On not Reading Music (3)

Is there a study of the role of music in friendship,                                                                          a study of the way in which music helps people establish and maintain strong friendships, the way the love of music becomes a powerful code of communication for close friends?

I take as an example of music’s resonance in friendship my sonic intimacy with Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self.”  A major plateau of our friendship is our collaborative listening – namely, not listening together but listening to each other’s listening togetherMy listening to his listening with me and my putting together musical “works” with him makes Pantelis the contrapuntal part of my listening self.  Making music together is the basic dialectic of our reciprocity.  In addition, I have been reading (that is, participating in) his reading of texts such as lyrics, libretti, poetry, scholarship, biography and much more.  It is exhilarating to converse just by citing or quoting textual sources we both know well.

Now, if he teaches me to read music, I will be able to read his ultimate reading, the musical one.  Reading music together would mean reading his reading of a score with me, reaching a new plateau of our collaborative friendship.  Reading the same scores would bring our listening and our reading together.  To our conversations by a piano we would add more conversations, this time on a score.

Together we co-habit a resounding present, we achieve a presence in flux.  Our friendship always unfolds and at the same time remains in suspension.  Once he has taught me how to read a score, the unknowability of music, whose reading also leaves us in suspense, will reinforce the performative understanding of our friendship – the sense that, like          music playing, friendship too is a performance, not a score:  each actualization is unique.

Think of all the pieces you hear, the paintings you see, the lyrics you recite, and the places you experience in the unique way that a dear friend of yours has heard, seen, recited, and experienced them with you.  In all these instances the two of you have not just shared but remade the world togetherFriends promise each other to a shared future                           of at-tunement with new worlds, new musical spheres of their own making.

1 October 2019

Posted in Attunement, Friends, Listening, Music

On not Reading Music (2)

Why should I read music?

If in most of my life I have been an above-average connoisseur of many kinds of music, especially classical, and if I have no aspirations to play an instrument (which I don’t), why would I want to read music?  Since a musical piece consists not in its notation but in the actualization of the notation in performance, to the extent that I am a well-trained and systematic listener of performances, what would I gain by scrutinizing a silent score?  As I claimed in my previous post under this title, my inability to read a score frees me from the metaphysics of the original, the authentic, the intentional, and other aesthetic fetishes, allowing me to concentrate on the unique materiality and occasionality of each performance.  Why start limiting myself to written sources?*

One answer is that reading what musicians read will enable me to trace how, drawing on a particular “music theory,” they decode and interpret composers’ instructions for what sounds to make when.  I am aware of widely different actualizations of the same score.  If I can read its notes through a particular theorization (identical to, or compatible with the one performers use), I will be able to explore what it is that different performers do (with the same score & music theory) to come up with different results — what their starting point/material is, and with how much freedom/legitimacy they claim to treat it as they do.  It is not a matter of understanding the depth/meaning of the work but of acquiring another layer of understanding by becoming familiar with the interpretive techniques that mobilize the score and make a “work” materialize.

I can illustrate what I mean with a glorious scene near the end of the movie Amadeus (1984), where the gravely ill Mozart is mentally composing, and at the same time dictating to Salieri, the “Confutatis maledictis” from his Requiem (1791).  What makes this scene riveting to me is that, while composing a sublime section that thrills audiences, Mozart is not elaborating on content/message of any kind.  He is not after any religious, existential or other “meaning.”  It is all a matter of compositional technique:  He is only thinking in notes as he is setting Latin words to music for just another commission.  Salieri does exactly the same.  As Professor Ball remarked in our private correspondence, “when Salieri says ‘I don’t understand’ and ‘You’re going too fast,’ I take it not that he doesn’t understand ‘the notes’ that Mozart is telling him to write down, or that Mozart is simply talking too fast, but that the notes don’t seem like ‘obvious’ or ‘sensible’ things to write down, given Salieri’s understanding of music theory in that moment (since they don’t ‘make sense’ theoretically, he can’t remember it all at the speed Mozart is talking).”  Here, then, is why I want to be able to read a score:  I would love to figure out in some basic way which techniques enable performers to go from Mozart’s coded combination of signs & their grammar to the music listeners like me hear.

