Photo: Aeneas fleeing from Troy
The Hero’s Journey
By Lily Nesvold
As a modern, musical interpretation of Virgil’s Aeneid, “The Hero’s Journey” is an instrumental track created using GarageBand, a digital audio workstation, combined with Renderforest, a music visualizer service. I created this piece as my final project for CLST-143, “Great Books of Greece and Rome,” taught by Professor Alison Traweek. The assignment was to “produce a creative response to the topic of the class.” Such an open-ended prompt provided students with the opportunity to let their imaginations run wild when crafting their submission. Equipped with these instructions, my mind immediately jumped to music.
It might come as a surprise that I selected electronic dance music (EDM) as the genre for my work. Upon first listen, using a modern form of music to describe a story from an ancient society seems contradictory. However, it matters not what genre of music is used to animate the epic, but rather, that the sounds themselves capture the essence of the poem. I believe I did so in the composition.
While the fine details of the Aeneid aren’t captured, the piece strives to convey the experience of reading the 9,896-line poem in a mere one-minute and thirty-eight seconds. To help with this difficult endeavor, the song utilizes the layering technique—the combining of multiple individual sounds to create a single, more powerful sound with depth. As is a hallmark of EDM, the peak of the song is delayed —thereby generating an engaging experience for the listener—much like the way that Virgil slowly builds up the energy and action for his epic. Throughout the poem, Aeneas is a counterbalance between furor (simply put, madness) and pietas (a complex term meaning loyalty and responsibility towards his family, religion, and the Roman state). These important Roman conceptions are conveyed through dramatic, intense, and invigorating sounds.
The stanzas themselves are intended to divide the poem into four parts. The extended beginning of the piece demonstrates the longevity of hero Aeneas’ journey, as he treks for many years and traverses the waters from Troy to Carthage to Sicily to Latium and various other destinations in between. In the next two sections, uplifting synths demonstrating Aeneas’ determination to fulfill his destiny are ultimately challenged by muted beats, representing the many difficulties faced by the crew in sailing across the Mediterranean. Juno repeatedly attempts to destroy Aeneas and the Trojans (or at least neutralize the threat they pose) to save Carthage: convincing Aeolus to bring a great storm causing shipwreck, attempting to keep Aeneas from his mission by formulating a plan to marry him and Dido, and causing discontent in the Trojan women that results in a failed attempt to burn the ships.
The sudden downturn to a synth indicates his discouragement and represents the occasions in which Aeneas is plagued by tragedies, seemingly unable to continue his voyage: unsuccessful attempts to seek a new homeland in the wake of the Trojan destruction; the unsettling encounters with Anchises and Dido in the underworld; and Aeneas’ suppression of his emotions as he bids Dido a cold farewell. However, these adversities don’t persist long—Aeneas ultimately recovers and successfully founds Rome. As the anthem fades out, the final notes of the composition create an oscillating, surround-sound effect to communicate Rome’s undying influence on subsequent cultures, including those of modern society. For this reason, it was essential for Aeneas to fulfill his destiny.
Unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid was written to be read rather than sung to its audience. Nevertheless, the fact that the poem is written in meter—dactylic hexameter—means it translates well into an audial form. Virgil was intentional with his language, and with it he sought to encapsulate the founding of Rome. In response, I synthesized his writing and attempted to rework his epic into my own composition for a modern audience today. From this project, my hope is that both Classicists and non-Classicists alike can enjoy the Aeneid in a new way and that I might inspire others to interpret other pieces through creative pursuits.
Lily Nesvold (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and minoring in Economics.