April 8, 2019 - The University of Tennessee - Knoxville

Recently I finally read in its entirety The Singer of Tales by Albert Lord.

Published in 1960, the Singer of Tales changed the discussion around the Homeric epics and its thesis about the oral roots of the Iliad and Odyssey has become more or less the accepted view of how these poems were created.

Though I'd heard much of Lord's theory as an undergrad, I'd never read the whole book, and it is spectacular and brilliant.

Lord (building on the work of his mentor Milman Parry, a Harvard professor who died young at 33) lays out a picture of how ancient oral composition worked based on field recordings and comparative analysis of illiterate Slavic bards (living/performing in the 20th century and first documented by Parry in the 1930s).  

Lord talks quite a bit about the functional aspects of oral composition and performance (which happen simultaneously): I thought he perhaps goes a little too far is his characterization of the bard's almost slavish reliance on formula, portraying him (the bard) in part as almost an automaton at the mercy of a small(er than one might think) set of creative options, singing almost compulsively with less artistic intention and more practical dependence borne of the time constraints and urgency of simultaneous composition and performance. 

Though I believe subsequent scholarship has shown that Lord was somewhat extreme in some of these conclusions, I do think there's always value in recognizing that certain aspects of any creativity are rooted in utility and that the artist often has less control over these aspects than one might think.

I was thinking about this during my evening Odyssey performance at University of Tennessee - Knoxville on a rainy spring Monday.

Similar to my Austin trip, I had a number of different opportunities to interact with students during my visit.  In the early afternoon my gracious host and I dodged raindrops and I spoke to a Greek class about how I got into Classics and my work with the Odyssey.  

In the later afternoon, I visited a class on Epic and (just as I did in Austin) workshopped some of my new Iliad material.

Just after this class we hustled to a lecture hall with excellent acoustics and I set up and readied myself to sing the Odyssey for a crowd that filled in nicely for the pre-show reception.

At both classes I'd visited, a student (the same student in fact) had asked me about the mechanics of how I perform my songs, in particular the role that memory plays and if there are particular "triggers" upon which I rely. I knew I'd have to try to answer this question after my evening performance, so I did my best to try to observe any tendencies or such triggers as I started strumming my guitar, the low-tuned B string droning into the hall with a satisfying, booming presence.

Following what felt like a great version of my song to a gracious audience, the student again (for the third time) asked me about the mechanics of my performance and I realized something:

I have no idea how I do what I do with the Odyssey.

I mean, I know anatomically how I sing and I know the words and music and how to move my hands on the guitar but in trying to describe the actual mechanics or technique of remembering and performing over thirty minutes of continuous music I realized that I don't think about any of it and don't really understand my performance as an action or set of actions that can be analyzed and separated into distinct thoughts or intentions separate from actually doing it. 

This is very similar to the Slavic bards profiled in The Singer of Tales: they had very little if any objective understanding or insight into how they composed/performed their tales.

The takeaway for me is that when I perform I seem to inhabit some sort of "in-between" state of existence: I am both hyper-aware of myself as a conduit for a song but also standing at a distance and disconnected from what I would characterize as my ego. I'm not aware of making most of the decisions I make when I perform. I'm a circuit tapping into a pool of energy, music and story, the same pool into which perhaps all Singers of Tales have tapped as they bring forth their songs in their time.

Leave a comment

Add comment