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Temples The Shape of the Sky

I don’t quite remember the year or the date, but at some point I saw on PBS Mikis Theodorakis’s oratorio To Axion Esti. The force of the performance, however, I do remember. It started with a bit of orchestral chaos, and then a chord, and something that sounded like the voice of a lonely, mournful God, calling all the life of the universe into being. The singer was a gray-haired, comate man of incredible intensity – whom I now know must have been Petros Pandis – memorable even from a distance of decades. As a poem of the Creation it resembled Sibelius’s Luonnotar, but it was better than Sibelius’s Luonnotar. It is one of Theodorakis’s “metasymphonic” works – mixing classical forms with Greek popular music, and featured not only an orchestra and chorus and soloists, but Greek pop instruments and Greek pop songs. Some of the poppier elements I didn’t like – there was a charming crooner performing who looked like a Greek Captain Kirk. But like much Greek pop music, there was no doubt that the Greeks themselves in the audience loved it – the music was indeed popular. At some point – in college, I presume? – I found a recording of the piece and copied it onto a cassette tape.

At the cabin it’s my custom to cut paths to the house using an electric weed trimmer, and while I’m running the generator, I figure I may as well run the stereo as well, and fill the mountain air with music. My cassette of To Axion Esti came to the top of the pile, and I’ve been listening to it somewhat obsessively ever since.

I still don’t know much about the piece – I don’t have a full text for it, and I don’t know what most of it says. When I was younger I knew that it had flaws as a piece of music, which I still find true. At that time I was immersed almost continually in the greatest, most perfect works of art the world has ever known, from all ages. So of course many modern works seemed flawed in comparison. But I recognized then that Theodorakis had the same kind of power and depth that the old artists had.

That power and depth now seems all the more valuable to me, as I see so much artistic material that lacks it. At the cabin I am daily surrounded by a world that seems so much more beautiful than most of our cultural productions.  Though not all of them. The best work is still good and meaningful, even when the sun is rising over the mountains and the clouds fill the valley down below, or when the wind stirs the woods and the stars peep through the leaves.

I find myself curious about the poet of the oratorio, Odysseus Elytas. He supposedly modeled this work on the Byzantine liturgy, alternating between poetry and prose, ancient history and daily experience, sublime contemplation of the creation and deep searching of the inner life. The one segment of it I have a text for seems to add to the music rather than detract. I’m not completely sure what “temples in the shape of the sky” really are, but I like the phrase, as it calls up the holiness of all that is under the sun. And I’m impressed at just how much power modern Greek can have, with the long, long history of its words and the infinite associations they all have.

Ναοί στο σχήμα του ουρανού
και κορίτσια ωραία
με το σταφύλι στα δόντια που μας πρέπατε!
Πουλιά το βάρος της καρδιάς μας ψηλά μηδενίζοντας
και πολύ γαλάζιο που αγαπήσαμε!
Φύγανε φύγανε
ο Ιούλιος με το φωτεινό πουκάμισο
και ο Αύγουστος ο πέτρινος με τα μικρά του ανώμαλα σκαλιά.
Φύγανε φύγανε
και βαθιά κάτω απ’το χώμα συννέφιασε ανεβάζοντας
χαλίκι μαύρο
και βροντές, η οργή των νεκρών
και αργά στον άνεμο τρίζοντας
εγυρίσανε πάλι με το στήθος μπροστά
φοβερά των βράχων τ’αγάλματα

(Άξιον Εστί,Οδυσσέας Ελύτης Βραβείο Νόμπελ Λογοτεχνίας 1979-Μουσική Μίκης Θεοδωράκης)

Temples in the shape of the sky
and beautiful girls
with grapes in their teeth, I needed you –
Birds on high lifting the heaviness of our heart
the deep azure that we loved!
They are gone, they are gone.
July with its garment of light
and stony August with its small uneven steps
They are gone, they are gone
and deep beneath the earth clouds gathered, throwing up black gravel
and thunder, the rage of the dead
and slowly moaning in the wind
they came back with their chests thrust out
fearsome statues of rock.