“Modernist Theory & Theater between the Tragic & the Melancholic”

Here is a video of two lectures at the University of Michigan in dialogue on modern tragedy:  the brilliant Ian Balfour (English, York) focuses on Shakespeare’s Hamlet while I focus on the tragedy that has been called Luigi Pirandello’s Hamlet, Enrico IV (1922).  My lecture, between 1:01:15-1:44:00, is followed by questions and answers.

I am grateful to Srdjan Cvjeticanin and Megan Torti, the wonderful organizers of “Central Concepts in Contemporary Theory,” a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop at the University of Michigan, who invited me to speak.

March 24, 2018

Posted in Disengagement, Literature, Melancholy, Resistance | Tagged , , ,

The listening self

Musicians do not play an instrument.  They are using instruments to play their body.  They resonate instruments in the echo chamber of their reverberating body.

In attending or watching live performances, I have learned to listen not to the interpretation, let alone the “work,” but to the resonating bodies of the musicians, whether they are soloists or an entire orchestra.  I am drawn to the music making of bodies, to bodies being musicalized in performance.  An eminent occasion of this musicalization is bodies resonating with percussion, as my six clips below (in chronological order of composition, all with soloists) illustrate.  While Jean-Luc Nancy (1940) in his Listening (Àl’écoute, 2002) discusses the “listening self” in general, in this post I want also to highlight the work of that most committed listener, the musician.

From the very beginning, my entire blog is predicated on the idea of a non-metaphysical open listening to sense, a listening that has not been neutralized by philosophical hearing for truth, to use Nancy’s distinction drawing on “a dynamic, resonant philosophy that subsists in the space of the renvoi; in sound that exists only as a resounding” (Sarah Hickmott:  “(En)corps sonore: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Sonotropism’, French Studies69:4, 2015, 483).  If it is not truththat I am seeking to hear, what is the sensethat I am listening for?

Sense is not meaning but what makes signification possible.  It is itself  “meaning(ful) rather than havingmeaning that needs to be located ‘elsewhere'” (480), beyond music. Sense does not sound, it resonates – like Stimmung.

“Sense is first of all the rebound of sound, a rebound that is coextensive with the whole folding/unfolding of presence and of the present that makes or opens the perceptible as such, and that opens in it the sonorous exponent: … sense consists first of all, not in the signifying intention but rather in a listening, where only resonance comes to resound” (Nancy: Listening2007, 30).  Sense and sound share the “form, structure, or movement” (9) of resonance/renvoi.  “The resonance of sense as the vibration of a sonorous materiality” (Adrienne Janus: “Listening:  Jean-Luc Nancy and the ‘Anti-Ocular’ Turn in Continental Philosophy and Critical Theory,” Comparative Literature63:2, 2011, 192) is the foundation of my listening.

“The foundation … of all senses of resonance is the resonance of the listening body, the ‘corps sonore‘ (resonant body) that … ‘opens a simultaneous listening to a ‘self’ and to a ‘world’ that are both in resonance’ [Nancy]” (191).  By listening we open ourselves up to “being as resonance” (Nancy 21).  Nancy emphasizes “the sensory relationship between world and listener, a listening that begins not with the search for meaning but on the basis of the sensory qualities of sound” (Brian Kane:  “Jean-Luc Nancy and the Listening Subject,” Contemporary Music Review31:5-6, 2012, 443).

In his acoustemological study of Derridean difference as the sonorous, Nancy makes two key claims:  “firstly, sound is always already a resounding that folds into itself any distinction between subject/object and inside/outside.  Secondly, that sound subsists as a kind of opening or sharing, and in a privileged relation to all the resonances of sens(as perception, intelligibility, and direction)” (Hickmott 479-80).  We cannot talk about works as complete productions, not even about music as an actual separate being of sonorous form. “Musical objects don’t disclose truths, but only present themselves as the technique of the sonorous made into an active presencing” (Michael Gallope:  review of Nancy’s Listening, Current Musicology86, 2008, 162).

