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Sirens

Gkoudina Kyriaki
Supervising Professor: Christos Gousios
Faculty of Fine Arts, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
School of Film Studies

“Come hither, as thou
farest, renowned
Odysseus, great glory
of the Achaeans; stay
thy ship that thou
mayest listen to the
voice of us two. For
never yet has any man
rowed past this isle in
his black ship until he
has heard the sweet
voice from our lips.
Nay, he has joy of it,
and goes his way a
wiser man. For we
know all the toils that
in wide Troy the
Argives and Trojans
endured through the
will of the gods, and
we know all things
that come to pass upon
the fruitful earth.’
Homer, The Odyssey,
Rhapsody μ (13), lines
184-191. (A.T. Murray)

There are two main sources for the myth of the Sirens. One, is the event mentioned in
Homer's Odyssey, rhapsody μ (13), where Odysseus, tied to the mast of his ship, hears
their seductive song. The other is a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, a Danish
writer, starring a young siren that has denied her tail because of love.
The Sirens, a creature half female and half fish, can be found in the mythologies
throughout the world, from Indonesia to Mexico and from Europe to America. But
few are those who know that the image of the Sirens we have today, is completely
different from the original one. The first Sirens that, according to Greek mythology,
were born from the river god Achelous or the sea god Forky and had settled on the
Tyrrhenian Sea, had no fish tail, but bird feathers. The proof of that is found, of
course, in the Odyssey. When Odysseus managed to resist their song, they fell in the
sea and drowned, which is impossible for creatures being fish from the waist down.

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were evil monsters. With their beauty, their magic
song full of knowledge and their naked body, the Sirens were directly related to the
power of the female sex. Their power was accompanied by a fatal weakness: they
could not bear children. The man who would succumb to their call would not
perpetuate his family name, which, for ancient Greeks, was even worse than death. In
this sense, the first Sirens were a representation of absolute evil and disaster.
But Homer gave them another dimension. Odysseus deliberately listened to their
song, tied to the mast. According to historian Jean Pierre Vernant, “the Sirens are the
call of desire for knowledge, the personification of seduction along with death”. The
Homeric hero did not succumb after all, leaving the winged singers to commit suicide
– an action that actually atoned them. Thus, Greek mythology has gradually
transformed the Sirens’ role. This change is also confirmed by a not so well known
legend, stating that the sirens have an obligation towards Persephone, mistress of the
Underworld, to bring to death those who had to die.
Consequently, the Sirens transformed from evil seducers to psychopomps in Hades.
Their wretched image was carved on gravestones and tombstones. They still kept their
wings, as the souls of the dead were linked to hovering, an element common in
several cultures.
The Sirens acquired a fishtail in the 2nd century AD. As Christianity prevailed, the
Sirens started, once again, representing the wicked, the evil acts, the pleasures of the
flesh. This is why they lost their wings, since, according to Church, only angels are
entitled to fly. Also, the transition from wings to fins may have a more mundane
origin. Probably a wrong interpretation transformed bird “feathers” into fish “fins”.
Even in Latin, between "pennis" (wing) and "pinnis" (fin) the difference is of one
vowel only. An unexpected mistake when copying a text pushed the painter of a
medieval book to transform the Sirens from bird-women to fish-women. Between the
13th and 15th century, Liber Monstruorum, the Book of Beasts, recorded the official
birth of the new Sirens with their appearance as known today. This is a point to which
we must pay attention. The Medieval zoology books had the value of a scientific
manual, so, for their writers, the existence of these creatures was taken for granted. In
Greek language, a change in appearance is combined with a change in name. The

word “Siren” was replaced by “mermaid”, another mythological monster of antiquity.
Its form passed on to newer folk traditions, with the most famous mermaid being the
sister of Alexander the Great.

The Andersen tale turned the Sirens-mermaids into romantic nymphs ready to
sacrifice themselves for love, permanently erasing their old monstrous existence. So
now we find women-fish in many cultures: from the Russian Rusalka and Sedna of
the Eskimos, to the Ningio in Japan and the Mami Wat Siren, living in the Niger
River. The expansion is so great that it makes us wonder whether they really existed
and disappeared like other prehistoric species. Over the centuries, many of their
appearances have been recorded. Some were supposedly confirmed even by scientists
or scholars of the past, such as Pliny the Elder. Although the famous Roman scholar
of the 1st century AD did not believe in these winged creatures, he admitted the
existence of the fish-like beings. With the advent of cinema in the early 20th century,
Sirens crossed the threshold of modern myth. Between 1930 and 1950 over twenty
movies were filmed, starring Sirens.

