On 6th May 2018, musicians, dancers, and artists from around the world met in St. Sepulchre (the ‘round church’) in central Cambridge to perform Threads. We assembled under the name ‘rites’, a musical and theatrical collective coordinated by myself, Zephyr Brüggen and Rachel Hodgson; on this instance we were joined by dance artist Svenja Bühl.
Threads traces the myth of Arianna’s abandonment on Naxos through movement and music and its notation. Over the course of the event Threads sets up a dialogue between the different social dynamics of performance, exploring in particular gendered aspects of performance.
Notes on the libretto, Epithamalion:
Arianna, the princess of Crete, laments her unfaithful lover Theseus, the king of Athens, as she watches his ships disappear over the horizon. Having helped him escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth, she ran away with him, defying her family. Theseus, however, leaves her behind on the shores of Naxos on their way to Athens. In a strange turn of events, Dionysos, the god of wine, ritual, and religious frenzy, arrives on the island with his satyrs. He picks her up, marries her, and sets her in the sky as a constellation, which you can still see if you look up: the Corona Borealis.
Catullus elaborates on this myth in his poem 64, framing Arianna’s lament by means of an ekphrasis within the story of the wedding of Peleos, a mortal king, and Thetis, a goddess of the sea and mythological creator of the world. This wedding is perhaps the most important event in Greek mythology for it is also the occasion of Paris’ judgment, the main cause for the Trojan war. An old prophecy foresaw that Thetis would give birth to a son so strong that he would overthrow the Olympian gods; Zeus, seeking to limit the damage, ordered Thetis to marry a mortal man. The outcome of Peleos’ and Thetis’ union was ‘godlike’ Achilles, the greatest hero of the Trojan war eventually killed by his human heel. In Catullus’ poem, an epithalamion takes on the secondary meaning of a ‘marriage couch’, given as a gift on the occasion of Peleos and Thetis’ wedding.
This Epithalamion recycles, or rather, ‘upcycles’ the material of its literary and musical predecessors, and transforms the myth into an absurd fairytale. We meet Peleos, Thetis, and their son, heroes and gods, in their old age, in an a-heroic context, crippled and cranky.
In the long process of developing this project, the first and most influential idea to emerge was the marriage of modern instruments with their ancestors at A415 Hz.
It all begins with a cadence. Two violins emerge in canon, both playing open strings. On the page the notation is identical; in performance the experience is quite different: the baroque violin not only sounds a semitone lower but it is articulated differently and involves an entirely different physicality. Throughout Threads each instrument is catered to individually, acknowledging notated histories, and affording space for annotated, improvised histories.
By the end of the performance the music has travelled a confronting journey in which characters have switched roles, rules have been broken, the stage has been deconstructed, and the musical motives have turned on their heads. But the physical relationship between sound, notation, and technology (the violin and its open strings, for instance) persists.
In performance we played off handwritten parts without a conductor. A single authoritative version of the work doesn’t really exist; as such a notated score that was later produced should be thought of as a souvenir of the project, not a score.
The project was conceived specifically for the space of the round church.
The project begins without a sense of stage: characters appear from all directions, musicians move around between specified and unspecified points, and the audience are compelled to choose where to move and where to direct their attention. Over the course of this material two dancers began to weave red thread between the pillars that encompass the central space of the Round Church. As their actions begin to form a web of thread the open space between the pillars becomes restricted, eventually ensnaring Arianna in a cage. The collective experience has shifted from exercising significant physical agency to a circumstance in which the audience naturally form a circle around the pillars to observe the dancer in her stage. The stage provides Arianna with significant attention but ultimately restricts the bounds of her expression.
The decision to cast Arianna as a [mute] dancer relates principally to two things. The first responds to scholarship by Susan McClary on female agency in Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa. McClary’s theory contradicts the conventional understanding of the music in which the lamenting nymph is seen as expressive and free. Instead, McClary proposes, the female line—which is indeed dangerously free—is necessarily caged by the descending, repeating, male bass below. As such, in Threads, not only is Arianna stripped of her vocal agency, but also her physical agency, as she expresses herself wildly within the confines of the thread the preceding music has wove. It relates furthermore by its relation to the narrative. Since Arianna appears as a musical ekphrasis (here, the dramatisation of the image engraved on Peleos and Thetis’ broken bed) she has no narrative voice; accordingly, her voice is provided by Thetis who narrates/imagines the events.
Throughout this section the musical and theatrical focus moves to improvisation, leading to a rendition of Monteverdi’s Lamento. Musicians begin to construct the bassline in anticipation.
From no sense of stage to an audience encircling Arianna trapped in a web. The third act begins the deconstruction of its performance. The audience are free to move around but tend to move as a collective since the project has by this point united them.
Peleos, dressed as Dionysos, arrives to free Arianna. The threads in which she is ensnared now resemble coagulated blood. Dionysos rescues Arianna from the threads while we perform Monteverdi’s Pur ti miro. Dionysos then serves wine to the audience and performers.
Advertising for the event was kept to word of mouth, and a limited number of invitations that were sent in the form of a message in a bottle; these bottles were also the vessels in which the wine was served. While everyone talks and drinks we perform Monteverdi’s Zefiro torna as an encore, celebrating the social dynamic. We performed Threads twice, back-to-back. After the first performance several members of the audience danced at this moment of their own accord.
Photos by Mathias Gjesdal-Hammer.