Homeric Variations: Interview with Classicist and Jazz Musician Graeme Bird, Gordon College

Graeme Bird and a student from Gordon College examine an 1800-year-old Homeric papyrus.Photo Credit: Cyndi McMahon, Gordon College

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…” —Graeme Bird
We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with professor, musician, and CHS author Graeme D. Bird about his work on ancient Homeric papyri, jazz improvisation, and the surprising intersections between the two. Bird is Associate Professor of Linguistics and Classics at Gordon College, and Lecturer in Extension at the Harvard University Extension School, and has authored several works for CHS including Multitextuality in the Homeric Iliad: The Witness of the Ptolemaic Papyri and chapter three of Recapturing a Homeric Legacy, “Critical Signs–Drawing Attention to ‘Special’ Lines of Homer’s Iliad in the Manuscript Venetus A.” [Download]
Graeme Bird coverCHS: Your book on multitextuality in the Iliad examines the evidence presented in the Ptolemaic papyri. What are the Ptolemaic Papyri and why are they so crucial to our understanding of the Homeric tradition?
G.D.B.: The Ptolemaic Papyri are so named because they date from the period of the Egyptian Ptolemies – the rulers of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great.  The Oxford Classical Dictionary lists fifteen separate Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt beginning in 323 BCE, with the last one dying in 30 BCE.
So the Ptolemaic Papyri date from this period, which is significantly earlier than the vast majority of Homeric papyri.  What is most fascinating about these papyri, in terms of the Homeric tradition, is that they preserve versions of the text of the Iliad and Odyssey that are often somewhat different from the version that is more familiar to us.  In particular they sometimes contain what have been called “additional lines” or “plus verses” – lines that are not in our familiar text.  For this reason these papyri have often been labeled as “wild” or “eccentric” – to characterize their tendency to depart from the “normal” text.
However when we look more carefully at this textual “variation” in the light of our understanding of oral poetics, the evidence of the Ptolemaic Papyri can be seen to point towards a time when the Homeric text was in a greater state of fluidity than it was later.  In other words, these papyri reflect oral performance traditions rather than just scribal copying of manuscripts.
CHS:  In the course of your analysis, you reconsider the traditional goals of textual criticism (“to establish the actual text that the author wrote, so far as possible”) and find this paradigm inappropriate for the editors and readers of the Homeric tradition. Why must we reject the quest for “the text” or “the real Homer”? How can we become better readers of this oral tradition?
G.D.B.:  As I say in my book, to speak of “the actual text that the author wrote” involves making some unwarranted – yet cherished – assumptions: it is natural to want there to have been a single identifiable person who at some point of time composed the Iliad and Odyssey.  After all, this is in fact how many texts came about, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (although some have disputed this . . .).  Traditional text criticism indeed can be invoked in dealing with these and similar types of texts, often with fruitful results.  But each of these authors can be established as a historical person, who labored to produce his or her respective text, and produced it by using writing.  But in the case of the Homeric poems, none of these assumptions can be shown to apply, largely because the Iliad and Odyssey arose in a context where writing either did not exist, or at least where it had little or no relevance to the performance of epic poetry.  And because of this it is unrealistic, and indeed anachronistic, to search for a single author or composer who was responsible for the creation of these poems.  Of course this hasn’t stopped people looking for “the real Homer” – back in Plato’s day, and earlier, in the fifth century BCE, people spoke of “Homer” and seem to have assumed that he both existed and was directly responsible for the creation of the two poems.
On the other hand, becoming better readers of the oral tradition involves reading the Iliad and Odyssey in light of the rich variety of manuscripts and all the “variant readings” they preserve, and this is where the Ptolemaic papyri in particular are so important.
CHS: Your research also shows that the consideration of the mulititextuality of the Iliad leads to a greater understanding of the intertextuality between the two Homeric epics. A case in point is your analysis of Iliad VI 280-292. (p.92-96) How does your multitextual reading of this passage, which includes “Ptolemaic” “plus verses”, highlight the links between the Iliad and the Odyssey?
Iliad 6.280-281, detail from Venetus A: Marcianus Graecus Z. 454 (= 822) – the front (recto) of folio 86