My goal was to create a composition that maintains elements of film music, and at the
same time, of sound synthesis. My aim was not simply to comment on or accompany,
but for the music to create a complete universe with as many realistic elements as
imaginary ones, placed together and somewhere in between reality and the narrative. I
wanted to study and take advantage of how music can affect the human thymus, and
tell stories in a unique way.
I chose to express myself musically on myths and not on audiovisual material,
because I believe it allowed greater freedom and space to use music in different ways,
avoiding the ease of just an accompaniment. Additionally, myth gave me the
opportunity to interpret it as I wanted, challenging myself to musically create in
detail, the interpretation that I would choose.
I chose the myth of the Sirens for two reasons, first, because it is strongly
characterized by music (the song of the sirens, female voices) and secondly, because
its versions gave particular interest to the interpretation and therefore to the
expression of music. The contrast between the allure and the lament, the evil and the
good, the music as an illusion and the music as a remedy to the sadness of the soul,
was the main feature I wanted to express, placing both counter-flow versions of the
myth in a composition, not opposed, but harmoniously coexisting.
The version wanting the Sirens to be seductive and destructive is expressed in the first
part of the composition called Allure, while the version in which they lead to death
those, whose fate was to die is assigned to the second part, called Duty.

Allure
The composition begins with the sound of the sea. I use sound as an active part of the
composition and not simply to embellish it. The sound of the sea along with the sound
of wooden rattles, which represent the sound of a ship, act as a basis for combining
the rest of the sounds, and as an element that places the listener spatio-temporally. In
the composition, I consider time as linear, and thus attempt to create the specific time
frame of the myth, and in particular, the moment when the ship of Odysseus begins to
approach the Sirens (which are remotely heard) to the moment they are permanently
taken away. We reserve the position of Odysseus as a listener; after all, he was the
only one who ever heard the song of the Sirens and survived to describe it.
Rhythm
At first we hear voices and whispers from afar. I wanted to give the feeling that
something is about to happen. The sound of the sea suddenly disappears, with the
beginning of the song of the Sirens, and now we submerge into their own world and
nothing in the surrounding environment concerns us. We are cut off. This introduction
to the world of the Sirens is performed through the guitar. The guitar gives the steady
rhythm/tempo during the entire synthesis. The tempo is Tsifteteli (4/8) and moves
slowly at 31 bpm. Tsifteteli is a popular rhythm in the musical tradition of the areas of
the eastern Mediterranean to the Middle East, and as a dance, is typical of seduction
and sensuality.
The guitar is a reference point, it transports us from reality to the world of the sirens
and back. It is the medium through which the musical journey takes place. It is also
the only real instrument in the composition. The only one that has been recorded.
Voices
The voices of the Sirens is the result of the composition
of two virtual instruments: a female choir, and a
theremin. The Theremin is an electronic musical
instrument invented in 1919 by the Russian physicist
Leon Theremin. It produces sound with the movement of
the hand in an electromagnetic field, and is the only
instrument that can be played without being touched.
I wanted the voices of sirens to sound “ethereal” and
“scary” and to barely have a distinguishable human
voice. I wanted the voices to give the feeling that they
are produced by a human, without being characterized
by it. To accomplish this, I used the timbre of the
Leon Theremin with the
homonymous instrument
theremin, and added a reverb effect, so that the voices
can be more easily integrated to the theremin, while
discreetly leaving their trace in the end of the phrases. The first female voices that
introduce the theme, were created by the virtual instrument Aria Player, while for the
three voices that follow thereafter, a different virtual instrument was used, the
Symphonic Choir virtual instrument. This happened because the musical requirements
of the voices could not be covered by the rigid Aria Player virtual instrument, which

sounded too fake. On the other hand, while the Symphonic Choir had the quality to
make the three voices sound real, it could not coexist harmoniously with the theremin.
It was a restriction that did not bother me at all, especially in the second part, since I
wanted the voices of the sirens, as we move toward their death in the part of Duty, to
sound more and more human.

