Thursday, 20 September 2018

Iannis Xenakis on Rome and Seneca’s Medea

Following my post last week on Greece under the barbarian rule of Rome and the influence of Greek culture on the Romans, I’ll take the opportunity to post something related to the subject using the composer Iannis Xenakis who, in his work, captures better than anybody the madness, terror and ‘ecstatic dream world’ that Nietzsche defines as characterising Greek tragedy.

In 1967, Xenakis was commissioned by the Theatre de France to write the music for a production of Seneca’s Medea. Xenakis scholar Nouritza Matossian (an Armenian from Cyprus) says:

‘Xenakis had often wondered how the music of ancient Greek theatre might have sounded, how the actors, chorus and musicians might have chanted the text and played the aulos and in [Medea] he provided his solution. He treated the instruments as voices and the voices as instruments to create an implacable work, extending the language phonetically with whispers and hisses, repeated phrases and even banging stones. The atmosphere is archaic, with a setting which is both raucous and primitive.’

Regarding the work, Xenakis says that when he was approached to write it:

‘I hesitated because I knew Seneca as a pseudo-philosopher, an imperial courtier, and above all a Roman who sought, like all Romans of that period, to emulate the ancient Greek masterpieces.

‘But in reading the Latin text written in the first century AD I was seduced by its violent sonority, its barbarity, so I agreed.’

Above is Xenakis’ Medea in full, while below is a clip from Matossian’s 1990 BBC documentary on Xenakis, Something Rich and Strange.