When I was about 10, the teacher at the Catholic school I attended in Massachusetts asked students to bring in a poem from home to share with the class. Looking at our bookshelves, I plucked out a slim volume by Constantine P. Cavafy. Many of its poems were short, manageable to read out loud and gorgeously plain-spoken. I chose “I’ve Looked So Much …”:
I’ve looked on beauty so much
that my vision overflows with it.
The body’s lines. Red lips. Sensual limbs
Hair as though stolen from Greek statues …
I knew who Cavafy was. Like our family, he was from the once large and thriving Greek community in Alexandria, Egypt, that is now nearly extinct. Cavafy was a hero to us — and continues to be a hero across the Greek-speaking world. Many of his recurring motifs — of alienation, of queerness, of distrusting certitudes, of a life shaped in the margins — still feel startlingly modern, 90 years after his death, in 1933.
The Athens-based Onassis Foundation is making the case that Cavafy is a man for our moment with “Archive of Desire,” a nine-day New York City-wide celebration of the poet, ending Saturday. The festival, timed to coincide with the 160th anniversary of Cavafy’s birth on April 29, aims to bring new audiences to his work, filtered through the prisms of contemporary artists working in many mediums, including music, poetry, film and visual art, with 25 newly commissioned works.
Back when I was in school my father talked me into reading a much less explosive Cavafy poem, “Ithaka,” one of his most famous. At that young age, I had completely missed most of Cavafy’s themes and their context.
I would come to savor them: His life as a queer man in Egypt in the early 20th century, his writings about desire. His world-weary views on the passings of empires and power. His profound meditations on time. The stunning gap between his rich interior life and his decades-long bureaucratic day job, in the purgatorial-sounding Third Circle of Irrigation office. His careful layering of three different forms of Greek in his work: the modern language; an artificially constructed, “purified” 19th-century one; and occasionally the ancient form.
Cavafy often thought about being of a place and also not of that place, a feeling that reverberated throughout my childhood. And I latched onto the sheer music of Cavafy’s words.
Many composers have heard that music too, and have written settings for his work — Greek artists like Mikis Theodorakis, but also foreign musicians including Ned Rorem and John Tavener.
Paola Prestini, the curator of “Archive of Desire,” has brought together a new set of creators for the festival. They have thoughtfully engaged with his writing, resulting in works — sometimes illuminative and striking, sometimes more perfunctory — that take as their collective point of departure Cavafy’s self-assessment as “an ultramodern poet, a poet of the future generations.”
The festival’s opener, on April 28 at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, was an intimate project from the visual artist Sister Sylvester and the Egyptian electronic musician and vocalist Nadah El Shazly. They named their collaboration “Constantinopoliad,” after the journal that Cavafy began when he was 18, when his family moved briefly to his parents’ native city, Constantinople, to escape the British bombardment of Alexandria.
Sister Sylvester led the audience through a communal reading of her intricately designed, handmade books while El Shazly performed her score live, interspersing moody electronics and vintage Egyptian recordings with her own, smoky-hued singing. The narrative deftly explored brief episodes from Cavafy’s life as well as musings on queerness, ethnic identity, migration and the tangled history of the Mediterranean region.
At Miller Theater at Columbia on Monday, a meandering program called “Days of 2023” awkwardly stitched together poetry recitations with recent works by U.S. composers as well as older musical settings of Cavafy, featuring musicians from the National Sawdust Ensemble, led by the cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. A highlight was a complete performance of the groundbreaking Greek electronic musician Lena Platonos’s 2010 album “Kavafis 13 Tragoudia,” in which she set 13 of Cavafy’s poems to music, working with the Greek singer Giannis Palamidas.
For this version of Platonos’s work, the composer Hannah Ishizaki created an imaginative arrangement for the live instruments, with Palamidas singing impassionedly. It was effective and moving, especially in a raucously percussive setting of one of Cavafy’s most famous poems, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” In this arrangement, the impending hordes were not threatening some long-deceased kingdom; their horses’ hooves were here and now, thrumming in a drum kit as the stage vibrated.
Lamentably, the organizers presented no texts or translations at any of the musical performances. For the Platonos, the 13 poems’ titles weren’t even listed in the program. If the festival’s mission was to expand awareness of Cavafy’s work, why leave out that information, essential for most in the New York audience? (The festival’s creative director and the director of culture for the Onassis Foundation, Afroditi Panagiotakou, said the decision was a creative choice meant to spark audiences’ curiosity about Cavafy.)
“Waiting for the Barbarians” was also the starting point for an even more spectacular musical interpretation by the multidisciplinary artist Laurie Anderson, in a program Tuesday night at St. Thomas Church, copresented with Death of Classical. The performances featured the sensitive Knights orchestra, conducted by Eric Jacobsen; and the exemplary Brooklyn Youth Chorus, led by Dianne Berkun Menaker.
Before she began, Anderson — whose sharp, sardonic delivery matched Cavafy’s tone perfectly — pointed out political parallels between our own lock-horned Congress and Cavafy’s imagined empire in decline with a do-nothing senate (“This sounds familiar!”). She declaimed “Barbarians” and “Ithaka” in English while layering her electric violin, two keyboards, synths and other electronics over the orchestra and chorus.
The program also included works by Helga Davis and Petros Klampanis, as well as Prestini, whose setting of Cavafy’s poem “Voices” for the chorus offered dazzling textures and beautiful counterpoint. Davis and Klampanis’s composition, “Cavafy Ghost,” featured Davis’s virtuosic vocals across several octaves and collaged several Cavafy poems. In one striking section, Davis and Klampanis, who also played double bass, read “Barbarians” (again!) in tandem, Davis in English and Klampanis in Greek, to mesmerizing effect.
For the Greek-born Klampanis, Cavafy’s work is part of a common cultural lexicon; but it was clear from their writing and live performances how deeply Anderson, Prestini and Davis had each grappled with Cavafy’s themes of isolation and memory. “Voices,” the choristers chanted solemnly in Prestini’s piece: “loved and idealized, of those who have died, or of those lost for us like the dead.”
That side-by-side recitation was also a reminder of Cavafy the polyglot: He was partly raised in Britain as a child, and he reportedly spoke Greek with an English accent. (Cavafy’s ease in multiple languages was common in Alexandria; my father spoke English as his fourth language, after Greek, Arabic and French.)
On Wednesday evening, I returned to National Sawdust for “Archive of Desire,” a meditative collaboration between the poet Robin Coste Lewis, the composer and pianist Vijay Iyer, Zeigler (here as composer as well as cellist) and the visual artist Julie Mehretu. As Lewis wove together her own words with frequent quotations from and allusions to Cavafy, Iyer and Zeigler played arcing melodies sometimes in dialogue, and sometimes contained in individual sonic universes that matched Cavafy’s sense of solitude. Mehretu’s work, full of her signature darting lines that imply movement and displacement, was projected on a screen behind the other performers.
At the end of the “Archive of Desire” performance, Lewis returned to the microphone and proclaimed, “Cavafy forever!” This festival was not about rediscovering a long-dead voice. Instead, it provided an opportunity for today’s artists to meet Cavafy’s ever-present future.
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