Fountains

Hi Rose! I've been thinking a lot about water lately (I dunked myself in the fountain in front of the Stanford library for an Intermedia video project a couple weeks ago, and regretted it being February), and it struck me that water has a lot to do with our Szymanowski Myths project. The first of the three Myths, "The Fountain of Arethusa," is based on a myth about a nymph who becomes a fountain—as Ovid tells it, one summer day Arethusa (thinking she’s alone) steps into a river to cool her sweaty self and then becomes aware of the presence of the river god Alpheus. She leaps out of the water and Alpheus calls after her:

"What are you rushing for, Arethusa?” Alpheus called from the waves. “Why are you rushing?” He called again to me, in a strident voice. Just as I was, I fled, without my clothes (I had left my clothes on the other bank): so much the more fiercely he pursued and burned, and being naked, I seemed readier for him. So I ran, and so he wildly followed, as doves fly from a hawk on flickering wings, as a hawk is used to chasing frightened doves. Even beyond Orchemenus, I still ran, by Psophis, and Cyllene, and the ridges of Maenalus, by chill Erymanthus, Elis, he no quicker than I. But I could not stay the course, being unequal in strength: he was fitted for unremitting effort. Still, across the plains, over tree-covered mountains, through rocks and crags, and where there was no path, I ran. The sun was at my back. I saw a long shadow stretching out before my feet, unless it was my fear that saw it, but certainly I feared the sound of feet, and the deep breaths from his mouth stirred the ribbons in my hair. Weary with the effort to escape him, I cried out “Help me: I will be taken. Diana, help the one who bore your weapons for you, whom you often gave your bow to carry, and your quiver with all its arrows!” The goddess was moved, and raising an impenetrable cloud, threw it over me.

    ‘‘The river-god circled the concealing fog, and in ignorance searched about the hollow mist. Twice, without understanding, he rounded the place, where the goddess had concealed me, and twice called out “Arethusa, O Arethusa!” What wretched feelings were mine, then? Perhaps those the lamb has when it hears the wolves, howling round the high fold, or the hare, that, hidden in the briars, sees the dogs hostile muzzles, and does not dare to make a movement of its body? He did not go far: he could see no signs of my tracks further on: he observed the cloud and the place. Cold sweat poured down my imprisoned limbs, and dark drops trickled from my whole body. Wherever I moved my foot, a pool gathered, and moisture dripped from my hair, and faster than I can now tell the tale I turned to liquid. And indeed the river-god saw his love in the water, and putting off the shape of a man he had assumed, he changed back to his own watery form, and mingled with mine. The Delian goddess [Diana] split the earth, and plunging down into secret caverns, I was brought here to Ortygia, dear to me, because it has the same name as my goddess, the ancient name, for Delos, where she was born, and this was the first place to receive me, into the clear air.’” (trans. A.S. Kline)

It feels like a shimmering cloth woven out of the logic of a nightmare. And the end to me feels like an awakening from a nightmare, the sweat and memory of it absolutely real, but nothing left to touch of the fabric of the story itself—Diana, Alpheus, all infinitely distant, beyond reach or justice.

I read an essay by Anne Carson about Greek attitudes about women, in which she talks about how in the culture of ancient Greece, women are thought of as “wet”—unbounded, fluid, changeable, and without form. In contrast, men are thought of as “dry”—makers of boundaries, of rational thought, of form, and therefore also of all that is good: she quotes Heraklitos as saying “A dry soul is wisest and best” and Aristophanes speaking “of a man’s need to ‘dry his mind’ if he wants to ‘say anything smart’” (155). She gives numerous examples from mythology of shape-shifting, transgressive, and/or watery women (of which Arethusa seems a particularly beautiful example). And she traces this idea of women as fluid/mobile to the social reality of marriage customs, in which men stayed in a fixed location (their home, and their social milieu) while women moved (into her husband’s house, social orbit, etc.). She doesn’t mention here what’s probably the obvious second reason why people might think of women as wet, though I’m sure she does somewhere.

So, Arethusa, and Szymanowski. I’ve been trying to figure out your part, which is hard for me because (a) you have so many notes, and (b) my piano playing skills have only gotten worse since that time over winter break when you helped me sight-read a line of quarter notes. Basically, what seems so hard about looking at the score is that the notation is incredibly dense and precise, and the effect is fluid and constantly shifting (I think you can hear that really well in Krystian Zimerman's playing in this recording). So what I want to do, what Szymanowski seems to ask for, is to map out the currents that are below all this dry and precise flotsam, that carry the debris of note-heads and tuplets and meter changes on their backs and make them into a shape. You know this already, I’m just writing it out as my own flotsam on my stream of consciousness—apologies. But it feels like this is leading somewhere important, to something in the music that is very specific to this movement, this Mythe. I think maybe it’s that it’s not just a muddle, it’s not just wetness that Szymanowski writes: he doesn’t just give us a long wavy line and say “fill in the notes, please.” He gives us the edges—so many edges, shards and shards of edges—, and asks for the curve. When he wants me to glissando, to slide smoothly down from one point to another, he writes a precise, chromatic ladder of trills, and then blurs this precision with the parenthetical note “glissando” above it. It’s a very slow process of immersion, building my conception of the music’s wetness out of these dry and precise edges, but maybe that’s the beauty of it. It’s kind of nice to take a magnifying glass to a myth, and find that it’s made up of countless droplets of its logical opposite, dry and clear.

I’m thinking of how falling water slowed down looks like static snow: