History repeats

Our cities grow in size, our awareness of the world around us increases, technology steadily advances, but some things remain immutable, chief among them human nature. The cliché says those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but perhaps it’s less a problem of knowledge than our own inherent failings and short-sightedness. Though airwaves abound with cop reality shows and courtroom dramas, crime abides. Ancient religious teachings continue to be used as justifications for violence. And, despite the many fruitless wars revisited in texts dating back thousands of years, we still plunge into quagmires with logic-defying frequency, suggesting rationality has nothing to do with it at all.

These are a few of the insights gleaned from Athens v. Sparta, a fascinating 15-track musical condensation of the Peloponnesian War based on Thucydides and Xenophon’s recounting of the conflict. A combination pop-opera, Greek drama, modern allegory, and historical CliffsNotes created by Trinity University history grad and musician Charlie Roadman, the album resonates on several levels and is likely unlike anything you’ve ever heard. It details how Athens’ cultural hubris, faltering democracy, self-serving oligarchs, indifference to its allies, and ill-considered military adventurism resulted in a war doomed by poor prosecution and overextended forces.

“The story’s about passions being inflamed and then some bad ideas that come from that. So, yeah, it’s pretty relevant,” says Roadman, who works as a criminal-defense attorney in Austin. “Things just jump off the page in Thucydides because you relate to them. There’s a lot about it that people respond to because we’ve just witnessed eight years of `war`, but it wasn’t deliberate. It’s just that the irony of things really makes for good lyrics.”

The album intersperses narration from Thucydides’ text, read by Ken Webster, creative director of Austin’s Hyde Park Theatre, with singing by Kevin Higginbotham and atmospheric backdrops painted with guitar strums, effervescing loops, skittering beats, and shimmery washes of melody that melt easily into the woodwork. Roadman fashioned the music from the contributions of 19 musicians who call either Austin or San Antonio home. He describes it as “downtempo pop,” and it isn’t far removed for electronic chill-out music, giving the 2,400-year-old history lesson a ghostly futuristic sheen.

As the conflict winds chronologically through its 27-year course, the modern-day resonance is striking. In “Civil War in Corcyra: Stasis,” Webster explains that as revolution spread, the meanings of commonly accepted words were changed to suit opportunistic politicians. “Reckless audacity was declared courage. Exhibiting foresight and caution meant you were a coward and deceitful. The ability to see all sides of a question meant that you were unable to act on any. Plotting against your opponents was a justifiable means of self-defense. Party membership and loyalty came to be regarded as the highest virtues,” Webster intones in his measured but forceful delivery.

In “Nicias Warns the Athenians Again,” when Athens considers attacking the island of Sicily even as the war with Sparta rages, general and politician Nicias counsels against it, citing the size of the country and its distance from home. “It is folly to go against men who could not be kept under, even if conquered,” goes the passage. “The Helenes in Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all, and next to this, if after displaying our power, we went away again as soon as possible.” The expedition ended in utter failure. Later, as the war turns decidedly against the Athenians, those who sounded the drumbeat in the beginning backtrack, brazenly declaring themselves lifetime pacifists.

“While Charlie was focused on being true to the text, when you listen to the record and look at the passages, it’s clearly about the disintegration of democracy, and people exploiting loopholes in democracy to become brutish and violent. There’s a lot of parallels there, and I think as people listen to the record they tune into that, because it’s such an uncertain time for our own democracy,” says Higginbotham, who’s been playing with Roadman in bands such as F4Fake since they were both

The album’s genesis goes back to 1991, when Roadman and Buttercup singer Erik Sanden were assigned Thucydides and Xenophon’s couple-thousand-page tome, and blew off reading it until three days before the final. Justifiably concerned, they crammed by reading alternate chapters then recounting the events to each other, effectively halving the assignment. The story stuck with them, and eight years ago Sanden bought Roadman the definitive edition of the text, The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert Strassler.

This encouraged Roadman to write a song about Pericles’ funeral oration, a rabble-rousing rant that provoked the Athenians into war, reminding them of their glorious history and suggesting that “judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom, and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.” It was still more a lark than obsession at this point. “I was just writing songs about whatever amused me, history, news, or National Geographic,” Roadman says.

A few years later, he wrote another song based on the Peloponnesian War, “Life in the Spartan Army,” and then another, and decided to dedicate an entire album to the war. Comparing it to Christo wrapping the Reichstag, he admits that, “I pretty much knew it was an absurd thing, and that’s what attracted me to it. Just the absurdity of doing something I was laughing about the second I thought about it.”

The scope of the effort certainly compares. Roadman would spend the next five years working on the album. First there was the problem of shrinking the history down to a chronology of less than 60 minutes of music and text without sacrificing historical accuracy or missing any of the pivotal events and themes. Then he had to make sure it was listenable.