A different reason for reading music is suggested by Virginia Woolf’s “On not Knowing Greek” (1925), which I mentioned in my previous post.  If we take into account that, as it has been amply documented, Woolf knew Greek well and enjoyed reading and studying it, it becomes clear that she was interested not in fully knowing it but in delaying knowing it.  My dear friend and colleague at Michigan, Yopie Prins, notes that “the very strangeness of Greek, its uknowability, also provokes a strange desire to know it” (Ladies’ Greek, p. 44).  Furthermore, “the experience of reading Greek leaves one speechless, and in suspense.  Such a state of suspension is precisely where Woolf wanted the reader (herself, ourselves) to be” (44).  The point was not to improve or perfect Greek but to master the technique of letting Greek leave one in aporetic suspense.  Knowing Greek was the life-long self-discipline of learning it, the practice of translating it in various codes and media.  Greek was an ascesis of self-formation, not an object or destination.

In the same vein, I may claim that reading a score would help me know the very uknowability of music.  It would enable me not to understand music better but to comprehend why there is no music as such to conquer.  I would realize how much of what we call a “composition” has been left necessarily uncomposed.  I would master its notation while sustaining its unmasterable language.  Paradoxically, reading music would bring me closer not to the score but to the next performance.

* I owe these and many more probing questions to Professor Eric Ball, an exceptional theoretician and practitioner of music making, who has been honoring me with his interest in my blog.  This post draws on our correspondence on my earlier post, “On not Reading Music” (1).

2 October 2019

Posted in Classical Music, Greek, Listening | Tagged

“Παίζουμε ένα ποίημα;”/10: Μαρουσώ Αθανασίου: “Ασύχαστο” (η μνήμη)

“Ένα έργο τέχνης, λογοτεχνικό ή άλλο, δεν είναι αυτοτελές αλλά επιζητεί διάφορα πεδία πολιτιστικής μνήμης όπου μπορεί να αποκτήσει νόημα.  Η διακειμενική έρευνα που επιχειρώ εδώ παράγει ανοιχτά πεδία όπου καλλιτεχνικά έργα διαφόρων ειδών τοποθετούνται πειραματικά σε δοκιμαστικές σχέσεις έλξης-απώθησης, καταγωγής-παραγωγής, σύγκλισης/απόκλισης κλπ.”

5 Σεπτεμβρίου 2019

Posted in Classical Music, Culture, Greek Poetry, The Arts | Tagged , , , ,

Exiting Greece

Forty years-ago this month, in September 1979, I left my native Greece determined to spend the rest of my life in self-exile.  This was my refusal of nativist normativity, my Non serviam/I will not serve.

I was just three years older than the disillusioned Stephen Daedalus who at 22, in the closing pages of Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), made a famous commitment: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.”

In the late 1970s, soon after the fall of the military dictatorship (1967-74) and the restoration of democracy, I grew extremely disappointed that my country had little interest in learning from its recent mistakes and disasters, and I feared that sooner or later it was bound to repeat them.  The oligarchic socio-political forces that had ruled Greece since the end of World War II came back to power while the progressive academic-artistic forces were denouncing post-Marxist critique to safeguard their cultural monopoly.  Self-congratulatory national euphoria actively discouraged all expressions of skepticism.

I saw the crisis of the 2010s looming in the distant yet menacing horizon, and did not want to live through it.  As soon as I submitted my PhD thesis, I took the first post-doc I could, left Athens for Birmingham, then applied for academic jobs, and two years later joined The Ohio State University as an Assistant Professor of Modern Greek.  I rejoiced, feeling free both to reinvent myself and to reconfigure Hellenism.  I now had a position and a role that would allow me to integrate my willful exile into my cultural work.

On this fortieth anniversary of my flight/fuit from the Greek territorialized assemblage (Deleuze/Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus), I have been considering my conscious withdrawal as a deliberate exit in the framework of an inspiring study in political theory, The Virtues of Exit:  On Resistance and Quitting Politics (2017) by Jennet Kirkpatrick.  The author knows well that exit seems to play no political role: “Exit’s core characteristics – detachment, disassociation, and estrangement – are often viewed as oppositional to political participation” (p. 5).  Yet some forms of exit are acts of political withdrawal, she argues, and she defends exit as a political concept.

