Saturday, February 16, 2019

VARIATIONS ON A THEME



It was an impromptu festive gathering of friends with musical pretentions that turned into an inebriated parody of virtuosity. One after the other, we proceeded to infuse with spirit of the alcoholic kind, and subsequently murder, the entire corpus of the rembetiko genre, each of us maintaining that only we knew the authentic tempo of each piece, either cajoling the others to keep up, or pleading with them to slow down, thus ensuring a Ginastera dissonance, but without the rhythmic drive.
Purporting to accompany my esteemed colleagues, Colonel Klink-like on the violin with a profusion of scratchings and screechings for some time, and having just overly deconstructed Skarvelis’ immortal «Τι σου λέει η μάνα σου για μένα;» into randomly banging cluster chords of no particular coherency, I lapsed into Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A minor, to a tsifteteli beat.
“What the hell is that?” a bespectacled, middle aged male asked me, in Greek-accented English.
“Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in Asia Minor,” I shot back.
“Never heard of it,” he snorted, picking his enormously large proboscis, as he did so. His nostrils were particularly cavernous, disclosing a multitude of protruding foliage that vibrated like nervous antennae, as he spoke.
“The problem with you ομογενείς, is that you are musically illiterate,” the man observed. “There is a whole world of music out there and all you do is rehash rembetika and folk music. Your horizons are as narrow as your social development. In Greece, it is not like this. You don’t even have an appreciation of classical music here.”
“Which classical composers do you rejoice in?” I enquired, in Greek, hoping to head off a diatribe against the Greek-Australian community by one its manifestly newer members.
“None that you would know,” the man squinted, an almost impossible feat, given that his eyes were so narrowly placed together that when he did affect a squint, they seemed to disappear against the sides of his prodigious olfactory appendage, creating an interesting, if somewhat disconcerting Roswellian effect.
“Try me,” I offered.
The man paused for a while, playing with the hairs on the sizeable mole on his neck. This protuberance, a compound melanocytic nevus, lifted and twisted ever so slightly as he twirled the hairs around into a tightly wound rope. Then, lifting his hands to pontificate, he released them, causing them to swirl and return to their original position.
“Well, I much enjoy Bach’s Handel,” he finally opined, in English.
I’m glad you like Bach,” I affirmed. “I myself find Offenbach completely hyperbolic and insufferable. Especially his iconoclastic and irreverent treatment of our hallowed ancient mythical ancestors.”
“Who is this Offenbach?” the man frowned.
“It’s what you get when you leave a Bach cantata out of the fridge overnight,” I informed him.
“I like Mahler as well,” the man removed his glasses and began to clean them on his shirt, lifting it from the confines of his corduroy pants as he did so, exposing a hirsute, overhanging sternum. “I’m sure you haven’t heard of him. He was a German composer, the finest of his generation.”
“Ah Mahler,” I assumed the air of a connoisseur. “A morbid, tormented neurotic Austro-Bohemian bloke. Distorted, shifting tempos. Made unpardonable interpretations of supposed real life in Ancient Greece, during his conducting of Gluck’s Iphigenia. I have a dim recollection of an aged aunt possessed of musical opinions dragging me along to a performance of his Fourth Symphony in Athens at the age of fifteen. Completely underaged, you understand. Practices of this nature are barely legal.”
The man, having replaced his glasses upon his nose, regarded me with upper lip raised to the level of a sneer:
“We have so many Greeks excelling in classical music that you people know absolutely nothing about. Herbert von Karajan. Maria Callas. You wouldn’t have heard Maria Callas’ Aria of the Queen of the Night from ‘The Magic Flute.’ It makes the hairs of my arm stand on end.” He extended his flashy arm by way of corroboration. It was pale and shaved smooth.
“You know,” he continued, “I went to see ‘The Magic Flute’ here in Melbourne a few years ago. They interpolated a scene where Papageno is actually drinking Australian beer. Afterwards, I ran into Matt Preston, you know, the celebrity chef. He was actually there, wearing his cravat. I told him that this kind of irreverence for the arts would never take place in Greece. It seems to have augmented a special kind of philistinism in Greek-Australians, when combined with their own peasant culture.”
“Probably,” I agreed. “For one thing, they don’t drink that much Australian beer in Greece, do they? Although, I have always thought that the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ would benefit greatly of a beer scene.”