Rather than a philosophy of music, Nancy’s book proposes an otocentric thinking of listening and an ontology of the listening self as a resonant body/corps sonore, a sonorous subject listening to the infinite resonance/renvoiof meaning, sound, and self.  “Nancy privileges the body of the listening subject against the rational, seeing, determining and signifying intellect” (Martyn Hudson: “What, am I Hearing Light? Listening through Jean-Luc Nancy,” HJ Journal19, 2014, 3).  Nancy is suggesting “the conditions of possibility for … a philosophical style of thinking and writing based on listening as a mode of attending to the resonances that penetrate, reverberate between, compose and decompose self and world, the psychic and the bodily, the intellectual and the sensual” (Janus 185).  Furthermore, he “resists re-inscribing a listening subject and a listened-to object.  Instead, the audible appears affirmatively as the perpetual flux of a shared, sonorous world” (Hickmott 482).

I owe my aural disposition to pianist Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self” (pictured at the top in one of our joint recitals), who to me represents, as a musician, “the productivity of the self as an ongoing temporal or rhythmic pulse” (Kane 445).  Since I started listening to his listening, I have become increasingly aware of how a musician uses an instrument to activate his body as a “reverberation chamber” (Nancy 27).  Even before touching the piano, from the moment he gets ready to approach it, Pantelis begins to tune his body, preparing it for the sonic encounter.  While playing, he is listening to his pianistic resonance so intensely that I, his audience, in response, listen by resonating as well.  I cannot tell the piano from the music or his body as timbre “envelopes and penetrates communication itself” (Janus 191).  I do not hearinspiration or interpretation.  I listento Pantelis’ performative listening by reverberating his reverberation, which is literally making, that is, generating, sense of both self and world.  I have learned to listen by reverberating the sonorous body of my “other self” as it is musicalized in performance through composing/presencing a self/world.  As I wrote in my very first post, “Together we co-habit a resounding present, we achieve a presence in flux.”

I cannot tell what came first, our friendship or our collaborative music making.  They probably emerged together since friendship operates like listening, despite the absence of instruments.  When listening to each other, friends resonate and compose a reverberating world for themselves and for others.

October 10, 2017

Posted in Attunement, Classical Music, Collaboration, Friends, Listening

“Greek Democracy in Crisis or Stasis”

“The decade of the Greek 2010s may be understood in two very different ways, both of them based on Leftist views of the explosive December of 2008: Either in terms of a biopolitical crisis whose victims need the government΄s pastoral care or in terms of stasis whose actors contest self-rule agonistically.  I will argue that stasis, understood as internal contestation of power, provides an alternative model of institution to the dominant model of crisis according to which Greeks continue to be governed.  I will base my discussion on a comparison of the manners in which fiction and poetry have been rendering the crisis and the stasis respectively legible.”


Greek translation

August 14, 2018


Posted in Autonomy, Crisis, Culture, Friends, Greek Literature, Greek Poetry, Left, Melancholy, Revolt, The Common

Recent popular songs referencing classical music

[In this post I am happy and proud to host Erin Mays, a former student of mine and very successful professional in software product management, who has an admirable command of music as a performer, listener, thinker, administrator, even fundraiser.  Given her love for things Greek, I thought I might introduce her reflections with a demo of how to dance … Mozart’s 4oth Symphony.  Below is her post.]

In the years since I took classes with Vassilis at the University of Michigan many (many) years ago, our shared passion for classical music and opera has given us a reason to stay connected, whether it’s disagreeing over Matthew Polenzani’s Werther (he’s a fan, I’m not), comparing notes on the Lyric’s commission of Bel Canto, or geeking out over Joyce DiDonato (as one does). Vassilis has invited me to share my “happy retirement” card to him, inspired by some of the lists he’s posted to this space. It consists of 10 songs in semi-recent popular music that reference classical works (some less obviously than others). While I know the sources need to be there, I think it’s pretty meta to be missing citations in a post about a practice that rarely includes citations. We hope you might help us add to this list by sending in your suggestions of recent songs with classical references.

10. “Lacrymosa” by Evanescence (Requiem by Mozart)

9. “Breathe Me” by Sia (“Metamorphosis One” by Philip Glass)

8. “Little Me” by Little Mix (Pavane by Fauré)

7. “Intergalatic” by the Beastie Boys (they directly sample Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky, with an easter egg of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor within the song itself)

6. “I Belong to You” by Muse (“Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns)

5. “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga (“Csárdás” by Vittorio Monti)

4. “Love of My Life” by Santana and Dave Matthews (Symphony No. 3, third movement, by Brahms)

3. “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes (Symphony No 5, first movement, by Bruckner)

2. “Exit Music for a Film” by Radiohead (Prelude No. 4 in E minor by Chopin)

1. “Butterflies and Hurricanes” by Muse.  This one might be cheating — I don’t believe Matt Bellamy actually references here, but his cadenza right in the middle of the song is clearly inspired by Rachmaninoff; probably his 2nd Piano Concerto.

