Reanimating Cavafy, a Poet of ‘Future Generations’ Whose Time Is Now

When I was ten years old, a teacher at the Catholic school I attended in Massachusetts asked students to bring poems from home to share with the class. I looked at our bookshelf and pulled out a slim book by Constantine P. Cavafy. Many of its poems were short, manageable to read aloud, and were spoken in brilliant plain. I chose “I’ve seen so much…”:

I have seen so much beauty
That my vision is full of it.
body line. red lips.voluptuous limbs
Hair that looks like it was stolen from a Greek statue…

I knew who Cavafi was. like our familyhe was from once big A thriving Greek community in Alexandria, Egypt, is now nearly extinct. Cavafy is a hero to us and remains a hero in the Greek-speaking world. Ninety years after his death in 1933, many of his recurring motifs still feel strikingly modern: alienation, queerness, distrustful certainty, and a life shaped by the margins.

Athens-based Onassis Foundation claims Kavaphy is the man in our moment “Archive of Desire” A nine-day festival of poets throughout New York City that ends on Saturday. Held to coincide with Kavafi’s 160th birthday on April 29, the festival will bring a new audience to his work filtered through the prism of contemporary artists working in a variety of mediums, including music, poetry, film and visual arts. intended to bring about. A newly commissioned work.

When I was in school, my father encouraged me to read the less explosive poetry of Kavafi. “Ithaca,” one of his most famous. In my youth, I completely missed most of his Cavafy themes and their context.

His writings about his life, desires as a queer in early 20th century Egypt. His worldview on the passing of empire and power. His deep meditation on time. A startling gap between his rich inner life and decades of bureaucratic day job. Third circle of irrigation office. In his work he carefully superimposes his three different forms of Greek. artificially constructed, “Purified” 19th century. and sometimes ancient forms.

Cavafy was a sentiment that echoed throughout my childhood, not of a place, although I often thought of it. And I fell in love with the pure music of Kavafi’s words.

Many composers have also heard its music and written settings for his works — like the Greek artists Mikis Theodorakisas well as foreign musicians including Ned Rorem and John Tavenor.

Archive of Desire curator Paola Prestini has brought together new creators for the festival. They thoughtfully approached his writing, resulting in a work whose collective starting point was Cavafi’s self-assessment as an “ultra-modern poet, a contemporary poet.” future generations

Held at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on April 28, the festival opened with an intimate project between visual artist Sister Sylvester and Egyptian electronic musician and vocalist Nada El Shazley. They named their collaboration “Constantinopoliad”. journal Cavafy began when he was 18 when his family temporarily moved to his parents’ hometown of Constantinople to escape the UK. bombardment of Alexandria.

Sister Sylvester leads the audience through a collaborative reading of an intricately designed, handcrafted book, while Elle Shazry performs her score live, her own smoky singing voice, moody electronics and vintage Egyptian music. I interspersed the recordings of The story deftly explores short episodes from Cavafi’s life, as well as musings on queerness, ethnic identity, migration, and the tangled history of the Mediterranean region.

At Columbia’s Miller Theater on Monday, a winding program called “Days of 2023” will feature poetry readings and recent works by American composers and Cavaphy’s musicians from the National Sawdust Ensemble, led by cellist Jeffrey. It awkwardly stitched together an old musical environment. Ziegler. Highlights include groundbreaking Greek electronic music from her musician Lena Platonos on her 2010 albumCavafis 13 Tragdia‘, she collaborated with Greek singer Giannis Palamidas to set music for 13 poems by Cavafi.

In this version of Platonus’ work, composer Hannah Ishizaki created an imaginative arrangement for live instruments, sung impassively by Palamidas. It was effective and moving, especially in his raucous and percussive setting of one of Cavafi’s most famous poems. “Waiting for savages” In this arrangement, the impending horde did not threaten the dead kingdom. Their horse hooves were here and now, pounding the drum kit as the stage vibrated.

Unfortunately, the organizers did not present the texts or translations at any of the musical performances. For Platonus, the titles of 13 poems were not given in the program. If the festival’s mission is to raise awareness of Cavafy’s work, why leave out that information, which is vital to most New York audiences? Afroditi Panagiotakou said the decision was a creative choice to stimulate the audience’s curiosity about Kavafi.)

“Waiting for the Savage” was also the starting point for an even more spectacular musical interpretation by multidisciplinary artist Laurie Anderson. classic deathThe performance featured the delicate Knights Orchestra conducted by Eric Jacobsen. And the exemplary Brooklyn Youth Chorus led by Diane Burken Menacer.

Before she began, Anderson—whose sharply ironic tone matched Cavafy’s tone perfectly—went to Cavafy’s imaginary decline in our own lockhorn Congress and do-nothing Senate. pointed out political similarities between the empires of She proclaimed “Barbarians” and “Ithaca” in English while layering her electric violins, two keyboards, synths and other electronics over an orchestra and chorus.

The program also included works by Helga Davis and Petros Crampanis, with Prestini setting Cavafi’s poem “Voice” to the chorus, providing dazzling textures and beautiful counterpoint. Davis and Crampanis’ composition “Cavafy Ghost” featured Davis’ virtuoso vocals spanning several octaves and collaged several Cavafy poems. In one memorable section, Davis and Krampanis, who also played the double bass, read “The Barbarian” (again!) in tandem, Davis in English and Krampanis in Greek, to captivating effect. .

For Greek-born Krampanis, Cavafi’s work is part of a common cultural vocabulary. But it was clear from their writing and live performances how deeply each of Anderson, Prestini, and Davies had tackled the themes of Cavafi’s isolation and memory. The choir solemnly chanted “voices” in the tune of Prestini.

The side-by-side reading was also reminiscent of the polyglot Kabafi. He reportedly grew up in England as a child and spoke Greek with an English accent. (In Alexandria, it was common for Kavafi to speak multiple languages. My father spoke English as a fourth language after Greek, Arabic, and French.)

On Wednesday night, I returned to National Sawdust for Desire, a meditative collaboration between poet Robin Coste Ruiz, composer and pianist Vijay Iyer, Zeigler (here composer and cellist), and visual artist Julie Meheretu. I watched the archive of. As Lewis weaved her own words with frequent quotes and allusions to Cavafi, Iyer and Ziegler sometimes played melodies that arced in dialogue, sometimes in individual pieces that coincided with Cavafi’s sense of loneliness. included in the world of sound. Mehretu’s work, full of her signature darts her lines that allude to movement and displacement, was projected onto a screen behind the other performers.

At the end of his “Archive of Desire” performance, Lewis once again proclaimed “Cavafy forever!” into the microphone. The festival was not about rediscovering long-dead voices. Instead, it offered an opportunity for today’s artist to meet his Cavafy’s ever-present future.

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