Excerpt from Sappho #94 from Anne Carson’s ‘If Not, Winter. Fragments of Sappho’, New York, Vintage Books, 2002.
I’m currently working on several projects that celebrate ideas of spirituality bound together with feminine energy and erotics. There’s a 3-part work for orchestra called Annunciation Triptych and the somewhat provocatively titled Sex Magic, a big work for Claire Chase for contrabass flute, live electronics and an installation of kinetic instruments.
The orchestral triptych comprises:
I. Sappho/ Bioluminescence
II. Mary/ Transcendence after Trauma
III. Fatimah/ Flowers of Jubilation
Sappho, Mary and Fatimah are invoked as icons of women’s spirituality and the three works explore themes of revelation and ritual as the connecting tissue between very different cultural worlds. Sappho’s world of erotic trance and hallucination, Mary’s Visitation by the Angel and Passion Play, Fatimah’s Wedding and Lamentation – these stories are also commentaries on ecological, spiritual and transcultural themes in our times.
I’ve just completed the first of these works for orchestra which draws inspiration from the font that has inspired so many artists, readers and lovers. Only two complete poems survive amongst the fragmentary remains, some comprising just a phrase, a word or part of a word, of the nine books of poetry by Sappho (c.630 B.C.E.) that are recorded to have been held in the Great Library of Alexandria. Yet her words have gained iconic power over the ages and compel with their extraordinary beauty. We barely know her work; imagination counts for more than the real when we are faced with what is missing. The extant fragments are like depth charges: powerfully explosive in their intensity whilst often dealing in the most delicately suggestive lyrics celebrating the Goddess Aphrodite and her realms of feminine beauty and luminescent passion.
These enigmatic communications from a lost archaic world are also testament to a depth of longing that resides in us. The broken fragments call out to and find resonance with listeners in a contemporary time and space.
Pick any path of concrete or
crock to this spirited place
whose orchard-body belongingly
offers that flickering, altered aroma
– groves on fire
from Mario Petrucci’s ‘Sappho’,
London, Perdika Press, 2008
This is the ‘annunciation’ – not only an ‘announcement’ but a summoning power that precipitates anew in every encounter. Out of damage and contamination there is new growth. Signs of desire persist in radiating the possibilities of renewal that speak resurgence to ruin.
Like a lot of my compositions that bring together varied, at times seemingly incompatible elements and stories, this one also brings an alien creature into the world of Sappho. I have long written works using preparations of one kind or another – I’ve employed lengths of string, horse hair wrapped around a bow, blu-tac and mutes to transform the way (human) musicians and (non-human) musical instruments interact to make a new hybrid entity. More than just these physical combinations, my works are often made up of imagined composites of plants, animals, elements, spirits and more and these kinds of real-fictional assemblages have been a fruitful way for me to open up a space for speculation in my composing. The poetic assemblage can be used to triangulate ideas that are too complex to see from any one perspective. The assemblage can offer ways of activating and structuring relationships between apparently incongruous things that produce new affects and insights – that is how poetry works after all.
The triangulation I use here involves placing the bioluminescence of creatures who produce light in their bodies next to Sappho in order to understand even more intensely the irradiated nature of her poetry. Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism as the result of a chemical reaction. Bioluminescence may be generated by symbiotic organisms carried within a larger organism. An intriguing example is the Hawaiian bobtail squid (beloved of eco-philosophers such as Donna Haroway, Anna Tsing and others who ‘think with’ the creature’s symbiotic nature to articulate an ethics of living in troubled times). The squid carries bacteria in its ventral pouch which give off light in a circadian rhythm. The luminescent specks act as a form of ‘invisibility cloak’ or counterillumination so that the squid blends with moonlight on a starry night seeming not to cast a shadow from the perspective of any prey below.
Living cells respond to environmental light and themselves emit light – the world becomes a psychedelic ‘eye’ or multiple eyes which open and close, slowly or suddenly, across a polyphony of temporal scales.
The bacteria, the squid, the ocean, the firmament, the metabolism of light – from micro to macro, these elements form complex patterns that can be understood as expressions of an ‘emergent mind’ or ‘spirit’.
The third angle of the assemblage is of course the orchestra – an orchard. Suddenly I am in a grove, a holy place. Everywhere I look there is the flickering of living light. Every step, every sound, every silence connotes the pure presence of eros.
Sappho/ Bioluminescence is commissioned by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Tectonics Festival (Glasgow) and the WDR Symphony Orchestra. The premiere was planned for May 2020 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov; this has now been postponed to April/May 2021 due to the global pandemic. [update the WDR Orchestra premiered the work on 29 April 2022 and the BBC SSO played gave the UK premiere 2 days later on 1 May 2022]