Stephen Sansom concludes his time at Cornell with “MUSE-AK” performance

Stephen Sansom, a Postdoctoral Associate in Classics, took the stage with his bandmates on May 5 for “MUSE–AK: a Mall Performance of Ancient Greek Song.” The human performers, all dressed in paint-splattered masks and jumpsuits, were accompanied by a singing and percussion-playing robot named Muse-3000. Their performance was a highlight of the opening ceremony of the Sculpture Shoppe, an art exhibition currently open from May 5-31 in a former retail space at the Ithaca Mall.

The exhibition, co-curated by Prof. Verity Platt, Prof. Annetta Alexandridis, and David Nasca (Cornell MFA ‘22), seeks to facilitate interactions between the mall-going public and contemporary artists engaging with the traditional styles and themes of Greco-Roman art. The co-curators hope that the exhibition will inspire conversations about past, present, and future engagements with the “western canon.”

Norm Scott

Stephen’s “MUSE-AK” performance complimented the exhibition’s themes through the medium of muzak, a genre characterized by mass-produced song tracks commonly played as background music in malls. The performance featured three Ancient Greek songs. The music and lyrics for one of these songs originated from a grave stele inscription called the Seikilos epitaph. Dating to the 1st or 2nd century CE, this epitaph contains the oldest surviving complete musical notation. “The stele is inscribed with the notation above the syllables of the lyrics so you can tell not only what pitch they are but also their quantity or length,” Stephen says. Two short Greek hymns rounded out the performance set. Stephen’s academic research examines early Greek literature and its reception, and this performance added a new dimension to his work: “I wanted to personally learn these melodies along with the lyrics to help my own understanding when I read Greek drama and Homeric poetry.”

Stephen is a talented musician and singer in addition to his many academic accolades, and he was grateful for the opportunity to play music in public again after a long pandemic-induced hiatus. “It was really fun to adapt these songs,” he says. “In addition to considering a bossa nova version of the Seikilos epitaph or a mall-funk version of the hymn to Calliope and Apollo, I got to experiment with instrumentation and learn a few new instruments like the mandolin.”

Stephen’s wonderful contribution to the Sculpture Shoppe exhibition provides a fitting conclusion for his time as a Postdoctoral Associate in Classics as well as a Fellow in Cornell’s Active Learning Initiative. He will begin his new position as an Assistant Professor of Classics at Florida State University this upcoming fall.

“This has been a dream job for me,” Stephen says. Since arriving at Cornell in 2018, Stephen has been coordinating active learning initiatives for the Classics Department and encouraging students to pursue their education in new, creative ways. For example, students in his Greek myth course could create their own renditions of Ancient Greek songs for their final projects: “I made a bibliography and a source guide so they could hear other performances of the songs and they could see the music if they knew how to read music… I had one student do a dark-rock version, something like a Lil Nas X version of a hymn.” He also enjoyed co-teaching “Hieroglyphs to HTML: History of Writing” with Prof. Athena Kirk. The final project for this course allowed students to create their own writing systems. “I feel like everyone should take courses like this in college,” he says.

As he prepares to leave Cornell, Stephen wishes to thank the Classics Department for its support and intellectual camaraderie over the past four years. He is especially grateful for the engaging community he found in the Classics Plus Network of early career faculty and postdoctoral researchers. “Workshopping papers, articles, and book proposals with them has been wonderful. That doesn’t necessarily happen other places. You’re not guaranteed a group of people willing to read your work who aren’t specialists,” he says.

Beyond the classroom, Stephen has enjoyed exploring the Ithaca area with his wife and young daughter over the past four years: “Ithaca is the best place for kids. The number of parks and kid-centered spaces, here, there, and everywhere – this has all been amazing during the pandemic.” Stephen and his family will miss Ithaca’s scenic hikes and waterfalls, but new adventures surely await in Florida.

Congratulations on all you have accomplished at Cornell, Stephen, and best of luck in the next stage of your career at FSU!

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Stephen Sansom
Stephen Sansom