July 24, 25 and 26, 2018 - The National Junior Classical League Convention, Oxford, Ohio

 

It’s a tough time for liberal arts education.  A quick Google search will produce myriad hits about declining funding, lower student enrollments, and lagging interest.

One recent prominent example is this pseudo-intellectual-lite op-ed in the New York Times from Frank Bruni entitled “The Wrongful Death of Aristotle.” (The wonderful Sententiae Antiquae responded with a pitch-perfect takedown of the weak points of this particular piece)

 

June 17, 2108 - The Missouri Scholars Academy, Columbia, Missouri

 

The Greeks were keen on omens of all sorts.  Birds, numbers, meteorological phenomena... just about anything and everything could be a portent of divinity and destiny.

So the fact that my lone June performance of The Odyssey fell on Father's Day seemed like a nice thematically-appropriate omen: The Odyssey is after all a story about a father (and son).

Though the relationship between Odysseus and Telemachus gets (appropriately) primary billing in most considerations of The Odyssey I've recently been thinking more about the male relationships across two generations as portrayed in the story.  

 

May 24, 2018 - The Robin Theatre, Lansing, Michigan

 

Many people have noted the power a song has to transport you (sometimes even against your will) to a different time and place in your life, a kind of involuntary memory trigger akin to Proust's madeleine.

As I sat backstage at The Robin Theatre in Lansing, Michigan, exhausted from a week of touring, the strains of Herbie Hancock's Chameleon drifted into earshot and gently impressed themselves into my conscious.  Immediately I had a flash of the apartment I lived in my sophomore year of college: an absolute dump that curated some of the best times my six roommates and I had in our post-adolescent lives.

 

April 19, 2018 - Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois

 

"I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."

This thought is nestled among hundreds of pages of stunning words about war and humanity in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in a page-long vignette called "Good Form." 

I haven't been able to get it out of my head. I suppose it's a callback to an earlier piece in the collection entitled "How to Tell a True War Story." Farther down the page in "Good Form" O'Brien writes "What stories can do, I guess, is make things present."

I've been thinking about these ideas with respect to Odysseus' role as a storyteller in The Odyssey.

One of the absolutely jaw-dropping things about Greek epic is its capacity to distill and present human truth in such a basic, perfect simple light that you miss it for years if not decades until one day it snaps into clear view from where it's been hiding in the text, right in front of you.  

 

April 13, 2018 - The University of Dallas

 

As the Odyssey shows pile up and my touring schedule has evolved in complexity, I've found that the most difficult type of performance for me is the simple one-off. 

Sure, doing longer runs of many shows with multiple legs of travel has its own challenges, but as far as the actual performing, I've discovered that I'm the type of performer that gets better and stronger as tours go on and that the first show of a trip is almost always the trickiest. When that "first show" is the only show, things can get a little strange.

 

April 9 and 10, 2018 - Indiana University

 

The Odyssey is a story about telling stories and how these stories relate to identity.  

Odysseus wields the act of storytelling with as much power as he did his conventional weapons of war on the Trojan Plain.  

As a reader, we are privy to the ever-changing landscapes of his stories and therefore his multiple identities.  Some we know are false, some we believe are true. 

His hesitancy to tell his true story and in doing so reveal his identity at certain points in his journey is justifiable: it is an overt act of revealing his identity (shouting "I am Odysseus" to Polyphemus) that compromises his return home and from that point forward he is understandably cautious with how much of his true self he allows to be known.

 

April 5, 2018 - Polytechnic High School, Pasadena, California

 

What is it about seeing old friends?  Why is the act of catching up with people you've known for over half your life so... moving in a specific way?  Is it nostalgia, as I've written here many times, a word that means "homesickness?"  

I think it's connected to identity.

A core representation of The Odyssey is that one of the predominant ingredients of identity is the story (or stories) we tell other people about ourselves.  I think this relationship between stories and identity goes even further and identity is rooted in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

 

March 22, 2018 - The University of South Dakota

 

My senior year at UW-Madison I took a philosophy seminar called The Death of the Author.  

The class was taught by a professor who had taught an Existential Philosophy course I took the year prior.  As compelling as he was in the large lecture setting of that course, he was as hapless at leading in discussion the smaller group of us that gathered every Thursday afternoon for the two hour class meeting on the fourth floor of Helen C White library in a room with a nearly panoramic view of Lake Mendota that began the semester as a late summer vista of blue water and sailboats and slowly transformed into a frozen ice expanse covered in snow.

