Bacchae: Paralipomena (2018)

for voice, trumpet, bass clarinet, and trombone
Commissioned by loadbang ensemble
Premiere: loadbang, National Opera Center in New York, February 18, 2018
Duration: 40' min



Bacchae: Paralipomena (2018), a dionysian drama for voice, bass clarinet, trumpet, and trombone, which was commissioned by and written for the New York City ensemble, loadbang.

Bacchae is the drama of Dionysus. A standard reading of the tragedy is concerned with the two opposite sides of human nature: the rational, lawful, and civilized side, which is represented by Pentheus, the king of Thebes, and the irrational, anarchic, and instinctive side, which is represented by Dionysus. The two sides interact constantly and violently without any possibility of reconciliation. It is perilous to ignore the desire for dionysian experience; the instinctive side has to be fully embraced, otherwise it turns into a destructive force. A less conventional reading of Bacchae is also concerned with the eternal and primordial strife between the old and the new: the preservation of tradition, history, beliefs, values or ideals, and the ferocious and destructive desire of the new to establish its order. On the one side lies Demetra: the goddess of earth, the officially acknowledged deity, and the representative of the status quo; on the other side lies Dionysus: the god of wine (or, better, of liquids – wine, milk, water, semen, blood), the new deity, and the bearer of change who struggles to usurp the vested privileges of the past. It is precisely in this sense that the logic of modernity is projected retrospectively onto the work of Euripides: tradition in a modern community is not understood as preservation but, rather, as forgetfulness and betrayal. In my view, this is the most profound meaning of Bacchae: the appropriation of the double character of the human being, which advocates a new and violent beginning, and points out the “anxiety for the unknown.”

Bacchae: Paralipomena is a music drama. But, what is a music drama? Is it music and drama, music and theatre or, in other words, sounds along with visual aspects and physical action on stage? In fact, I am more interested in the drama of sound, the “tragedy of listening” – to invoke Nono’s subtitle of his opera, Prometeo. I do not intend to represent the characters of the play or to develop a musical narrative which emulates the narrative of Bacchae. The only character is sound, and sound does not represent anything other than itself. To put it differently, I aim to let sound present itself so that we can simply listen to it. So, in what sense is the work a music drama and not simply a piece of music? Just as poetry is the presentation of action, likewise the music drama is the presentation of the sound disclosing itself. And, sound discloses itself, for it unfolds in its own way, as most of the sounds that I use are unstable, uncontrollable, unrepeatable, and constantly moving.

The four performers stand in a circle. They also wear masks and robes. On the one hand, the position of the ensemble and the costumes create the impression that the performers are the chorus of the play. On the other hand, this decision is not theatrical but, rather, musical. To put it differently, my intention is not to have the performers look in a certain way but, rather, to provide the condition for the possibility of withdrawing the performers from the eyes of the listeners so that we focus on the sonic and not on the visual. That is, in order to shift from the representation of the narrative in sound and, thus, from the drama of the characters to the presentation of sound and, thus, to the music drama, the presence of the person has to be de-presented.

If ‘person’ (per-sono) means through sound, in the sense that the actors use masks in order to conceal their faces and let the role speak, then the function of the mask is to block visibility and let the sound be perceived as sound. Therefore, sound is negatively defined by the lack of visibility or by the de-presentation of certain aspects of the presence of the person. In this light, the question that arises is not simply the return to and the appropriation of a lost origin of ‘person’ but, rather, a positive appropriation of the origin of sound as ontologically independent from visibility. In other words, if sound’s genuine dimensionality is differentiated from visibility, then what is the actual origin of sound? By withdrawing the person from the visual, I see that which makes the sound possible; the human body as the origin of sound. However, this is not the ontic body of the performers but, rather, the human body as body. It is in this sense that the music work transcends from the ontic particularities to the body as body and, thus, to the condition for the possibility of sound. By not seeing the particular body that produces the sound, I see the sound, which means that I see the condition for the possibility of a sound. That is, I see how the human body produces the sounds that I listen. Therefore, the answer to the question of the origin of sound is the human body as body or, more specifically, the human voice as voice. The voice is the connective nexus around which the four performers are intertwined. Hence most of the sounds I use have a vocal quality and the instruments are used as resonators of the voices of the performers.

Because the voice is the connective nexus and turning point of the work, I cannot avoid asking the question ‘What is the voice?’ Is it an extrovert means of communication? Is it an expression? My answer is not conceptual but, rather, is given through the music work, which is an invitation to explore the answers ‘no’ or ‘not only’; to rediscover the human voice not as expression but, rather, as an introvert means of recognition, that is, the vehicle through which the self returns to itself and comes to know itself as a human body. The human voice turns into an activity of self-recognition, for it does not mean to externalize anything other than itself, and it returns to itself by making the self realize that it is itself a body that experiences its own existence. It is in this sense that I aim, through the voice as a turning point, to present an introvert ritual in which the listener is invited to enter. The music drama is not the music of Bacchae; it is the activity of the voice disclosing itself as voice; it is the capturing and raising anew of the question that Euripides asks regarding the being of man, but with respect to sound and the human voice.

© 2020 Ioannis Angelakis