The “Oresteia” in music


I am thinking of the three major musical approaches to Aeschylus’ surviving trilogy:

Sergei Taneyev’s opera, composed in 1887-94 and based on a Russian adaptation by A. A. Wenkstern;

Darius Milhaud’s oratorio, composed in 1913-23 and based on a French adaptation by Paul Claudel; and

Iannis Xenakis’ ritual, composed in 1966-87 and based on the Greek original.

(I might add Harrison Birtwistle’s incidental music for Peter Hall’s 1981 production though I believe it is not a stand-alone composition and has not been recorded as such.)

Together, in their totally different ways they raise many questions:  What is the relation between theater and music in modern times? How may tragedy be set to music? What happens when a modern choir plays the role of an ancient (tragic or comic) chorus? How may music treat explicit political issues? What is the possibility of a musical trilogy after Richard Wagner’s Ring? To address such questions, one may take an Aeschylean choral ode and compare its settings in these three works. Pantelis Polychronidis would also point out the importance of the different language used in each work.

Incidentally, Ann Arbor, the college town where I live, has a connection to at least two of these large-scale works: Xenakis’ composition was commissioned by the neighboring town of Ypsilanti in order to honor its unique Greek name, and was originally part of a production directed by Greek director Alexis Solomos and given in 1966 in a baseball field, while the complete recording of the Milhaud composition took place in 2013 before a live audience at Hill Auditorium of the University of Michigan. (I missed the former but not the latter.)

October 19, 2016

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The centrality of music in German aesthetics


Idealist philosophy and classical music emerged together in Germany in the 1790s.  They were part of the same grandiose cultural project, the creation of a social discipline I shall call Contemplative Conduct, the self-discipline (which Schiller called “Aesthetic Education”) of the middle class.  A major regimen of this discipline is the practices of the Aesthetic Subject, namely, of the Subject as Creator/Artist and as Interpreter/Reader. Idealist philosophy and classical music were the two major domains where Aesthetic Subjects could learn their skills as art makers and art interpreters, and practice their Contemplative Conduct as bourgeois comportment.

Perusing German Aesthetics: Fundamental Concepts from Baumgarten to Adorno, a splendid dictionary of critical keywords that has just come out, I am struck once again by the attention music receives in this domain, both directly (entries on ‘Absolute Music’ and ‘Listening’) and indirectly (entries on ‘Mood/Attunement’ and ‘the Ugly’). In contrast, there are no entries on any other traditional arts (film earns one) and, while poetry and theater are discussed, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and the novel are not even listed in the Index. In the aesthetic domain, only music can deliver the Contemplating Subject into Totality.

From the generation of Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Beethoven (both born in the 1770s) till that of Hans Blumenberg and Hans Werner Henze (both born in the 1920s), philosophy and music worked in parallel, and sometimes together, to cultivate the Contemplative Conduct and reward it with the theophany of the Absolute. I have already written in this blog about listening to Bruckner’s 8th with Pantelis Polychronidis but the new dictionary sent me back to that symphony as a Total moment where music philosophizes and philosophy musics.  The eighty-minute ascent of Bruckner’s 8th symphony represents both an ascesis in, and a monument to, the self-formation/Bildung of the Aesthetic Subject.

My 8th is consistently one of Karajan’s, preferably the last one from October 1988 with the Vienna. Readers may prefer one of Furtwängler’s, perhaps the October 1944, also with the Vienna (the orchestra that premiered the symphony in 1892).

October 13, 2016

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Hellenism and eroticism in the French mélodie


“Chloris and Zephyr” by Jacopo Amigoni

The mélodie, the French art song that flourished between 1880-1920, deserves a very special place among the Hellenisms of classical music. The exquisite songs of Chabrier, Chausson, Debussy, Duparc, Fauré, Hahn, Poulenc, Ravel, Satie and others often drew poetically and musically on Greek sources, themes, and codes to stage an ethereal, rococo or symbolist antiquity, full of elegiac romance, melancholic pleasure, limpid elegance, and incandescent colorism.

An outstanding and famous example is “À Chloris” (1916), whose 2015 recording by soprano Véronique Gens and pianist Susan Manoff has been garnering much well-deserved praise.  The Modernist aesthete composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) took an archaic Greek idyll by Baroque libertine poet Théophile de Viau (1590-1626) and set it to music by drawing on the striding bass line of the “Air on the G-string” by Baroque religious composer J. S. Bach (1685-1750). In this song the collaborative piano, articulating with seductive grace, does not accompany the half-speaking, half-singing voice but converses with it on love making while also its melody converses with Bach’s basso continuo on music making. I am listening with rapt attention to Zephyr (the god of the west wind) whispering his love to Chloris (the nymph of flowers), guided by my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, a consummate collaborative pianist who points out to me in every song what the voice of the piano spells.

