From the Greek Anthology

Concert programme 4 June 1988, Club Voltaire, Catania
Concert programme 4 June 1988, Club Voltaire, Catania

Yesterday I came across an old cassette tape of a concert I gave at the Club Voltaire in Catania, Sicily on the 4th of June 1988. What a shock to hear this after more than thirty years!

The first half comprised a selection of preludes by Scriabin, while the second half comprised a piano suite I composed myself “From the Greek Anthology”.

The concert was very kindly recorded informally by a friend and the sound quality is very poor, especially of the first half. In fact, the sound quality of the first half is so bad it’s not worth trying to rescue it; what I’ve embedded below is the rescued version of the second half.

from the University of Tasmania

That second half, the suite, comprised a set of nine short portraits of friends and acquaintances, imagined as though poems from the collection of often scurrilous as well as grave epigrams, the “Greek Anthology“. The suite was written in a playful code that makes reference to a host of works in the orchestral and operatic repertoire (with some piano music too).  While conveying “secret” messages to and about individuals, I also wanted to bridge the popular and the elite through postmodernist mash-ups, emphasising the sensuous and physical side of performance with violent contrasts and virtuoso techniques, mobilised by lucid – even very strict – musical form.

As I explained in the notes I wrote to accompany the concert, I wanted to emulate in sound the poetic techniques of the Greek Anthology and the centos of late antiquity which happily – and often very cleverly – used ready-made phrases borrowed from previous poetry. Their work was also the precipitate out of – and glue between – friends, neighbours and enemies. With this music, then, I wanted to create a personal, situated, non-institutional, occasional art like theirs which was also capable of communicating to a broader public. I was also aware at the same time that if I were to write epigrammatic musical portraits, I should necessarily strip people of their complexity and reduce them to types (I was thinking of Theophrastus at this stage): the form itself would necessarily  distance us from them. In that respect my pieces were satiric even when they appear most sentimental and sympathetic.

Now, 30 years later, I hear these pieces as normative and utopian, even moralistic: there was in them an element of criticism, that desire to correct that is key to satire. Now I would prioritise their stories over their Theophrastian “character”. I wonder, rather, what the stories of these characters were. Some I know, but others? What happened to the addressees – to the princess whose extraordinary beauty could not hide her terrified grasp on love which she hoped would prevent her falling into the abyss, a terror all too clear in her nightmare of being smothered by bees that I’ve tried to represent in the piece dedicated to her?  What happened to the braggart soldier to whom she clung as though to a branch over the abyss, even while knowing he could not stop her falling? Did the feigned vestal live out the comfortable life of public virtue she craved as much as private sensual indulgence? Philosopher 1, I have discovered, turned to analysis of the surface of things, eschewing all depth.  He’s a photographer. The failed stoic, alas, I know now had a far stronger pull to a minor key than I presented, but I caught him at a good time and this is a happy memorial of that. The lady lives on as charming and nonchalant as ever, but philosopher 2 – what was or still is the story there? I think he became a therapist. As for the curse tablet, the body it referred to is quite forgotten.

A single file of the whole second half of the concert would be too large to upload, so here it is in two parts along with some notes. First, the 5 pieces to “Defixio” (just over 8 minutes). Parts have an unfortunate hum or hiss, but that becomes inaudible very soon.


1) To a philosopher 1 – a pale, still, very disciplined piece  in Gm /B flat which nonetheless can’t avoid sentimentality even if it aspires to do so. Aspiring higher and higher, it keeps falling back. It’s strictly based on the first four notes of Holst’s chaste “Venus” from the Planets suite played in a variety of combinations and sequences (even the final chord comprises the notes played simultaneously).

2) To a feigned vestal – a passionate but entirely conventional – even banal – answer in E flat to the first piece, as if they were a couple unable to talk together. Most of “To a feigned vestal” is based on two themes, each from Strauss operas: the first subject is Arabella in search of “the right man” and the second Christine (from Intermezzo) who dreams of a glamorous alternative to her workaholic husband. They are woven together in a mini-sonata form whose coda quotes a coquettish version of the heroine’s theme from a third opera by Strauss, Salome, before an inconclusive end (a bland version of the terrible dissonance at figure 361 at the climax to Salome), broken into by …

3) To a married lady / matron– a bad-tempered, quixotic and querulous piece, whose main theme is a slow, cabaret-Satie-esque waltz in G minor, which tries to cheer up, but which eventually collapses  into the funeral march  from “The Farewell” from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The piece ends with a nod to Debussy’s Jeux. This was a portrait of my dear friend Nini Floreale, who died in 2005.

