Academic journal article Intersections

Centring the Periphery: Local Identity in the Music of Theodore Antoniou and Other Twentieth-Century Greek Composers

Academic journal article Intersections

Centring the Periphery: Local Identity in the Music of Theodore Antoniou and Other Twentieth-Century Greek Composers

Article excerpt

People select the past they want and need.

-Jim Samson

Introduction: Redefining the centre

The Greek words that constitute the model "peripheral-central" would have never been invented by a group of people who considered themselves peripheral. The etymology of the word periphery (perifereia = peri [around] +feromai [I wander]) suggests a line around a closed figure, point, or area, which, of course, is the centre (kentro). The well-known last words attributed to Archimedes (ca. 287-ca. 212 BCE) the inventor of pi, "Do not disturb my circles," suggest that the concept of centre and periphery has been part of mathematical attempts to apprehend and better understand our world since antiquity.1 Inasmuch as the centre-periphery model is a very useful tool and is thus ubiquitous in academic writing, categorical terms such these are never neutral.2 On the contrary, they are deeply problematic, because they are charged with the political interest of those who invent or use them (Psychopaidës 1997, 13). In historiography, the idea of "peripheral" is often used by those who consider themselves to be "central"-that is, more noteworthy-and is implied in numerous historiographical or cultural ideas and terms such as orientalism, "which is not about non-western cultures, but about western representations of these cultures" (McEwan 2009, 62).

Despite the hype and excitement brought on by the short-lived upheavals associated with so-called new/postmodern musicology during the waning decades of the twentieth century, the historiography of art music remains conservatively restricted in a narrow "Western" framework with moveable centres, depending on the writer's point of view. This lens can lead to distortions and omissions of all sorts, both intended and unintended. For example, according to the American musicologist Richard Taruskin, Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) was a "Romanian-born Greek-speaking composer resident in France" (2005, 5:77). This is not untrue, but the statement is nonetheless misleading. The fact that both of his parents were Greek, who happened to be sojourning in Romania at the time of his birth because of his father's mercantile business, is not mentioned. His schooling in Greece and his studies at the Athens Conservatory and the National Technical University of Athens until his emigration to Paris for political reasons in 1947 are also omitted. Xenakis is the only Greek composer mentioned in Taruskin's monumental History of Western Music. By emphasizing the cosmopolitan aspects of his early biography and blurring his origins, Taruskin effectively homogenizes the composer's identity, allowing Xenakis to be all the more easily assimilated into the list of leading "Western" composers, reinforcing the myth of a globalized and domineering "Western" music. What is at stake in this misapprehension of Xenakis's identity is more than merely a banal example of scholarly negligence.

To begin with, what does Western refer to? For the past half-century, the West has become a remarkably elastic term. Following the Second World War, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males would more or less instinctively locate the "West" (also known as "the free world") "in a relatively narrow corridor extending (certainly) from London to Lexington, Massachusetts, and (possibly) from Strasbourg to San Francisco" (Ferguson 2012,14). During this time, the "West" became more than merely a geographical expression. "It is a set of norms, behaviours and institutions with borders that are blurred in the extreme" (Ferguson 2012,16). With regard to art music, casual usage of the adjectives Western, occidentale, and abendländische refers to a geographical point of origin, underscoring the fact that, until the end of the nineteenth century, much of it was composed in the western half of Europe.3 Even when this music was performed on the periphery, such as in Eastern Europe or in the colonial dominions of the Western powers, the places of origin (primarily Italy, France, and Germany) retained control over its reception by supplying the terms and concepts for discourse about it. …

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