Professors with guitars sing the classics, as in The Epic of Gilgamesh
Think of it as Helen of Troy meets the music of whales. Stanford humanities profs sell the classics with cerebral rock.
In a world where most kids write their love letters in text-speak and think that an "old movie" dates from the 1980s, teachers struggle to make Homer and Melville come alive.
Two Stanford professors decided to take matters into their own hands. They've released a CD, Glass Wave, with an unusual twist: It features characters and situations from the great classics of literature, set to their own music and lyrics.
Making the CD quickly became more complicated than they expected: The two didn't know at the outset they would be contacting an extended community of marine biologists, recruiting their associate dean to be a moonlighting violist or receiving satellite emails from Antarctica and mailing CDs to New Zealand.
The project began as an in-class experiment when Robert Pogue Harrison and Dan Edelstein, both in the department of French and Italian (Harrison is chair), were team-teaching an Introduction to Humanities course two years ago.
At the end of the class, the duo surprised their students by pulling out electric guitars and performing the new lyrics they'd written to the music of Pink Floyd, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix.
The students' reaction was predictably electronic: "They pulled out their cell phones and began filming," said graduate student Christy Wampole, editor of Modernism/Modernity, who was visiting the session. Stanford Events and Services recorded the event, too, putting it on Stanford on iTunes U as "Rocking the Classics."
Success went to the professors' heads. They decided to team up for a different kind of partnership, launching their own band, Glass Wave, to perform what Harrison calls "cerebral rock."
They recruited Wampole, who has a background as a French cabaret singer in Dallas and the Bay Area. Having a female singer made them rethink their lyrics, and write them with a distinctly female point of view – Nausicaa rather than Odysseus, Echo rather than Narcissus, Lolita rather than Humbert Humbert.
They took it further: the viewpoint of "the creature" rather than Dr. Frankenstein, and the rather annoyed whale Moby Dick instead of Ahab or his crew.
The musical result is "a completely singular sound – it's not categorizable," said Wampole of the final CD. Edelstein is a classically trained pianist, she's a French chanteuse, and Robert and his brother Thomas Harrison, a professor of Italian literature at UCLA, perform in a rock vein from their 1970s days performing with a band in Rome.
But they needed more: They needed a viola. They asked music scholar Stephen Hinton, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, for suggestions – before Harrison remembered that Hinton himself was a violist. Hinton was recruited to the effort.
The team also includes producer and sound engineer Jay Kadis, who teaches audio recording classes at the Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, and Bay Area jazz drummer Colin Camarillo – not an academic – who just turned 21.
Other sounds on Glass Wave are distinctly extraterrestrial: "The CD deliberately begins and ends with non-human sounds – it begins and ends with the sea," said Robert Harrison. Not surprising, given the prominence of Moby Dick and Odysseus' sea voyages on the list of tracks.
Then they ran aground. "I thought it would be easy to have a good whale recording," said Wampole. They finally found "the perfect sound" in the solo music of a humpback whale.
Who knew that the recording fell under copyright – and not a copyright held by the singing whale, but a live human somewhere? They were stuck. "There was nothing else remotely as appropriate," said Harrison.
The copyright was controlled by a researcher stationed in Antarctica.
"It's a happy ending," said Harrison, noting that, as a result, a number of marine biologists "have at least heard our version of Moby Dick."
Glass Wave is now available on iTunes (for download of individual songs) http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/glass-wave/id362403173.
MP3 files are downloadable at Amazon; the entire CD will be available on Amazon soon for $12.99.
For more information, visit http://www.glasswave-band.com.