There are some terrible examples I chose not to include here… Do not listen to “If I Had Words” by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley if you enjoy Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. It’s (almost) aptly named – I have no words.

Erin Mays

June 1, 2018

Posted in Classical Music, Popular Music

Are there any Greeks in this publication? (3)

A few weeks ago the Times Literary Supplement published a letter about its abysmal coverage of modern Greek literature.  The correspondent complained that they “rarely list Modern Greek poetry and prose.”  I was not surprised that no other letters on this topic followed, since they would have been in vain.

I have been reading the TLS for half a century, and know well its low esteem for new writing in Greek. Furthermore, I have seen this esteem evaporate since Classics Editor Mary Beard and Editor Peter Stothard adopted their infamous anti-Hellenic policy some twenty years ago.  Dame Mary assumes that nothing ever admired as Greek deserves its reputation while Sir Peter has declared that nothing of interest has been coming out of Greece.  (I know, I have invited both of them to lecture on campus.)

There is a problem, of course.  Greeks may be downgraded or ignored but Greece cannot be obliterated. What to do?  Let non-Greeks write about it, as they have been doing anyway since at least the Grand Tour.  A look at recent TLS issues confirms that this editorial policy remains firmly in place.  Thus we find British (Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor), American (A. E. Stallings), Turkish (Sevan Nisanyan), and other writers and scholars writing about their lives among the Greeks.  This may be called the Mamma Mia! approach to Greece where the natives are silent and part of the decor while the foreign visitors are busy finding their selves and myths.  Why should the TLS listen to today’s Greeks speak by reviewing new Greek-language books if it can empower others to speak on their behalf?

June 30, 2018

Posted in Greek Literature, Greeks, Hellenism, The "Greeks"

Goethe’s Mignon sings to Wilhelm Meister

From Beethoven to Berg and beyond, a great number of major composers has set to music the poem Kennst du das land (Do you know the land) from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Book III, Chapter 1, 1795) where the enigmatic adolescent Mignon tells Wilhelm Meister about her Italian homeland.

These songs vary greatly, despite the limited range of the verses.  Listening to my “other self,” collaborative pianist Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, listening to them I concentrate on the piano (or other instruments), which is not merely accompanying the voice but is singing with, or commenting on it.

As I travel to Mignon’s land through these renditions, it is the piano that makes me notice their distinct approaches.  Listing 15 of them here (in chronological order) is a way to trace the evolution of the art song over two centuries but also celebrate Pantelis’ name day today.

Reichardt: Lieder Der Liebe Und Der Einsamkeit – Das glückliche Land (“Kennst du das Land?”).  Tania Bussi–Paolo Mora (violino)–Lorenzo Montenz (basso continuo)

Zelter:  “Kennst du das Land”. Bettina Pahn–Tini Mathot

Beethoven: 6 Gesänge op.75 – 1. “Kennst du das Land”.  Adele Stolte–Walter Olbertz

Schubert: “Kennst du das Land”, D321. Gundula Janowitz–Irwin Gage

Spohr: “Mignons Lied”.  Danuta Debski–Krzysztof Debski (guitar)

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel: “Kennst du das Land”.  Elena Cecchi Fedi

Liszt:  “Kennst du das Land”.  Brigitte Fassbaender—Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Schumann: Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’, Op.98a – 1. “Kennst du das Land”. Edith Mathis–Christoph Eschenbach

Thomas:  Mignon’s romanza, “Connais-tu le pays?” (sung in German as “Kennst du das Land”), from Mignon.  Elisabeth Grümmer

Duparc: “Romance de Mignon” (“Kennst du das Land”). France Duval–Marc Durand

Gounod:  “Mignon”. Marie Bejjani Daher

Wolf: “Kennst du das Land”. Irmgard Seefried—Erik Werba

Berg:  “Kennst du das Land”.  Jessye Norman–Ann Schein

Adamo:  Bhaer’s aria, “Kennst du das Land?”, from Little Women. Matthew Scollin

Blume: “Kennst Du das Land?” for bass clarinet, violin, cello, and piano

July 26, 2018




Posted in Listening, Literature, Piano | Tagged

“What is trans-national about Greek American culture?”

December 30, 2016
Posted in Greek Literature, Greek Poetry, Greeks, Hellenism | Tagged , ,