“Figaro, Figaro, Figaro,” the man proceeded to sing, in cracked falsetto. Tannu-Tuvan throat singers are trained from birth to compel their epiglottis to produce two notes simultaneously. This man was producing the whole pentatonic scale concurrently from the undulations of his nasal cavity and the effect was breathtaking.
“I think the libretto you are quoting is from the ‘Barber of Seville’,” I ventured.
“It’s Figaro,” he insisted, indignantly. “The Marriage of Figaro’ is about Figaro. What on earth are you talking about. This is one of the most famous operas of all time. What would you know?”
“Not much,” I admitted, “but I’m pretty sure that Rossini based the ‘Barber of Seville’, whence the libretto comes on the first of Beaumarchais’ Figaro plays, while Mozart based ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ on the second.”
“What about the Russians?” the man sighed. “Since you people are too Middle Eastern and backward to embrace, let alone appreciate western music, you could conceivably introduce your community to the Russians. Dark, disturbed and Asiatic. A bridge between cultures. A great starting point on your path towards civilization.”
“Not a bad idea,” I mused. “Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ could plausibly be used as the soundtrack to a videotaped record of a Greek brotherhood’s Annual General Meeting.”
The man was swiping his fingers upon his mobile phone. “What do you think of…,” he leaned closer to read the screen.. “Rimsky-Korsakoff.”
“While I have an open mind and understand that consenting adults do indulge in such activities from time to time,” I riposted, “I find these practices generally distasteful and completely unarousing.”
“You, like all of your compatriots, are ignorant and cannot appreciate good music,” the man interrupted, visibly frustrated, wiping his bald pate furiously, orienting the few remaining strands of hair clinging desultorily upon his head, towards the South Magnetic Pole. “Look at all the famous composers: Xenakis, Kalomoiris, Mantzaros…”
“Phoebos,” I added.
“Who?”
“Phoebos,” I replied. “The man who has written every single song produced in Greece worth listening to, since the year 2000. No other mortal can claim to have achieved a complete monopoly over the entire cultural content of a civilisation. That masterpiece he wrote for Despina Vandi, «Υποφέρω,» the one he won an award for, from Sir Richard Branson, still makes me weak at the knees. My only regret is that it is so brilliant that it completely overshadows the tonal complexity of the next song on the eponymous album: «Σταμάτα να μου κολλάς.» Furthermore, Phoebos, unlike other lesser Greeks with pretensions towards composition, is able to transcend ethnic boundaries and make meaningful contacts with other civilisations. Take his greatest global success, the divine «Γεια» which he wrote for Despina Vandi. It went multi-platinum in the Greek market, and then broke into the international music scene. It was included in the playlists of celebrated DJs and clubs worldwide, even reaching the No1 spots in the US and UK Dance Charts. No wonder he is named after Phoebos Apollo, the God of Music. These things aren’t coincidental, you know. The only person who can come close, in terms of international influence, is Yianni, and this, only because he gives Emmanuel Macron relationship advice.”
«Γύφτοι, καράβλαχοι, χωριάτες,» the gentleman spluttered as he extricated himself from his chair and staggered towards the drinks table. By way of coda to our conversation, I began to play Mozart’s Turkish March from the ‘Ruins of Athens,’ in the style of a hasaposerviko, a gesture of goodwill that my erstwhile interlocutor, now whining about the dearth of decent bourbon, failed to acknowledge.
Yet, despite giving me the cold shoulder, the man had not only planted but had also germinated an idea in my head. Approaching a veteran rembeti with reverence and awe, a man who would only ever deign to address me when asking: “Have you actually tuned that violin?” I waited patiently for him to conclude his conversation with a particularly nubile admirer of his art. Then, I timidly suggested: “Why don’t we start a Greek community classical orchestra?”
His eyebrows arched immediately in complete shock. Looking me up and down coldly, searing my insides with dry ice, he unwound my contention like a presumptuous viola string placed in error, or by unforgiveable design, upon a violin: “Are you serious? We spent our entire years in high school and university as music nerds. Now we are finally doing something that makes people think we are cool and you want to throw it all away? Who do you think you are? Yehudi Tsabasin?”
Thus having been sent to Coventry, by my musical Fonz, I packed my violin away, neglecting for the first time in my life, to unscrew the nut of my bow or to dust down my fingerboard and proceeded, with much shame into the exile of the drinks table, where my dialogist was waiting, a can of Jim Beam firmly ensconced within his pudgy grasp, there, in his intoxicated embrace, to misremember song lyrics, from the Aliki Vougiouklaki films of old.
DEAN KALIMNIOU

