Past All Deceiving: Cavafy Songs (2012)
for soprano, flute, clarinet, string quartet, and piano [18:00]
I kept coming back to Cavafy as the poet whose major themes seemed to most closely echo my own obsessionswith time, place, and memory. Constantin Cavafy (1863-1933), a Greek citizen who spent nearly his entire life in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, wrote in a combination of purist and demotic Greek—a stylistic trait with no analogue in English, notoriously difficult to translate. He freely jumps between formal and familiar voices, mixing historical reference with bold intimate details, Byzantine emperors with twenty-three-year-old boys in dark port cafés…
Past All Deceiving compiles seven poems, carefully chosen from four translations, creating a dramatic arc of contrasting and sometimes interconnected movements. The idea of setting foreign poetry in translation put me off at first, but I later came to see it as a challenge to delve beyond the surface elements of language, to what Helen Vendler refers to as the “emotional curve” of a poem. My goal was to strip the music of artifice and focus on the formal trajectories of the poems instead: the reconstruction of a scene from memory, detail by detail, in “The Afternoon Sun,” a gradual breakdown brought on by infatuation in “A Young Poet in His Twenty-Fourth Year”; reality transformed into pure emotion in “In the Same Space,” or masked by delusions and daydreams in “The Sea, in the Morning.” The structure of the poems is delineated through changes in texture, instrumentation, and intensity, always aiming to emulate Cavafy’s tone: austere and restrained in certain dimensions, unabashedly direct and expressive in others.
Another Cavafy hallmark is his personification of the city itself, developing Alexandria into a character of its own with a multitude of roles. The bookends of this cycle are two of his most well-known poems: the diptych of expansive possibility versus encroaching entrapment in “The City,” or the irrevocable, blinding loss of “The God Abandons Antony.” For me, the most memorable image in all of Cavafy comes in the final stanza of “In the evening,” when the poet steps out onto his balcony for a distraction from his brooding and regret: “to change my thoughts at least by seeing something / of this city I love.”