A personal withdrawal (from country, society, group, institution etc.) may be a self-centered opting out, one of several “individual quests for greater personal autonomy or solitary escapes from political domination” (70).  Another withdrawal, however, an “exodus from sovereignty” (Multitude, Negri/Hardt), may be a “productive” one when “it creates a different kind of citizen” (Kirkpatrick 54).  “Leaving can be transformative of politics, and it can create possibilities for political growth and development that were not apparent before” (117).  Thus, Kirkpatrick distinguishes between a “negative conception of exit – that is, exit as furnishing freedom from constraint” (77) and a “positive conception of exit 1) illuminating the communal suffering of those left behind, and 2) engendering critical thought about shared political ideals and the communal failures of living up to them” (78).

Political leaving is fueled by a sense of indignation.  “Leaving begins with feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, anger, or even outrage at a political organization that has committed a grave injustice or a series of offences. … Alarm, discontent, or vexation reaches a political boiling point, which, once past, turns to thoughts of separation” (110).  Such thoughts generate a major dilemma: “a politically engaged figure is torn between moral and political commitments to her or his homeland and the opportunities (including life) afforded by leaving” (23).  I faced such a dilemma in my mid-20s, when I was writing my Ph.D. thesis and I was wondering whether I should pursue my radical democratic interests by being involved in life in Greece or Greek heterotopia.

At that time, those of us who refused to join political parties were branded “chaotics,” because thinking outside parties and their youth organizations was considered nihilistic.  That, together with the Marxist attacks on “critical theory,” made me feel I did not fit.  Yet, the country was trying to rebuild its democratic institutions, restore civil rights, and expand the public sphere.  This was a time to return to Greece, not leave.  Indeed, academics, artists, intellectuals, and activists who had emigrated during the junta were coming back in large numbers to contribute to this promising rejuvenation.  But the rush to national self-glorification, the revival of traditional party politics, the lack of critical constructivist reflection, and the expedient moral compromises of former radicals alarmed me.  After much agonizing, I decided to protest by exiting for good and by exploring alternative Hellenisms.  Furthermore, I ventured where no self-respecting Greek humanist would go, and headed for the American campus, where post-structuralist theory had started flourishing.

Drawing on Thoreau’s “expressive exit” of his native Concord for Walden Pond, Kirkpatrick argues that “we can see the genesis of exit as something other than an abdication of political commitments.  Indeed, Thoreau is bold enough to suggest that leaving can be a way of honoring political commitments and that exiting in protest can reveal great political integrity. … For Thoreau … exit fortifies one’s identity.  And, most important, leaving is not the end of politics or the cessation of political struggle; it is a continuation of both by other means” (51).  Self-reflexive, critical exit is an expression of loyalty, not abdication.  With his “absent presence” (16), James Baldwin offers another example.  “Baldwin’s self-exile suggests an alternative way to leave, one that emphasizes attachment, engagement, and participation alongside absence and rejection” (16).  What Kirkpatrick calls, following Jack Turner, “public performance of conscience” (67), including both writings and actions, may be motivated by the pursuit of both personal integrity and political alliances.  For the last forty years I have been giving to my “desertion” (Tiqqun) such a public dimension.

Kirkpatrick distinguishes among different types of exit, with a special emphasis on “noisy” (17, 105), “expressive” (18), and “resistant” ones (20, 49).  The last type, “the idea of walking away as a protest” (90), involves maintaining attachment to the exited homeland, creating solidarity with communities of resistance, and causing disruption by making the exit oppositional (96).  It aspires to change both the self and the political world (95).  This is what I have been doing as a Professor of Modern Greek in my civic life in self-exile.

Through teaching, advising, program building, outreach, research, collaboration, solidarity, and much more I have been involved in negotiations and redefinitions of Greek civic ideas, cultural practices, and ethical values.  I have maintained attachment to collaborators and allies in Greece, built solidarity with American and international networks, and caused enough disruptions to the dominant national narrative to be personally attacked, marginalized, and excluded for four decades.  To this day, no Greek university will invite me, no Greek publishing house will translate me, no Greek foundation will consult me, and no Greek institution will recognize me – but that is a small (and not uncommon) price to pay for practicing the political “virtues of exit.”  Kirkpatrick’s wonderful book by this title is full of stories like mine.  I am happy when wonderful individuals with anarchist interests in thought, scholarship, literature, activism, and media honor me with their attention to my work.

