The term “hammer of the gods" often refers to Led Zeppelin, but those bruisers were pikers compared to Michael Levy. The Liverpool native composes songs such as Hymn to Zeus on lyres, those stringed instruments of recreated antiquity that resemble something Spock would play on an old episode of Star Trek. Dusting off ancient musical modes and intonations, Levy calls what he does “new ancestral music” or “extreme roots music," and, according to him, he does it for all the right reasons.
“Because music has become so commercialized, most artists have lost track of what music is all about,” says Levy, on the phone from his home in the historic county of Monmouthshire in Wales. “If you set about to create music for money, then it loses all its intrinsic value. The only way to create pure art is to create it for its own sake, which is what I do."
If there is no lucre in lyres, there are rewards. Levy’s Hymn to Zeus has been melodically incorporated into Hadrian, an opera by Rufus Wainwright (with libretto by Daniel MacIvor) that made its world premiere at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto this past weekend. Act I begins with Hadrian, Roman emperor from 117 to 138, gravely ill and grieving the death of his male lover Antinous. For the two scenes in which Levy’s composition is quoted, Wainwright arranged it for harp, plucked près de la table (near the instrument’s soundboard) in order to best capture the more guitar-like timbre of Levy’s lyre.
“It’s been quite surreal,” says Levy, whose music spans the influences of ancient Hebrew, Greek and Roman styles. “The song was something I put together and recorded in my spare room at home.”
The process of Levy’s handiwork making it into Wainwright’s new opera began with an out-of-the-blue e-mail received through Levy’s website. The message was from Cori Ellison, the dramaturg for Hadrian’s COC production. It was explained that Wainwright was a fan of Levy’s music and wished to use a few musical quotations from Hymn to Zeus and perhaps some others. “Might you be amenable to that?" Levy was asked by Ellison.
Amenable? More like over the moon. Later, during a teleconference call, Wainwright praised the “beautiful melody” of Levy’s ditty for a deity. Though a nominal licensing fee for use of the song was arranged, the money was beyond the point.
“I’m not driven by financial gain,” says Levy, who works at manual jobs, thus keeping his mind free for his more melodious passion. “No one is going to remember me for my day jobs, but hopefully they will remember me for my music.”
Levy is comfortable in the ancient Greek Dorian mode, for its noble qualities. Plato, a Dorian fan and a bit of a fogey, believed the introduction of novel fashions in music was "a thing to beware of as endangering the whole fabric of society.” Bob Seger agreed, famously singing that “today’s music ain’t got the same soul.” Levy believes both those great philosophers were on to something.
“The Dorian mode is intensely introspective,” says Levy, whose compositions have been used in support of exhibitions at international museums including the Oriental Institute of Chicago and, for the exhibition Mesopotamia, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. “This is what we’ve lost in our boring, modern use of major and minor keys. It’s happy or sad, happy or sad, happy or sad. We’ve forgotten all the different expressions between those two emotions."
If there’s anything sad about Levy’s story, it’s that he was unable to make the trip to Toronto to see and hear his sequence of notes on stage at the Four Seasons Centre for the premiere of Hadrian. The travel costs were prohibitive. “It was frustrating not to be there,” says Levy. “But the best things in life are worth waiting for, and I will wait in anticipation to hear what Rufus has done with the excerpts of my melody.”
Hadrian continues in Toronto until Oct. 27 (coc.ca).