“What is Transnational about Greek American Culture?”

In this essay I suggest that in Greek diasporic literature “the transcomposition of an examined ethnic life assembles and arranges heterogeneous elements from diverse sources to fashion an entirely new well-tempered βίος.”

Posted in Greek Literature, Greek Poetry, Greeks, Hellenism | Tagged ,

Music at the threshold

I would love to read a collection of papers on compositions whose liminal character represents a turning point in classical music.  I am thinking about works which might have taken different directions.  In which particular pieces can we see a composer negotiating between two or more musical idioms and traditions?  To put it in a counter-factual way, what might have been the course of music history if such ambivalent pieces had taken an entirely different approach?

One such intriguing work is Sibelius’s 5th Symphony, op. 82, which the composer started drafting in 1914, directed in 1915, revised and directed in 1916, and further revised and directed in 1919 in what became the standard version.  Now that we have access through recordings to the 1st version, we can see why Sibelius was determined to alter and reconfigure it thoroughly even though the first premiere was an immediate success.  For those of us who grew up with the final version, the first one is a revelation.

With the exploratory undermining of tonality launched in his “bleak,” difficult 4th Symphony, op. 63 (1911), Sibelius tried to respond to the creative crisis generated by his encounter with the work of Modernists like Schönberg and Stravinsky.  Following the lukewarm reception of the 4th, he may have felt that it was too late to follow their radical path but he might still be able to join Mahler, whom he had met right after the premiere of his (Sibelius’s) 3rd Symphony, in his symphonic adventures.  I see the first version of the 5th as a grand venture in this direction.

Long, occasionally dissonant, episodic, with unclear connections between themes, unfocused and uncertain, the symphony sounds mysterious as it seems to be searching for a firm structure.  It opens a Mahlerian expanse with its cosmic ambition.  However, by the time Sibelius reaches the third revision, the instrumentation, the proportion of movements, the disposition of motifs, the circulation of themes, everything becomes tighter and cleaner.  Cosmic ambition yields to natural breadth and simplicity.  Instead of development by inner necessity we get unfolding by physical flow.  The famous concluding six orchestral chords are now interspaced with raw silences instead of flowing above the Mahlerian tremolo of winds and strings in the first version.  Sibelius has decided to become a conservative Modernist.  Thus, these chords also create a silence, as it were, between the 4th and the 5th Symphonies.

A game that my other self, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, and I love to play when hanging around a piano is, taking a piece of the standard classical repertoire and spinning it midway in a different direction:  What if at some point the composer had decided to turn in another way?  How would it sound if it evolved in an alternative and unexpected manner?  It is a fascinating exercise in counter-factual music history.

In our era of performative interpretation, I place great value in interventionist approaches which revise and remake works in order to foreground, in a quasi-deconstructive fashion, their constructedness, including paths which for whatever reason they did not take.

13 February 2020

Posted in Classical Music | Tagged

The antinomy of autonomy

In my current research project, The Tragedy of Revolution, I argue that α central topic of modern tragedy is the ethico-political dilemma of rebellion, namely, the predicament of the revolutionary beginning caught between limitless self-authorization and self-limiting rule.

Modern tragedy stages the drama of the Greek arche/ἀρχή in its double meaning of beginning and rule, and asks whether self-rule may control itself, whether radical autonomy may limit itself.  Thus, it explores the inherent contradiction of auto-nomia captured in its very etymology: Can freedom and rule co-exist?  Can a collectivity be free and at the same time live under the rule of law?  This contradiction, when insurmountable, makes freedom “tragic.”  The concept of “tragic freedom” has been central to Critical philosophy from Kant to post-anarchism.  Its earliest concise articulation is the “paradox of autonomy,” the hugely influential Third Antinomy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

