Performing Thucydides

This one was mentioned on the Classics list last week but I didn’t note by whom (apologies) … Some excerpts from a lengthy piece in the San Antonio Current:

Our cities grow in size, our awareness of the world around us increases, technology steadily advances, but some things remain immutable, chief among them human nature. The cliché says those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but perhaps it’s less a problem of knowledge than our own inherent failings and short-sightedness. Though airwaves abound with cop reality shows and courtroom dramas, crime abides. Ancient religious teachings continue to be used as justifications for violence. And, despite the many fruitless wars revisited in texts dating back thousands of years, we still plunge into quagmires with logic-defying frequency, suggesting rationality has nothing to do with it at all.

These are a few of the insights gleaned from Athens v. Sparta, a fascinating 15-track musical condensation of the Peloponnesian War based on Thucydides and Xenophon’s recounting of the conflict. A combination pop-opera, Greek drama, modern allegory, and historical CliffsNotes created by Trinity University history grad and musician Charlie Roadman, the album resonates on several levels and is likely unlike anything you’ve ever heard. It details how Athens’ cultural hubris, faltering democracy, self-serving oligarchs, indifference to its allies, and ill-considered military adventurism resulted in a war doomed by poor prosecution and overextended forces.

[…]

The album intersperses narration from Thucydides’ text, read by Ken Webster, creative director of Austin’s Hyde Park Theatre, with singing by Kevin Higginbotham and atmospheric backdrops painted with guitar strums, effervescing loops, skittering beats, and shimmery washes of melody that melt easily into the woodwork. Roadman fashioned the music from the contributions of 19 musicians who call either Austin or San Antonio home. He describes it as “downtempo pop,” and it isn’t far removed for electronic chill-out music, giving the 2,400-year-old history lesson a ghostly futuristic sheen.
[…]

The album’s genesis goes back to 1991, when Roadman and Buttercup singer Erik Sanden were assigned Thucydides and Xenophon’s couple-thousand-page tome, and blew off reading it until three days before the final. Justifiably concerned, they crammed by reading alternate chapters then recounting the events to each other, effectively halving the assignment. The story stuck with them, and eight years ago Sanden bought Roadman the definitive edition of the text, The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert Strassler.

This encouraged Roadman to write a song about Pericles’ funeral oration, a rabble-rousing rant that provoked the Athenians into war, reminding them of their glorious history and suggesting that “judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom, and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.” It was still more a lark than obsession at this point. “I was just writing songs about whatever amused me, history, news, or National Geographic,” Roadman says.

A few years later, he wrote another song based on the Peloponnesian War, “Life in the Spartan Army,” and then another, and decided to dedicate an entire album to the war. Comparing it to Christo wrapping the Reichstag, he admits that, “I pretty much knew it was an absurd thing, and that’s what attracted me to it. Just the absurdity of doing something I was laughing about the second I thought about it.”
[…]

The finished product impressed everyone involved, many of whom had only played on part of the album, and hence couldn’t see the big picture. Roadman held an initial CD release in Austin, which sold out and concluded with a standing ovation. Webster echoes many of the participants when he says, “I didn’t know there would be that kind of an audience for it.”
[…]
This is Roadman’s hope as well. He’s already booked to play the Texas Classical Association Conference in Austin in October, and is considering putting together a study guide to go with the disc. He’s hoping that it will engender more conference invitations. “That sort of appeals to me, because, after playing, instead of sleeping in a van we get to stay in a nice hotel,” he says.[…]

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