To read Homer is to be humbled again and again by its unique brilliance.
No matter how many times you've encountered the lines "Sing, Goddess, of the anger of Achilles" or "Sing, Muse, of a man of many turns," you can be sure that each time you start these stories, you will discover something profound, moving, and true, something that you haven't seen during previous readings.
Often times you feel amazed that a piece of beauty has been sitting there the entire time and you've only just noticed it on your 20th reading. How did you miss it before? Why did it reveal itself so plainly to you only now? Why did a particular scene or speech finally resonate with you and in doing so show itself to have been perfectly calibrated in both style and substance to capture a timeless human truth is the most efficient vivid way possible?
It's obvious and mysterious, encouraging and frustrating, and like nothing else in the world.
This capacity for endless discovery in the Homeric poems means that I sit down each time to read them with the knowledge that without fail I will find something new by which to be moved. Because of this, nothing is more peaceful to me than sitting in my reading chair just before dawn, my dog sleeping just over my shoulder bathed in the light of my reading lamp, and opening up the Iliad or the Odyssey. The anticipation of finding new brilliance triggers a mental Pavlovian response and my brain readies itself to be inspired, confounded, and moved all over again.
At my performances I often get to talk about my appreciation and gratitude for having somehow come to these works and found a way to tap into their tradition, mining them for inspiration and even for a moment feeling as if I'm swimming in the stream of their brilliance, maybe in some tiny way contributing my own perspective to the millennia-long process of creation and transmission.
This is how I felt as I finished up my third performance at the National Junior Classical League Convention in Fargo, North Dakota, on a beautiful, sunny, late July Monday morning.
I wrote about my 2018 NJCL performances HERE and my 2017 (and 2014) performances HERE. Like the NJCL shows themselves, these two blogs are among my favorites.
This year's Convention was also notable because by virtue of being held at North Dakota State University it presented me with an opportunity to perform in my 39th state, thereby moving me one state closer to my goal of playing my Odyssey in all 50 US states.
The shows were wonderful. I hadn't done the Odyssey since mid-May but all three shows in Fargo felt strong and, just as Homer's poems reward reconsideration, so I've found my own Odyssey does for me as a performer and a thinker. I have a (very small) bit of the same wonder about my own creation: how does something I wrote when I was Telemachus' age continue to reveal new and poignant things to me nearing the age of Homer's Odysseus? Did I subconsciously plant these revelations in the writing for an older and more mature me to find? Did the Muse sneak them in?
In addition to being a better technical performer and more comfortable lecturer/facilitator, the biggest improvement for me around my Odyssey performances has been allowing myself to relax into a state of discovery with my own piece in each particular performance in front of each particular audience in each particular space, very similar to the way I approach the Homeric texts themselves.
Just as I anticipate and expect magic every time I read Homer, so now I expect some of the same magic every time I perform my piece.
This final of three shows was in a plain box-like conference lecture room, an inauspicious space that on its surface looked inferior to the previous spaces I'd performed on Saturday and Sunday, a theatre and a tiered lecture hall respectively.
But as soon as I sat down to warm up, I heard something glorious: an echo. A perfect echo. Not a wishy-washy reverb with a slow tail that makes enunciation difficult, but a clear and distinct echo of my syllables maybe a 1/2 a second after I sang them: snappy and almost like a second person was repeating my song back to me. And I found I could control the echo by how loudly I sang, giving extra to get it to talk back, easing off to mute it.
I love echo like this. It gives me (and the audience) an awareness of the physical space and its dimensions and gives the ear something by which to locate the limits of the room.
After noting this, I went about setting the room up with my lyrics powerpoint and when it came time to figure out the lighting, boom: more serendipity. Somehow in this very plain boxy meeting room, the light settings allowed me to dial in the perfect intimate level of lighting with a semi-spotlight right where I positioned my stool to sit.
I'm usually at the mercy of however a room's lighting is arrayed so I often find a space winds up a little too light or dark or unfocused for my tastes. But this is part of the challenge of performing in unusual and unfamiliar spaces and sometimes I get lucky like I did in NDSU Memorial Union.
The students filled up my perfect little room and I was off on my 294th journey through this imperfect quirky demanding piece I wrote in 2001.
I could hear the echo surround the audience and found myself lost in the sound.
As quickly as it started, my performance was done.
The discussion was brilliant: one audience member volunteered that she had seen me perform the piece seven times, at all but one of the eight NJCL Conventions I've attended. This allowed for consideration of how my performance has changed and whether the change was in me, the performer, her, the audience member, or the performance circumstances themselves (spoiler alert: the answer is all three).
Afterwards I sold CDs and then got in the car for the 10 hour drive back to Chicago.
NJCL always rejuvenates me and my relationship with my Odyssey. The next 16 months are going to see some significant milestones for my durable little folk opera and these wonderful NJCL shows and audiences were just what I needed to dig in and continue being open to the magic of Homer's and Joe's Odysseys.