A wonderful post by pianist Albert Combrink has placed “À Chloris” in a most evocative synaesthetic and intermedial context, including some of its numerous adaptations for different instruments.

October 8, 2016

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New Greek poetry after its crisis

Below is my review of two anthologies of new Greek poetry which appears in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies 34:2 (October 2016). It places in α broad context of literary configurations Crisis: Greek Poets on the Crisis (2014), edited by Dinos Siotis, and Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis (2015), edited by Theodoros Chiotis.  The review is a counterpart to my essay “Left Melancholy in the Greek Poetry Generation of the 2000s after the Crisis of Revolution and Representation” which appeared as Journal of Modern Greek StudiesOccasional Paper” 10 earlier this year.  (This is the to press version of the review.The final, pdf version is available on the Journal of Modern Greek Studies site and through Project Muse.)

As an introduction to the review, poet Michalis Katsaros (1919-98) reads in Greek his legendary poem “My Testament” (1950).


Theodoros Chiotis, editor, Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis. London: Penned in the Margins. 2015. Pp. ix + 218. Paper £8.79.

Dinos Siotis, editor, Crisis: Greek Poets on the Crisis. Middlesbrough: Smokestack Books. 2014. Pp. 99. Paper £9.95.


If you stopped following Greek poetry around 1980, now is a great time to catch up with it. Of all the arts, poetry has been identified as the most representative of the current national crisis. It constitutes the major cultural domain where the Greek emergency and/or exception are being negotiated. What makes things even more interesting is that a crisis of poetry preceded the “poetry of the Greek crisis” and ushered in the most exciting new generation of poets in half a century.

The generations of the 1970s and 1980s were collective failures of form and force, but at least they produced a few excellent writers who continue to thrive, while that of the 1990s sank without trace, as poetry underwent a fundamental crisis of public meaning, even of civic confidence. For the first time in its modern history, it lost its faith both in its social mission and in the Revolution. This was due both to the eclipse of a major frame of reference with the collapse of the Left utopia together with the Berlin Wall and to the pervasive narrativization of public discourse, which turned all storytelling into testimony. Furthermore, all three poetic generations were overshadowed by the Greek postmodern novel of the postcolonial condition, which earned critical and popular recognition. Thus, the state of emergency for poetry came not after 2008 but after 1999, that is, after the exhaustion of political utopia and the rise of the traumatized self. In general, the crisis of Left culture preceded that of Left politics, and artistic dilemmas turned civic before moral ones turned political.

With the fin-de-siècle decline of literary and political grand narratives, however, a new collective project emerged early in this century, the poetry of Left Melancholy of the generation of the 2000s. Today, poetry seems to capture the general crisis so well because it went very creatively through its own immanent crisis and emerged with a skeptical mood of postrevolutionary disengagement known in political and literary theory as Left Melancholy. Several recent and forthcoming anthologies offer valuable opportunities to explore this major phenomenon. The two reviewed here open two different paths.

According to editor Dinos Siotis’s introduction to Crisis: Greek Poets on the Crisis, crisis is not a particular historical occurrence with its own unique character but a permanent Greek condition: it is diachronic (happening since “the capture of Helen,” [9]), Odyssean (“a journey into Greece” [10]), all-inclusive (social, economic, ecological, existential), and fundamentally poetic (since “every poet lives their whole life in a kind of crisis—real or imagined” [9]). Given the universality of crisis, the anthology has no particular viewpoint to suggest: 34 poets born between 1921 and 1983 are represented in alphabetical order, each with one poem, written in the span of 34 years, between 1979 and 2013. Based on the belief that poets are “in dispute with the cosmos” (9), it lets each poet’s single poem stand by itself, protesting human misery and denouncing all moral crisis. As a result, both introduction and structure encourage the impression that over the last three thousand years nothing has changed in Greek poetry.

Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis presents a quite different picture with a specific focus. Instead of arguing that poetry has been denouncing an ontic crisis transhistorically, it selects works that enact poetically the concrete crisis as they attempt, according to editor Theodoros Chiotis’s introduction, “to reclaim language from a semantic overdetermination imposed by the increasingly abstract processes of finance” (ii). Futures is structured around major terms of “bankspeak” (ii) to expose the erosion of public discourse by the vocabulary of global capital. Each of its four sections tells a multidirectional story of austerity through the strategic arrangement of its poems. 40 poets born between 1963 and 1988 are each represented in thematic order with 80 poems written in the span of 6 years, between 2009 and 2015. Contributors include Greek poets, poets of Greek descent, as well as others with a personal affinity for Greece.

Both anthologies draw on several translators in order to represent adequately the remarkable polyphony of contemporary poetry. If the first one is self-avowedly epic, the second might be called dramatic. Read together, they show how the crisis of poetry prefigured the “poetry of the crisis” by dramatizing the very notion of crisis. I list here ten specific strategies that made it possible for poetry to emerge out of the challenges to its of cultural legitimacy in the 1990s with a rigorous melancholic conviction and to assemble its autonomist politics in civic spaces of artistic performativity.