Kant defines freedom negatively as independence from heteronomous determination and positively as self-lawgiving – in short, as the law of self-legislation.  This definition frees the rebels from the normativity of necessity and encourages them to make their own laws yet it sounds self-contradictory.  “The way in which Kant articulates the idea of autonomy might give rise to a paradox:  autonomy understood in Kantian terms seems in imminent danger of reverting into arbitrariness of force, into a freedom without law or a law without freedom. [] In order for there to be a paradox in the full sense of the word we need to see how the conditions that autonomy seems to require at the same time appear to be conditions of the impossibility of autonomy.  This is precisely the sense of paradox that is at issue in the interesting diagnoses of the paradox of autonomy” (Thomas Khurana: “Paradoxes of Autonomy:  On the Dialectics of Freedom and Normativity,” Symposium 17:1, 2013, p. 61).

Law-giving as a foundational act of the revolutionaries is lawless.  However, such an act may be repeated again and again in celebration of its arbitrariness.  “The condition of possibility of autonomy – a reasoned and non-arbitrary positing of the law – seems to reveal itself as the condition of the impossibility of autonomy:  it implies an order of heteronomy in which the self-prescribed law is not binding as such but only due to a former law that was not self-prescribed” (62).

Is there a way to balance arbitrariness and heteronomy or seek another option?  “The paradox is brought to the fore by conceiving autonomy in terms of self-legislation and thereby implying a first instituting act that seems to be either arbitrary and hence open to an infinite series of different institutions or else dependent upon pre-existing reasons that open up a regress beyond the putative first instituting act.  The question then is whether we can make sense of our being the authors of the law without invoking of such a first legislation” (67).  The tragedy of revolution dramatizes the dilemma of self-constitution and the antinomy of autonomy, an issue that continues to preoccupy both political theory and moral philosophy.

5 February 2020

Posted in Autonomy, Revolution | Tagged , , ,

“Memory of a revolution”

Commemorating a revolution is always self-congratulatory as it amounts to solemnizing a victory of sorts.  Negotiating claims on the memory of the revolution, though, is a very different operation.

Heiner Müller’s The Task/Mission (1979) provides an excellent illustration.   The play works as a triple memorialisation.  First, as its subtitle states, it represents the “memory of a revolution,” which can be a French, Jamaican, German, or other historical revolt:  The play unfolds at a time when the revolution has become a disconcerting memory.

It is also a memory of an entire theatrical tradition, the theater of Kleist, Büchner, Brecht, Beckett, Genet, and others cited in diverse ways.  This tradition appears exhausted.

Last, it dramatizes the memory of revolutionary theater – both theater about revolutions and revolutionary production.  This too seems to have lost its direction.

This triple memorialisation of revolution, theater, and revolutionary theater makes The Mission a consummate postmodern tragedy.  Its many dramaturgical complications (which account for its rare productions) are an integral part of its argument.  They illustrate the problems we face when remembering the task of a revolutionary mission becomes itself a task:  To salvage a revolt from its anniversaries.

23 January 2020

Posted in Revolt, Revolution | Tagged , ,

Making music as rhythming the refrain and becoming-bird

As I embark on listening to the twenty-piece, two-hour solo piano cycle, Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (1944) by Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), I start with the opening     glance/gaze/contemplation, the one from the perspective of the father, Regard du Père.

I try to focus on the “Theme of God,” which permeates the entire cycle, culminating in its conclusion, Regard de l’Église d’amour.  It is a simple chordal passage characterized by the rhythmic pattern short-short-short-long-long rhythm cast in F-sharp major with chromatic passing tones.  The absorbing, continuously repeating notes keep pulsating until the work ends with a stop over its last note.  But during the piece, I get distracted by snippets of birdsongs that interrupt, or comment on, the development of the theme.  I do not even know whether I am hearing actual birdsongs that Messiaen claims to have put there or, hyper-conscious as I am of the ornithological aura of the composer’s reputation, I am just imagining them.

