Sunday, June 08, 2014

Telling Tales

After struggling to find time for many months, I finally was able to sit down and watch without interruption Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf performance - an adaptation that relies on Bagby's voice and a reconstruction of a 6th century 6 tone Anglo-Saxon harp. The performance is engrossing and provokes a strong imaginative response, one that would have been communally experienced. Of course the only way to revive a sense of communal experience in the case of Bagby is to see him perform live - however, given the performance is entirely in Old English and as such most unintelligible without subtitles, I think a digital adaptation may be a necessary tradeoff. In many ways, Bagby's Beowulf is a reminder of how impoverished our notion of entertainment is - ephemeral, base, isolating and essentially throw away as a rule.

By the way, it's not entirely the case that the English are unable to create something of the same texture today - several times during the performance I thought of Judith Weir's one person, unaccompanied opera King Harald's Saga. Weir's work is much shorter, principally a musical composition and less poetically rich, so it is difficult to compare the two directly: Beowulf remains the provenance of a balladeer first and foremost, and this is a genre that more and more feels lost to our world - poetry today rarely seems to be meant to be read allowed and even more rarely follows epic formats. This is a lost social phenomena, for which we are impoverished: in fact, the last long work of a balladeer I read was Ethiopian Enzira Sebhat, itself a medieval work dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The closest - though only indirectly comparable - works to the Enzira Sebhat that I am aware of currently being composed are akathistos hymns of the Russian Orthodox tradition. And while many of those recent compositions are less-than-accomplished literary works, they unquestionably represent a rich and living and at times very beautiful means of transmission of communal memory and values. I am not aware of any recent akathistos compositions that have the expressive beauty and originality of the Byzantine hymnographer Romanos the Melodist, the modern akathist has sometimes proven a source of inspiration for exceptionally great art: the late Sir John Tavener's setting of the "thanksgiving akathist" being perhaps the most significant case in point.

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