Also Seen: Homeric Variations ~ Interview with Graeme Bird

The Center for Hellenic Studies has an interview with Classicist (and jazz musician) Graeme Bird on his work with Homeric papyri and the connections it has with jazz (amongst other things). Here’s a (very brief) excerpt:


CHS: In addition to being an active member of the faculty at multiple schools, you are an accomplished and active jazz musician. How does this inform your work on the Homeric corpus and on the concept of composition in performance?

G.D.B.: For some time I have been exploring possible connections between techniques of jazz improvisation (for the piano in particular) and oral formulaic poetic techniques. Years ago I met a graduate student writing his PhD music thesis on this very topic, looking at the improvisational style of the jazz pianist Bill Evans (sadly deceased at a young age), and comparing it with the Parry-Lord theory of oral formulaic poetry. I decided that since I can both read Homeric Greek and play improvised jazz piano (but by no means in the league of Bill Evans!), I would explore this idea further, and also try to demonstrate it in actual performance. I would say that I am at the beginning of what I hope will become something more valuable and more profound. I have given a couple of live “performances” in which I consider some lines of Homeric text – both in Greek and in English, as my audience generally are not all familiar with Greek – and then play some jazz piano, including improvised material. I seek to show by analyzing the improvised piano lines that these lines tend to follow patterns not unlike those illustrated by Lord in his book Singer of Tales. In fact I set out both sets of material (Homeric and jazz) in very similar ways to enhance the similarities. But of course I remind my audience that there are significant differences between Homer and jazz, and that these should not be overlooked in a simplistic hunt for superficial parallels.

I would say that I have two goals in this (at least two): to show that Homeric formulaic composition is compatible with true creativity (i.e. not just sticking formulas together in some artless fashion) – that the system does not exclude the creativity; that jazz improvisation is similarly compatible – in this case that the creativity does not rule out the system; and finally that the two share elements of both system and of creativity – that two seemingly unrelated art forms have more in common than might be apparent at first glance (or hearing). Along these lines, I seek to clarify what true “improvisation” is: the OED definition (“improvise”: To compose (verse, music, etc.) on the spur of the moment; to utter or perform extempore.) is woefully inadequate, and many, if not most people seem to have misconceptions of what its true nature is. As a practicing musician who tries to practice at least an hour a day (which is barely sufficient to keep one’s “chops” in shape), I am acutely aware of how much work it takes to become an even average improviser. True improvisation has nothing really to do with “making stuff up on the spot”; rather it is the creative and inspired weaving together of previously rehearsed material (“formulas,” if you like, which include fragments of scales and arpeggios, things which musicians are constantly practicing) in a way that allows the performer to perform a given song (one of my favorites is Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”) before an audience in such a way that they both recognize the song being played, and are inspired by the way it is being performed. To me this applies in a very real way to how I imagine a passage of Homer would have been performed. And the concepts of “multitextuality” and “intertextuality” seem to apply in jazz just as they do in Homer. […]

Check out the whole thing at:

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