A certain composer, asked to write an opera, refused all idea of composing for some story, some completed text that already exists. “If the text is good, it gains nothing by adding music; music can even detract from it. If it's not good – it doesn’t make sense to have music either, it will only make it worse,” he said to a certain librettist.
“Does that mean there’s no possible text that would work?” wondered the librettist, a little anxiously.
Composer: What I mean is, there are difficulties with any existing, completed stories. I see the music itself as a story, said the composer. This musical story will have a certain development, along with other modes of expression, and the totality of them all will be the real story.
Librettist: Then what should I provide as a structuring ‘text’?
C: Concentrate on the act of speaking. The speaking itself is the story, and everything can grow from this point - the story will result from that effort, that desire to speak. The essential, substantial desire for expression becomes much more important than the content of that speech.
L: But there has to be content – a subject, a story! It can’t be sheer expression for its own sake. A strong expression needs an equally strong motivation. All I see is that you want a very dramatic situation, in which a voice (not really a ‘character’) speaks and sings. With a definite sense of urgency.
C: Actually, that’s right. Like in public speeches. Think of rhetoric, even classical rhetoric.
L: Well, rhetoric in the legal or political sense is hardly interesting. But maybe there’s something to the idea of excessive persuasion, even seduction. That's what much of classical rhetoric was aiming at, in the end.
C: Then let's start there, try and work with an actual piece of ancient rhetoric, go back to the source.
L: But all those pieces are in Greek! Nobody will understand it. Why not make sure the piece is in a language that people can understand?
C: That would change nothing! I think the importance of the language was overestimated in the history of music-theater. Can you tell me any opera, where you fully understand the text? Take the beautiful text of the Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos? Doesn’t it become, in a mouth of a singer, the mere distorted remains of a text, oversimplified? And what's left is only a vocalisation. The meaning is lost and you have only sounds, no sense. The story should be comprehensible yes, but the text alone can't make that happen. Musical expression, mimicry, gestures, choreography – all that should also be considered as a part of the medium of theatrical language. It’s a mistake to not see that literary language is good for writing books, but not for music theatre. The story has to be translated into the language of the music theater, if we want people to understand it in that context.
The language we use doesn’t have to be an ordinary one, it even be ancient Greek itself. Then people could appreciate the sound value of language without being distracted from the main narrative.
L: Distracted by what, by the meanings of words themselves? You’re not serious.
C: I am. By using the text in Greek we can also distance the audience from the narrative so that they could use their imaginations and really participate in the theatrical-musical act, without being distracted by following some scrolling subtitles.
L: (skeptically) Mmmm.
C: Greek was the original language of rhetoric, plus it could be interesting to use the Indo-European relationships and create smooth modulations into other languages!
L: Utopian. And how will the people understand it? I agreed to try and avoid subtitles, because it draws the spectator's eye away from the stage, where so much of the non-verbal story is unfolding. However, I see no point in writing a text that won't even be comprehensible.
C: (optimistically) We’ll figure that out later. Now it's time for a coffee.
A couple of months later
The librettist ransacks the classical literature shelves and scavenges many noble ancient texts in search of an idea rich enough to bear meaning, but not so structured it impedes the composer. Certain small fragments, almost forgotten, of poetic texts, come to fascinate her. These pieces of ancient lyric provide only a few words, but it’s a start, nevertheless, to the work.
Hither... ... not derive benefit (?)...
youth ... ... grow old ... ... robe...
dried up (?)... ... limbs still carry (?)...
to sail... ... the sail ...
The written fragments seem to emerge sharply from of empty space, they seem to point to a story without telling it, and this excites the composer. He begins to imagine fragments growing whole again, somehow rediscovered their content, or finding a new one. He sees the fragments as growing, both in sound and in meaning, growing together until they become an unbroken song. Happily, our librettist happens upon just such a scenario for such a song.
L: So, what do you think of this as a basic idea?
Menander, On Display Oratory
Apopemtic hymns (i.e. hymns of farewell) are like some of those found in Bacchylides and contain a valediction since someone is leaving his country…
Apopemptic hymns, as the name shows, are the opposite of hymns of invocation; […] They are performed at departures, imagined or real, of gods […] Hymns of this kind have as their basic material the land or cities which the god is leaving behind, and similarly the city or land to which he is going, descriptions of places and suchlike.
C: Interesting. What do you like about it?
L: It gives a scenario for this unending song we see as underlying the fragments. And I can imagine an interesting tension between the urgency of the event, on one hand, and the need to stay light-hearted about it, to ‘un pleasantly along’as he says, on the other. Also, since it’s the song’s continuation that holds back and delays the gods, he will have to keep up singing, as long as he can.
C: And so the act of singing becomes more important than any particular content in the song.
L: Exactly, provided that it’s interesting enough to the listening, temperamental gods, who are waiting at anchor in the harbor, ready to sail. The song has to fascinate them, enchant them, or at least try.
C: What sort of text do you imagine?
