#archnesound - Greek language, sound, feminisms ⤇ #feministsonictechnologies
AGF feat. Reine Linda Nyongo, Savina Yannatou, Angela Dimitrakaki, Anna Stereopoulou, Maria Papadomanolaki, Maria Arapoglou, Nicoleta Chatzopoulou, Dimitra Ioannou, Katerina Iliopoulou, Konstantina Korryvanti, Ismini Samanidou
ARACHNESOUND by Angela Dimitrakaki
On the ambiguity of non-belonging
In her famous quote from Three Guineas (1938), ‘As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world’, Virginia Woolf captured the spirit of alienation that women have felt, or indeed should feel, vis-à-vis the request of belonging. Such alienation could morph into refusal, but this, as feminist historians of culture know, has happened in very few cases. For the most part, women have buried their alienation, forced by multiple mechanisms of persuasion and induced consent, to succumb to belonging. But is this the whole story? Or has the territory of language been a central battleground for women? And how is a contemporary female musician and sound artist invested in feminist politics to approach this unstable condition of the gendered experience of language? This is the case of AGF, or Antye Greie, whose creative endeavour is overall an audacious synthesis of electronic compositions, voice, field recordings, as well as of political explorations and re-enunciations of women-centred aurality.
In this new work, Arachnesound, AGF, together with her collaborators (composers, singers, poets), sought to work with an enduring language, Greek, and treat it as a tentative record of women’s speech but also silence. Effectively, AGF relied on the ambiguity of non-belonging to stitch together a counter-archive of words written, spoken, or - when she herself makes them up - associated with women’s struggle for language. Greek has been a language steeped in patriarchal social relations, nation-building, and wildly generalised, civilisational ‘origins’. The task that AGF set for herself was to compose a music narrative that takes women’s efforts to speak beyond the canonical myths surrounding Greek language as a record. It was a difficult task, requiring much research, much listening, much translation, much acoustic imagining. The outcome, however, is movingly rewarding - and it is so as an encounter of myth and history with the contemporary feminist avant-garde in electronic-music experimentation.
Arachnesound draws on a loosely defined corpus of women’s spoken word, poems, or sometimes prose, or sometimes sounds that, even if delivered in English as the contemporary global communication tool (AGF’s mother tongue is German), their referent lies in Greek myth and/or history. AGF titled her new work Arachnesound to flag up the networked labour - a web of inductions and possibilities - that underpins it. The mythical Arachne (‘spider’ in ancient and modern Greek) was a female weaver whose creative output showing the abuse of humans by the gods implied such insurgent consciousness as to make goddess Athena transform her to a spider - a lesson that not all women are equal, that gender is not devoid of hierarchy and should not be seen as a sanctuary of solidarity. According to another version of the myth however, Athena took pity on Arachne, who lost a weaving contest set up by male god Poseidon, and transformed her into an insect that makes webs so she could weave again and be fulfilled in eternity- a lesson in solidarity achieved through species interconnectivity. This is a deeply existential interconnectivity connected to patriarchy’s failing modernity: a spider, ‘an eight-legged tentacular arachnid’ called Pimoa Cthulhu, drove feminist theorist Donna Haraway to think of the needs of Chthulucene as an age of revised environmental consciousness: ‘I remember that tentacle comes from the Latin tentaculum, meaning “feeler,” and tentare, meaning “to feel” and “to try”,’ notes Haraway, adding: ‘Tentacularity is about life lived along lines — and such a wealth of lines — not at points, not in spheres’. Transported to the plane of cultural production, this trying out, this following of lines (lines that are often interrupted) is equally appealing when it comes a critique of silence. Spider, or the Greek αράχνη, has been an apt metaphor then for feminists dedicating their creative capacities to thinking about nature and labour.
Language, so naturalised as communication, involves multiples planes of labour. Greek is a language whose mythopoetic capacities have become the stuff of cultural myth in their own right. The focus of what follows will be, precisely, the encounter of women and language, as language becomes a necessary site and process of belonging. While language transcends gender in its everyday actuality, it nonetheless retains the gender hierarchy. And so, language has been the means to traditionally silence women, and to silence any nationally defined group of women for the world. You are likely to have never heard of the names of historical women included by means of poetic speech in this CD, even if you may have across some of the mythical figures included here. And as AGF travelled down a vertical history known as ‘the past’, unearthing even millennia-old dead voices, but also responded with her music to modern women’s poetry and more, you are likely to know more of the past than of the contemporary names. Such is the fate of a language whose guardians - the state - has chosen to entrap it into a nation-building myth through the guise of ‘unbroken’ continuity. This policy is bound to make the past more prominent than the present as the time of living women’s struggle with their acquired framework of communication. AGF’s lineage of voices asks: ‘what if one really sees this language as a mother tongue?’ Where there’s mother, there’s daughter - this is the provisional outcome of her research, with all the gaps and limitations that, one knows, burden it.
