Barber’s Mythologies: A Musical Interlude

Dear Common Readers,

Imagine sitting on a secluded beach. A fresh sea breeze wafts in. Pour a glass of wine and gaze at the moon and stars in a clear night sky as music drifts out and settles around you.

Listening to Mythologies by composer, pianist, and vocalist Patricia Barber seems like the perfect way to cap off my unit on Ancient Greek and Roman women poets. Like them, Ms. Barber explores mythology and uses it as a metaphor for themes such as yearning, unrequited love, vanity, obsession, hunger, and more. Ms. Barber’s compositions range from torch songs and traditional jazz ballads to fusion jazz with rock electric guitar to progressive jazz songs. “Phaeton” includes a hip hop section and “The Hours” adds a choir to the mix on this thoroughly enjoyable album. I own the CD but for those of you who wish to sample it, Universal Music Group has thoughtfully posted the album on YouTube (see links for individual tracks).

“The Moon” starts off quietly, even a bit discordantly, before shifting into a busy tune full of horns. To me, this mimics the phases of the moon. Some lines compare the moon to a stage actress “… and Illumination / is in fact / Performance.” My favorite lines are:

But tonight
there won’t be light
‘cause I can’t shine
without you

“Pygmalion” is a torch song about infatuation and unrequited love. Ms. Barber cleverly reverses the happy ending of the Pygmalion myth by exposing the way we sometimes prefer the fantasies we project onto the beloved over the actual person.

…if the mask
Should crumble and fall
Warm blooded after all
The longer you stall
So shall I last

In another interesting twist, Ms. Barber uses the Oedipus myth as a metaphor for imperialism, re-imagining Oedipus in these lines as “a gangster in a Hummer / & this culture will yield to me” in “Whiteworld.”

Meanwhile “Hunger” touches on both the punishment of Tantalus and on the myth of Eros and Psyche to explore different permutations of hunger: gluttony, greed, lust, obsession, and addiction. “And there’s never ever enough to eat.”

One of my favorite songs on this album is “Icarus (for Nina Simone).” Nina Simone was a brilliant composer, pianist, and vocalist who paid a heavy price both personally and professionally for her commitment to civil rights activism. (Check out the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? It’s currently available on Netflix.)  Ms. Barber compares Ms. Simone to Icarus but, in a twist on the myth, she condemns those like Daedalus

… who didn’t blow the whistle
took calculated risks
who didn’t push the river
who didn’t go to great lengths
or to great heights

and reserves her praise for Ms. Simone who, like Icarus, made “a boldfaced attempt to fly.”

Get this album in whatever format you prefer and enjoy!


Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Edited on July 28, 2017 to remove links to videos that are no longer available on YouTube.