L: Well, the people of a certain city discover one fine day that the gods have built a ship and have dragged it down to the sea. They have to respond, so they respond in song. This voice will follow Menander’s traditional structure, more or less, singing of the homeland, praising it to the gods, then going on to imagine other places and phenomena nearby, places where the gods might go.
C: No-one knows where they are going, though.
L: True. But he simply must keep speaking, so he will follow one idea to another, spontaneously, inventing possible trajectories and drawing on the more fantastic rumors of the time. You find a lot of interesting place descriptions in Herodotus and Pausanias; I am using them, along with the fragments. Anyway, this voice, connects these heterogeneous places. He improvises a description of a voyage, continuing until he reaches the end of the world. But even so, he can't stop singing, can he?
C: He shouldn’t. It’s important for the voice to go on, any way that it can, even if the gods leave, or have left.
L: And we should think about the fact that it’s really a song, an oral performance, since that affects the translation and comprehensibility of it. At first, oral poetry survived only through performance, and people’s memories. As long as they remained oral, they were mutable and had subtle variations, but as they were gradually written down they took on fixed, standard forms. I would like it if our story could vary from performance to another, in the real oral tradition! I mean, our story is about performance, about speaking, right?
C: That’s not really feasible, you know.
L: Well then, could the written version deviate a little from the spoken, sung version? Try to follow it, try to freeze it, capture it, but fail somehow?
L: In fact, what you hear (in time) and what you see (texts that are static, unmoving) could even tell somewhat different stories—or rather, try (in different mediums) to bring into focus one 'lost' narrative/train of thought. And the written version would be a sort of palimpsest of a perpetually changing text? The sung texts could be translated by writing, and this writing would be established, modified, erased. It would try to follow the speech, as best it could. On some kind of blackboard.
C: Writing on blackboard... It could be very interesting musically. We need only to amplify it and I can start writing music with it: a layer of percussion-like sound.
L: Two ideas for the price of one, then. Plus it takes care of the subtitle problem. The written text can translate the Greek. This requires a text that can be written and changed rather quickly. Maybe something very repetitive from one line to another, but in such a way that changing a word or two very much alters the sense and pushes the story ahead. These incremental changes can shape both the story and it's form, giving a slowly mutating, patterned text. These patterns might leave a sort of trace, visually and aurally.
C: Sounds difficult. How exactly do you propose to do that?
L: I'll have to get back to you on that.
Later that day
L: Here’s an excerpt, take a look.
C: It has great musical possibilities, this sort of text. The word repetitions allow me to create a smooth flow from one word/meaning to another, by making small adjustments, small steps of sound interpolations. This written text could musically grow even to something more, by transforming that sound with live electronics or combining with other sounds. And these writing-entities – they should live, and feel, and react. They are semi-persons on the stage...
C: I can imagine them visually them as hands first of all. But hands with soul, somehow...
L: How many? One character, multiple voices, what exactly?
C: I don’t know exactly now, but I think, there should be enough hands to be able write and change the text fast, in order to keep pace with the main voice. They could work on different parts of the same phrase at the same time. See! That’s already theater! Deciding or hesitating, hurrying or not, accepting or refusing... Don’t forget, the gods are leaving. That would affect them, too.
L: I need to hear more about how you imagine the stage, the choreography, all that.
C: Okay, somewhere on the edge of the stage, leaving the stage almost empty. Most things are happening in the periphery, beyond direct tangibility: the language hints at the conversation, but doesn’t let us fully participate; there is a certain distance. The main voice, which addresses the departing gods, and which the public will never see, doesn’t come from a real person; it’s recorded and transformed. And the writing-entities reinforce that ambiguity; it’s not clear if they merely record, or if they feel, too. I see an “empty” space, almost like in a form of Hörspiel, where you “see” always only a part of the whole and can never touch it. The whole being this unending song and the part we see, being the fragments.
L: I see. Hey, isn't it time for our Greek class?
A couple of months later
C: So, is it finished yet?
L: The ending is a little tricky. The song describes a trip to the end of the world, and then? Really, we can't have an ending, can we? It’s supposed to be endless, this singing voice that continues, that needs and wants to continue, it’s the only link to the departing gods. Do you have any musical ideas?
C: What about a sort of loop, which repeats?
L: No way. I’m not writing another version all over again.
C: You don’t have to. A real loop follows from what is already there, the song ends with a dream of the men at the end of the world, the men who (like the singing cicadas) only drink dew, who sleep in the unbroken night and have unbroken dreams. What can he dream at that point, if not of the departure of the gods? The departure of the gods and the need to sing as long as possible and the description of a voyage which goes to the end of the world, etc.
L: Another version of our song. It’s implied, but never-ending. Like those cicadas which never stop singing.
C: Indeed. The whole piece becomes only a moment of an eternal situation, an attempt to hold back something. Emphasis on the “attempt”. You cannot stop the gods – it’s like trying to hold water in your hands.
Sharon Joyce, 17 February 2003