Letters to a young pianist

My conversations with my best friends never stop. When we are not together, I often find myself engaged in imaginary discussions with them that involve my latest thoughts as well as many of our past discussions. I hear in my mind their questions and anticipate their arguments. This contrapuntal thinking helps sustain our friendship as part of my daily life.

One such exercise is the thoughts I often write down as part of my imaginary conversations with pianist Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self.” They are not messages to him but reflections on shared interests that extend past live conversations or anticipate future ones. They are written articulations of his persistent presence in my mind, sounding like the affirmative cantus firmus that defies the despair of physical absence in this two-piano version of a popular song (translation below the lyrics).

“Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ” (2003)

Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ όταν σε θέλω
τραγούδι άγνωστο κι αγέννητη σιωπή
Πίσω απ’τα μάτια, πίσω απ’ της ζωής το βέλο
κρύβεσαι σαν βροχή που στέγνωσε, το ξέρω
νεροποντή που περιμένω μια ζωή
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι

Μια καταιγίδα θέλω να ‘ρθει να ουρλιάξει
όσα δεν είπαμε από φόβο ή ντροπή
στα σωθικά μας και στα μάτια μας να ψάξει
κάθε μας λέξη μυστική να την πετάξει
μέχρι τον ήλιο ν’ ανεβεί και να τον κάψει
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ όταν σε θέλω

Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ όταν νυχτώνει
όταν κρατιέμαι σαν χερούλι απ’ το ποτό
απ’ το ποτό της φαντασίας μου που με λιώνει
κάθε γουλιά του καίει σαν πάγος και σα χιόνι
κι ανατινάζει του μυαλου μου το βυθό
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι

Μια καταιγίδα θέλω να ‘ρθει να μας πνίξει
σ’ ένα τραγούδι που δεν έγραψε κανείς
Ο,τι δεν γίναμε ποτέ να μην το δείξει
Να ‘ναι γιορτή, την αγκαλιά της να ανοίξει
στην ανημπόρια της χαμένης μας ζωής
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ όταν σε θέλω

Απ’ της ψυχής μου το ιερό
ως της ζωής μου το μπουρδέλο
χτίσε μια γέφυρα να πάω και να ‘ρθω
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ, ποτέ όταν σε θέλω
κλείσε τα μάτια μου και έλα να σε δω
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ
Γιατί δεν έρχεσαι ποτέ όταν σε θέλω

“Why don’t you ever come”

Why don’t you ever come, when I want you
Unknown song and unborn silence.
Behind the eyes, behind life’s veil
You’re hiding like rain that dried, I know.
Downpour that I’m waiting my whole life
Why aren’t you coming

I want a storm to come and scream
Whatever we didn’t say because of fear or shame
To search inside us and in our eyes
To throw out every secret word of us
To rise up to the sun and burn it
Why don’t you come
Why don’t you ever come
Why don’t you ever come when I want you

Why don’t you ever come when it gets dark
When I’m holding like a handle from drinking
From the drink of my imagination that melts me
Every sip of it burns like ice and like snow
And blows up the deepest of my mind
Why aren’t you coming

I want a storm to come and drown us
In a song that nobody wrote
Not to show what we didn’t become
To be a celebration, to open its bosom
To the helplessness of our lost life
Why don’t you come
Why don’t you ever come
Why don’t you ever come when I want you

From my soul’s sanctuary
To my life’s brothel
Build a bridge for me to go and come back
Why don’t you ever come, never when I want you
Close my eyes and come so that I may see you
Why don’t you come
Why don’t you ever come
Why don’t you ever come when I want you

September 20, 2014

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The absence of the Greek novel from world literature

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The importance, popularity, and even existence of the Greek novel were discussed this past summer in a series of essays by several invited Greek contributors in the literary insert of the Athenian newspaper TO BHMA for six consecutive Sundays. The editor of this in many ways remarkable series, Lambrini Kouzeli, devoted almost one third of her summary to the problems that prevent the Greek novel from becoming part of the world republic of letters. She noted that, in sharp contrast to the current international interest in Greek film (and, I would add, poetry and street art), the novel remains consistently ignored outside Greece despite its translations in several languages and readings in several countries.

