The myth of Orpheus has been a constant companion of mine for over a decade. In our current times, I find it resonating with me more than ever, in new ways.
The myth itself is multifaceted, and has been used by artists and creative intellectuals for centuries to express their prevailing cultural attitudes and anxieties. Whoever is telling the story of Orpheus at any given time tends to turn it into a mirror, revealing something about the author and time in which they live - even as it presents something new about the original story. This is generally true of all myths, and any story that gets told and re-told and re-told.
But to me, what makes Orpheus unique even among myths is that it has ideas about art, artifice, and storytelling at its core. Several composers have interpreted Orpheus to be the first musician; as such, the myth is often used to explain the origins of music itself. If a composer wants to make a statement about what music should be - what music has the power to do - what constitutes “good” music - what psychological role and responsibilities belong to performers of music, and which belong to composers (and if that answer depends on whether the performer and composer are the same person) - in short, all the questions one thinks about as a creator of music - they reach for the Orpheus myth. And music history has borne witness to this: if you were to design a music history survey course, intending to cover what we loosely refer to as the classical canon, you could do a lot worse than to simply write a history of Orpheus-inspired music.
But the Orpheus myth is also about the intersection of music and love. If people remember one thing about the Orpheus myth, it’s usually his failed attempt to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead. Using his music, Orpheus convinces the king of the underworld to restore Eurydice back to life, but on the condition that Orpheus can’t turn to look at her as he’s leading her back to earth until they both cross the threshold of hell. For some reason (and no two authors ever seem to give the same one), Orpheus turns around before it’s time, and he loses Eurydice for a second time. This opens new artistic worlds to composers and performers re-telling the myth. All of a sudden, it has become a story about music’s power to persuade people and to connect people, as well as a meditation on human connection in general.
Every aspect of the myth - the backward gaze at Eurydice, the journey to the underworld, the absent beloved - has taken on a potent symbolism. This is part of the Orpheus myth’s curious enduring power: it means so many different things to so many different people. It’s as if each person has their own unique version, just by virtue of hearing and interpreting it. The meanings multiply, and the inherent one is ambiguous at best, and maybe non-existent.
Like everything else about the Orpheus myth, the way it ends changes drastically from one version to another. The most memorable of the standard endings (and least-often staged, for obvious reasons) is when Orpheus is killed and dismembered by followers of the religious cult of Dionysus. They scatter parts of his body around, and set his still-singing head floating down the river Hebrus. It seems like a false ending; we expect the end of the story should end with Orpheus' death full-stop, but instead the head of Orpheus keeps traveling, keeps singing. It goes on happening, and makes us aware of how artificial our ideas of "endings" are at all.
So, all of this is what the Orpheus myth says to me at this time in my life, and at this time in history. I see it bearing certain connections to the situation we find ourselves in now. Because of the coronavirus, we have all been torn apart from one another, our music-making relationships have become estranged. Over the course of the past year, I've keenly felt the loss of the musical relationships which used to nourish me every day. I think that everybody must be experiencing some version of this kind of loss, and it is something worth mourning.
The piece you're going to hear was written as a collaboration. In the "exquisite corpse" game, a group of people collaborate to make a drawing of an alien or monster. One person will draw the top without showing anybody else, then fold the paper so that only a small part of the drawing is visible, of where they left off. Another person picks the drawing up where the first person left off, and the game continues until the body is complete. You might end up with the head of a one-eyed one-horned fuzzy purple people-eater, a scaly green body with seven arms, and tiny wheels in place of feet - but the whole body is connected. That is roughly how Carduus wrote this piece: each of us wrote a movement that blended into the next, without knowing the broader context of what came before of after. I myself chose the Orpheus theme for the piece - and I like to think of each movement as a torn-off fragment of his body that we've stitched back together - but every other aspect of the piece was left up to the composers.
The general theme of the piece, then, is connection - especially remote connection, connection of disparate parts. Above all, our goal in writing and rehearsing this piece was to feel connected to each other, and it succeeded in that during a very lonely and musically barren time. It has been a real gift to us, and one that we don't take for granted. I hope it brings you a sense of connection too.
maya + rouvelle
Visual Art by Maya + Rouvelle
Soprano / Catherine Psarakis, Andrea Wozniak
Alto / Wei En Chan, Jenny Herzog
Tenor / Leo Balkovetz, Sam de Soto Baritone / Tyler J. Bouque, Jacob Hiser
Bass / Elijah Botkin, Chris Talbot
Audio Engineer / Peter Atkinson
Carduus Director / Holly Druckman
This project is made possible in part by Choral Arts New England, and our generous private donors.
@1:10 / excerpt from Russel Hoban’s “The Medusa Frequency”
@2:15 / excerpts from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” and Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”
De Soto, “é mesmo velha historia”
@4:48 / sampled text from “Orfeo Negro”
H. Druckman, “Eurydice”
@6:03 / excerpts from Margaret Atwood’s “Variation on the Word Sleep” & H.D.’s “Eurydice”
Herzog, “Little One”
@10:29 / original text by the composer