The class was made up of philosophy majors and graduate students but was augmented by me and my best friend and we felt somewhat bemused as the untethered discussion often devolved into people shouting things like "WHAT ABOUT FUNCTIONAL ART???!!" at each other.

 

March 20, 2018 - Creighton University

 

On December 5, 2001, I framed my initial idea for "a contemporary musical reading Homer's Odyssey" on the first page of a blue and white travel journal embossed with the word "Voyages." By January 30, I had written 18 songs and sketched out a clear arc of all 24 (initially, 25, actually) on pages marbled with a texture meant I suppose to approximate clouds that populate the minds of travelers, dreamers, and lovers.

On on March 4, 2012, I wrote the word "DONE" in all caps on these pages and on March 17, in my parents' Oak Park living room, I premiered my Odyssey for a group of 20 carefully curated friends and family.  

The public debut wouldn't come until September 5, 2002, at my alma mater, Oak Park River Forest High School, for a classroom of freshman English students.

 

March 9, 2018 - Needham High School and Boston Latin

 

I sing a song about a guy whose travels are repeatedly impacted by the weather.

I remember the first time I realized that there was something similar in the experience of a traveling bard.

I was sitting at O'Hare airport in June of 2013 watching as a summer storm came through and delayed my flight just enough that I was unable to make it to Columbia, Missouri, in time for my inaugural performance at The Missouri Scholars Academy.  

I was able to make it to MSA in 2014 (and each year since) so I don't consider that as a canceled performance, merely a delayed one.  It may be a bit of semantic wriggling, but it allows me to claim (to myself I suppose) that I've never missed an Odyssey show because of the weather.  

Nearly 250 performances in, that feels like a pretty good streak, albeit one that will no doubt end at some point if I continue traveling and performing at the pace at which I have been the last few years.

 

March 7, 2018 - Catholic Memorial High School, Boston

 

I end my version of the Odyssey with a song called “Water” in which I repeat the following line three times: 

You have brought me here to…

This reprises the end of Song 13, “I Can Feel You,” which marks the halfway point of my piece.  

Song 13 also ends with an ellipsis but leads right into Song 14, “Home,” the implication being that Song 14 finishes the thought from the end of song 13.

“Water” has no such song following it and so my piece ends in some ways unresolved.

When this comes up in discussion as it often does I’m happy to point out that Homer himself relied on one of the hackiest of literary techniques, the deus ex machina, to end his Odyssey and many readers throughout history have found his ending fundamentally unsatisfying.

 

March 6, 2018 - Cherry Hill High Schools East and West, New Jersey

 

"How do you become a bard?"

That was the first question I was asked by a student after my performance at Cherry Hill High School East on a Tuesday morning.

Wow.

What a question.  

I think my immediate snap answer was "One show at a time," which is true enough but doesn't really honor the depth and elegant beauty of the question.

 

March 5, 2018 - Princeton University

 

As I walked around the grounds of Princeton University on a chilly but sunny March Monday afternoon, I was thinking about something I heard Glen Hansard say in an interview. 

The interviewer asked him about how he takes care of his voice and he replied "The voice just shows up."

I loved this answer because it reminded me of a bard invoking the Muse.  As I wrote about here, there are both intellectual and practical considerations for why a bard might want and need to ask for help in a performance.  Homer's Muse was Memory, surely an important trait to embrace for an extended improvised performance.

I think every singer has had a moment before a show in which he or she quietly said to him or herself "Dear Voice, please show up."

 

February 26, 2018 - Menlo School, Atherton, California

 

I’ve written before about how my experience traveling to perform The Odyssey has opened my eyes to the plight of its hero as well as some of the considerations of the poet (let’s say, “Homer”), who was the shepherd of the story.

Of course I don’t mean the material conditions: to put it as mildly as possible, I travel and exist in *slightly* better material conditions than would have a Bronze age warrior or an Archaic age poet.

What I mean and part of what has captivated me about The Odyssey from the very beginning is how journeys and homecomings shape one’s identity and existence.

 

February 24, 2018 - Humanities West, San Francisco, California

 

I don’t get nervous for shows very much anymore, especially Odyssey shows.  I’ve done it so many times (over 240) and in front of so many different types of audiences that I’m generally confident in my ability to win over and hold the attention of a room.

That being said, I was nervous for my Humanities West performance.  

I was scheduled right in the middle of a program that featured 6 college professors lecturing on everything from politics to poetry to the architecture of Archaic Greece (the time generally framed as roughly 800 - 500 BCE).  The relevance of my performance is that Homer is widely believed to have lived around 750 and the writing system that comes into being around this time is the reason we have The Odyssey. 

