The Odyssey was written by Homer about 2700 years ago. It tells of the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman mythology) during his harrowing return to Ithaca after being away for twenty years, ten of which he had spent fighting the Trojan Wars. In one part of the journey, Odysseus is aware that he is about to encounter the sirens, famous for luring sailors to their death with their beguiling wind-like song. Intensely curious to hear them, he has all his sailors plug their ears and tie him to the mast, with instructions not to untie him, no matter what he says. As they approach, the sirens begin singing and Odysseus screams to be untied, but the sailors can’t hear him and they are all saved.
According to some versions of the myth, the sirens are fated to die if sailors were to hear their song and escape. So after Odysseus’ ship passes by, the sirens fling themselves into the sea and are drowned.
This piece suggests this dramatic encounter. If you listen carefully, you can hear the wind-song becoming evermore insistent, the rocking of the ship, Odysseus’ screams, and finally the sirens plunging to their death.
It might also be mentioned that sirens are still found in our stories today. Perhaps most recently, the Marvel Comics superhero “Siryn” (associated with the X-Men) is an Irish mutant that possesses a “sonic scream.” And the term "siren song" still refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but, if heeded, will lead to disaster.
Finally, as part of the American Composers Forum commission that supported the creation of this piece, the composer worked with the Boynton Middle School Concert Band, which also happens to live in Ithaca (though this one is in New York).
The Odyssey is one of the few books I vividly recall reading as a very young person, and I hope students playing this piece will explore this terrific story. In fact, a school “unit” could easily be designed around this subject, in the spirit of two of the National Standards for Music Education:
8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.
9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.