An Epic Story - Benjamin Bagby
Read a portion of David Lang's introduction to hero, one of six programs he curated as part of his collected stories series, featuring storyteller and medieval harpist Benjamin Bagby on April 22. Lang explains that "collected stories divides the world not by genre or style, but by the various kinds of stories that a piece of music can tell in order to see how the story and the composer work together."
In 1982, my friend Michael Gordon came to visit me at my parents’ house in Los Angeles. We went to see the new action film starring a young unknown actor named Mel Gibson called The Road Warrior, a violent and darkly post-apocalyptic story that included a 45-minute car chase through the Australian outback. It was so intense that when it was over, we couldn’t move. We ended up watching it twice in a row, pinned to our seats.
I became a little obsessed with the movie, and I read everything I could about it and its director George Miller. I found out that he had been heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. So I got a copy, and sure enough, there it all was: the extraordinary individual, the quest, the journey, the impossible odds, the relentless pursuit of public good. I thought I had seen a movie about a dystopian future, but it was really an ancient, unchanging archetype.
It so happens that when heroes go somewhere, music goes along with them. Music to accompany the telling of a hero’s exploits is as old as time. In The Odyssey, Homer often advances the plot through exploits recounted by singers. On his long trip home from Troy, Odysseus hears how word of the Trojan War has spread throughout the Mediterranean, told by poets and storytellers and accompanied by music. This is a kind of metasinging, since Homer himself would sing or intone the words of these stories as he recounted Odysseus’s adventures on his long trip home. The very first line of The Odyssey is “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” Hero and music are linked.
It is easy to imagine why music should be the heroic tale’s helper. Telling epic stories requires a huge amount of text, with hundreds of names and places and gods, which may make it both hard to remember for the bard and hard to follow for the listener. Music helps organize both the telling and the listening.
It is also true that a heroic tale moves forward, as does its hero, in the same way that stories move forward in movies. There are moments of suspense, moments of struggle and of reflection, moments of fear and of excitement, and the anticipation of more fear and excitement. A journey, a struggle, impossible odds: It sounds like a movie to me. In fact, the musical function that helps organize a bard’s retelling of The Odyssey is not so different from how the late, great Australian film composer Brian May used music to help support the story of The Road Warrior.
It is clear that the music in such situations is the text’s helper. The music changes its character when the text tells it to. The music emerges from the text, it supports the text, it tells you how to gauge the emotional world behind the text and to anticipate the text that lies ahead, but it is the text that comes first. The music intensifies our hearing of the words, but hearing the words is where the action is.
In 2009, I went to The Cloisters to see Benjamin Bagby perform his retelling of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but I was riveted by the intensity of his performance. Intoning the text and accompanied only by his medieval lyre, the music made it possible for me to follow the story—when to be tense, when to relax, when to shrink in fear for the poor defenseless subjects of King Hrothgar, and when to exult in the triumphal exploits of the powerful Beowulf.