I was being introduced by Professor Richard Martin, considered one of the foremost experts on Homer and Greek epic. 

 

February 23, 2018 - University of California - Berkeley

 

My first proper Odyssey trip in 2018 was to San Francisco for four days and a run of three shows: one at UC-Berkeley, one as part of a Humanities West weekend-long program on Archaic Greece, and one at a private high school.

After arriving on Thursday night, I made my way from the airport to the Union Square area of the city and to the site of the Humanities West program which doubled as my accommodations for most of my stay, The Marines' Memorial Club and Hotel.  

The Marines' Memorial Club was founded just after World War II to "honor the legacy of military service through a living memorial and programs that commemorate, educate and serve Veterans of all eras." It's housed in a beautiful early 20th century building complete with hotel rooms, meeting spaces, a 500 plus seat theatre (in which I'd perform on Saturday), and a top floor restaurant with a beautiful view of the city.

 

February 7, 2018 - The University of Notre Dame

 

My first Odyssey performance was in my parents' living room in Oak Park, IL, on March 17, 2002, for a carefully curated audience of family and friends.

My first public college performance of 2018 (at Notre Dame on February 7) was my 240th.

Just as Odysseus' voyage home was anything but a straight line, my own journey to 240 has had a generous share of twists, turns, lulls, and bursts of action.

 

January 6, 2018 - Makeshift Boston

 

One of the most amazing things that I’ve witnessed over hundreds of performances of the Odyssey is that a high school freshman can just as easily observe something brilliant about the story as can a scholar.

The text’s ability to suggest, absorb, and provoke, is almost supernatural. Of course a scholar will have different types of insights than a 14 year old, but there is the potential for each to interact with the story and in reckoning with it come to some sort of heavy, meaningful, human truth.

 

November 15, 2017 - Francis W. Parker School, Chicago

 

The Odyssey is having a nice moment here at the end of 2017.  

Emily Wilson's new translation (the first by a woman) is in the news and getting rave reviews.

Daniel Mendelsohn's memoir/meditation on The Odyssey and his father is drawing notice and even Richard Thomas' Bob Dylan book places the figure of Odysseus front and center in understanding the modern mercurial troubadour.

All in all this bodes well for my 2018 calendar, which is already filling up nicely.

My last performance of 2017 was also my closest to home: I made the short drive to Francis W. Parker school in Chicago for the third year in a row to perform for the sophomore class.

 

November 5, 2017 - The Robin Theatre, Lansing, Michigan

 

Dawn's pale rose fingers brushed across the sky... in Findlay, Ohio.

But not really, because it was overcast and raining.

I stirred awake after a sleep enhanced not by a spell of Athena but rather by the magic of the end of daylight saving time and that glorious extra hour.

One more show on my "5 shows in 5 days" tour, a matinee affair at The Robin Theatre in Lansing, Michigan.

 

November 3 and 4, 2017 - The University of Cincinnati

 

ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς

"Dawn's pale rose fingers brushed across the sky" (according to Lombardo)

This exact line appears 20 times in The Odyssey, a repetition likely in part owed to the poem's roots in oral tradition - formulae such as this occur on different scales: two-word epithets, complete lines, even full scenes would have been utilized by the bard as tools to assist with composition, frameworks into which he could impose his own specifics and variations.

But given that The Odyssey we read is a text, why do such features of the dissolving oral tradition remain?

In this case, I think the formulaic repetition of Dawn breaking has been preserved in service of an atmospheric and narrative goal: to convey the rhythmic often monotonous passage of time that one experiences during travel.  

 

November 2, 2017 - Wabash College

 

One of my favorite things about The Odyssey is the text's explicit comparison of Odysseus to a bard.

In Book 11, King Alcinous says of Odysseus "You have told your tale with the skill of a bard." 

In Book 17, the swineherd Eumaeus describes the still-disguised Odysseus to Penelope thusly: "It was just as when men gaze at a bard/Who sings to them songs learned from the gods/Bittersweet songs, and they could listen forever/That's how he charmed me when he sat in my house."

And most famously in Book 21 at arguably to most gripping and important moment in the poem: "Like a musician stretching a string/Over a new peg on his lyre, and making/The twisted sheep-gut fast at either end/Odysseus strung the great bow."

 

November 1, 2017 - Valparaiso University

 

In the last few years I've embraced calling myself a "modern bard."