There is another, even more important failure of the novel. Not only is it rarely reviewed and even less discussed but it is almost totally absent from histories, introductions, companions, and textbooks of world literature. When it comes to selecting canonical works, landmark schools, or seminal styles, editors of global surveys do not consider Greek fiction, not even for reasons of tokenism.

This is an unfortunate absence whose causes need to be explored yet it does not seem to bother Greek scholars, critics, and authors since they are willfully unaware of it, as the recent newspaper series confirmed. Sometimes they engage in revisions of the canon, as they did in the 1990s, or search for a “national novelist,” but this is only for internal consumption and satisfaction, which the rest of the world obviously ignores.

September 15, 2016

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Civic friendship

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Among recent studies of friendship, some (for example, those by A. C. Grayling, Gregory Jusdanis, and Alexander Nehamas) analyze it as a closed, self-referential relationship between two private individuals, while others as an open, civic-minded relationship between two free citizens. In the latter category particularly engaging are the following four books, written by scholars in political theory, philosophy, and sociology.

The Form of Politics argues that friendship as dwelling and dancing together is the authentic form of politics.
On Civic Friendship proposes that women perform the basic friendship-labor of democracy, and takes it as the foundation of a new theory of care.
Solidarity suggests that, as a virtue/excellence, democratic solidarity contributes to the common good and can sustain a global community.
Friendship in an Age of Economics opposes friendship as training in recognition, trust, and solidarity to the neoliberal economy of human relations.

The private and the civic kind of friendship are not mutually exclusive: on the contrary, they often contain enriching elements of each other. Neither are they to be compared in terms of strength or worth. As a person, I owe a lot to both kinds. My tremendous friendship with Pantelis Polychronidis, “a comrade in attunement,” testifies to their compatibility, and illustrates how private and civic aspects of friendship can be mutually supportive.

The current interest in civic friendship helps recall the early practices of fraternity
when, as I write elsewhere in this blog, “in the late eighteenth century, before becoming first revolutionaries in the barricades, then comrades in the parties, and eventually citizens in the assemblies, individuals who aspired to fashion new selves outside a court, military, or religious setting forged the first modern friendships seeking to balance personal feelings and public virtues. Two complementary pre-revolutionary types emerged who challenged the formal allegiances and reciprocal favors among the nobility with the civic duties of virtue: the rebel and the friend. They emerged together as they created one another. The rebel needed somebody by his side to fight tyranny. The friend needed somebody’s hand on his shoulder to save him from Werther’s sorrows. Together they overcame rank and sentiment to forge fraternité and fight for a higher purpose. The solidarity between rebel and friend produced a new agent, the revolutionary ethical man.”

September 1, 2016

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Before and after Minimalism – a playlist

This is a list of 20 compositions with a basic minimalist dimension, written before and after Minimalism became a major musical trend. It is not a list of greats or favorites. It is meant to generate reflection on this compositional technique, and especially the kind of listening as ascesis of the self that it assumes and advances. What is the listener position it creates? What kind of aural aura authorizes its truth claims? What is repeated and what differs from the repeated?  Is there a critical difference in dogmatic repetition?

These questions are part of an on-going conversation with Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” who has serious reservations about the Minimalist trend, like nearly all classically trained musicians. Since this entire blog is about listening to music with a friend, this list also raises the question of the historical present co-inhabited when presence sounds static and time suspended.