Initially Roadman tried to compose the tracks with a live band, but found the sound problematic. It was too much like indie rock, and he wanted something “more modern, or at least not identifiable by genre.” There was also the issue of making the lyrics intelligible. He approached Webster about the project and intended only to have him read an introduction, but got so carried away with the many great passages in the text that soon Webster’s role became central to the project, and the music changed accordingly.

Roadman began constructing loops with the music-editing software Ableton, which allowed him to create music sequences around Webster’s narration that matched the tempo of his delivery. He sliced and diced samples performed for him by his many musician friends, and slowly constructed musical sound beds for the narration and Higginbotham’s singing. After sequencing the underlying song, he’d bring it back to the band to play over live.

“I’d edit with my headphones and my laptop computer for eight hours at a time. My wife barely tolerated it,” Roadman chuckles. “I would just disappear and would sit there, trying to figure out how to make it sound listenable. … I don’t think anyone was keen on it. I’d be really enthusiastic, and they’d look at me blankly, but I sort of took that as a compliment, like that’s just how crazy of an idea it is. So the more blankly they’d look at me the more I’d go, ‘Yeah I’m going to write this.’”

The effort dragged on. “You’d get the reaction, ‘He’s still working on that?’” Charlie’s brother and drummer Jamie Roadman remembers.

Higginbotham sang and re-sang the vocal parts, attempting different intonations and deliveries to help it all mesh together. He says their friends began to refer to it as a local version of Chinese Democracy whenever he’d bring it up. “They’d be like, ‘Maybe you and Axl will get that out the same time next year,’” Higginbotham recalls. Indeed, by Roadman’s reckoning, he could still be working on it. There are still a few songs he didn’t end up using, and hours of Webster’s narration, but at some point he had to cut the cord.

The finished product impressed everyone involved, many of whom had only played on part of the album, and hence couldn’t see the big picture. Roadman held an initial CD release in Austin, which sold out and concluded with a standing ovation. Webster echoes many of the participants when he says, “I didn’t know there would be that kind of an audience for it.”

But the response extends beyond those who saw the show or bought the disc to area history professors, such as Trinity’s Allan Kownslar, who taught Roadman.

“It is quite refreshing to see a former student exploit his talents from what he also learned as part of a university’s liberal-arts education to create such a work,” Kownslar wrote in response to an email query. “The composition is most suitable for use in the classroom, especially when either secondary or college-level students study the history of Greece. And what a way to study history anyway! I only hope more teachers learn about the composition and try it in their classes.”

This is Roadman’s hope as well. He’s already booked to play the Texas Classical Association Conference in Austin in October, and is considering putting together a study guide to go with the disc. He’s hoping that it will engender more conference invitations. “That sort of appeals to me, because, after playing, instead of sleeping in a van we get to stay in a nice hotel,” he says.

While not anxious to embark on another epic five-year project, Roadman is considering composing more historically based music, perhaps an EP focusing on a battle from the Peloponnesian War that he didn’t get to cover on the album, or a piece about the 1857 Sepoy using information he learned in another class at Trinity.

Athens v. Sparta was about history, music, literature, and, to so some degree, politics,” Roadman says. “Kind of where all the major pieces of my personality intersect, which I think is why I kept going and enjoyed it so much.”

The Peloponnesian Wars

The causes of the Peloponnesian Wars are too complicated to detail here, the cost of ink being what it is. But the Ancient Greek city-states of Sparta (think the oiled -up, wolf-stabbing alpha males in 300) and Athens (think philosophy majors and experimental-theater bloggers in togas) were like Oprah people and Ellen people — constantly at odds. The two briefly joined forces to tag-team the invading Persian army and declared a 30-year truce in 445 BC, but by 431 they were fighting again. During the war with Persia, Athens had basically extorted protection money from several smaller city-states and used it to fortify their metropolis and strengthen their already bitchin’ navy, yet they were understandably afraid to face the Spartans and their CGI-enhanced abdominal muscles on land. A bunch of war stuff, famously chronicled by Thucydides, happened, and then Athens’ massive attack on Sicily was repelled in 413, paving the way for Sparta’s decisive smackdown in 404. Modern historians continue to debate whether the costly war ended Greece’s golden age, allowing Phillip II and his successor Alexander the Great’s 4th-century takeover, or if the Spartan victory allowed Greek democracy to prevail over Athenian empiricism a bit longer before its inevitable ass-whooping at the hands of  the Bologna from Macedonia*.

— Jeremy Martin

*Not a real nickname


Athens v. Sparta CD Release
9pm Sat, Apr 18
Casbeers at the Church
1150 S. Alamo

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