During the Gathering, Lois Sprengnether Keel and I got talking about other instruments, in particular the Anglo-Saxon Lyre, as I thought it would be a good adjunct to her storytelling gigs. About a month ago she asked me to build a small one for her.
Here's where I started -- a glued up Maple 1x8 sawn to hollowed out shape with a sabre saw, and a 7" wide walnut plank:
The original lyres were hollowed out with chisels and a single soundboard was inlet into the top. The lyre replicas I've built for myself I made with hollowed bodies. This lyre with the sawn frame is "in the style of" one found in Cologne Germany that dates back to the 5th century AD. It will be 24" from the tips of the 'ears' to the bottom of the peg and 7"wide.
And here's where I am today:
That's right -- NO soundhole(s). Back in the 5th century when this particular lyre model was popular they didn't really understand about soundholes. In fact 99% of the lyres that have been unearthed (4th century to 9th century) had no soundholes. The other 1% had 1-5 holes less than 1/4" in diameter.
Now I have to put 6 autoharp pins in that crossbar, and notch the bridge for 6 strings. Then I tie a loop of cord around the big pin at the bottom end of the body and up to the ring. The ring acts like a violin tailpiece. On the other side of the ring I tie 6 strings and run them over the bridge to the tuning pins. The strings will be uke strings or thin weed-wacker line or heavy monofilament fishing line (any of them will work and not cost an arm and a leg like Nylgut strings).
I remember at Berea you said you may be building Lois something. At the risk of this sounding like a silly question...Is Lois supposed to "automatically" know how to play this? Is it an instrument that, while she's storytelling, she would occasionally make a sweep across the strings for effect rather than play a tune?
I asked Lois to bring her ocarinas to Berea, as I was aware of these instruments for a long time but had never heard one played. She brought them and demoed them for me, saying that during storytelling she liked to be able to play "fluid" notes that sounded good in sequence, but not really a song. So I'm wondering if this type of lyre would be useful the same way.
Yes -- rather than "playing a tune", she'll use the Lyre to "create a mood" for segments of the story she's telling.
The beauty of a Pentatonic tuned instrument is that no notes plucked or strummed in any sequence will ever sound 'bad' together. You can strum or pluck strings with bare fingers or a plectrum. Can't really play chords but you can block/mute some strings from sounding in a full width strum.
There are a number of Pentatonic tunings. The one I use and recommend is "Do, Re, Mi, Sol, La" (no Fa). If there is a 6th string, it is tuned to the beginning of the next Pentave. Notice that this tuning is independent of any actual notes like C, D, F#m, or Gdim.
The Vikings, Angles, Saxons and other Germanic peoples used the lyre as a sort of mnemonic device to help them keep track of where they were when reciting the long sagas and early ballads which ran to hundreds of verses -- 3200 verses in the case of Beowulf!
The lyre was also used to set the mood for parts of the sagas and other 'fireside' recitations so that listeners would more readily and correctly remember what they had heard.
Third, the lyre was used as background music at feasts and celebrations.