Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Writing Songs for Nero

At the opening night of WSC/Avant Bard's production of The Bacchae on Monday night, I had a powerful flashback to why I decided that my new play Nero/Pseudo about the fake emperor Nero who popped up in Greece in 69 AD needed music -- and glam rock music at that.

Rock and roll has always possessed obvious Dionysiac elements, from Elvis to the Beatles and on forward. Jim Morrison of the Doors struck this note explicitly, giving an explicit shoutout to Nietzsche's 1872 book The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. (I can't help but notice that Morrison and Nero were both born under the sign of Sagittarius, the "most philosophical of all the signs.")

Glam rock seemed to have an even stronger claim to being the music for the play, however. Glam's blurred sexuality, its radical swings between the bombastic and the fey, its ludicrous cosmologies, and the way that the music is balanced so exquisitely between alienation, longing and comraderie seemed perfect for a play about Nero -- or at least what we know of him centuries later.

Saying there should be music is one thing. Making it happen is quite another thing. What sort of glam songs should be in a play about a fake Emperor Nero? And what sort of songs will you hear if you come to WSC/Avant Bard's staged reading of the play at Artisphere on May 30?

After a lot of research, I was impressed by the fact that historians (then and now) seem to agree that Nero wrote a lot of his own material as well as playing the "classics." Indeed, Nero's most famous alleged performance was to accompany himself on the lyre as he sang his own poem The Fall of Troy (Troica) during the great fire of Rome in 64 AD.

I also discovered that a miniscule amount of Nero's poetry survived to the present day. In fact, there is only one fragment of more than one line that scholars definitely agree was penned by Nero. Three very obscure lines from his poem on the The Fall of Troy:

quique pererratam subductus Persida Tigris
deserit et longo terrarum tractus hiatu
reddit quaesitas iam non quaerentibus undas

I ended up finding a place for these lines in the play, very liberally translated and embellished, as:

From as far away as the Tigris
that river which descends beneath the earth
and even to the underworld
ferrying warriors up from Hades
until it reemerges once again on earth. 

(In Michael Dewar's article, "Nero on the Disappearing Tigris," which appeared in the The Classical Quarterly in 1991, the author says that the lines most likely describe a natural phenomenon noted by Strabo and Pliny in which the Tigris River disappears at lake Thospitis and remerges 22 miles later.)

So what could I do with so little of Nero's actual poetry to play with? I decided to rewrite The Fall of Troy for him -- a short cycle of songs that sets out the theme of the sack of Troy and then takes the story to its end, with the Greeks killing Hector's son Astyanax and Trojan princess Polyxena and taking the wives of the dead Trojans as their property. A few of the songs are written in the voice of a character in the story such as Ulysses or Cassandra. (Nero like to perform classical roles onstage, even the roles of women, wearing masks as he did so.) Other songs are more philosophical. They are Nero's view of the cosmos. But part of my aim with the cycle of songs was to let the audience get to know the emperor who's being impersonated.

I feel very fortunate that my musical collaborators Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers) and Jim Elkington (The Zincs, The Horse's Ha) found this project (and writing glam music to it) worth their time and energy and talent. I can't presume to speak for them, but the music that they wrote calls upon many moods of glam. (And since they'll both be performing with the actors at the staged reading, thay may have something to say about it themselves when we discuss the play afterwards at the talkback.)

But Langford and Elkington have graciously agreed to let you hear one of the demo versions of the songs for Nero/Pseudo as a sneak preview of the work in progress. The demo track I have selected is called "Hymn to Athena." It's a song that's sung in the voice of Cassandra. I hope it intrigues you enough to want to come see the WSC/Avant Bard staged reading of Nero/Pseudo at Artisphere in Rosslyn on May 30 at 8 p.m. and hear some more of the play.

The link to "Hymn to Athena" can be found here.

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