“Αμίλητη” (Amíliti) “The Silent One”

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a work by Dimitra Trypani.

To describe the Greek composer Dimitra Trypani as a “boundary-breaker” is probably a mild exaggeration. With her colleagues in the Athens-based group “NQR”  she has embarked on a series of unorthodox explorations of the human psyche with, at their centre, a deep concern for the wounds, melancholy, confusion, fear and instability that humans inflict on one another and – perhaps more importantly – on themselves, in a society that she sees as still dominated by patriarchal values and procedures of gender identity.

So a new work, Amíliti / The Silent One, in collaboration with poet Pantelis Boukalas and sculptor Katherine Wise, due for premieres in Paxos and Athens this autumn, is an exciting challenge to received wisdom and musical norms.

Trypani, who teaches music theory and composition at the Ionian University in Corfu and is composer-in-residence at the Paxos Festival, is a founder of a community of musicians, vocalists, actors and visual artists in Athens with the title “NQR” – “Not Quite Right” – “we know people who are ‘not quite right’ and who are trying to find a voice”, says Trypani at our meeting. It’s a congruence of language, literature and music. “We are more an idea and less an ensemble”. Their appearances are not so much musical performances as  “performances of sound”.

The multi-media group, loosely consisting of string and wind players, percussion, audio-visual, electro-acoustic and voice both spoken and sung, has presented many works in the past ten years, including “Dear All” (2009),  “And the Tree was Happy” (2011) and “Moving” (2012). Trypani’s work also features music for “The Ox”, a live action animation film which was shortlisted for the European Animation Awards (2018)  in the Best Soundtrack in Feature Film category.

Surprisingly perhaps, her music is very strictly orchestrated. In 2006 Trypani created “From Ear to Body”, a training technique for performing artists, educators and students which she has been developing in Greece and the UK; her work with “NQR” is an outcome of this approach to work on the stage. At the beginning of work on a project there is no “staging” as such, but the action evolves from this “performance of sound”. The “music” is the coming together of voice and body, and when it happens it’s a seamless interweave of sound, rather than a combination of “text-plus-music”.  

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Dimitra Trypani directs “The Talisman” at the Elaionas Festival, 2018

So it is no surprise that Amíliti / The Silent One, a new work for the stage, isn’t a “staged work” at all, in the conventional sense, but a work so experimental that, like Trypani herself, it cannot be labelled. “Opera”? No. “Music drama” (my preferred term)? No. “It may not be ‘opera’ in the conventional sense but it constitutes a unity”. In conventional terms of music-drama, it’s a coming-together of music, choreography, stage décor, singing and recitative.

There is no “libretto” in the accepted sense, but a “poetic text” by the distinguished poet Pantelis Boukalas who is also an editor with I Kathimerini newspaper and a two-time prizewinner of the Greek State Prizes for Poetry and Criticism. Boukalas has published twelve volumes of poetry, including several on the theme of “Epitafios” and “The Blood of Love” (2017), which underpins the reason for his involvement in Amíliti .

The cast consists of ten actors who sing, recite and play percussion, with a cellist and a harpist who also speaks the role of Tiresias, the Oracle.

Trypani is interested in “violence as the emotional condition of man. Physical force is the power that leads to brutality. It is much deeper in our species than religion or culture, because it emanates from an archetypal belief fuelled by the fear that creates tensions.”

“We have monsters and saints within the same person, so it’s an ontological quest.” One of her works, “Edward’s Dream”, is specifically inspired by R L Stevenson’s story “Jekyll and Hyde” and seeks “to find the monster side of us”. Trypani describes it as “a storm in a skull”, an audiovisual parallel monologue on the duality of the human soul and the need to sometimes “embrace our shadowy self”.

The story of Amilíti dates from the 1840s in the Mani peninsula, in the south of Greece’s Peloponnese. A girl, “Milià”, who is alleged to be “impure” on her wedding night, is returned to her family. She is condemned by her father and five brothers to be buried alive in order to cleanse the family from their dishonour.

But let Trypani tell us, in her own words, what is going to happen (or perhaps not happen), the story of what has happened and is long buried, like the girl herself, in the communal memory.

“I have had this project in mind for many years, since it belongs to my family background in the Mani peninsula and has been a memory related by my family through the generations.” At the back of the story is the ubiquitous patriarchal control  of community and the brutal practices that may be adopted to control gender identity. This patriarchal control was prevalent in rural areas in particular; similar types of violence may occur less often in modern society but it is still typical of the male-female dichotomy.

Hearing Trypani speak of the silence that enfolds the story of Milià, the unspoken “libretto” of desperate thoughts, I recall Freud’s definition of the “uncanny”: he speaks of an element which “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light, something which is familiar and old-established in the mind.” Freud adds that “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced”. This, I believe, is what we can anticipate as Trypani’s intention in Amilíti: to introduce into the “reality” of the story her own imaginative response to her family’s remembering and forgetting, and thus to re-create a new reality, a new story.

