4,000-Year-Old Poetry Resounds Afresh In Very Modernist Music

 Akkadian cylinder seal depicting Inanna, the subject of three hymns attributed to the high priestess of Ur, called Enheduanna. Inanna is resting her foot on the back of a lion, c. 2334–2154 BCE.

NEW YORK — Women were represented front and center on a program by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, known as ACME, which featured a world premiere based on poems and chants by “the first author known by name in history, Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon, high priestess of Ur.” 

So the newest of music — a world premiere performed at New York’s Morgan Library — invoked the world’s oldest poetic chants, written more than 4,000 years ago. The composer who set them is Clarice Jensen, ACME’s founding cellist and executive director. Her new composition capped a program that began with Pulsation, a string quartet by Susie Ibarra, and Ravel’s three Chansons madécasses for flute, cello, piano, and soprano.

ACME founding cellist Clarice Jensen composed the new work ‘The Exhaltation of Inanna.’ (Mark Shelby Perry photo)

Jensen’s The Exaltation of Inanna, scored for string quartet, electric guitar, electronics, and voice, is based on seven hymns attributed to Enheduanna. The ACME concert was the only one related to the Morgan exhibition, “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and the Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3400-2000 BC,” which runs through Feb. 19.

One would not necessarily imagine a lot of audience interest in ancient Ur. Yet the Morgan exhibition was crowded, and the concert downstairs featuring Jensen’s new piece was packed, with more than 250 masked listeners.

Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, had a roaring civilization going back thousands of years BC, and it was in large measure governed and administrated by women.  Enheduanna — the patron authority who in 2300 B.C. wrote the exaltation that was set by Jensen — was highly revered in ancient Nineveh, Babylon, and their surrounding areas.  

Enheduanna got on well with wealthy men who, according to tablets, icons, and netsuke-type sculptured figurines on view, had no problem with influential women buying and selling land in 2400 B.C. One tablet depicts “Enheduanna in her office.”

Inanna is the Sumerian Ishtar, goddess of fertility and war, patron saint of prostitutes. Jensen’s new piece, The Exaltation of Inanna, which sets Enheduanna’s poetry and chants, is firmly in the maxi-minimalist tradition. It’s newest of New Age, not pushy or edgy, and cast in three large movements, each with numerous short verses.

The performers were six female singers — one of whom beat time — plus a string quartet and electric guitar. The blend was rich and tonal. Large, loose, and thickly harmonized, its long-held notes emerging one at a time, Jensen’s sound world is something like recent Philip Glass, or John Luther Adams. The cyclical nature of Mesopotamian cylinder seals informs its musical repetitions and loops. Nice. The text is unequivocally ascribed to Enheduanna.

Words of the chants are hard to process in English because “me” comes up frequently, and non-Sumerians — which is to say, everyone — have to jerk their minds around: “You have lifted the me, you have gathered the me to your breast.”  It’s hard work to remember that “me” means “divine ordinance or decree” in Sumerian mythology. The translation also had a way of wimping out on explanations when it came to tough stuff like: “For you, I entered the holy gipar,” and “Like an usumgal, you have deposited venom…”  Hey!

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s performance of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ‘Drone Mass’ has been issued on Deutsche Grammophon. (Photo by Wojciech Wandzel)

The related exhibition provided essential enhancement and context for the musical premiere. But the exhibition itself can be seen without hearing the concert, which is a good thing; the concert was given on only one night, although the exhibition runs until Feb. 19.

Ibarra’s short three-movement Pulsation was composed in 2018 for Kronos Quartet’s project 50 For the Future, which thanks to Kronos’ generous spirit has been made available free, in score, online. Pulsation begins with a plinky section that turns motoric, in the pizzicato spirit of Ravel’s String Quartet. Ibarra says in her note that there are several ways to hear this piece. Of course, any single performance sounds one way, and that’s what is heard. 

The soloist in Chansons madécasses was soprano Francesca Federico, who also led the women’s chorus in Jensen’s Exaltation of Inanna world premiere. She gave a committed rendition of the Ravel, as did the instrumentalists, all of whom seemed pleased to be playing this piece. Federico’s voice placement was slightly uneven, but her “Aoua! Méfiez-vous des blancs” (Beware of white people) was strong and forthright, and she carried it convincingly.