First, I name five projects of secession:

  1. The eclipse of French sensibility among poets. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, the allure of the Parisian language, poetry, café, and magazine has evaporated.
  2. Absence of explicit support for Syriza through writing, serving, or other direct involvement. Long before the party came to power, the generation of the 2000s was already post-Syriza.
  3. No poet pursues the avant-garde; code-breaking and noise-making are obsolete, since audiences are no longer shocked. Experimentation now rehearses the resonant possibilities of mixture and hybridity.
  4. The notion of the arboreal has been evacuated as organic, holistic, and consequential aspirations have been abandoned for nomadic pursuits.
  5. Painting as the favored art has faded, with the pictorial surviving only in some photographic projects. Music is the new central sister art, providing a broadly shared vocabulary, repertoire, and frame of reference.

In addition, there are five exercises in self-fashioning:

  1. The poets bring to their work high-quality academic training in a great variety of fields, often at the graduate level, as well, which of course requires familiarity with epistemological issues. As a result, this is the first generation of writers who do not just know Theory but actually do it in their own work.
  2. Almost everybody has lived abroad, and many still do. These poets are neither refugees from so-called lost motherlands nor émigrés. They are the new Greek global diaspora: cosmopolitan intellectuals at home anywhere who do not nurture a sense of nóstos.
  3. Critical reflection (be it review, essay, column, or interview) is cultivated together with poetry. These poets are impressively well versed in major works and contested issues.
  4. Professional and personal solidarity, both in public and in private, along the lines of civic friendship is a dominant mode of communication. Poets appear together all the time in physical, virtual, print, social, and other environments.
  5. Social media is an integral part of their network and communication. These poets remain connected and are intensely aware of each other’s work and plans.

Next, I identify ten distinct features of the generation/trend of the 2000s that can be discerned in the two books. They represent a summary of what makes this poetry the most interesting out of Greece since the generation of the 1960s, the second post-World War II generation. It is:

  1. an Anglophone poetry. Whether it is written in Greek or English, it is a poetry conversing with (mostly) English-language literature and thought, and therefore it speaks (mostly) English. It is written in a manner that makes it sound already under translation.
  2. a translingual poetry. It draws on several idioms and codes, from graffiti to rap, advertising to tweeting. It reverberates simultaneously on several registers. Its Greek is global, its transmission multidimensional.
  3. an intermedial poetry. It interacts with all the other arts and circulates among media, questioning normative notions of literariness.
  4. a performative poetry. It is embodied and acted up, mimicked and queered, deformed and dramatized. It appears in series, festivals, cafés, installations, sites, and happenings. Instead of quoting them, it de-cites and re-functions its sources.
  5. a precarious poetry. Taking formal risks, it escapes artistic integration and aesthetic integrity. The trajectory of its texts is uncertain, its course inconclusive. Any outcome relies on active audience collaboration.
  6. an operative poetry. It is a reactivating operation that seeks to render techno-discursive communication inoperative by resisting abstraction and automation and revitalizing the sensuous function of language within the social body.
  7. an emergent poetry. Its verses are propelled by successive emergencies and remain suspended in a continuous state of exception. Neither constitutive nor destructive, it pulsates with the destituent power of the transitory and liminal in flight.
  8. a melancholic poetry. It rhapsodizes the postemancipatory Left Melancholy under conditions of neocolonialism. It is not a poetry of defeat and despair but of diremption and dispossession, of revolutionary implosion and the un-Occupiable revolt.
  9. a molecular poetry. It assembles verbal haecceities in rhizomatic formations; it conducts advanced research; it engages in systematic critical writing; it expands in overlapping intellectual circles.
  10. a communal poetry. This is a chant of the commons and a song of friends. During a severe and multiple crisis, against all odds, it seeks to build agonistic solidarity and found a shared good life among the ruins of origin (national tradition) and destiny (messianic modernity).

The Greek generation of the 2000s has been composing a poetry of the melancholic history of intermittent insurgency, a revolt which functions irregularly as it starts, stops, and starts again. It is engaged in a major project of cultural (literary, artistic, and critical) critique of teleological (linear) history and organic (circular) poetry. In the interest of space, I have not mentioned names or quoted passages, though readers may find more detailed, developed, and documented readings in my blog, Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics (Lambropoulos 2014–2016). Instead, I have indicated major poetic lines of flight that draw a broad cultural plane of consistency, resist literary and national territorialization, and may be used to identify other artistic becomings in the transnational Greek sphere. Since this is a scholarly journal, I also chose to review these two books broadly as cultural documents rather than specifically as literary compilations. Hopefully, this systematic approach will bring them to the attention of the larger community of scholars, which they richly deserve.


University of Michigan



Lambropoulos, Vassilis. 2014–2016. Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics: music, literature, friends, resistance (blog).



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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


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


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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