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  • Writer's picturepeter-relph

Reimagining Sisyphus

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

A look behind the music for the third Anchorae Isolation Choir Project.

*We are currently inviting anyone to submit a recording of themselves singing one of the four parts of Sisyphe. FInd out more on the Anchorae Isolation Choir page on this website.

1) Background to the Project

In the Autumn of 2020 I was delighted to be invited to give the Institute of #Greece, #Rome, and the #Classical Tradition's Donors' Celebration #Lecture 2021. The Lecture would focus on my research over the last few years exploring new ways of setting ancient texts to music.

I had been collaborating with the film producer and owner of the #Bristol Film Festival Owen Franklin on the Anchorae Isolation Choir Project since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020. We had created two brand new pieces, The World, and Peace. The response was overwhelmingly positive; singers from the UK, USA, and Canada contributed to the finished recordings.

We decided that the lecture would be an excellent opportunity to create a new piece of music and short film which explores the story of #Sisyphus. We would invite the Anchorae Isolation Choir to record the music for the piece.

2) Sisyphus

Sisyphus was the mythical founder and first king of Ephyra. There are numerous colourful (and often contradictory) accounts of his deceitfulness and craftiness throughout his life, including killing guests and travellers in his palace, conspiring to murder his brother Salmoneus, and even attempting to cheat death itself.

This (as I'm sure you can imagine) angered the gods considerably, and when he finally died, he was punished by being made to roll a huge boulder endlessly up a steep hill. The boulder had been enchanted to roll away when it had almost reached the top, consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of futile effort. To this day, futile and pointless activities are sometimes described as Sisyphean.

Sisyphus was a subject often depicted in ancient literature, including Plato's Apology and Homer's Odyssey and the Iliad. In choosing an appropriate text to set however, I was drawn to the reference to him in the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses (10.44).

Persephone supervising Sisyphus pushing his rock in the Underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 530 BC. From Vulci. Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons

3) Sisyphus in Ovid's Orpheus and Euridice.

In Ovid's account of #Orpheus and #Eurydice, Orpheus descends to the underworld in an attempt to rescue his wife Eurydice. To persuade the gods of the underworld to let her go, he sings a song to convince them of his love for her.

Sisyphus, for just a moment, stops his eternal task of rolling his boulder and sits on his rock, overcome by the beauty of Orpheus' playing. The reference comprises just five words - inque tuo sedisti, Sisyphe, saxo (and you sat, Sisyphus, on your rock).

"and you sat, Sisyphus, on your rock."

The idea here is one which I think can translate to personal experiences of art, music, and literature, and underlines the fundamental importance of art in our day to day lives. Every now and again a work of art can induce a response in which we forget our day to day lives and problems (our 'rock'), and just sit and take a moment to appreciate the work of art in front of us.

This idea, of a fleeting moment in which you are lost in a moment of wonder because of a song, was the basis from which I began to write the music.

4) Writing the Music

The music came naturally from these ideas. A vocal quartet roots the music with a drone throughout much of the piece, capturing this brief, still moment.

Over the top of this, the main choir sings musical material which gradually rises in harmony, pitch, and dynamics to the dramatic and loud exclamation of "Sisyphe, Sysiphe." where the music descends back down to the musical material found at the beginning of the piece. The rising process then starts again but gradually fades away. This echoes Sisyphus' eternal task of rolling his boulder.

You can view and/or download the full score here.

5) What Next?

These are just the first few steps in a larger creative process. We are welcoming recordings of one of the parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass) from anyone until the 12th of March 2021. Submitting a recording is easy and free. You can find out more by clicking here.

The music here will be accompanying a short film by the film maker Owen Franklin, which will, in its own way, be exploring the ideas which I have briefly been mentioning here.

I hope you enjoy the music, and look forward to hearing your submissions!

PWR 13/02/2021

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