This kind of listening raises the question of mimesis associated with the scandal of Messiaen’s place in music history.  In the midst of the Modernist iconoclastic fury, while radical classical music was shedding its last vestiges of representation and paving the way from the Second Viennese School to the Darmstadt School, there was a composer with an explicitly mimetic, programmatic, naturalistic, synaesthetic, and Catholic approach experimenting in bold ways and affecting the next avant-garde generation.  What was so radical about recording and reproducing birdsongs?  Their flights in the Regards cycle, which preceded the cluster of the Oiseaux series (1953-60) by ten years, make the question even more intriguing.

I consult Messiaen’s greatest listener, Gilles Deleuze, starting with the section “Becoming-Music” which concludes the plateau no. 10, “1730:  Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…”.  “A bird launches into its refrain” (Deleuze & Guattari: One Thousand Plateaus [1980], p. 300).  By doing so it stakes out a territory and opens it to the cosmos at large.  Territorialization through birdsong happens in a particular kind of time:  Claiming a territory involves beating a pulsed time, a refrain.  Next comes the musical treatment of this bird refrain which “uproots the refrain from its territoriality.  Music is a creative, active operation that consists in deterritorializing the refrain.  Whereas the refrain is essentially territorial, … music makes it a deterritorialized content for a deterritorializing form of expression” (300).

Instead of imitating the song of the bird, music de-natures and musicalizes it.  “On Deleuze’s view, the ‘composition of diverse forces’ … can only in fact mean a continuous uncomposed and imminently dissolving tension between the pull towards territory, on the one hand, and the urge towards pure self-differentiation, the glissando of continuous variation, on the other” (Catherine Pickstock: “Messiaen and Deleuze:  The Musico-theological critique of Modernism and Postmodernism,” Theory, Culture & Society 25:7-8, 2008, p. 190).

The process through which music deterritorializes a refrain is one of becoming, such as “becoming-animal.”  Deleuze regards this process as “paradigmatic of the creative process of all composers.  Music is the deterritorialization of the refrain” of the territorial songs of birds (Ronald Bogue: “Rhizomusicosmology,” SubStance 66, 1991, p. 96).  Deleuze proposes: “All of music is pervaded by bird songs, in a thousand different ways, from Jannequin to Messiaen.  Frr, Frr” (Plateaus 300).  Great composers deterritorialize the refrain by questioning conventions and invent “a kind of diagonal running between the harmonic vertical and the melodic horizon” (296).

Messiaen’s use of birdsong produces a deterritorialization through which “the bird becomes something other than music, at the same time that the music becomes bird” (Deleuze: “Vincennes Seminar Session, May 3, 1977: On Music,” Discourse 20:3, Fall 1998, pp. 210-11).   “Becoming is never imitating” (Plateaus 305).  It is not figurative or representational.  “Messiaen’s nature [physis] is a question of technique, if technique is understood in the Greek sense of techne” (Sander van Maas: “Messiaen, Deleuze, and the Birds of Proclamation,” in Chapin & Clark, eds.:  Speaking of Music:  Addressing the Sonorous, 2013, p.179).  In deterritorializing the territorial songs of birds, Messiaen’s goal is not to represent them but “to articulate a ‘timeless time’ – ametrical, nonteleological, reversible and unlimited.  As one can readily see, that time is … the elusive, fluctuating time of ‘becoming’” (Bogue 95).  The dynamic interaction between music and cosmos discloses both “to be open systems of difference engaged in a process of mutual becoming” (98).  Composition rhythms the refrain by differing its repetition.

Deleuze’s plateau no. 11, “1837: Of the Refrain,” offers “a means of construing music as an open structure that permeates and is permeated by the world, a reading of the cosmos and music not as mechanical and mathematical but as machinic and rhythmical – … a ‘rhizomusicosmology.’  Chief among those who inspire Deleuze and Guattari in this enterprise is Olivier Messiaen, whose remarks on rhythm and birdsong provide several of the key concepts” of this plateau.  One Thousand Plateaus and “the musical and theoretical works of Messiaen mutually illuminate one another” (85).