It was very important that the melody of the voices characterized Greece. Greece as a
cultural crossroad, receives influences from the western European and the oriental
culture equally. For this reason, I tried to give balance to the melody: neither to sound
western, nor completely oriental. No ancient Greek modes were used, as this would
require a lengthy study of a musical system with which I am totally unfamiliar and so
is the majority of the public in general, not only as far as the music is concerned, but
also as a cinematic convention: the music that would characterize the Greek world of
that era in a film, would not most probably be true to the actual ancient music, as we
have seen happening in many modern films.
For the melody I decided to use musical material from the Arabic-turkish music
system, as it is a common meeting place with the Greek musical tradition. These two
musical worlds are identical, and it is not possible for their roots to be separated. The
modes (or paths or maqam), i.e., the respective scales of oriental music, are used
almost identically in the Greek traditional music. The maqam are divided into
families: the maqam I chose is called Shahnaz and belongs to the family of Hijaz
maqam. The Shahnaz makam consists of the notes D, Eb, F#, G, A, Bb, C#, D.;
Makam Shahnaz

Each maqam expresses something specific. The maqam of Hijaz, expresses the distant
desert. It might be far from the sea voyage of Odysseus, but for me reflected the same
perspective of the journey.
The first two notes of the melody of the Sirens are A - F #. The notes form the interval
of minor third. This interval is characteristic for its use when we call out to someone. I
considered it ideal, as the sirens are calling Odysseus to approach them.
The melody begins with a voice that introduces the main theme, and then the voices
become three. The second voice continues the theme of the first one, an octave lower,
while the first voice is kept as it is, and the third one participates with a new melodic
line. All three of them interact and complement each other in an indivisible whole.
The allure is expressed through a combination of voices that overwhelm and mystify
with their entrances and exits, with their melodies and pluralism.

The Duduk
In the first part I have added a duduk, a traditional Armenian
instrument with a very distinctive timbre, to subtly comment
on the Siren’s voices. Their timbres are joined ideally. The
melody is also based on the Shahnaz maqam.
The duduk

Duty
The second part is based on the duty of the Sirens as psychopomps of the Underworld.
The legend gives us a second aspect of the Sirens, where their song is no longer a
means of seduction, but a lament and a remedy to the sadness of the human suffering
before death. My purpose was for the second part to differ significantly from the first
one, regarding the texture and the synthetic process. I wanted to clearly state that
something changes, that a transition from one state to another is taking place, without
interrupting the flow of the composition.
In order to express death and mourning, I used a homophonic texture to the voices
(each voice has one note at a time) in a call and response style. The homophonic
texture is characterized by its simplicity in melody which follows a simple descending
chromatic direction starting from G, F #, F, E, Eb, D, C #. The responsive style, i.e.
where one voice sings and a multitude of voices repeat it, is typical of a lament.
The melody of the voices results in a cluster, i.e. a chord consisting of at least three
consecutive tones or semitones, symbolizing the suicide of the Sirens after the ship of
Odysseus has sailed away, and their redemption is expressed in the voice left to sing a
tune alone, as we (located on the ship) move away from it.
A grand casa, introduces the second part, and continues
until the end. The same, monotonous way it sounds, refers
to the mournful periodical sound featured in various
cultures during mourning rituals; the bell that sounds
periodically throughout the entire day of Christ’s death
during Orthodox Easter, the jazz funerals in American
tradition, as well as the military bands in funeral
processions etc.

The grand casa

During the singing of the Sirens, real sirens of war are discreetly heard. I processed
their tone color in order for them to blend better with the voices and barely be
distinguishable from the background.
The second part ends with the fading of the female voice and the prevalence of the
sound of the sea, pointing to the return to reality and security, but also to the journey
that still goes on.

Technical details
Virtual instruments;
For the Siren’s voices; Women's choir Aria player and East West Quantum Leap
Symphonic Choirs with theremin Spooky Keys.
The duduk; East West Quantum Leap Rare and Ethnic Instruments
The gran casa; Aria Player Virtual Instruments

Effects
In general, the use of effects was rather simple. Their main purpose was to serve the
harmonious blend of voices, as virtual instruments lack in harmonics as opposed to
real instruments, and this fact makes their coexistence problematic. In addition,
effects were used for the conversion of timbres, where judged necessary.
On the Siren’s voices, I used the Roomworks reverb: Surrounding Choir Stage, to
spread them in space and timbre-wise, for them to become more ethereal.
For the voice of the Siren that remains alone at the end, I used the Roomworks reverb:
Surrounding Cathedral, because it had a longer reverberation time, and I wanted to
emphasize more on the solo voice and its presence in space.

Sirens
Gkoudina Kyriaki
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