Setting Cavafy to music

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A new crossover disk of popular and art songs, So Many Things (2016), reminds us that Cavafy continues to be among the 20th-century poets in any language who have been most often set to music. I became fully aware of this distinction when in 2011 pianist Pantelis Polychronidis and I started our long-term collaborative project to explore systematically his settings, and we were astonished by the sheer number of composers, variety of languages, and breadth of genres. You name the style and the format, somebody has already used it to make music with the Alexandrian author.  In a Greek co-authored article we attributed his popularity among musicians to a score-like openness and availability of much Cavafian poetry.

While some disks are devoted to entire Cavafy song cycles, many others, like the most recent one, include only one or two poems by him. Leading mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter and string quartet Brooklyn Rider have released a collection of new songs by composers ranging from John Adams and Caroline Shaw to Sting and Björk. They have included Nico Muhly’s So Many Things (2013), a 12-minute scena of sorts (originally composed for von Otter and pianist Emanuel Ax) that uses two Cavafy poems framing one by Joyce Carol Oates. The poet’s phrase, «τόσα πράγματα», from the poem “In the same space” became the title of both the piece and the disk. American composer Muhly (1981) has been setting Cavafy throughout this decade, using translations by his good friend, Daniel Mendelsohn. I am aware of 11 poems used in 3 of his works.

Pantelis, my “other self,” has discussed Muhly’s Cavafy cycle Impossible Things with tenor Mark Padmore, who gave the world premiere, since at some point we were thinking about collaborating with tenor Nicholas Phan in another performance of the same cycle. In light of this and other recent settings it would be interesting to rethink thoroughly the evening-length, 17-song recital/lecture that Pantelis and I, together with the wonderful mezzo Alexandra Gravas, performed in 2012-13 in ten cities and four countries.  It would mean revisiting “critical horizontalism” in an era of Cavafian intermediality.

October 29, 2016

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