The uncanny is never so troubling or so disturbing as when we discover that it is within ourselves that this Other, estranged persona, has been buried, suppressed, stifled.  Italo Calvino saw myth as “the hidden part of every story, the buried part, the region that is still unexplored because there are as yet no words to enable us to get there”. So Amilíti is an articulation of that myth in a way that Trypani might disavow: a Greek myth that is universal in its archetypal, ubiquitous fault-lines.

Pantelis Boukalas describes Trypani’s request for a text as being handed a “burning coal” – a new experience for him, especially since the nature of the work opened up “the immense pain hidden inside it.” He and Trypani “besieged this hard, tragic nucleus” until a resolution emerged into a single unified language of music and poetry, “intertwining with trust”.

Boukalas recognised the same elements at work in Trypani’s story: “a drama so far back in time yet so familiar”, the form of male dominance where the norms and traditions of the micro-community make “the woman” into “her husband’s and her father’s possession, a victim, a machine which silently produces everything”.

Boukalas ‘s knowledge of Greek folk song had already made him familiar with “the undeniable way in which love mates with violence”, where the “offence of honour” constitutes the core of the drama. Spreading his text between six voices creates a “verbal dispute” which can illustrate “a horror that has to be discussed with much difficulty”. (He refers to Seferis’s poem “Last Stop” with the lines “A way to begin to speak of things you confess uneasily … horror really can’t be talked about because it’s alive, because it’s mute and goes on growing: memory-wounding pain.”)

For Boukalas, there is no single person but many voices: “Many, at war with each other. Each one with his own ‘right’ yet with the right of an accuser who knows deep inside him that he is also an accused”, uttering “an indictment in the form of an apologia”.

In the words of Czeslaw Milosz, “it is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds”. Trypani’s work focusses on the darkness of those who are emotionally wounded. The tectonic plates of truth and untruth, of the said and the silent, meet in the burial in Mani. This explains why the father and brothers in Amíliti/The Silent One are wounded in their psyche as much as the buried girl. In this performance it is the father and his sons who lament the girl because they realise that they themselves have become emotionally dead through their terminal deed. The terrible nature of this deed is the humus of their own graves.

“I want to look at them with sympathy, to reconstruct the broken pieces as they find themselves in limbo, trying to establish what has happened.” Trypani believes that because of their own hurt, “their dilemma is one of melancholy rather than sadness.” Another aspect of the dilemma is that, in the local legend, four of the five sons died childless and thus their condemnation and execution of their sister has resulted in the near extinction of their own line.

Which is where Katherine Wise comes in. Wise is an internationally acclaimed sculptor now living in Corfu. Her works are on permanent show in the USA, the UK and Greece. They are marked by a love of the materials with which she works, a fascination with the natural world, and the experiences of a cosmopolitan life since childhood. She is particularly attracted to woods of different kinds such as eucalyptus and oak, which embody  a vitality and fertility, a “benign presence” which can lead to a sense of “enlightenment and completion” in harmony with nature’s cyclic rhythm.

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Dimitra Trypani (left) and Katherine Wise discuss materials in Wise’s studio in Corfu: photo by Katerina Michopoulou

Like Trypani, she attempts to make sense of  a nonsense world. “I want to express creatively what I absorb, hear and experience from the world in which we live. Often confounded at humanity’s way of being in the world, I resolve to making and perhaps  use the process to reconcile the tremendous harmonies and disharmonies there are.”

The collaboration with Wise came about through their meeting in Paxos. Trypani was immediately attracted by Wise’s sculptural works such as “Three Sisters” and “Circle of Solitude” which are characterised by her response to the raw, elemental quality amd inner energy of her material. Trypani recognised this as “very feminine and passionate” and saw that this “esoteric female force” could be a totemic way of preserving Milià’s vulnerable soul in a form that Trypani recognised in Wise’s work as “Holy sculpture”.  This quality could make Amíliti/The Silent One less tense emotionally by “softening the edges of the barbed wire in the text” and the brutality of the burial could be portrayed with less aggression. “We can look at male identity and try to understand it, with the woman’s point of view coming through subliminally.”

As Boukalas says, “In a way, they have all been victims. If poetic justice exists, it exists when it gives a voice to everyone, in order to listen to everyone.”

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“Three Sisters” (left) and “Circle of Solitude” (right) by Katherine Wise

Trypani’s work challenges “conventions” and received wisdom, while questioning the nature of the memories on which that wisdom relies for its endurance. If we understand the Greek word “orthodox” as, literally, “right opinion”, then her work is devoutly unorthodox. Yet it has its own orthodoxy. It obeys its own unwritten but deeply-felt rules: the rhythms of fear and the heartbeat of melancholy.

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The works may be unremitting in their passionate embrace of the tragic, yet there is also a celebration, a feeling that there might also be a possibility of hope … even laughter. A work such as the 2018 “Atoroqo – Ten Omens for the End of Time” (“atoroqo” is the Linear B word for “human”) is an audio-visual journey into dreamland which imagines a future for the human species.

When Trypani laughs in interview, joyfully and heartily but also realistically, one discovers that there is light in the depths of darkness, a window of opportunity if she and her actors can climb to it and release the ghosts of memory.