On poetic speech and what can be said
In some way, patriarchy is intended to ensure for all women an ‘exile in the fallen word of language as law’, as Ann Rosalind Jones wrote to explain Julia Kristeva’s controversial yet famous analysis of the relationship between language and the feminine. And that applied especially to literary and poetic language, about which Kristeva had argued, with Virginia Woolf, Marina Tsvetaeva and Sylvia Plath as examples: ‘For a woman, as soon as the father’s not calling the dance and language is being torn apart by rhythm [...] she collapses into psychosis or suicide’.
The above quote has been central in recent, well-meaning explications concerning women’s absence from the canon of poetry, disregarding the fact that every canon of socially valued and valorised artistic production has been masculine, and that this is symptomatic of millennia-long patriarchy as the universal social order. Unsurprisingly, Kristeva’s perspective came, back in postmodern times, with a disdain for feminist politics, and indeed all politics. It also came with the predictable advice to withdraw into the solitary creative subject, cut off from ‘formal’ political processes - that is, to those who could even sustain psychically such a withdrawal, meaning not-women. But if woman is, in Kristeva’s own words, ‘what cannot be said’, women have said. Women kept speaking through the centuries that buried their names and words. And the longue durée of Greek language can attest to women’s continuous desire for being that which, they have been told, cannot be - at risk of perishing through insanity or death.
On the work, and on the labour of creative interpretation
The work, of which this audio collection is the output, is premised on the encounter of feminism (or, for AGF, feminisms) and music - an encounter pursued and sustained over many years by AGF. AGF realised the work through the labour of interpretation in ways that could introduce her lineage of names into the consciousness of contemporary audiences. It is a creative counter-archive of resurrected names and of works by contemporary Greek women poets, or whose words are interpreted poetically: among them we find, outputby way of example, a novelist, communist, and Resistance fighter (Melpo Axioti), a feminist scholar (Eleni Varikas), a young researcher speaking about the fate of migrants and refugees and the lapsed humanism of contemporary Europe (Maria Karakoulaki), and the collective singing of Vlach women in a folk song. ‘Poetic speech’ is therefore freely interpreted here. The emphasis of Arachnesound is on the musical composition as a means of generating what cultural theorist Raymond Williams once called a ‘structure of feeling’. Here, Williams’ captivating concept is used to refer to AGF’s efforts to create an integrated approach to the diversity of speech through the centuries but also to the rendering of each track - or at least each track where music and words combine, as there exist also some instrumental tracks.
Arachnesound includes three cycles of references: the Antiquity, composed of mythical and historical women; the Byzantine period, with very few names/references; and women from modern Greece, that is, from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. It should be then obvious that the audio collection does not constitute a survey, but should be rather seen as the orchestrated disruption of an unwritten history. There are numerous gaps, with such a record becoming impossible as we enter the 20th and 21st centuries, where Greek language has been populated by women’s words. Arachnesound is then a work of musical composition that speaks to qualities rather to quantities, and the endeavour is geared to representation rather than presentation. A notable feature of the musical compositions is what I’d call their ‘weight’: industrial sounds and sounds of machines seem to prevail in tracks that bring electronic experimentation in line with the suppressed, unvoiced anger of the exclusion that ‘the feminine’ has suffered. There is an almost palpable sense of struggle in almost all the pieces. AGF’s own voice, or the voices of her female collaborators, have induced accelerated tonalities or calm recollection; yet in all cases the weight of insubordination prevails, becoming the defining feature of the compilation. This is no mean achievement.
The audio collection opens with reference to myth, its first track being dedicated to the emblematic female worker of Greek mythology, Arachne. The magisterial track Black Athena follows, as a nod to the complexity of ancestry. This track informs: “for centuries humiliation insult”; “language and abstraction”; “relationships and patterns”; “terminology, rituals, sacrifices”; “our mysteries”; “outside”; “speculation”; “the position to take”. Cassandra, possibly the most known figure of Greek mythology, whose words are associated with negativity, gives us one of the most complex pieces, its articulation intelligible but extremely attractive. Sappho, the poet of Lesbos island, is the first historical poet that we meet. Sappho has been honoured as the lesbian poet of Antiquity, and a rupture in patriarchy’s binds. The reciting, as much as the music, are given to subtlety. And so, it is through the foundational homosexuality of Sappho, the woman-for-woman principle of creativity that marks Arachnesound’s entry to history in terms of documented women’s literary production.
