Song Portrait #12: Dance of the Maenads

Do you like my laundry room? Why am I wearing a muumuu? Where have I been? I will address these important topics later. Right now I speak of Dionysus and the song at hand.

Dance of the Maenads is the seventh song I have completed for my song cycle based on Greek Mythology. Just as I have struggled with Dionysus over the years, I have also struggled to complete a song inspired by Dionysus, despite the fact that I find this god of drink, lust and general debauchery to be one of the most intriguing characters in Greek Mythology. I had started writing two songs prior to this one told from the perspective of Dionysus. I was not feeling either of them and dumped them, as I always do when the process of writing a song feels forced. Then I saw a production of The Bacchae.
Euripides’ The Bacchae, tells the tale of Dionysus and his plot to seek vengeance on the city of Thebes.

Dionysus is the child of Zeus and a mortal woman by the name of Semele. Dionysus was born when the jealous wife of Zeus, Hera, made Zeus send himself down as a lightning bolt to kill the pregnant Semele. This caused the premature birth of Dionysus. Most the inhabitants of Thebes do not believe this story and think the story was made up to cover Semele’s illegitimate pregnancy by a mortal man. Semele’s own sisters believe that Zeus killed her as a punishment for lying. Dionysus shows up in Thebes with a plot to introduce Dionysian rites to the city, avenge the slander of his mother’s name, prove his divinity, and inflict pain on those who have perpetuated the belief that he was not born a god. Among those who deny his divinity is King Pentheus, who is his mortal cousin. To carry out his plot, Dionysus sends many of the women of Thebes, including his aunts, in to a mad drunken frenzy. These women, known as the Maenads, go to the hills where they use their new found feelings of liberation to engage in all sorts of debauchery and worship Dionysus. I will not give away the tragic ending, but not surprisingly, the intoxicated Maenads lose sight of who they really are and allow Dionysus to use them to carry out some despicable acts.

After I saw the play, I realized that I can not write from the perspective of Dionysus because I am not like Dionysus. I am a Maenad. After I shifted my perspective the song came out really easily. Dionysus is the god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstacy and theatre. He is most associated with the grape harvest and wine making. He is known as a volatile god who can bring both extreme pleasure and extreme pain. The song is about the dual nature of Dionysus and all that he brings, how the the thing that makes you feel free can quickly turn into your worst nightmare.

Oh, so about my laundry room, muumuu, and disappearance from this blog. I have been very tired due to being pregnant with my second child. Today is actually my due date. I have also not had the time or privacy I need to work on this blog or music in general as of lately. Today I had a few hours of glorious free time to shoot this video in my laundry room (which doubles as my late-night-practice-with-headphones-on-room). I really hope I can make more time for working on this song cycle in 2015.

Side note #1: The production of the The Bacchae I saw was a Hard Bard production. It was a really well done, lusty, freaky, modern take on the classic Greek tragedy. The actors were all superb, especially the gentleman who played Dionysus and played him as rather flaming. If you live in Seattle I highly recommend attending a Green Stage/Hard Bard production.

Side note #2: One of my most vivid memories from high school is the moment my freshman English teacher, Ms. Johnson-Manos, bluntly stated “I AM TALKING ABOUT THE GOD OF WINE AND ORGY AND YOU ALL LOOK BORED”. Believe me, I was not bored. I was enjoying your class……so please do not despair, brilliant English teachers of the world who are forced to teach unenlightened suburban freshman who don’t realize how cool you are……you are appreciated.

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Song Portrait #9: Fading Away (Echo’s Song)

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This song was a gift from a wood nymph.

It is hard to find time to write in between being a mom (yeah!), teaching music lessons (yeah!), and waiting tables (boo!). When the muse enters my home she usually finds me occupied, too tired to pay attention to her, or trips over a bunch of toys and leaves out of frustration. For this reason, my husband, who is also a songwriter, and I vacation separately so we can have some alone time to work on music. This year I spent two lovely September days in a cabin in the Olympics. I brought several partially finished songs with me, including this one.