G.D.B.:  Yes, this passage is preserved in the Ptolemaic papyrus labeled as “P480a” (following a system used most recently by Martin West in his 1998 /2000 edition of the Iliad.  As you point out, this papyrus includes three “plus verses,” labeled as 280a, 288a, and 288b.  This means that between lines 280 and 281 of our familiar text, there is an “additional” line, and two more such lines between 288 and 289.
I use double quotes to indicate that while these lines might seem “additional” to us, for the original readers of this papyrus, and for the listeners to the performance from which this papyrus is (I believe) a “transcript,” the lines were an integral part of the whole text, and not additional or extraneous.  So far we are dealing with “multitextuality” – an example of multiple versions of the text, each with its own validity; but a closer examination of the passage, and of the “plus verses in particular,” yields even more significant results.  As I say in my book, the lines 288a and b each evoke another significant passage, Iliad book 24 in the case of the former, and Odyssey book 15 in the case of the latter.  In the current passage in Iliad book 6, Hector is telling his mother Hecuba to go to the treasure chamber to get a richly woven robe and take it in an effort to appease the goddess Athena.  Line 288a includes details that unmistakably allude to Iliad book 24 (line 192), where Priam, father of Hector (who is now dead), is going to that same chamber in order to get jewels and other precious materials in order to ransom the body of his son Hector, and informing his wife Hecuba of his plan.  Listeners to this version of the performance will have caught the intertextual reference to the future death, ransom, and burial of Hector, heightening the pathos of the current passage.  Similarly, line 288b describes Hecuba as “queenly among women, standing beside the chests . . .” while retrieving the robe.  This line clearly alludes to Odyssey book 15 (line 104), but in this case it refers to Helen searching for a gift for Telemachus, son of Odysseus.  The listener will have picked up the intertextual link to the Odyssey, with a heightened level of tension coming from the fact that Helen in the Odyssey passage is the cause of so much grief to Hecuba in the Iliad passage.
CHS: In total your work highlights the necessity of a new critical edition of the Homeric corpus–one that presents all variant readings in a neutral way. How can this best be realized? And how can we help students learn the skills necessary to make the most of such a resource? Until such a source is complete, must students master the skills necessary to directly interact with manuscripts and papyri? How can we as educators promote these new reading skills?
G.D.B.: Actually producing an edition that presents all textual variants in, as you say, a “neutral” way, presents problems for a printed book.  It is probably done best electronically, where one can “jump” to a particular set of variants that correspond to a specific manuscript.  Indeed work is being done in this direction, by scholars and students affiliated with the Homer Multitext project, for example at the College of the Cross in Massachusetts.  [Also see our interview with Prof. Mary Ebbott of Holy Cross about her work with students on the HMT.] The fact that students are playing a significant role in this endeavor means that they are gaining invaluable experience and skills relating to textual transmission, and in working with manuscripts, not least papyri. [To see the kind of work undergraduate researchers are doing, read Christine Roughan’s post on the numbering of the similes in the Venetus A manuscript, Stephanie Lindeborg’s post about marginal notes in red ink in the first few folios of the Venetus A, or her post on the Catalog of Ships Summary Scholia in the Escorial Υ.1.1, and Thomas Arralde’s post on identifying Aristarchean commentary in the Venetus A scholia.]
A modern book that grapples with these sorts of issues is Gregory Nagy’s Homer’s Text and Language, from which I have benefitted greatly.  Nagy discusses the problems inherent in publishing an edition of the Iliad that privileges just one version of the text (as West’s edition does); he also looks at how the early Homeric scholar Aristarchus based his textual decisions on his assumption that there was an “original text” and an “original Homer,” showing that he was clearly unaware of the earlier oral stages of the transmission of the Homeric text.  And Nagy points out the importance of the Ptolemaic papyri as evidence for this earlier more fluid state of the text.
In regards to students learning the skills involved with dealing with ancient manuscripts: here at Gordon College we are fortunate to have been loaned a hitherto unpublished Homeric papyrus; one of the conditions of the loan (by the Green Scholars Initiative) is that we use this opportunity to introduce students to direct contact with such ancient documents, helping them become familiar with such things as types of script, dating, spelling and punctuation, possible textual variants, things that they generally wouldn’t be exposed to in a regular Greek course.  It is a wonderful chance both for me and for them to gain first-hand experience in working with an ancient witness to the Homeric text.  And students pick up the excitement of being close to the genuine article, and this leads them to want to work hard on transcribing and analyzing and interpreting the text of the papyrus.
Recapturing a Homeric LegacyInterestingly, the chapter I wrote for the volume Recapturing a Homeric Legacy dealt with what are called “Critical signs”; these signs were placed next to several of the lines of the text of the Iliad in the medieval manuscript known as the Venetus A, and were generally keyed to marginal notes (or “scholia”) that gave, among other things, justifications for why one textual variant was chosen over another – further evidence that oral transmission and performance were no longer properly understood at this point (many of the marginal notes go back to Aristarchus, in the 2nd century BCE).
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.
CHS: What are you working on now?
 G.D.B.:  In my book on the Ptolemaic papyri I gave brief analyses of a few of the papyri, and I am aiming to continue with more of them.  I’m also, as I mentioned, guiding some students as we together examine and hopefully publish an edition of a Homeric papyrus.  And I’m continuing to work on my Homer-jazz performance theme, focusing about equally on the performance aspect as on the analysis side of things.