14 November 2008

Mycenean Polytope

In the summer of 1979, the premiere of a work entitled Mycenean Polytope, by a leading Greek composer was presented at the great fortress of Mycenae. Posters promised a live orchestra, three hundred soldiers, torches, narrations, and the Premier of Greece. Reviewers were expected from all the major European newspapers.

At the Mycenae parking lot, a grazing field rented for the occasion, traffic had to maneuver around some thirty black goats and sheep, belled and bearing lights. Most of the animals had paired off and were butting heads together in slow motion, oblivious to screaming men who were trying to direct them into an enclosure. It was lovely to watch, but it did not promise well for the music.

It was an interesting performance, for those whose tastes ran to interesting performances. A great deal of the music emphasized the atonal and arythmic, as well as the blatantly ugly. More of the music involved what seemed intended to be rams' horns blown for an attack or for authenticity of atmosphere, but it came through the amplifiers like Cyclopean whoops, farts, and burps, which is how the audience responded.

There were not three hundred soldiers with torches, but maybe there were seventy raw recruits from the Nauplion barracks, and they had not rehearsed climbing on and off vertical archaeological sites in the dark. Their walkie-talkies broadcast on the same frequency as the amplifiers for the orchestra so we heard a great many instructions, frustrations, expletives, and discussions of personal sexual habits, hygiene, and ancestry. Meanwhile, someone possibly associated with the performance was intoning those consonant-vowel syllables from the Mycenean Linear B clay documents -- da-mo-ko-ro-po-ro-ko-re-te -- or perhaps not those precise syllables, but it hardly mattered since Linear B is lists of livestock and jobs. Accompanying this were little whoops and bleats from the orchestra, with occasional shrieks which occasioned additional feedback in the speakers and a great many responses from the black sheep.

Then someone else began intoning, "Menin aide thea." This was cheering because it was recognizeable, but the cheer was brief because the orchestra's part showed no signs of improvement and the narrator gave every impression of being able to continue through the whole twenty-four books. There was considerable intonation about Ahhhh-chi-laaaay-oos, which seemed odd in a way as he never had anything to do with Mycenae, but it served to signal that the Iliad was still going on. Meanwhile, torches were lit, or such torches as could be managed in a high wind -- more antiphonal ancestral comments from the soldiers here – and whispers in the crowd suggested the torches meant the narrative had reached the burning of Troy.

The black goats and sheep with their bells and lights were unleashed and driven up the slope of Mt. Zara – this was intended to represent the hopes and aspirations of mankind – momentarily splendid to behold, but surely disappointing to the composer as some of them began like we to go astray, and the ruder sorts in the audience gave forth with shepherd whistles, many of them and contradictory, which tended to confuse the sheep and brought some few back down the slope where such as could be collared and turned around were driven forth again. The livestock in Homer, as best I could recall, were generally being eaten. It was reported over the next weeks that Polytope had occasioned hard feelings among the sheep-owning population of Mycenae, many of whose animals continued to be missing.

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