This is the fourth song I have finished in my song cycle based on Greek mythology. It was inspired by another song from this series, Nemesis. Echo was a nymph who had a beautiful voice and the gift of gab. The jealous Athena punished her by placing a curse on her so that the only words she could say were the last words said to her. Echo took an interest the beautiful, yet terribly vain, Narcissus. Narcissus mocked poor Echo upon finding that she could only repeat back what he said to her. In her grief, she retreated to the mountains and withered away until all that was left of her was her voice.

When I arrived at my cabin I had an idea for using the whole tone scale somewhere in the song, the chord progression for the chorus (which ended up being the chord progression for most of the song), and the idea of “fading away” as the song’s main theme. The rest of the song took shape over the course of a day. I would take a hike and think and then come back and work on songs. I did this over and over during my trip.

So far, all of these mythology songs have surprised me with the direction they went. While I did research all the myths, I did not take a heavy hand to writing any of the lyrics. I just let my viscera guide me and every time I have been surprised by which characters I am most sympathetic toward. Narcissus is not a bad guy in this song. At least Echo does not think so. She thinks he is young and foolish. She recognizes that she is young and foolish too. She believes that if they had met later in life, after working out some of their youthful angst, they might have had a wonderful love affair. She looks back with regret and a certain melancholy sweetness as she fades away and he drowns.

Oh – back to the story and how it relates to the Nemesis song…….

Nemesis, the Goddess of Justice, witnesses Echo’s rejection and punishes Narcissus by luring him to the river. She knows that he will either drown trying to chase his own reflection, or parish by the river bank waiting for the only person beautiful enough to suite his fancy to come out of the river. In a sense this is a song about the timeless theme of young love gone bad. I hope I was successful at telling this story from a new angle.

After the video there is a beautiful slide show of photos I took while hiking.

Song Portrait #4: Nemesis

I had been working on a song about Narcissus when I got sidetracked by the detail of how the beautiful boy, Narcissus, ended up at the river bank where he ultimately met his demise.  Researching the story led me down another path which led to the creation of a whole other song.

Narcissus was quite vain and proud.  He was admired by many suitors, but none of them were good enough for him.  One of these suitors was a nymph by the name of Echo.  She had been a talkative nymph who was admired by Aphrodite for her voice and song.  This ended when she tricked Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus.  Hera put a curse on Echo so that the only thing she could say was the last word said to her.  Echo fell in love with Narcissus and followed him through the woods.  When he finally met this strange creature who could only repeat back his own last words, he rejected her.  After this, the heartbroken Echo withered away in despair, until only her voice remained.

The goddess Nemesis soon heard of this and decided to punish Narcissus by luring him to the river, where he would become mesmerized by the only creature perfect enough for him – his own reflection.  The name Nemesis is derived from the Greek word nemein, which means “to give what is due”.  She is an avenger of evil deeds and undeserved good fortune.  She is also a spirit of divine retribution for those who fall victim to hubris.  The words “echo” and “narcissist” clearly have meanings derived from the characters in the story.  The word “nemesis”, however has evolved to mean something different in modern English.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of nemesis is  “one that inflicts retribution or vengeance” or “a formidable and usually victorious rival or opponent”.   Most people associate the word with vengeance, when in actuality, Nemesis is a goddess of justice.

I starting working on this song during the peak of Occupy Wall Street, so I was thinking a lot about the ideas of justice and redistribution.  I worked on it a little bit over the course of a few days and the song pretty much wrote itself.  I’d say it is 1/3 current events and 2/3 classic mythology.  I am finding that every instance in modern life has some parallel mythological story – and that is why these stories are so loved and continue to be told.

So, what happened to Narcissus?  Well, because of Nemesis and his own hubris, he did perish.  I do not necessarily think of him as a bad guy though.  You will see how I feel about him when I finish his song – which I am still working on.

