Euripides’ tragedy Hecuba tells the story of the queen of Troy’s descent to vengeful violence after her city is destroyed and her children are killed during the Trojan War. This ancient Greek play is the inspiration for Oracle Hysterical’s new album Hecuba, the latest in a series of projects by the group that seek to breathe new life into classic literature with contemporary music.
Oracle Hysterical is comprised of five composer-performers: twins Doug (double bass, viola de gamba) and Brad Balliett (bassoons), Dylan Greene (percussion), Elliot Cole (keyboards, guitars, vocals), and Majel Connery (keyboards, vocals). Hecuba also features guest percussionist Jason Treuting on drum kit.
The first song on the new album, “Helen” gives the perspective of the woman who is said to have started the Trojan war: Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, who eloped with Prince Paris of Troy. Connery’s smooth, sultry vocals flow in long, legato lines over subdued, mournful chords and melancholy ostinatos from the bassoon, guitar, piano, and double bass. The percussion stands out in the gentle, continuous flow of sound, adding texture and intensity.
The result is a work that is quiet and subtle, but dramatic, with a beautifully bittersweet indie-rock sound. “Helen” translates the power and pain of a very old story into something that feels new and universal.
We’re thrilled to premiere the video for Oracle Hysterical’s new single “Helen,” created by Four/Ten Media.
Learn more about the new album in our interview with bassoonist Brad Balliett.
Second Inversion: What drew you and the group to Euripides’ Hecuba as an inspiration for the album?
Brad Balliett: We describe Oracle Hysterical as ‘part band, part book club’ because we are constantly turning to literature for inspiration. One member of the group will read something that they feel would make a great musical project, and the other members take up the suggestion and get to work on some music! In this case, Doug Balliett, who is a major fan of Greek drama, brought a passage from the Euripides play to a summer work session and we developed the song Helen together. We had such fun creating that song, and were so pleased with the results, that we embarked on a journey to set an album’s worth of passages from or inspired by the play. The incredible drama and pathos of the play, along with the beauty of the language, kept us continuously engaged and inspired.
SI: “Helen” and the rest of the album prominently feature talented vocalist Majel Connery. Were the vocal lines tailored to suit her unique sound? How did the source material shape the vocal lines?
BB: Like a large portion of the music Oracle Hysterical creates, all of the songs on Hecuba were written collaboratively. For most of the songs, Majel devised her own vocal lines in working sessions with the rest of the band. A lot of times she would improvise several versions and we would decide together on the most compelling line. Sometimes we all worked together to craft a specific line based on the harmony. The timbre of Majel’s voice is almost impossible to describe—something otherworldly. We are lucky to have her unique sound in our ensemble.
I think that the source material inspired us to attempt to wed an archaic, monumental sound (one that reflects the enormous distance between us and the original text) and a contemporary style (one that shows that the immediacy of the emotions of the play are still as visceral now as they were back then). This is a fine line to walk, but it was a joy to balance these feelings.
SI: Between the unique combination of instruments, the literary source material, and your rock-leaning sound, Oracle Hysterical’s music can be hard to classify. How would you describe your music in general? How would you describe “Helen”?
BB: We draw from an enormous range of influences: Baroque music, Romantic music, various current pop and rock groups, the Beatles, certain kinds of world music, and so on. The result is a kind of music that is difficult to put into a single genre, which suits us just fine. Among the various titles we’ve heard applied to our sound, I’m a fan of ‘Baroque Indie Pop.’ “Helen” occupies a world that variously turns towards rock, minimalism, art song, and hyper-produced pop. Hopefully, for the listener, the genre titles fall away and the song is left as a single musical object.
Hecuba will be released May 11 on the National Sawdust label.