Festival O/Modernt, Stockholm, 13-17 June, 2014

Prometheus is the first face of humanism. ‘All arts that mortals have come from Prometheus,’ writes Aeschylus: not only fire, but reasoning, literacy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine – all that sets mankind free of the gods. Even in his ghastly punishment, Prometheus mocks Zeus:

Let him do what he likes,
let him be king for his short time: he shall not
be king for long. (trans. David Greene)

Yet despite his confidence, Prometheus presents a figure of suffering, with no palliative faith in the gods for comfort. As his heirs, we celebrate the advantages of his gifts but also suffer in our alienation from the divine. In a secularized world, the arts now take on an enhanced role in mediating the space between ordinary and super-ordinary states of being. They become the humanistic gateway between the sacred and profane.

Classicism, as the godparent to humanism, perennially seeks more perfect art forms by a return to origins: each successive wave, though separated by centuries, shares this generative principle. This is one of the conceptual underpinnings of Stockholm’s Festival O/Modernt (‘Un/Modern’), now in its fourth year. ‘Gluck and Neoclassicism’ is the theme for 2014, the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The festival presents works from the eighteenth century to the present, all unified in their aspiration for, in Johann Winckelmann’s phrase, ‘a noble simplicity.’ Within a mostly musical framework, Festival O/Modernt eagerly incorporates other diverse art forms to create a cumulative synaesthesia even encompassing the architectural surroundings. In time, space, and media, it may be the most multi-dimensional classical festival in the world.

Two characteristic performances from this year’s festival are Thomas Hewitt-Jones’s world première cantata Panathenaia, with text by Paul Williamson, and Sven-David Sandström’s Nordisk mässa (Nordic Mass), a setting of poems by Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer. Each of these works confronts the persistent koan of humanism: how to restore a sense of cosmic harmony to a world at once liberated and fragmented by the scope of man. Each negotiates the task by engaging the audience with the dynamics of performance within a sanctified space.

Panathenaia commemorates the historical counterpart to the Prometheus myth: the moment in Western civilization when humanity began to recognize its own independent potential. The cantata celebrates not the famous Athenian festival, but the eponymous sculpture carved upon the Parthenon. As the British Museum’s Ian Jenkins observes, the Parthenon frieze is remarkable among temple art for the preeminence it gives to the ordinary Athenian. The gods are present, but they recline passively: it is the people of Athens who take the active roles. As Paul Williamson’s text depicts the scene:

Ah, but the gods have lost their spark!
They spend their divinity
Watching human goings-on
Like half-involved spectators at a play.

A tipping point has been reached: the people have inherited a great apparatus of ritual, but its emphasis is shifting. In the soprano solo ‘The Weaver’s Song,’ a girl works at her loom to create the peplos which will drape Athena’s statue; yet she has little thought for sacred things, pining instead for her absent lover. He will compete in the festival games, but not for the goddess’s honor: for the prizes! Human values are replacing religious ones. Like Pandora, whose birth is evoked in the cantata’s penultimate movement, this change will bring intense beauty and immeasurable chaos.

Twenty-five centuries later, Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry is a headlong convergence with the world’s subsequent fragmentation. By arranging Tranströmer’s verse under traditional mass headings, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Sven-David Sandström transposes the poet’s secular voice to the range of sacred music. Yet the Nordisk mässa is expressly ‘an homage to contemporary Scandinavian life;’ a life that is characterized by the displacement of organized religion in favor of the individual search for meaning. Sandström’s choice of the mass form attempts to resacralize this secular journey, an intent which can only be completely fulfilled in performance.

In Tranströmer’s texts it is the heightened encounter with daily life which (re)introduces the potential for spiritual dimension. The removal of God tends to flatten the post-theist world; the Nordisk mässa in performance hopes to redeem the otherwise undifferentiated mundane. This graduated process begins in the verse: Tranströmer takes commonplace experiences – riding a subway train, drinking espresso, looking through a window – and through the angle of his observation refracts them into forms that now bear meaning. With the infusion of music, Sandström increases the poems’s affective potency. The peculiar conditions of live performance raise the intensity still further. Finally, the enclosing space, here the royal chapel at Ulriksdal palace, widens the whole into a communal horizon.

Performing the Nordisk mässa inside a church heightens the sense of sanctity. Music in a concert hall may be heard for pleasure; a mass on hallowed ground implies participation. Once seated in a church, even those living outside its faith become physically immersed in a universal narrative of separation and return. Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry projects such a narrative, only in humanist terms: here man’s alienation is remedied not through a saviour’s suffering but through a lover’s consummation. The weaver and her hero at last achieve union:

The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colors meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.
(trans. Robin Fulton)
The humanist mass borrows the reflexive sanctity of the church and redirects it. The spatial context amplifies the spiritual resonances of this composition lifting up the quotidian to ask us to regard it as we would holy things.

The inclusion of the environment as an extension of the performance is an essential part of Festival O/Modernt. The Panathenaia, performed in Ulriksdal’s neoclassical theatre Confidencen, cannot rely on a found sanctity and must sacralize its own space. The cantata may reflect humanity’s break from the gods, but it cannot forget its source is a temple. In order to transform an Enlightenment-era theatre into a sacred precinct, Festival O/Modernt has enlisted the unique skills of Michael Grab who, during the performance, deploys his art of ‘rock balancing.’ Grab begins by piling up small stones reminiscent of the stones that pilgrims leave at mountain shrines. By the conclusion of the cantata, he perches an improbably large stone atop each delicate stack. One would expect every vibration of the tympani to bring the balanced sculptures crashing through the stage floor, but they remain poised, an edifice of trust, until the artist gently dismantles them after the final ovation.

The message in the balancing stones is the same as that encountered in these musical-poetic performances as a whole: do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of transience, complexity, even seeming incongruity. Few experiences offer such deft comment on this state of being as live performance. The impossibility of perfectly controlling or duplicating a live performance invites a surrender to the instance. It is a microcosm, a compressed rehearsal, of the only reliable solution humanism has ever proposed to the paradox of life in the secular world: just keep living it.


The performances of Panathenaia and Nordiska mässa referenced in the article took place on June 15 in the theatre (called Confidencen) and the royal chapel, respectively, of Ulriksdal Palace.


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