Many composers had used birdsong before but Messiaen was the first to craft it as musical notation.  Traces of birdsong appear regularly in his work from 1932 until his opera Saint François d’Assise (1975-83).  Messiaen was a member of the musical group Jeune France which burst upon the scene in 1936, seeking an alternative cultural force – a progressive spiritual expression.  “Messiaen reflected the non-conformists’ search for a spiritual expression of man’s essence, free of the established collectivities of race, nation, generation, or religion” (Jane F. Fulcher: “The Politics of Transcendence:  Ideology in the Music of Messiaen in the 1930s,” The Musical Quarterly 86:3, Fall 2002, 465).  This ecumenical orientation led to his highly eclectic global musical interests.  The idea of what Deleuze would call “becoming-bird” gave them counter-mimetic cohesion and phonolatric intensity.

Messiaen called himself a “rythmicien”/rhythmatician who treated “rhythm as non-identical repetition” (Pickstock 182).  His cosmic view did not posit a physis-techne opposition but rather a meter-rhythm distinction. Inspired by Messiaen, the master of the non-return repeat, Deleuze “worked with multiple variations on what is repeated (the refrain that territorializes, the dogmatic meter) and what differs from the repeated (the different that decenters, the critical rhythm)” (“The Fate of the Repeat in Music”).  Messiaen and Deleuze converged on a Bergsonian “hyper-Baroque” (191) domain where they experimented with immanence.

The 1940s bequeathed to classical music the dilemma “Adorno or Messiaen” (Peter Bannister: “The Offence of Beauty in Modern Western Art Music,” Religions 4, 2013, p. 698).  However, as the Adornian prohibitions, proclaimed in the Philosophy of Modern Music (1948), lose their grip on creativity, the question has been fading away.  Messiaen’s creative project unfolded entirely outside mimetic concerns.  His “blending of the thematic of ‘difference’ or continuous permutation with a [mystical] Thomistic metaphysics of eternity and [immanentist Bergsonist] time … overcame the purist ‘Kantianism’ of musical modernism” (Pickstock 186).  Today it invites an equally energetic participation that is not listening for or against anything.

As I harken to Regard du Père one more time, I begin to hear on the piano the thumb and the little finger of the right hand of Pantelis Polychronidis, and I realize that, rather than re-presenting, mimesis presents:  My other self is present here with me, conjuring up bars, birds, bells, and blessings.

17 January 2020

Posted in Classical Music, Listening | Tagged ,

Μαθήματα Μπρεχτ από τις ιστορίες της Φωτεινής Τσαλίκογλου

“Φαντάζομαι μια περφόρμανς όπου συγγραφείς της ποιητικής γενιάς του 2000 παίζουν Μπρεχτικά την κυρία Φι σε αφηγήματα από το διαβρωτικά εποικοδομητικό βιβλίο της Φωτεινής Τσαλίκογλου”.  Εξηγώ εδώ γιατί.  Έχω τη χαρά να συζητώ με τη συγγραφέα παρόμοια θέματα εδώ και δέκα περίπου χρόνια.

1 Ιανουαρίου 2020

Posted in Culture, Literature | Tagged ,

The future of friendship

Great friendships recognize their past but also proclaim their future.  When we look at close friends, we can see them growing together in the past (the tradition they have cultivated) and sailing together into the future (the history they are making).

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of my meeting my other self, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, I am honoring the shared future of friendship, a subject I have considered often.  I am not referring to the messianic constellation of things-to-come but never-here-yet (such as redemption and democracy) but to the immanentist assemblage of things-to-be-created-collaboratively.

Great, future-oriented friendships are engaged in world building – not their own isolated and protected world but open worlds available and welcoming to others.  That is why such friendships have a civic dimension even when they are not themselves civic.  My friendship with Pan-telis has been from the start telos-oriented as it has involved plans for collaborative performing, researching, writing, teaching, and more.  My blog, which was named after my friend and launched five years ago, continues to reflect on our mutual commitments.

19 December 2019

Posted in Friends