It is impossible to offer detailed commentary on the names that follow: there exist names that signify absence and oblivion. Myrtis of Anthedon, in an instrumental ‘recognition’; Korinna, focusing on ‘abduction’; Nossis, with “from the beauty of her own body”. Ptolemais, of the 5th century BC, her sound full of threat, and you don’t know where it points to, yourself, the language, the hybris of silencing a gender? Among the ancient women, real or symbolic, Hypatia, of the Hellenistic times, stands out: Neoplatonist philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, inventor, tortured and murdered woman. AGF, and her collaborator, the composer Nicoleta Chatzopoulou, conjures her with an electronic lament that is one the CD’s highlights: the rising sound, as a towering wave, then subsides in acceptance of a wrong that cannot be undone. After Christianity prevailed in the Roman Empire, the Eastern territories of which eventually became Byzantium, we find Kassiani, Pamphile of Epidaurus and Anna Komnene among AGF’s choices. Pamphile is possibly the most intriguing, and less known one. The words that represent her “she is not an author”, “she wrote that”, “she did not write that”, “she copied that”, “she is not an author” encapsulate what history had in store for her and many others. And it is evident that AGF’s research led her to use these women’s names as hints rather than testament. ‘Why Didn’t Greek women write history?’ is an apt chapter title and a question that feminist historians have tried to answer. It is no accident that Anna Komnene’s track includes the words “utter darkness”.
Half of the tracks draw on the writing of modern and contemporary women - some little known to Greeks themselves (I am thinking here of Aganiki Ainianos, a solitary poet of the 19th century writing about working-class women) beyond very narrow literary circles. But even the great Kallirhoe Parren, the central figure of Greek feminism, also in the 19th century, is not widely known today. Overall, the history of the feminist movement in the country remains purposefully excised from formal education, and so, Parren’s appearance on Arachnesound becomes an organising principle for the spirit of the work overall. A number of notable female poets follow - Raika Kountouris, Maria Polydouri (who died very young, and was thus romanticised accordingly), Rita Boumi-Papa, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, up until we come across the poet who truly revolutionised Greek poetry: Katerina Gogou, who died ιν 1993 at her prime, at 53, but who would have spat on these words, had she been able to read them. An anarchist, an occasional actress, a self-destructive revolutionary, a mother, an intellectual whose radical poetic speech marked the aesthetic consciousness of the late 20th-century Greek left like no one else did. Younger poets, who are coming of age in the 21st century - Katerina Iliopoulou, Dimitra Ioannou, Konstantina Korryvanti, among others - are the ones who often lend their own voice to the tracks. These words tend to be clearly audible, and are mostly punctuated by AGF’s music. “Let’s unravel the stitches” (Iliopoulou); “I’ll appropriate your power as I please” (Ioannou); “Most people are drowning in dry land. Thirsty, they dive from top floor offices” (Korryvanti). But just to deny a closure, and to reveal the fragility of any gains out of centuries of suppression, AGF closes her audio collection with a track on Hermaphroditus and another on Kymopoleia, the extremely obscure sea nymph from Hesiodus’ ‘Theogony’ who is just known for making waves. Given the significance of ‘waves’ in the excavation and narration of a transnational feminist history, and the debates around the appropriateness of the term, it is tempting to see this last track as AGF winking at her audience: call it whatever, what’s important is that it happens.
2020. A year where certainties have collapsed, and where sharing inspiring culture is pivotal. Emancipatory social movements continue, but at this point the cultural mood is one of rethinking, of taking stock of ‘where we are so far’. Arachnesound emerged amidst challenges without resolution in sight, introducing an aural political aesthetic that explores the magnitude of a trans-generational moving forward for women. As a research and music project, it refutes the very idea of a possible end. It is a suggestion about how to listen to what you cannot have access to, to the omitted weight of a cultural history that has falsely presented itself as whole. It is received with gratitude, and it will be continued as the upending of the acceptance that the omitted weight should remain unheard and untold. Angela Dimitrakaki, Athens, 1 Sep 2020
support by Onassis Foundation