This is both good marketing and largely true: I'm doing largely the same things ancient Greek bards and rhapsodes did and in the context of the same stories they told.

But I sometimes wonder (and it often comes up in discussion) about other modern performers who embody aspects of the ancient bard.  

I usually list the following:

Rapper/emcee: exhibits the same virtuosity of language, meter, and improvisation
Jazz musician: manipulates a musical vocabulary over canonized forms (standards)
Standup comic: goes town to town, varies jokes by location, truth-teller to a drunk audience, variations of stock jokes/premises  

I like these all a lot but my favorite comparison is Delta blues musician.

 

October 26, 2017 - Hamilton College

 

I wrote about my Odyssey as a two-headed monster that craves both artistic and intellectual validation HERE.

That monster has largely been sleeping peacefully since that watershed April performance at Harvard, satiated by a great 2017 and a 2018 that's shaping up to be even better. 

That being said, I am hyper-vigilant about collecting material to feed it should it awake hungry (as it often does) and I was lucky enough to get a morsel during my visit to Hamilton College.

 

October 25, 2017 - Syracuse University

 

I've done my Odyssey show so many times (Syracuse University was my 230th performance) that I sometimes lose perspective on the details of my text.

For instance, I know that the first thing the audience hears (and sees) is this:

I. Who am I?
(The Invocation)

Who am I
Mind on fire
Born of you but
Who am I?

οἴνοπα πόντον

Why are you
What you do
Name spread wide but
Why are you?

οἴνοπα πόντον
οἴνοπα πόντον

 

October 24, 2017 - Cornell University

 

Okay, let's get this out of the way.

YES, I was tickled immensely by the idea of performing The Odyssey in Ithaca (which, as you probably know, is the name of Odysseus' island home).

YES, I brought it up every chance I got and YES I made a bad joke before my performance at Cornell University, which went something like this: 

"In July I performed The Odyssey in Troy... alaBAMA, and now, three months later, I'm performing it in Ithaca... new YORK... so I beat Odysseus's Troy to Ithaca time by... 9 YEARS and 9 MONTHS!"

(A mixture of groans and laughter*)

(*Okay, mostly groans)

 

October 23, 2017 - The University of Rochester

 

The Ancient Greeks practiced a concept called "guest friendship" (xenia in Ancient Greek, the same root from which we derive words like "xenophobic").

Xenia dictated that visitors should be treated with hospitality and respect along with being provided food, drink, and gifts.

The reasoning behind this practice was rooted in what we might think of as superstition: a stranger might be a God or Goddess in disguise so it behooved one to treat all visitors with kindness.  I suspect that it was also practical: the stranger one fed and treated kindly might very well become one's host at a later date. Xenia built connections between families that might stretch for generations.

 

September 27, 2017 - The University of Illinois - Chicago

 

There is an ebb and flow to my work performing The Odyssey and it brings to life for me the theme of identity so prominent in the original text.

From September through May, I'm in the mode of being a Modern Bard, traveling the country and performing frequently. Then things lighten up for June and July with usually just a trip each month.  And then comes August: a month entirely off.

And then it all starts again in September.

 

July 26 and 27, 2017 - The National Junior Classical League Convention, Troy, Alabama

 

"What's your favorite part of the Odyssey?"

Over the course of 200 plus shows, there is no audience question I've answered more often than this one. 

And though my responses have varied, there is no answer I've given more often than "The death of Argos the dog."

 

June 23, 2017 - The Missouri Scholars Academy, Columbia, Missouri

 

I've found there's a bizarre rhythm to being a traveling bard, a cycle of arrival, interaction, performance and departure.

I wrote about it a bit in the context of how it informs my understanding of ancient bards HERE for Eidolon, but one of the facets of it that has become more and more meaningful for me is the people I meet in each city I visit, especially my hosts.

As my reputation in Classics and academic circles has grown, I've started to get repeat bookings.

 

May 20, 2017 - PAJCL Convention, Penn State

 

Classics enthusiasts will tell you that the Ancient Greeks had a story about everything.

Then they'll tell you that over and over and over until you're sick of hearing about how the Ancient Greeks had a story about everything.

But, compulsive stereotypical didacticism aside, it remains true: Greek myth has insight into every facet of human existence from the mundane to the cosmic.

And that includes the phenomenon of suicide.

 

May 1, 2017 - Montgomery Bell Academy

 

One of the things implicit to the Greek oral tradition (and really any oral tradition) is that the audience matters.  

