Hurry To The Light
for Women's Voices and String Orchestra
A choral cycle of the women in The Odyssey of Homer, as translated by Emily Wilson
Homer's The Odyssey is a tale that I've read some half a dozen times over the years. Recently it provided part of the inspiration for my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea (the other source of inspiration was Melissa Fleming's book A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea, which tells the harrowing true story of another Mediterranean odyssey made by Syrian refugee Doaa al-Zamel). So when A Far Cry's Sarah Darling suggested Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey as a text source for our collaboration with the Lorelei Ensemble, I felt both the comfort of familiarity and some anxiety. The latter was caused by the daunting question of which of the twelve thousand lines of The Odyssey to set to music? Of the many characters who appear in The Odyssey, whose story should I tell? After much discussion with Sarah and Lorelei's artistic director Beth Willer, we decided to tell the story of the women in The Odyssey. I am very grateful to my friend and fellow composer, Thomas Stumpf, for his invaluable aid and advice in selecting the right text for this project.
As Emily Wilson tells us in her insightful introduction, "The Odyssey is a poem in which certain females have far more power than real women ever did in the society of archaic Greece. Most obviously, the goddess Athena, guides Odysseus through all his wanderings... only through female divine power can his patriarchal dominance over his household be regained." Odysseus' faithful wife Penelope, though trapped in her home by suitors and her husband's long absence, still has "the power to choose... to marry one of her suitors." Penelope's fidelity is an important point in the narrative, as Wilson points out, "if Penelope remarries, Odysseus will lose not only a person he loves, but also, perhaps more important, all his economic wealth and social status." Other examples of the power of women in The Odyssey come through, for the first time perhaps, in Wilson's translation. In clearing the misogynistic dust left by previous English translations, primarily made by men, Wilson's careful and accurate word choice transforms the power of the Sirens from that of sexual magnetism to that of keepers of divine knowledge. Previous translations of The Odyssey interpreted the archaic Greek word for 'mouth' as 'lips', thus giving a sexual connotation to the song that came from 'the lips of the sirens'. Wilson's translation, "All those who pass this way hear honeyed song, poured from our mouths", gives the sense that the Sirens are not tempting sailors with physical pleasures, but with a look behind the veil of the unknown:
The music brings them joy,
and they go on their way with greater knowledge,
since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in Troy, by gods' will; and we know
whatever happens anywhere on earth.
It is with these subtleties in mind that I proceeded to set this text to music. The women whose voices are brought front and center in this work all have influence, or agency, over Odysseus. Even though we never hear his words in my setting, Odysseus is always there, listening. In movement I we learn about Penelope's deceptive tactics to keep the suitors at bay. Having convinced the suitors that she will choose a husband once she completes weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, she proceeds to unweave it at night thereby prolonging the completion of her weaving. Here I used the ancient Greek text from The Odyssey, much as it may have been heard by listeners hundreds of years ago. In movement II Circe advises Odysseus as to the best way home and warns him of the many dangers he will face (even brave Odysseus must've thought twice about making the journey after hearing what Circe had to say about it!). In movement III we return to Penelope's chambers where Athena has sent a Phantom to bring Penelope news of her son, Telemachus. In movement IV the Sirens tempt Odysseus and his crew with knowledge beyond the reach of mortals. In movement V Odysseus' deceased mother, now a shade in Hades, continues to lovingly council her son on the cruel ways of the world. Movement VI, the only 'dialogue' between Odysseus and Penelope, is an instrumental interlude that emulates the verbal sparring in Book 23 between the long separated couple. Finally, in movement VII, Penelope accepts Odysseus and the two reconcile. Though The Odyssey does not end here, this felt like a natural ending for my musical work.
In setting this text I sought to bring out as many colors, instrumental and emotional, as possible. The poetic rhythm of both the ancient Greek (the six beat Dactylic Hexameter) and that of Wilson's English translation (the five beat Iambic Pentameter) both supply much of the rhythmic underpinning of this work. In the end, I strived to keep in mind that this story is an epic tale of adventure, both in its fantastical god like flourishes and its very humbly human emotions, and to imbue my work with these sensibilities.
This work is dedicated to the fabulous musicians of A Far Cry and Lorelei Ensemble to whom I am exceedingly grateful for this opportunity to collaborate.
© Layali Music Publishing, BMI