Can Greek Poets Speak with Musicians?

When we read carefully Odysseus Elytis’ poem “Mozart: Romance from Piano Concerto No. 20, KV 466” (1960),* we realize that, since he could not converse with his composer friends, the line about a “piano distant and subterranean” refers not to that piano but to this harpsichord:

Modern Greek poets have quite different attitudes toward the Greek visual arts and to music. On the one hand, they show great interest in painters, whether they are their contemporaries or not. They often become their friends and collaborators, contributing notes to their exhibition catalogues, writing essays, and illustrating their own books with their work. From the Generation of the 1880s onwards writers have written on painters such as Nikolaos Gyzis, Constantinos Parthenis, Gerasimos Steris, Theophilos Chatzimichail, Yiannis Tsarouhis, Nikos Nikolaou, Spyros Vasileiou, Yiannis Moralis, Alekos Fassianos, Sotiris Sorogkas, and Yiannis Psychopaidis. Also, when they live overseas, they tend to socialize with artists and art critics. The interaction is so close that several poets (Elytis, Yiannis Ritsos, Nanos Valaoritis, Dimitris Kalokyris) have tried their hand in all kinds of art making.

In sharp contrast, poets do not write on composers, instrumentalists or singers even when they are their friends. The same poets who wrote on painters also knew in person composers such as Manolis Kalomoiris, Manos Hadjidakis, Antiochos Evangelatos, Dimitris Dragatakis, Jani Christou, Yiorgos Koumentakis, Thodoros Antoniou, Charis Xanthoudakis, Mikis Theodorakis, and Yiannis Markopoulos but did not write essays on them or notes for their album covers. Among the very few exceptions have been Thomas Gorpas, Dinos Christianopoulos, and Yiorgos Chronas, who have focused on a particular kind of rebetika and laika songs, and Yiannis Patilis, himself a composer. I emphasize that here I am comparing writers’ interest in their contemporary visual artists and musicians, not in their artistic and musical works, to which we do find occasional references in their writings.

One possible reason for this difference in attitude is the dominance of the arts during Modernism, when writers and composers alike sought to infuse their work with painterly qualities. Poets felt that, thanks to visual immediacy, art could depict the essence of all Art, and in their pursuit of this ideal they were far more likely to circulate in studios and galleries than music schools and recital halls. Greek poets, in particular, have an overwhelmingly visual conception of the world. As they witness the emergence of a painting, collage, or sculpture in an atelier, they love to discuss with its maker the way her/his works reveal a higher reality and open new horizons.

On the other hand, poets have no interest in talking to a composer by his piano or following the transformations of a performance during rehearsals. They often have a general interest in music, mostly melodies, which they express by imitating sounds or describing their feelings, but have no interest in musicians, no matter how many they may know. Poets have been reviewing exhibitions (Eleni Vakalo) and theater productions (Yiannis Varveris) but I cannot think of anyone who wrote a music column. Musicians have been talking to poets (Dimitri Mitropoulos to C. P. Cavafy, Manolis Kalomoiris to Kostis Palamas, Mikis Theodorakis to Michalis Katsaros, Hadjidakis to Elytis, Christos Leontis to Ritsos, Thanos Mikroutsikos to Christophoros Liontakis, Nikos Xydakis to Dionysis Kapsalis) but poets do not know how to converse with musicians – with two very special exceptions, Manos Eleftheriou and Stathis Gourgouris.

Even when experimenting, Greek poets pursue a visualist expression, which may be realistic, symbolic, surreal or other but ultimately it is based on a Cratylist understanding of language where word, image, and world become one. Composers, however, do not work with images, do not illustrate words, and do not imitate reality. As a result, their sonatas, symphonies, and quartets are alien to writers for whom there are only two kinds of music: pieces drawing directly on demotic/popular dances or mimetic settings of poetry – ideally, a combination of the two.

Writers do not discuss with composers their music because Greek poetry is iconolatric and pursues a total presence, which music cannot provide. Music, which is never fully present, remains incomplete. The score does not function like a literary text; it defies poetry’s claim to fullness and requires a collaborative interpretation. This is a major lesson that my collaborative work with pianist Pantelis Polychronidis has been teaching me.

One might even generalize crudely and argue that Greeks are more ofthalmocentric that otocentric, that is, they prefer to see than to hear. They enjoy landscapes, not soundscapes. In fact, they enjoy landscapes that are surrounded by peace and quiet. Nothing should interfere with the immediacy of sight. When out in the country, they love to share a moment and place where nothing is heard. In these moments not just time but sound too stops. Through sight, people feel united with nature. All is visible, identifiable, and self-contained. Nothing moves, nothing happens. Physics constitutes metaphysics, view grants vision. In her canonical study Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland (1995) Artemis Leontis calls the idea of topos “a physical place of return, a site where the past makes its presence felt” (19). A topos is a transcendent territory that does not resonate. It would be hard to write a study of the sounds of Greece like Leontis’. The homeland may be mapped but it cannot be scored. Greeks do not go to a place for its sounds, natural or other, because they do not know how to listen. Listening enthuses them but it also confuses and disorients them.

By way of postscript, let us recall that, for reasons that were philosophical and not personal, Heidegger could see but not listen while Adorno could listen but not see – and leave it at that.

October 8, 2014

*  Όμορφη λυπητερή ζωή / Πιάνο μακρινό υποχθόνιο
Το κεφάλι μου ακουμπάει στόν Πόλο / Καί τα χόρτα με κυριεύουν //
Γάγγη κρυφέ τής νύχτας πού με παίρνεις; / Από μαύρους καπνούς βλέπω δορκάδες
Μεσ’ το ασήμι να τρέχουν να τρέχουν / Καί δε ζώ καί δεν έχω πεθάνει. //
Ούτε ο έρωτας ούτε κι’ η δόξα / ούτε τ’ όνειρο ούτε δεν ήταν /
Με το πλάι κοιμούμαι κοιμούμαι / Κι ακούω τις μηχανές τής γής που ταξιδεύει.
Beautiful and sorrowful life / Piano distant and subterranean
My head leans on the Pole / and grass seizes me //
Mystical Ganges of the night, where do you take me? / Through black smoke I see dorcas
In silver they run, they run / And I do not live and I have not died. //
Neither love nor glory / not even the dream, not even that/
On the side I sleep, I sleep / And hear the engines of the earth traveling.
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