Song Portrait #2: Medusa

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This is the song that started my series of mythology songs. I have been intrigued by the character of Medusa for a long time. Twice I have spent a good chunk of the afternoon entwining rubber snakes in my hair to dress up as Medusa for Halloween. I guess I really am a snake lady. The process of researching the myth and writing the song was so interesting and enjoyable that I decided to write an entire series of songs based on Greek and Roman mythology.

I love these stories because the characters and the lessons are so universal and timeless. It was also interesting to revisit many of these stories as an adult. When we learn myths and fairy tales as children a whole lot of sex and violence is left out – and it should be. Just last week I checked out a children’s version of Snow White from the library. Upon reading it, I decided it was too scary for my toddler. It was, by far, not the most brutal version of the story.

Medusa’s story is particularly brutal, making the children’s version one of many misconstrued details and omissions. I have heard two of these versions. In one, Medusa is an extremely vain woman and Athena punishes her by turning her in to a hideous monster. The moral of the story is that beauty is temporary and skin deep. There is another junior version of the story that is not so kind to Athena. In this version Athena is in love with Poseidon and Poseidon is more interested in Medusa. Athena turns the beautiful Medusa into a hideous monster out of vengeance.

When I revisited this story I found that there are many variations. The following is the version I based the song on:

Medusa was an extremely beautiful woman who was pursued by many men. Despite her line of admirers, she chose a life of service as a priestess in the temple of Athena. Poseidon, the god of the sea, was attracted to her. She rejected him. She was then raped and impregnated by Poseidon. Athena was furious. Fornication was a violation of sacred service, and by some accounts Athena was in love with Poseidon. Either way, Medusa was the one who was punished. Athena turned her in to a hideous monster with hair made of venomous snakes. Anyone who looked directly at her would be turned to stone.

Ultimately Medusa’s secluded and lonely life was ended when she was slain by Perseus. With the aid of Hermes’ winged sandals, Hades’ cap of invisibility, and a mirrored shield provided by Athena, Perseus beheaded and killed Medusa. When she was beheaded , her fully grown offspring, a unicorn and giant warrior named Chrysaor, sprung out of her neck. The head of Medusa was given to Athena and attached to her shield. The head continued to turn onlookers in to stone.

Medusa’s name means “guardian” or “protectress”. The timeless and universal question in Medusa’s story is that of victim or villain. In my song she is clearly a victim. The relationship between her and Athena is that of women perpetuating a cycle of victimization instead of empowering each other. I could go on for a long time (a really long time……) about the symbolism in this song, how timely it is, how it relates to my own life, and meanings of specific word choices – but I am going to just shut up and let the song speak for itself. Enjoy!

Song Portrait #1: God of the Underworld

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For about three years I have been working on a series of songs based on Greek and Roman mythology.  Three of them have entered my regular repertoire and there are many more that are works in progress.

I have been fascinated with mythology, Greek mythology in particular, since I was a child.  At my elementary school we had a “myth lady” who came in regularly the year I was in fifth grade.  The tales she shared with us were filled with magic and gore.  The characters were villains, heros, and monsters with great depth.  They were loving and deceitful, beautiful and vengeful, and wise and foolish all at the same time.  I went to Catholic school, so my early education was filled with relics of saints and their stories.  It was common place to hear adults say that we should call on a particular saint for whatever we needed at any given moment.  That said, the polytheism found in Greek mythology was not a far stretch from the religious beliefs we were already familiar with.  It can easily be argued that the incorporation of saints in to early Christianity was a way of Pagan Europe keeping their multitude of deities, most importantly the Virgin Mary as a representation of the their goddesses.  My favorite story was the tale of Persephone, Demeter, and Hades, which explains the changing of the seasons.  It is still my favorite.