 

Pachelbel: “Canon” (Hesperian XXI/Savall) harmonically repetitive

Purcell: “Fantasia Upon One Note” (Savall) a tone sustained through the entire work

Chopin: “Berceuse” (Michelangeli) obsessive left-hand ostinato

Wagner: Das RheingoldVorspiel (Vienna Phil/Solti) rumbling E flat chord

Mosolov: Iron Foundry (Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Kalitzke) mechanical patterns

Debussy: Préludes 1 – Voiles (Richter) static whole-tone harmony

Ravel: Gaspard de La NuitLe Gibet (Simon) tolling B flats

Satie: Vexations a pattern of thirteen neutral, slow, and static chords with a preamble note

Domselaer: Proeven van Stijlkunst [Experiments in Artistic Style] (Wieringa) inspired by Mondrian’s patterns

McPhee: Tabuh-tabuhan:Toccata for Orchestra and Two Pianos, I.Ostinatos (Burley & BBC Symphony Orchestra/Slatkin) inspired by Balinese patterns

Cage: Sonata V (from Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano) (Ferreira)

Nancarrow: Study for Player Piano No. 21 (Canon X)

Klein: Monotone and Silence Symphonybeginning single note sustained

Stockhausen: StimmungModel 11 (Theatre of Voices/Hillier) it parses one chord and its overtones

Reich: Music for 18 MusiciansPulses

Feldman: String Quartet No. 2 – I, Pages 1–4 (Flux Quartet)

Carter: 8 Etudes and a Fantasy – No. 3. Adagio possibile (Sierra Wind Quintet) one-note section

Part: Spiegel im Spiegel (Little & Roscoe) tintinnabuli style

Tavener: “In Memory of Two Cats” (van Raat)
[in lieu of Distler’s selection Pratirupa (version for piano and string orchestra)]

DAF: “Der Räuber und der Prinz”

The above list includes the 10 composers in Jed Distler’s Minimalist playlist, published in Gramophone, August 2016, p. 111, and an additional 10 composers of my own choice. Most of the pieces and almost all the YouTube clips are very short.

August 28, 2016

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Why does Greek criticism have a problem with translations of new Greek poetry?

The arrival on my desk of yet another brand new anthology shows that international interest in Greek poetry continues to develop in several languages. Translations appear now regularly in magazines, books, festivals, performances, and other fora. They take the form of anthologies, compilations, special sections, or individual selections.

This broad dissemination, which has not happened to Greek poetry since the era of the 1970s, is treated unsurprisingly in Greece (only!) with (at best) silence or (at worst) scorn. In public and in private, in print and social media, journalists and scholars express their nervousness over this multilingual circulation, invoking one and the same predictable reason: Current global interest in Greek culture, they argue, can only be explained by the ongoing economic crisis, and therefore it has an exoticizing, if not colonizing, function; once the crisis recedes, it will evaporate. Yet this argument is little more than a defensive and isolationist reservation coming from media and academic domains that until now have paid very little attention to new writing and continue to favor poets who are over 75 years old, aesthetically modernist, morally avuncular, and nationally defiant.

A close look at the introductions of recent anthologies of translations from Greek into several languages shows that, apart from the reference to the crisis in some of their titles/subtitles, their criteria of selection are far from uniform: For example, Theodoros Chiotis (English, 2015) uses “public discourse,” Nathalie Karagiannis (Spanish and Catalan, 2016) the “South,” Marie-Laure Coulmin Koutsaftis (French, 2013) the generation of the 1970s, Dinos Siotis (English, 2014) the life of “every poet,” Karen van Dyck (Enlish, 2016) a “cross-cultural” view, and Pavel Nattsol Zarutskiy (Russian, 2016) the “Underground.” Each anthology offers a different view of the current landscape. I have not seen a single editor claim that their anthology was meant to reflect the crisis, and most of them say explicitly that it does not.

It is therefore both unfair and misleading for eponymous and anonymous commentators writing this year in print publications like Kathimerini, Vima, and Athens Review of Books as well as electronic ones to criticize these valuable projects for exploiting the crisis. On the contrary, introverted and old-fashioned Greek criticism can learn a lot from the innovative approaches of translators and editors to the new and exciting Greek writing that it still ignores.

My pianist self, Pantelis Polychronidis, might recommend to critics a simple exercise in discernment: Compare these beginnings of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto:

August 10, 2016

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The erotic gaze of the piano player

The playing of pianist Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” reminds me of cultural and psychological associations between the musician and the listener’s body, like the figures in “Titian’s dumbfounding Venus With an Organist and Cupid, dating to 1550-55. Venus lounges on a red velvet blanket, which Titian renders with stunningly free brushwork; gashes of purple and mauve run through the velour. Her son whispers in her ear, making her turn away from the musician in her bedchamber — who indiscreetly gazes at her uncovered genitals. The goddess of love has an untroubled face and a slight paunch in her belly. They make her seem more mortal, and make the painting even lewder.”

