 years and it gets used to being played, taken care of, it sounds much better. It’s just that he was a good commercial hack. He only built his own. He didn’t farm them out. So it was a limited resource, and a few of them disappeared, and the rest of them kept getting better sounding, and now you’re paying $15 million for a Stradivarius? Wow.
I do have the tools to do this. But the study of doing it right, the study of understanding how to grade a soundboard—yes, I know the theory behind it. But I’m not so good that I would put my name to my work on one. But these folks had time, and they built an industry around creating the thing that everybody was going to want. And a rebec player who heard his first violin walked out and threw his rebec in the trash and said, “I’m going to the first violin maker and getting one of these!” Rightfully so. It’s a superior instrument. But then when he played his rebec music on his violin, it sounded all wrong. So now he had to figure out the new thing.
There’s a moment where, almost all of a sudden, instrument makers go from building Wright brothers gliders to supersonic jets.
The guy who was making violins was selling them as fast as he could make them. He was teaching his family, and they were setting up shops. This thing spread through Europe in under a century. It was one of the fastest musical transitions because the instrument was so superior to what came before it. And there was no gradual step. It was like, “Okay, I’m playing the Walmart plinky-plink piano and now somebody sets me in front of a Steinway. I’ll do what it takes to get a Steinway, because that other thing sounds horrible now.” Didn’t sound horrible when it was all you had.
So how did you get to be one of the five people who makes these medieval instruments?
A man within our medieval-recreation group is in great part responsible. He came up to me one day and said, “I have bought these things from Pakistan, and every time I buy one, it breaks. So you’re going to build me one of these.” So I built him one. First medieval instrument I’d built. We just happened to have a Russian rebec master visiting our area, and he picked up the instrument and played it, and apparently told folks that it was one of the finest rebecs he’d ever played. And I said to the man from our medieval-recreation group, “But I don’t want to be doing this.” He said, “But you have to. You have a gift, and a talent, and it’s your responsibility to share it with me.”
And then, several years ago, I was suddenly not the IT director for the city of Rogers’s water department, and no one was hiring IT directors. So I started taking orders, and people would start sending me things: “I went to Norway, and I got a photograph of a stave church built around 1130, and there’s a painting on the back—an angel with a box on her lap, and it has some strings on it. Can you build me one, and tell me what it is, and show me how to play it?”
Now comes in the archeology and the physics. I say, “They usually get the number of strings right, so I know it’s got that many. Ah! The angel looks like it’s got two sticks in its hands. Could this be an early hammered dulcimer? Yes, it could be.” So I build a hammered dulcimer in a box out of the materials that were indigenous to that time and that place with the techniques that were indigenous to that time and that place. And so because we know where it came from, we know what kinds of woods were used, we know what kinds of strings were available at the time—there’s 90 percent of your work. And now you just have to tinker until you get the size and scale right. And the neat thing is, because they weren’t standard at that point in time, what’s “right”? It has to be in tune with itself. And it usually has to be in tune with your voice. So I type an e-mail off: “Sing something into your microphone and send it to me.” And I listen to it, and I say, “They’re sort of around D. That’s where they’re comfortable.” And now I can give them an instrument that they’re like, “Whoa, this sounds really great with me!”
I build the hammer, you use the hammer to build the house. I build the paintbrush, you paint the Mona Lisa.