The Music of a War Long, Long Ago

Janos Gereben on March 23, 2009
John Glover

The Trojan War, history books tell us (without too much certainty), took place “in the 13th or 12th century B.C.E.,” and Troy must have been somewhere in Turkey, near the Dardanelles.

Yes, it’s difficult to know details of events taking place three millennia ago — especially so when our question is: “What kind of music did Achaean Greeks whistle while bashing in Trojan skulls?”

Fortunately for the fast-approaching world premiere of Lillian Groag’s War Music at the American Conservatory Theater, the composer for what the playwright calls a “groundbreaking fusion of language, music, and movement” does not worry about authenticity, else the curtain may not go up for a long time in the Geary Theater.

Says John Glover, War Music composer, musician, saxophonist, and operations manager for the American Composers Orchestra:


In straight theater, music is usually incidental. It’s for set changes, scene changes, and a little bit of underscoring, but it’s not intrinsic to the fabric of the work. War Music is unique in that music plays a fundamentally important role in the piece.

The word “music” is half of the title, so obviously the aural aspect of sound to convey story and characters is very important, too. This story [Homer’s Iliad] was originally told orally, and the text really reflects that. It demands to be heard out loud.

This production also brings us back to the ideals of ancient Greek theater in which music, drama, and movement were completely integrated and played at an equal level.

Glover’s music contains a wide range of styles and sounds, with some classically composed pieces and others referencing Turkish court music, 1930s vaudeville, and even Haitian voodoo chanting. Take a listen.

in Beaver Bauer
costume sketches
for A.C.T.

Premiering on April 1, with previews beginning March 26, War Music takes its text from the 2,800-year-old Iliad, about the clash between the warrior Achilles and Agamemnon, the leader of the Greekexpedition during the Trojan War. The play uses an English translation of the classic by Christopher Logue, who has put 45 years into the project.

Over the years, Groag has specialized in adapting and directing large-scale dramas, such as Blood Wedding and A Triumph of Love. Her directing work spans theater and opera; she is creating War Music in collaboration not only with composer Glover, but also with choreographer Daniel Pelzig (who set the movement in Mary Zimmerman’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor for the Metropolitan Opera).

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff draws a parallel between Groag’s play and the United States’ current foreign policy entanglements this way: “As a country engaged in several wars of attrition simultaneously,” she remarks, “we are desperate to understand how we got into the mess we are in. War Music is the perfect catalyst for conversation on these difficult questions and promises to be bold, ambitious, and unforgettable.”

The production features a top-notch cast, including René Augesen, Anthony Fusco, Gregory Wallace, Jud Williford, Jack Willis, Charles Dean, Lee Ernst, Sharon Lockwood, David A. Moss, and Andy Murray. Also participating are members of A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program, class of 2009, Nicholas Pelczar, Christopher S. Tocco, and Erin Michelle Washington.

Daniel Ostling is responsible for the scenic design, Beaver Bauer for the costumes, Russell H. Champa for the lighting design.