|Davidson String Band Will Premiere Modern Rendition of Music From Ancient Greek Tragedy
February 10, 2011
by James Mietus '13
|Members of the band that will play a folk version of "Trachiniae" are (standing l-r) Jon Springfield '11, Matt Morris '14, Michael Mellody '11, Professor of History John Wertheimer and (seated l-r) Lexi Valauria-Orton '12 and Sarah Connette '11.
Davidson presents an impressively diverse range of musical performances on campus, but an upcoming concert developed in the classics department might be among the most unique ever.
The public is invited on Tuesday evening, February 15, to a concert by a student string band interpreting the music of ancient Greek drama. The concert begins at 8 p.m. in Tyler-Tallman Hall of Sloan Music Center, and there is no charge to attend.
The project began last summer as a Davidson Research Initiative project between Keyne Cheshire, Professor of Classics, and Jon Springfield '11. Cheshire had just completed two years' work on a new English translation of Trachiniae ("Women of Trachis"), a play by the ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles. The Trachiniae is one of just seven surviving plays written by Sophocles in the fifth century BC.
In the time of the ancient Greeks, dramas such as the Trachiniae were performed in front of crowds of thousands of people representing all social strata. Cheshire believes that too many translators today aren't true to the original popular appeal of Greek drama, and present the works in high style that is not appealing to audiences.
Cheshire was frustrated at the staid way ancient tragedies are typically performed today, noting that the long monologues in most translations test the patience of both the audience and the actors.
He crafted his translation to be relevant and entertaining to a modern audience, incorporating vernacular, colloquial English dialogue. For example, the character Heracles is renamed "Herman Leroy Kilman," his wife, Deianira, is renamed "Deanna Kilman." Zeus has been recast as God, and the name of the setting, Trachis, was changed to "Jagged Rock." Cheshire titled his translated drama The Passion of Herman Kilman in part to highlight points of correspondence between this tragedy and the story of Christ. Heracles was the son of Zeus, the Greeks' supreme god, and the conclusion of the play focuses on his extraordinary suffering prior to his death.
Greek dramas also included musical accompaniment, and Cheshire wanted to include that in his translation. But while the original text of Trachiniae was available for translation, no record remains of the music that accompanied it. So Cheshire discussed the idea with Springfield, a political science major from Raleigh and talented musician. Springfield liked the idea, and the two collaborators were able to secure funding for their work from the Davidson Research Initiative (DRI).
Springfield brought an impressive musical background to the effort. He has played violin since his childhood, and has studied piano, guitar, and banjo. He performed with the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra for two years, and co-founded a locally popular folk-rock group called You and Your Effects.
Cheshire finalized the text translations before he and Springfield began scoring music for eight songs in July. They decided to employ a frontier folklore style of sound, and listened to a lot of Gillian Welch, Johnny Cash, and Bill Monroe in their studies. They were careful to create music that would elicit the emotions that Sophocles had most likely intended. Springfield explained, "The eight songs have a definite arc across the play, transitioning from folk music to increasingly universal and surreal instrumentation as the hero approaches his eventual demise."
After they agreed on the rough sketches, Springfield recorded the individual parts himself one at a time (vocals, guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle, and percussion). His friends Sarah Connette '11 and Michael Mellody '11 lent their vocal talents to several of the songs.
Springfield said, "The collaborative process was challenging but definitely rewarding. Dr. Cheshire and I each had our visions for the project, and finding compromise even for single lines of lyric often took several sessions of long discussion. But the final product is definitely better than anything we could have produced as individuals. Having almost constant access to his creative input was a lot of fun."
The presentation of the work on February 15 will be the first full, staged performance of the work. For more information about it, call 919-306-1520.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.