Cristina Grifone, soprano; David Ryan, zither, lyre, clarinets, percussion; ………………Joe Zeitlin, ‘cello; Dave Fowler, drums/percussion; Simon Allen, ‘hyper- bass zither’
Kelcy Davenport, speaker; William Crosby, guitar; Klara Łucznik, dance/movement
‘Inscriptions’(2021 -) is a work-in-progress and part of ‘Inscriptions-Echo-Metamorphoses’, a larger project with ‘Opera Povera’ (Czech Republic) slated for a performance in 2022. The latter’s starting point, as a joint collaborative project, is around the use of texts within the development of early opera in the late Renaissance. Originally, these libretti drew heavily on Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. The complex history of early opera and its intellectual background in attempting a modern realization of Greek drama according to historical principles, remains a fascinating conundrum for contemporary practices. For this project, rather than the grand mythological themes that preoccupied the early Italian composers of opera, I have chosen a series of epigrams from the famous ‘Greek Anthology’: a remarkable document that was current in Papyrus editions throughout the period from the 7th century BCE through to the Roman Empire, with poems constantly added, and substantially so as time went on, the prerequisite being that they were composed in Greek. The epigrams themselves give us huge insight into the development of poetry and its intertwining with memory and time. A literal translation of epigram is ‘inscription’ and the texts from the archaic period of the anthology are taken from the Greek stele (grave inscriptions) – functioning literally as reflective prompts for the wayside traveller. This mode then transformed and enlarged its emotional scope – with aphoristic statements on life in general reflecting on the human condition, musings on loss, documentation of desire and sexual antics, plays with words and concepts, but above all the play and trickery of time itself. It functions as a strange quotidian snapshot onto that period (though we must remember it is more a mosaic of periods) with all its distorted encapsulations of beauty, power and both religious and anti-religious feeling; the grand myths remain very present throughout the anthology, but refracted through the concerns and demands of the everyday. In the present they operate like found objects – the subject matter often both distant and repellent but also possessing a strange proximity.
These ideas around the nature of early opera, as a means of inventing something new from the ancient past, find resonance in the present work-in-progress. This always requires a strange double alienation – from the present but also from the past (in its current contemporary ‘reification’). As with most of my work with Opera Aperta, the text is a generator and not something to be ‘set’ in a traditional way, necessarily (although sometimes it approaches this). One of the surprising things about this project has been the possibility of moving across different procedures, especially musically. So the texts can be sung straight, fragmented, spoken etc. Instrumental contexts are fixed or improvised or a mixture of both. My research into Greek and Roman music has, again surprisingly, resulted in an examination of melody, inventing simple scalic devices. But these are often featured in more improvisational ‘environments’; it explores the possibility of something quite ‘elemental’, ‘elementary’ even – as still having the possibility to yield new possibilities, engage, move, even, those who approach these pieces.
At the moment the piece exists as a series of fragments that can be freely combined. These fragments include instrumental parts and melodic song-like fragments, videos of readings and videos of dance/movement. The scope of the piece is worked out through the materials themselves. At present it forms two strands which I will refer to as ‘Inscriptions 1’ and ‘Inscriptions 2’.
‘Inscriptions 1’ was originally conceived as a piece for solo voice – this has expanded to include the voice in various instrumental contexts – I’ve favoured here basic string, wind and percussion. ‘Inscriptions 2’ is a series of video readings of the texts sometimes with musical sounds, or at other times, additional footage or dance/movement. The possibility, here, is for two discrete projects or a combining of the two creating a mis-en-scene out of the materials, which will be attempted soon.
A note on the recordings
These work-in-progress recordings have all been produced during lockdown. They embrace the imperfections of the situation; the sound recordings have been produced in environments with strong leakage of environmental sounds. These have become part of the piece, with birdsong, cars, car horns, trams etc. all audible throughout.
This epigram derives from a ritual dedication:
Queen of Black Earth Egypt, divine Isis
In Linen robes, accept my well-set offering:
Flaky sacrificial cake on the wood embers;
Two dazzling water-loving geese; nard
Crumbled around seed-seething figs; raisins
Like lizard skins; fragrant frankincense.
But most, great queen: save Damis from poverty
As you did from the sea, and a gold-horned kid is yours.
Cristina Grifone, soprano/speaker; Joe Zeitlin cello; David Ryan, zither, lyre, percussion; Dave Fowler, drums.
Listen! The night raven’s song
Bodes death before long
Demophilus sings instead
The Night Raven’s dead!
Cristina Grifone: soprano.
Death came before marriage, Philaenion.
Your mother did not lead you to a bridegroom’s bed
In season: She led you to a bed of death.
With torn cheeks covered you here in this tomb.
Cristina Grifone, soprano; Simon Allen, constructed bass zither; Joe Zeitlin, Cello(s).
I would but I can’t
make you my friend;
you never ask or give
when I ask or take
what I’d give
Cristina Grifone: soprano.
The text is as follows: [whisper]
Whether// you are a/// citizen //or //stranger ////coming from//// Elsewhere, ///take pity on Tettichos/// as you pass by:///// a brave man/// killed in battle, ////who there/// lost the pride ////of his youth. [spoken quietly]// Mourn for him a while, and go on. May your fortune be good.
Cristina Grifone, soprano; Dave Fowler, drums, percussion.
‘Inscriptions’(2021 -) is a work-in-progress and part of ‘Inscriptions-Echo-Metamorphoses’, a larger audiovisual project scheduled for 2022.
It takes its subject matter from ancient epigrams from the Greek Anthology. A literal translation of epigram is ‘inscription’ and the texts from the archaic period of the anthology are taken from the Greek stele (grave inscriptions) – functioning literally as reflective prompts for the wayside traveller. Here, the subject is Tettichos, killed in battle. The text provides the basic phonetic material for the soprano to improvise.
IL NE VENIS
This text is tells of a waiting lover – stood up yet again:
He has not come.
Dims again and
Within – the lust,
The longing –
burns bright and hard
I cannot sleep.
That he would come
And swore again
In Love’s name:
His perjured tongue
Man nor god
This text is sung in an Esperanto translation.
Cristina Grifone, soprano; David Ryan, zither and lyre; Joe Zeitlin cello(s).
An ancient momento mori – but as usual with these epigrams the emphasis is not with the Christian warning of excess and the futility of possessions but rather a warning to take pleasure while one can…
Dead you will lie under a yard of earth,
Far from daylight and all delighting.
Cristina Grifone, soprano; Simon Allen, construcuted hyper-bass zither; Joe Zeitlin, cello(s).
A text that makes fun of the ‘religious’ aspects of Plato:
Think of your conception; you soon forget
What Plato puffs you up with, all that
‘immortality’ and ‘divine life’ stuff.
Man, why dost thou think of Heaven? Nay,
Consider thine origins in common clay!
Is one way of putting it, but not blunt enough.
Think of your father, sweating, drooling, drunk,
You, his spark of lust, his spurt of spunk.
Cristina Grifone: Soprano/voices; David Ryan, clarinet and bass clarinets.