Ritualistic Drama

“Sailing to Byzantium”
a ritualistic drama on the moon, swans and soul

“Sailing to Byzantium” is dedicated to and was premiered by Yurodny Ensemble.

The full title of the work proposes some implications about the genre and the context related with it:“Sailing to Byzantium, A Ritualistic Drama on the Moon, Swans and Soul through the Poetry of W.B.Yeats and Ahmet Haşim”.

Yeats and Haşim are exact contemporaries and their common focus on symbolist poetry is emphasized in this work. A ritualistic drama, it can be read as an attempt to explore the entwined relations between ritual, poetry and drama. However, this exploration is not meant to articulate precise definitions of these three concepts, but rather reveal an ultimately ambiguous interspace where polarisations interact in motion.

As a ritualistic act, “Sailing to Byzantium” is a devotee of “Time”; not in exaltation but as some sort of a catharsis in face of the inevitable effects of this overpowering phenomenon.

No matter how intangible, Time has always been at the centre of human life. Rituals have proven fundamental mediations that concretise its multidimensional complexities. Both its periodic (nature’s seasonal water cycles, phases of moon, etc.) and transformative (transition from childhood to adolescence) attributes become subjects for exploration and elucidation. Such endeavours to connect the individual existence to a wholeness not only gave way to endless paradoxes but also shaped the deepest caves of our collective consciousness. The ritualistic aspect of “Sailing to Byzantium” is based on a dramatic outline not as a definite frame but as a gateway towards the roots of shared memories.

The work features three poems by Yeats and two by Haşim that are interconnected through their common use of imagery, prominently the Moon, Swans and Soul, in order to generate an non-concrete, non-narrative dramatic flow that venerates “Time” in the articulation of major arcana (Moon, Swans and Soul) as symbols for individual yet successive transmutative stages.

The eclectic nature of the text, in other words the contextual divergence of the two poets, is considered one of the fundamental attributes of ritual: eclecticism for unification. The diversities between these two contexts leads the dramatic flow. Haşim’s poetry, being explicitly influenced by late 19th century French symbolism, exposes bare imagery to interact multi layers of temporality and consciousness. By contrast, Yeats’ aim was to explore the core aspects of life at the heart of an unfiltered and quotidian realism. However, where Haşim’s open spaces are constant; Yeats’ contemplations are in active flux. His statements, through a subtle internal process, dissolve and eventually melt into unfathomable stillness. This is the point when the dramatic flow arrives to its final stage, “The Soul”, where dichotomies are lost in ambiguities that integrate with the objectives of the ritualistic aspect of the work.

All the performers appear on the stage not as characters of a drama but as themselves. Besides performing the written music they convey their admission and engagement to this process by commentarial solo improvisations and by changing their positions on the stage to symbolize their souls’ shifting to a nomadic state within a gyre, where all borders gradually get lost into oblivion.

Obviously, this work – by using non-western instruments and bringing “Western” and “Eastern” texts together – presupposes questions on the relationship between different cultures. However, my objective was not to emphasize such differences. Rather I wanted make a statement that culture is an active spectrum and cannot be categorized. Yeats’ gyres and the image of a whirling dervish may have different forms, but their separateness is an illusion. Their common roots are far away enough to seem invisible, but are in fact accessible through the vortical leaps within memory.

“Songs from a circle, a Ritualistic Drama for One

Diamanda La Berge Dramm requested me to write a piece for her, that she can play violin and sing at the same time, during the rehearsals of the premiere of my first ritualistic drama: “Sailing to Byzantium, A Ritualistic Drama on the Moon, Swans and Soul through the poetry of W.B.Yeats and Ahmet Haşim” in April 2016 in Ankara, Turkey.

Each ritualistic drama can be seen as attempts to explore the entwined relations between ritual, poetry and drama.  The drama is conceived upon an eclectic collection of poetry that is interconnected through the common images they share. In such cases, non-concrete, non-narrative action provides a framework for the ritualistic aspect that addresses a particular subject where the common images articulate and symbolize of its successive stages.

Such eclectic nature of the whole text, in other words the convergence of particular contexts of different poets, is considered due to one of the fundamental attributes of the definition of ritual: eclecticism for unification. The overall process depends on the intricate relation between drama and poetry. Diversities between different contexts lead the dramatic flow that aims to eventuate in an indivisible entity.

The subject of “Songs from a Circle” is “Melancholy”. As a fundamental concept of poetry, even though approached from many divergent perspectives throughout ages, it is identified with “inner most feelings”[1], a mediator for “exploring the ways that the buried life of infinite self”[2].

I used the idea of the circular process of color appearances in order to signify the paradoxical situation of one’s striving for own inner existence. The articulation, if not isolation, of “inner” as a separate and remote state is analogous to the antinomy between light (hence the appearance of colors) and darkness. However, the nature of a circular process, as opposed to the progressive course of linearity, transforms the perspective of definitive reality into transitory illusion. The darkness is not the opposite pole of the light but they are both variants of the same spectrum; they are born out of and dissolve into each other.

All six poems used in this work relate to each other at two different dimensions. First, they’re all steeped in melancholy – in one way or the other, explicit or allegorically – confronting the separateness from pure or eternal being. The other dimension deals with the aforementioned analogy depending on the circular process of colors at three stages (scenes) that each features a pair of poems.

Hafız’s kaleidoscopic poetry initiates the whirl of the circle. All philosophical quests eventually pour into a wine glass whilst the roses of the garden are bound to fade as the heart should not “reach out in vain”.  In the first scene, “Colors Fading”, Hafız’s flee, in vain, from the self is together with Shakespeare’s Sonnet where the sun is veiled by the shadow games crammed with disappointment.

The Second Scene focuses on the “Colors of Darkness”. The first song of this pair, “The Purple Flower”, is influenced by Chu Yuan’s (4th Century B.C.) shamanistic Nine Songs which is followed by “The Sea and Darkness”. In both songs, the darkness is considered as a state of light where the borders of objects are melted to a blind unity thus definitions are replaced by symbols of subconscious.

The last Scene, “Beyond Colors” starts with verses derived from Percy Shelley’s two different poems: “Mont Blanc” and “Time”. Through these lines, the tension, generated by the relation between the human mind and its own attempts to “discover meaning in a seemingly ahuman cosmos”[3], reaches to a climax. Such severe intensity is released in the epilogue entitled “Heaven” that does not propose a consequence but a realm of reminiscences that stimulate the circle to continue whirling.

Besides the text and its musical settings, there are lighting cues on the score which aims to provide a spatial emphasis to the abstract narrative of the work based on the shifts of different existences of color, light and darkness. The acting cues for Diamanda suggest a relation between herself and the violin that symbolizes her “inner self”.

In the performances, Diamanda will be on the stage, obviously, not merely as a violin player/singer and not as a character of a drama.  She’ll be there as herself to be a part of this circle for a certain frame of time to confront the overtones of “Melancholy”, through “chainless winds”[4] of words and sounds from a Time…. unframed.

[1] Riede, G. David, “Allegories of One’s Mind, Melancholy in Victorian Poetry”, Ohio State University Press, 2005, page 17

[2] Ibid, page 17.

[3] Hall, Spencer. “Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc.’” Studies in Philology, vol. 70, no. 2, 1973, pp. 199–221.

[4] From Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc, part II.

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