4) To a failed stoic – another passionate torrent of notes, this time based on Scriabin’s opus 11 C minor Prelude, of which, turned very definitely into C major, only the melodic shape remains. Other key references are to the theme of redemption in Wagner’s Ring and the interrupted cadence from the final , happy, movement of Mahler VII, whose key it shares. Structurally reminiscent of 1) – an A-A form – it is also a  solar answer to (or aspiration for) 3).  The two pieces share an interest with two adjacent notes at key moments, though used for different purposes.  The failed stoic is fact a portrait of my friend Lawrence Razavi of whom I have fond memories not for his deeply  problematic research on genetics  (long before genetics were fashionable) but for his passionate and humane engagement in art.  The piece is counterposed by….

5) To the infernal powers / Defixio. A defixio was for the ancient Romans a lead tablet on which a curse was inscribed before being thrown into a sacred spring. I tried to create the sound of hellish water bubbling up from the underworld at midnight using chords I found originally in the funeral march from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; the melody by contrast is a dark parody of the main theme of Debussy’s sensuous waltz, La plus que lente, for of course this is a curse by a frustrated lover on a faithless or unobtainable beloved. The melodic line eventually gets trapped within the devil’s interval – the tritone –  and the curse comes true, with terrifying consequences, even if it ends in B flat major. An A-B form.

Here are pieces 6-9 (9 minutes).

6) To a lady. In the nonchalant, carefree style of popular songs of the early twentieth century – Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” is nearby. The melodic line is, though, built up of a host of references to other music, from Stravinsky’s Firebird and Scriabin’s Sonata no 5  to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Another simple strophic form (A, A), this time centred on G major, with elaborations in the repetition.

7) To a princess. A mirror of the first piece in its compositional technique and an echo of 5) in its sound world, this seeks to represent the nightmare of the princess’s dream of being smothered by bees. How I interpreted the bees is suggested by how the piece is obsessively based on the first two bars of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (which becomes clear only towards the very end, when it is quoted in recognisable form). On the whole though the notes of Tristan are jammed together in extreme dissonance, the last thumped chord comprising all the notes of the two bars played simultaneously in the bass (except for the previous pathetic rising 6th). There is also a passing and rather hopeless reference to the Falcon’s warning cry from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (don’t do it!) – and a Messiaen-esque ornithological screech towards the end still based on the Tristan semitone cluster. A-B-A. Atonal with hints of F minor.

8) To a braggart soldier. A mirror of the second (and again in E flat), but even more empty of content, whose main melodic line is built on a simple descending scale. Just as the second mocked conventional femininity, this satirises the masculine. There is mock-military version of Wagner’s Siegfried which falls short in its final phrase (a rising 5th instead of a 6th), some Beethoven III (the “heroic” symphony) shoehorned into march tempo, a moment from the apocalyptic 4th movement of Mahler VI, and lots of gesture without content on one note – the musical equivalent of hot air or a military side drum – that eventually peters out because it has nowhere to go. A-B-A but something of a mess in its determination to aurally manspread.

9) To a philosopher 2. Another march, but a very different masculinity from 8). The Siegfried-derived theme is taken up again (but now quietly in A minor – as far as possible from the soldier, and recalling the quietness of philosopher 1). The style distantly recalls the Poulenc of “L’aube” from Les animaux modeles (and thereby Parsifal). The opening chords from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony (chords as distant from each other as it is possible to be in terms of key) move the piece into the atonal B section and quotations from Alban Berg – the Lulu Erdgeist-motiv and “Wir arme Leute” (“We poor people”) from Wozzeck. The climax cadence  is a version of the defixio chord, now rhythmically echoing not just the climax of 5) but also the funeral march of 3). The chord resolves into the A section again, now more insistently repeated in way that highlights its march-like quality (the soldier is not as Other as the philosopher thinks). The A-B dialectic is repeated until the New World chords eventually break free into the coda, a tiny syncopated dance that soon ends back with the New World chords calling for new ways of thinking that includes everything — even the devil’s tritone of the defixio. The chords fill out, eventually sounding simultaneously, clusters of the black notes of the piano glistening rhythmically high up in the air while all the white ones reverberate after a double glissando from middle C simultaneously up and down to cover the length of the keyboard. This is the aspiration this philosopher sought: to be open to everything.

And finally the encore (3 minutes).

This was my rather over-excited and not entirely accurate version of the famous Scriabin Etude opus 12 no 8 – except with even more notes tumbling over the keyboard than in the already full original. I always justified such excess to myself on the grounds that Scriabin used his piano scores as palimpsests for improvisation. My musically purist friends just thought all this sort of thing vulgar, and always made sure I knew it – so much for postmodern dissolution of aesthetic value in 1988!

Now I think they were right.