Sunday, March 12, 2000

Homer Flies Like Bird

To the dismay of some and probable relief of many, we’ve decided to take a short rest from the political diatribe you’ve come to expect from Classics Corner to briefly reflect on the obvious similarities between Homer and bop saxophonist Charlie the Birdman Parker.

Bird, one of the great jazz players of all time, knew thousands of songs and could drop bits of blues, tin pan alley, hillbilly or classical music into any tune at just the right place and time to create something perfectly of the moment. He played games with harmonics and rhythm and pitch to create a completely distinctive style that was either pure genius or pure crap, depending upon one’s taste.

Homer, another improviser of note, had a similar method. He took bits and pieces of a vast repertoire of styles and riffs and created a thing of amazing beauty, versatility and genius.

Centuries of bards had come before him, and their vowelly songs of Achilles and Briseus, Odysseus and Penelope, Helen and Paris were the Top 40 Hit Parade of Greece. They didn’t recite. Their audiences wouldn’t have stood for it. That was dead. They improvised on the spot, using formulas like rosy-fingered dawn and white-armed Hera and strong-greaved Achilles to mesmerize their audiences with perfectly metered poetry that riffed on familiar storylines like Parker blowing White Christmas.

Homer, in all probability, learned his licks within the brotherhood of bards, and, like Bird, transcended. While classicists agree on few things about Homer, most doubt he was a writer in the sense we would think. He was an oral poet, taking the pieces of his culture, and arranging them in ways we still recognize as perfect 2,800 years later.

Snobs that we are, Classics Corner is always amazed by how people can listen to, oh, say, Parker’s Ornithology, and all they hear is a bunch of annoying repetition which they will go great lengths to flee.

Repetition is where improvisation breathes. You hear the small differences. You focus on the rhythms. It’s a break from the intensity of creation where you relax for a moment and drift happily into the familiar.

Homer’s audience got this. When Agamemnon gives the delegation to Achilles his incredible list of gifts, ranging from golden tripods to daughters in marriage, many find it annoying that Odysseus, like some kind of ancient transcription device, repeats the list verbatim only pages later. Yet this was how poet and audience alike got a break from the concentration demanded by spontaneous performance. It was a welcome island of familiarity, like Parker riffing out on a phrase of Jingle bells when he’s off wandering God knows where.

No one really knows when Homer was frozen into the written word, and we’ll never know what it was to hear Homer sing. The bard was replaced by the rhapsodist, who, instead of creating in the moment, recited from memory. Imagine never being able to hear Bird do Ornithology, and the best we could do was to hear Kenny G play the notes. And then the rhapsodist over time became the hack. Imagine a muzak version of Kenny G ripping off Bird.

You can still hear him blow: “Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son …”

That Homer cat must really have been something.

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