Even when she discusses fugitive slaves, conscientious objectors, exiled dissidents, and self-sacrificial departures, Kirkpatrick’s point is not to offer models of heroism and martyrdom but to outline the political function of a public conduct that, instead of direct participation, involves productive disengagement.  Her fascinating study captures my diasporic role in Greek educational and cultural politics by showing how refusing to play along and escaping from a rigid segmentarity (Deleuze/Guattari) can be a revisionary, creative exercise in ethical work (Foucault) and civic presence (Arendt).

1 September 2019

Posted in Crisis, Culture, Disengagement, Greeks, Hellenism, Left

Daniel Herwitz: “Politics and the Art of Rumination in William Kentridge”

Is it legitimate to frame an artist’s work around the question of politics, even when political issues are nearly omnipresent in it?  My dear friend and colleague at Michigan, philosopher and cultural theorist Daniel Herwitz, has seen the pair of stunning shows in Cape Town devoted to the protean work of South African William Kentridge, and reflects on visual art in relation to politics, South Africa, the Russian avant-gardes and the brutality of European colonialism and world wars.  Click to read the pdf:                    Herwitz on art and politics in Kentridge

14 September 2019

Posted in Left, Philosophy, The Arts | Tagged

“Παίζουμε ένα ποίημα;”/9: Θάνος Γώγος: Ντακάρ VI (μετά την ήττα)

Ποιητικές και φιλοσοφικές σκέψεις μετά την επαναστατική ήττα:  “Αν η επανάσταση οδηγεί παράδοξα στην συνταγματική αποκατάσταση της τάξης, τότε χρειάζεται μια πολιτική δράση που δεν ανατρέπει αλλά αδρανοποιεί, μια αποσυντάσσουσα δύναμη που απενεργοποιεί τον κυβερνητικό μηχανισμό”.

16 Αυγούστου 2019


Posted in Disengagement, Greek Poetry, Melancholy, Revolution | Tagged

On not Reading Music (1)

“I’ll teach you!” Pantelis volunteered as soon as we started calling each other “my other self” in late 2009.

For a person who has been thinking with music all his life, to be unable to read music represents a gap in my self-formation.  For a person who has been always fascinated by the apparatus/dispositif of classical music, to be unable to make sense of a music sheet is my major hermeneutic deficiency.  My situation is somehow the reverse of Virginia Woolf’s:  She knew the Greek language but not its meaning; I know the meaning of music but not its language.

I am aware that I am not alone:  I belong to a large number of people who find themselves in the same situation.  Like me, they are phenomenally passionate about classical music:  They collect performances of the Symphonie fantastique and live recordings of Mitropoulos, they attend Ring cycles around the world, they idolize divas, they have their recital programs autographed – and yet they cannot identify a single note on the page.

With consummate musician Pantelis Polychronidis as my teacher, I finally have a chance to overcome this embarrassing impediment.  I have already bought a few introductory books and I am waiting for him to find the right time to start our lessons.

Not that it has been a crippling problem.  I have compensated for my deficiency in many ways:  I have been reading on music history, sociology, and philosophy; I have been following debates about interpretation and performance; I have been exploring the lives of composers and musicians; and I remember more BWV, D, L, KV, and opus numbers than most specialists.

I am not a scholar, specialist, interpreter, or dilettante; I am a connoisseur who is simultaneously infatuated with music and intrigued by the conditions of its possibility, who is both enchanted by, and suspicious of, its cultural capital.  Being unable to read music, on the one hand I cannot comprehend its code but, on the other, I am free not to totalize the notes into a work and limit my listening to grasping its presumed inner depth.  For me, there is nothing original or authentic here.  Having no access to the page, I feel inspired to wonder whether the musical work is “reality or invention” and to move “beyond the score” to the cultural script, the performative occasion, and the “imaginary museum of musical works.”

As I follow Pantelis’ finger on a score, I am in total awe as to how this arcane notation is deciphered into the music we are listening to.  At the same time, my awe inspires me to study how the cultural practice of reading music has evolved into a mark of distinction, a discipline, a specialty, and a profession.

Nevertheless, I continue to look forward to learning how to decode the spell of the script.  It will be magical if one day a few simple pages (like those of Brahms’s Intermezzo no. 3, starting at 10:45 in the clip above) begin to make sense to me – though I have no idea how I might ever stop once I start reading scores!

14 August 2014

Posted in Classical Music, Friends, Listening