First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 February 2019

Saturday, February 09, 2019

INTERNATIONAL GOTHIC AND PONTUS IN CRISIS


Mystery surrounds the exact date that renowned fresco painter Antonio di Puccio Pisano, also known as Pisanello, painted “St George and the Princess of Trebizond,” widely held to be the most astounding exemplar of the International Gothic style, in the Pellegrini chapel of Santa Anastasia church, in Verona.
 
Mystery also surrounds the reasons why the painter felt compelled to translate the location of the legend of Saint George, which traditionally takes place variously in either Silene, Libya or Lydda in Palestine, to Trebizond, known to Greeks as Trapezounta, at that time, capital city of the Empire of Trebizond, in Pontus, fated to be the last outpost of eastern Christendom to fall to the Ottomans.

Pisanello’s badly damaged fresco inhabits the crown and spandrels of the arch at the entrance to the Pellegrini chapel. Only the right side is legible; the fresco in the left-side spandrel has deteriorated to the extent where only a barely discernible scene of the dragon’s lair and a scattering of the bones of its victims, interspersed with grotesque scavenging beasts is apparent. 
To the right, Pisanello depicts a curly, golden haired, but distinctly uncomfortable and apprehensive Saint George, in the process of mounting his horse, in order to do battle with the dread dragon that would devour the princess of the city. The damsel in distress stands to the side, assuming what at the outset, appears to be a regal stance. Her head is held high and her dress is splendid. Nonetheless, she stares intently at her would be saviour, in voiceless supplication. He is her last hope.

The upper part of the fresco features a high cliff with an idealized depiction of Trebizond, replete with intricate architectural edifices, exotic, orientalizing towers, (an enduring stereotype that would later be immortalised in Rose Macaulay’s novel “The Towers of Trebizond”), thrusting church spires and a castle. The city, with its Gothic, ornate, lacelike stonework, assumes a fantastical, almost surrealistic air. It also presents a paradox. For all of its perpendicularity, it appears to be in the process of sinking down into the earth. The atmosphere is pregnant with a sense of anticipation. A doom seems to have fallen upon the city, as exemplified by the presence of some macabre and grotesque elements: outside the city walls are two hanged men, one with his hose fallen down around his legs. Doubt pervades the scene and causes almost a sense of asphyxiation. Will Saint George save Trebizond from catastrophe? And why has Pisanello’s dragon emigrated from Libya or Palestine to menace the capital of Pontus, anyway?

Pisanello provides a clue in the two grotesque faces he portrays among those in the crowd, seeing Saint George off. They appear to have been inspired by the descriptions of Ottoman Turks who were closing in on Constantinople at the time of painting. Clearly, Pisanello’s Princess of Trebizond is intended as a powerful metaphor for events transpiring at the time.
Another clue is provided by the procession of curious people, depicted in smaller scale, who have gathered near the place where Saint George's boat is moored, ready to set sail. The style of the figures’ hats is reminiscent of contemporary portrayals of the fashions of the Byzantine Emperor’s delegation to the Council of Florence-Ferrara between 1444-1446. The rendering of the horses, in their resplendent livery, with their pioneering perspectival foreshortening, echo depictions of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos' equine procession at the Council of Constance or Benozzo Gozzoli’s depiction of Emperor John VIII Palaiologos as Magus in “The Adoration of the Magi.” 

