Greek, Songwriting

Champagne and Catharsis

“Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends” -Tom Waits

In Greek, the word for song is Τραγούδι (tra-GOO-thee). It’s a sham friend of the English word tragedy, which means they sound alike but don’t share the same meaning.  This happens a lot between Greek and English.  An example is the word for yes in Greek, which is “Ναι” and has all the nasal negation of “nay” or “no” and it seems every word for no in European languages; non, nein, niet?

Have you listened to some Greek songs? They are emotive, dramatic and lyrically serious downers way over yonder in the minor key.  All things Elliot Smith and Aimee Mann and outside of exceptions like Queens “Best Friend” and George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” pretty much every other song in the English language songbook.   

Tραγούδι adds a little heft and veritas to the word “song” notable for its germanic pith, and which deserves some heft and veritas.  There are lots of rules for what makes a tragedy a tragedy but the short of it from well known authority Aristotle is that a tragedy needs catharsis.

Catharsis is another word which springs from Greek and is a real friend as the fates would have it.  The word for catharsis in Greek is κάθαρση (CATH-ar-see) Take away that “ess” sound from the word and you get Κάθαρη (KATH-ar-ee) which means “clean.”  So songs, or τραγούδια, could be about coming clean–about that moment of seeing things clearly, clarifying things.  They could also be about purging, purifying, expurgation, ablution, absolution and in one colorful translation of the verb καθαρίζω (cath-ar-EE-zoh), defecating.  And ideas like gloss, shine, sheen, shimmer, sparkle and lustration are all translations as well.

Lustration is a fun word.  It’s root is the latin word luster but why let that get in the way of the good old germanic lust hidden in that shine.

The turning point of catharsis useful to think about when writing songs. It’s a crux, or inflection point.  And it points to something that could be happening both to the characters and listeners before and after listening to a song.  That they come into the song in one state and leave changed–hopefully for the better.

Greek, Songwriting

Dancing with Booger Mcfarland

I went to The Rocky Mountain Song School last week.  I sat in Darrell Scott’s class for four days as he  listened to, and talked about song.  Mary Gauthier taught in the neighboring tent.  She was on fire about writing singable choruses.  The word “chorus” got me thinking because it has Greek roots, and I’ve been learning Greek.

How does “chorus” translate into Greek?  I put the words “song” and “chorus” together into the Google Beast’s translator.  Out the other end came: Χορωδία τραγουδιού. (Hor-oh-THEE-ah  Tra-goo-thee-OO).

In certain plays, which include Oedipus Rex and Antigone, a χορωδία, (a chorus), is a group of people who comment on the action.  Imagine ten or twelve Statler and Waldorfs from the Muppets talking together on stage.  Or, if the NFL is your thing, try a gaggle of John Maddens and Booger McFarlands* calling the action.

The chorus as a peanut gallery is well noted, but what was news to me–and I maybe should have known–is that χορωδία is rooted in the word χορός (hor-OS), which means dance. Choreography is dance-writing. The chorus might also be the dance-y bit, the part of the song where people could come together and dance.   I have some resistant to the idea of a danceable songs.  It makes me think of people sweating in a club to Kesha. It’s not my scene. (That’s also, a little judgy on my part).

But there are lots of ways to come together and dance.  You could ballroom dance,  Big Apple, Bardo Chham and Belly. You could Cakewalk, Cat Daddy and Capoeira.  You could Cha-cha, Charleston and do the Chicken. Circle, Square, Country or Western–what you need, dance has got it.  You might even tango, two step, or tarantella while you watch yourself Gavotte.

Can you dance the fandango?

Trust me, you can!

Whether you come old flat top or groove it up slowly, the point of a chorus is coming together.  It’s to sing together. It’s to dance together.

*Yep, Booger McFarland is some poor, benighted soul’s actual name