Since we became friends, I am fascinated by the erotics of piano performance – not so much the sensual relation of musicians to their instruments as their desire for their listeners, and the ways their playing embodies it. Pantelis is often captivated by beautiful women, real and imaginary, and loves to admire them and share his admiration with me in a warmly poetic language. Thus when I see him perform, I can’t help marveling at the way he addresses many pieces to goddesses of supple grace and radiance. Trying to think of famous contemporary pianists with a comparable erotic disposition and delivery, the first names that come to mind are Daniil Trifonov playing Scriabin and Lucas Debargue Liszt as well as Hélène Grimaud playing Chopin and Yuja Wang Schumann.

August 12, 2016

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The Greek Generation of the 2000s and the politics of new European writing

Reading a rich review essay posted today on the current political turn of young European writers I am struck immediately by the similarities of this turn with the politics of the Greek generation of the 2000s. To show how well the Left Melancholy of the Greek poets fits into the general trend, I quote here selectively the essay’s general points, omitting the comments on the three specific writers it discusses. These general points describe equally well the poetics and politics of new Greek writing. Everything below is quotations.

August 3, 2016

A new generation of young European writers is reinventing political literature—and people are listening. Some of the brightest new voices on the continent are making their names through overtly political books, showing that literature, even books of poetry, can still play a significant role in shaping public discourse.

A new Europe is taking form in literature, one that reflects the continent’s diversity, and the growing pains that come along with it. This new generation of writers is reshaping the old idea of the artist as political activist, this time with a social media twist.

What we are going to do about it. That’s the issue. These three writers all seem to take it for granted: It is up to them as citizens, it is up to art as a form, and it is therefore up to them as artists, to change things.
Like all writers they deserve to be read for the quality of their own work, and the books certainly warrant it. Still, reading these three it’s hard not to feel something is going on that transcends individual texts.
After decades where the most prominent writers in European literature have often preferred to see political issues as, at best, an incidental topic of literature, it seems significant that the major literary breakthroughs in three different European languages in a short period of time have come from writers who are overtly political. And just as important: That there’s an attentive audience for this kind of writing.

As writers, they also invigorate the public sphere. All three are as unapologetic about taking center stage in public debates as they are about perceiving literature as part of a bigger political endeavor: to point to injustice and ask for the remedy.
They speak of the necessity of looking critically at political language—who gets to talk and from where—as essential to their literary projects. All three challenge stereotypes and resist simple identity politics. All three take on big issues— gender, class, race, religion—through fiercely individual forms of expression, while advocating collective change with a 1960s-like energy that treats the everyday as highly political and infused with meaning. They all seem to embrace, in updated fashion, the idea of the personal as political.
In addition, all of them reinforce the effect of their writing with strong public appearances. All three draw packed houses, and are unusually stage savvy.
All express a marked interest in literary traditions, and seem more interested in seeing themselves in a line of thinkers, writers, even political activists, than in distinguishing themselves by underlining their difference from the past, “anxiety of influence”-style. If there is an aesthetic reorientation going on here, it doesn’t take the form of calls to “make it new” or lofty statements about change. In fact the generational perspective of this essay would most likely be rejected by the writers mentioned in it. Neither of them seems particularly interested in the idea of the new or the young, or even the unique and original as the highest values of artistic creation.
They also seem more concerned with the kind of belonging that takes place within a tradition of thinking or writing or art, than the kind that comes from being born in one place or into a particular social group.
But all three aim at breaking down language barriers. Whether it be between Swedish and Romanian, between the speech of the working class and the bourgeoisie, or between the language of the majority and the immigrant minority, the endeavor to mix languages normally not used on the same page is part of larger project aimed at crossing boundaries and scaling walls in order to build new political collectives.

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