ode to man

4 female voices, electronics [16′]

ode to man was written for the vocal group Silbersee, for their production Homo Instrumentalis. It is based on the text from the chorus of Antigone by Sophocles (line 332-375) known as The Ode to Man. This is one of the most famous choral odes in ancient Greek tragedy, where, in what seems to be an ironic tone, the technological achievements of the human race are set out. Man’s ability to conquer nature, to develop language and law and to create great civilisations is set against the fact that the one thing he cannot conquer is his own mortality. This ambiguity is reflected in the first line: “Deinon”, the word used in the description of these achievements can mean both “terrible” and “wonderful”.

The theme of man against nature is one that is explored in the music also. I wanted to use the text in a way that it is constantly being deconstructed into its phonemes. The voices slowly move from the articulation of the text to pure raw vocality. The grating presence of the electronic sound is always in a state of overpowering and unbalancing the voices.

Ode To Man score excerpt
Ode To Man score excerpt

Original text

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.
τοῦτο καὶ πολιοῦ πέραν πόντου χειμερίῳ νότῳ
χωρεῖ, περιβρυχίοισιν
περῶν ὑπ᾽ οἴδμασιν.
θεῶν τε τὰν ὑπερτάταν, Γᾶν
ἄφθιτον, ἀκαμάταν, ἀποτρύεται
ἰλλομένων ἀρότρων ἔτος εἰς ἔτος
ἱππείῳ γένει πολεύω.

κουφονόων τε φῦλον ὀρνίθων ἀμφιβαλὼν ἄγει
καὶ θηρῶν ἀγρίων ἔθνη πόντου τ᾽ εἰναλίαν φύσιν
σπείραισι δικτυοκλώστοις,
περιφραδὴς ἀνήρ:
κρατεῖ δὲ μηχαναῖς ἀγραύλου
θηρὸς ὀρεσσιβάτα, λασιαύχενά θ᾽
ἵππον ὀχμάζεται ἀμφὶ λόφον ζυγῶν
οὔρειόν τ᾽ ἀκμῆτα ταῦρον.

καὶ φθέγμα καὶ ἀνεμόεν φρόνημα καὶ ἀστυνόμους
ὀργὰς ἐδιδάξατο καὶ δυσαύλων
πάγων ὑπαίθρεια καὶ δύσομβρα φεύγειν βέλη
παντοπόρος: ἄπορος ἐπ᾽ οὐδὲν ἔρχεται
τὸ μέλλον: Ἅιδα μόνον φεῦξιν οὐκ ἐπάξεται:
νόσων δ᾽ ἀμηχάνων φυγὰς ξυμπέφρασται.

σοφόν τι τὸ μηχανόεν τέχνας ὑπὲρ ἐλπίδ᾽ ἔχων
τοτὲ μὲν κακόν, ἄλλοτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἐσθλὸν ἕρπει,
νόμους γεραίρων χθονὸς θεῶν τ᾽ ἔνορκον δίκαν,
ὑψίπολις: ἄπολις ὅτῳ τὸ μὴ καλὸν
ξύνεστι τόλμας χάριν. μήτ᾽ ἐμοὶ παρέστιος 
γένοιτο μήτ᾽ ἴσον φρονῶν ὃς τάδ᾽ ἔρδει.

My personal favourite translation by Anne Carson:

Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more
terribly quiet than Man:
his footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea
in marble winter,
up the stiff blue waves and every Tuesday
down he grinds the unastonishable earth
with horse and shatter.

Shatters too the cheeks of birds and traps them in his forest headlights,
salty silvers roll into his net, he weaves it just for that,
this terribly quiet customer.
He dooms
animals and mountains technically,
by yoke he makes the bull bend, the horse to its knees.

And utterance and thought as clear as complicated air and
moods that make a city moral, these he taught himself.
The snowy cold he knows to flee
and every human exigency crackles as he plugs it in:
every outlet works but
one.
Death stays dark.

Death he cannot doom.
Fabrications notwithstanding.
Evil,
good,
laws,
gods,
honest oath taking notwithstanding.
Hilarious in his high city
you see him cantering just as he please,
the lava up to here.