The meaning of any piece of art as transitory as a performance is created in the air between the performer and audience and then exists solely in and subject to the memory of the audience.

It's interesting that the role of the Homeric bard is explicitly sublimated by his own words in the Invocation function of both The Iliad and The Odyssey.  The Goddess/Muse is the one doing singing (though, significantly, in The Odyssey there is a pronoun attached to the performer) and the bard exists just as a vessel for the divine to express story and song.

Intuitively every performer knows some version of this. 

 

April 27, 2017 - The University of Chicago

 

My central interest in The Odyssey is the question of identity.  

Every time I sing The Odyssey I begin with the words I wrote in December of 2001: "Who am I?"

The identity of the person singing these words is deliberately ambiguous.  It could be me, it could be Homer... it could be Telemachus, Odysseus, Penelope... 

My appreciation for the importance of identity in The Odyssey has only grown as telling the story has become a bigger and bigger part of my life.

 

April 14, 2017 - Harvard University

 

It's taken me a long time to understand a fairly simple and obvious truth: being a musician is essentially a never-ending battle for validation. It's a negotiation between one part of my brain which can list the objective accomplishments and clear successes of my various musical properties and another part of my brain that starts every sentence with the phrase "Sure, but what about..."

You can say over and over that all the validation you need comes from inside of you but the truth is that by committing to being a professional artist, you need SOME sort of external validation, if only the kind that gives you the resources to keep producing your art. And maybe even pay your mortgage.

The strength of my Odyssey is that it's equal parts musical performance and intellectual interpretation, but that also opens me up to a possible complication:  Not only do I crave the kind of validation a normal musician wants but I also need it for the intellectual component of my piece in the same way a graduate student or academic needs validation for his or her ideas and scholarship. 

This cocktail of validation is at the core of the ups and downs of the 15 year lifespan of my Odyssey.

 

April 13, 2017 - Needham High School

 

My stop at Needham High School (just outside of Boston) came after having endured a red-eye flight home from Seattle early Tuesday morning and tempting the travel gods (Hermes?) by flying to Boston early on Thursday and leaving myself just barely enough time to grab an Uber, navigate rush hour traffic, and arrive at the well-manicured suburban high school with 45 minutes to set up for the first of what were to be two Odyssey shows.

 

April 10, 2017 - Pacific Lutheran University

 

Some Odyssey shows give me human insight, like the one I wrote about here.

Some Odyssey shows give me classical insight, like the one I wrote about here.

And on some very special occasions I get a perfect example of both.

 

April 7-8, 2017 - WABCJCL Convention, Washington

 

“I am a guy who travels around telling a story that a guy who traveled around telling stories told about a guy who traveled around telling stories."

For my blog about my shows for the Washington British Columbia Junior Classical Convention, I was planning on just posting the keynote speech I gave at the Convention’s opening assembly.

But then, as it often does, the reality of my experience out on the road gave me something better to write about.

 

April 6, 2017 - University of Texas - Austin

 

I’ve been rereading The Odyssey in full for the first time in several years, a book each day. It’s been amazing to see how my perspective on a story I know so well has changed.

It’s my first full reading of the poem since I started taking a more active interest in veterans and veterans’ affairs and understanding The Odyssey as a soldier song.  Like many things in life, this development came about through an equal mix of chance and magic.

 

March 20, 2017 - Northern Illinois University

 

Seeing as my trip last week to perform two shows at Northern Illinois University involved a simple drive out to DeKalb, Illinois, I'll spare you a post about travel (short story: I-90 to I-290 to I-88) and talk a little more broadly about how I came to the story that has become such a big part of my life, Homer's Odyssey.

Where to begin?

 

March 15, 2017 - Randolph College

 

Be Where the Ides of March? 

(Okay, that was terrible: sorrynotsorry)

One of the interesting things about doing the Odyssey year after year is that it gives me natural signposts to mark the passage of time.

 

January 26, 2017 - Duquesne University

 

It seems odd to start formally blogging about a project some 15 years after its creation.  

But these are the circumstances: this post is about the 208th performance of my one-man musical retelling of Homer's Odyssey, a piece which was written in late 2001 and early 2002.

Chronicling my performances in writing is something I sometimes wish I would have done from the beginning, especially now that I'm working on writing a book about my quest to perform The Odyssey in all 50 states (I'm at 31 states as of this post with 3 new states booked before next school year) but there's also a part of me that appreciates writing about the first 200 or so with only my memories and some scattered documentation and relics as my guides.