The aforementioned Emperors travelled to Italy to elicit the assistance of the West against the unstoppable and inevitable Ottoman onslaught. The price they were asked to pay for it was high; no less than the subjugation of the Eastern Church to the Papacy. Just before his death, Pisanello would have found out that despite the Byzantines’ pleas and their ultimate assent to the union of their Church with Rome, there was to be no salvation to be had from the West. His painting prefigures this. 

Death and destruction, as signified by the hanged men, is coming. The princess of Trebizond, is in actual fact, a personification of Pontus, the last Christian kingdom of Anatolia, or indeed, of Eastern Christianity itself. She is a fifteenth century woman, albeit a well-coiffed one, in good standing, but rank and riches notwithstanding, by virtue of her very nature, perilously vulnerable. Significantly, Saint George is positioned to the west of her, and it is in that west that she is depositing all her hopes of salvation. Tellingly however, Saint George, the westerner, refuses to meet her gaze and instead looks towards the sea and his means of escape. His white horse, symbolic of victory, conquest, goodness and invincibility, is turned away from her. Although he is caparisoned in the armour of a knight, he appears to be transgressing every law of Chivalry that he has sworn to uphold.

In the foreground of the painting, Pisanello positions a dog, a traditional symbol of openness and fidelity. According to the beliefs of the times, the dog was an arbiter of guilt or innocence, as dogs were thought to possess the power to look into a person’s soul and were often included in courtroom proceedings. If a dog looked intently or growled at the accused, the person was judged guilty. Here, the dog does not look at Saint George at all, only at the sea. It can tell us nothing.
Behind the Pontian princess, a ram lies prostrate. This is a traditional symbol of sacrifice. It is also a direct reference to the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, where it is written: “Then I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and, behold, there stood before the river a ram which had two horns… I saw the ram pushing westward, and northward, and southward; so that no beasts might stand before him, neither was there any that could deliver out of his hand; but he did according to his will, and became great.” Pisanello’s ram is thus suggestive of the Ottoman juggernaut, pushing ever westwards, to envelop Trebizond, Byzantium and the beyond. He suggests that the West will, out of necessity or cowardice, sacrifice Trebizond and all that it represents, for its own security.

Unlike the dog and the ram, Pisanello positions the third of his animals, the golden boar, facing Saint George’s feet. A perennial emblem of material desires, excess and self-indulgence, Pisanello enlists porcine tropology for self-evident accusatory purposes.
Rather than being a tableaux of rescue and salvation, Pisanello’s “St George and the Princess of Trebizond,” is thus actually a tableaux of betrayal and abandonment. Pisanello’s Saint George is not setting sail to do battle with the monster that is so inimical to the safety and survival of the city of Trebizond. Instead, he is abandoning it and its inhabitants to their fate (to be a heap of bones, fodder for scavenging wild beasts), as he returns home safely to the West. In his remarkable, emotive and heavily laden with types and symbols that would have been easily comprehensible and able to be decoded by his contemporaries composition, Pisanello castigates the self-interested foreign policy of his contemporary rulers, making an impassioned humanitarian plea for succour and sanctuary for the weak and vulnerable in a time of Apocalypse.

Whether the subjects of his advocacy are the Pontians, the Byzantines or any other vulnerable and afflicted group abandoned by the powerful who play lip service to principles demand that they offer them protection in times of perdition, Pisanello’s striking “St George and the Princess of Trebizond,” is as immediate and as relevant to the contemporary zeitgeist as the day it was painted. As a commentary and a clarion call in support of a vanishing eastern Greek-speaking world, and against the bankruptcy of ideological tropes and trappings of civilisation, it surely warrants further scrutiny and close viewing by the broader Grecophonic discourse.

DEAN KALIMNIOU

First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 February 2019