I started writing this song shortly after my son was born in the spring of 2011.  Being a new mother, I thought the story would be told from the perspective of Demeter, but the song led me in a different direction.  I found that I had equal empathy toward Persephone and Hades.  I can relate to both the protective mother and the rebellious daughter.  I can also relate to the misunderstood creature of the underworld who has acquired a certain type of night vision that allows him to see beauty in what others view as ugliness and filth.  I house all of these people within me: the earth mother, a naive girl, the god of the underworld, the bride of Hades, and the avenger.  This is a song about balancing all of these personas.

Mythologies of the Snake

The Chinese New year officially starts February 10th this year. According to a Chinese legend, the Jade Emperor held a race across a river to determine which animals the 12 years of the zodiac would be named for.  It looked like the horse was slated to come in sixth place, but at the last second the snake slithered out from between the horse’s hooves and stole sixth place.  By some accounts the snake was just being sneaky in her slithering ways, and by some accounts the snake beat the horse by scaring him and causing him to hesitate.  Either way, the Year of the Snake is now the sixth sign in the Chinese zodiac.

In China and Southeast Asia, the snake is considered a symbol of luck.  Snakes balance the ecosystem by eating mice, and hence, protecting crops.  The skin, venom, and gallbladder of snakes are valued as medicine.  In these cultures having a snake in the house is a good omen – it means that your family will never starve.  This can be taken literally or figuratively, as a person born the Year of the Snake is known to be a good provider for his or her family.

Perceived as being both exotic and familiar, snakes are central to the mythologies of cultures around the world.  Their unblinking, lidless eyes were taken as a sign of wisdom and intelligence, and yet their thought process is as alien to humans as their method of movement, consisting of continual contracting and relaxing.  In Hopi culture snakes are regarded as a symbol of fertility and an annual dance is performed where live snakes are released in to the fields to guarantee healthy crops.  In ancient Crete the great goddess had snakes as her familiars, often twining around her.  They were regarded as protectors of her mysteries.  In the African Dohomey culture the snake god, Danh, circled the world like a belt, preventing it from flying apart.  According to Egyptian mythology, the state of the world before creation was symbolized as Amduat, a many coiled  serpent from which Ra (the sun), and all creation arose.  The Rod of Asclepius, a rod entwined by a snake, is a symbol from Greek mythology.  Asclepius is a deity devoted to health and healing, and his symbol in still used today in medical professions.    As indicated by the Ouroboros, a classical symbol depicting a snake eating its own tale, the snake is a universal symbol of immortality.  The snake is also repeatedly a symbol of the umbilical chord, connecting all humans to mother earth.  An example of this is the Indian myth of The Great Flood.   In this story the god Vishnu asks a man, Manu, to build an ark to house the creatures that are chosen to survive the great flood. (Sound familiar?)   Vishnu then takes the form of a giant fish and sends a giant serpent to connect the ark to him, so that he can steer the ship through the turbulent waters.

References to snakes (serpents) appear countless times in the Bible in both the old and new testaments.    Perhaps the most powerful image of the snake in Western culture is the biblical tale of the Garden of Eden, where the serpent appears and ultimately tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, causing Adam and Eve to be banished from Eden.  In Catholic elementary school, we were taught that the snake was a form of Satan, tempting the weak mortals to disobey the one true God.  It has been a long time since Catholic school and I now regard this serpent as the force that removed the veil of childlike innocence from Adam and Eve – a rite of passage for everyone on his or her spiritual journey.  These are only a few examples of the snake making a slithering appearance in to the mythologies of cultures throughout the world.

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So, according to the Chinese legend what did the snake win for coming in sixth place?  Snake won exactly what all the other animals won.  Since each animal used his or her unique talents to complete the race, all the children born in his or her year would be gifted with that animal’s attributes, and the negative qualities that are the flip side of those attributes.

Snakes are known for being secretive and mysterious, which as an artist can be an advantage or disadvantage.  This is a year for all Snake artists, and all snakes in general, to embrace our unique qualities to make the projects we are working on come to fruition.  Are you up for the challenge, snakies?