BYZANTIUM for oboe and tape. 1991. Commissioned by the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company with a grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain. 24 minutes. Score, part and CD with the audio playback component available through Promethean Editions.
Byzantium is the centrepiece of a South Indian dance triptych called 'New Cities/Ancient Lands' which was created for and by the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company for their 1991 tour across the United Kingdom and Europe. A second choreography of the piece by Lambros Lambrou for Ballet Austin saw performances at Austin, Texas and Nicosia, Cyprus. A resident of London, England, Shobana Jeyasingh is a well known choreographer respected in several continents for her pioneering work in combining Baratha Natyam, the classical Indian dance with contemporary music by western composers. Prior to our collaboration, Shobana had worked on large scale scores with composers Michael Nyman and Kevin Volans among others. In addition to cultural distance, our collaboration was further complicated by geographical displacement. Almost non-stop exchanges of audio and video cassettes, faxes, and telephone calls, were followed by a number of trips to London between June and October of 1991.
The process of composing Byzantium was unlike anything I have done before or since. The rhythms of the first two movements were provided by Shobana as a set of complicated foot patterns for the dancers. These patterns were indigenous to Baratha Natyam, and it was a real challenge to compose music on elaborate and predetermined rhythmic structures which did sound 'straight-jacketed'. After a crash-course in South Indian music, and a number of rehearsals with the dancers, Shobana decided that I could be trusted with composing my own foot patterns for the dance in the last movement. I did so, drawing mainly upon rhythmic ideas from the first two movements, and arranging them in a way that was polyrhythmic. The fast section of the second movement is based on two superimposed cycles of five and six beats, which start together every thirty beats. An Indian listener listening to the fast section of the third movement would be calculating the constantly shifting time signatures and downbeats of the music against a cycle of three beats. I can be quite fun if you do I persistently.
Stylistically, Byzantium is one of my most accessible compositions
to date. In each movement, I have experimented with a different compositional
and stylistic problem. In the first movement it is the "cultural counterpoint"
between eastern modal music and the chorale-like rendition of the Byzantine
victory chant Te Hypermacho (see English translation of the texts
below) presented first sequentially, and then simultaneously. In the second
and most straightforward of the three movements in terms of adherence to
the given foot patterns, I worked with harmonies derived from the high
partials of the harmonic series. The third movement was filled with New
Age ideas eventually concluding with material from the first movement.
Byzantium is a melting pot of eastern and western ideas. The use
of the name is purely symbolic (the symbiosis of east and west) with no
historical authenticity whatsoever. Thematically, it is a passion play
with the three movements titled Evangelismos (Annunciation), Epitaphios
(Funeral Music) and Anastasis (Resurrection).
To the mighty general - the prizes of victory,
for having redeemed me from dangers - thanks,
I, your City, am writing up to you, Mother of God,
But since you have the power, liberate me and keep me unexposed
to every kind of danger!
So I may cry out to you:
Hail, unwed bride.
Trans. Ed Phinney
Premiere performance: October 16 - 19, 1991 by the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company. Dance Umbrella Festival, The Place Theatre, London, England.
Byzantium...is an extraordinary work and those of us present on Monday were truly privileged to be witnessing the world premiere of what deserves to become a modern classic. Christos Hatzis...has come up with a remarkable piece of work that weaves intricate patterns with a blend of eastern and western, classical and modern, religious and secular, vocal and instrumental music. On top of this musical tour de force, Lambrou has added choreography that...manages to express the vast variety of emotion required. The perfect combination of music and dance made Byzantium the standout work of the performance which had already seen two excellent pieces danced by a hugely talented cast [Ballet Austin]...but both [of these pieces] were overshadowed by the allied brilliance of Hatzis and Lambrou. John Vickers, THE CYPRUS WEEKLY
Byzantium, Jeyasingh's newest piece, is her most substantial yet. Adding an ecstatic score from Greek-born composer Christos Hatzis, she fuses moods and movements into an adorational splendour. The music is a concerto for oboe played from the edge of the stage by Melinda Maxwell. She is accompanied by a taped score that soars, swoops and pulsates with rhythmic colours. Allen Robertson, DAILY MAIL (UK)
[In Byzantium] flurries of rhythmic stamping build, oscillate and explode; the energy ebbs and flows with unpredictable vitality. Judith Mackrell, THE INDEPENDENT (UK)
[In Byzantium] Melinda Maxwell played an exquisite solo oboe over a recording of a rich and beautiful score by Christos Hatzis in which traces of Greek and Indian music blended with sounds of a distant classical chorale to form a fusion of East and West... it is extremely beautiful. Sue Gaisford, THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY (UK)
[Byzantium is] a cultural counterpoint of east and west, spirituality and sensuality, lyricism and percussive precision. Jann Parry, THE OBSERVER (UK)
Heavenly recorded voices soar in Christos Hatzis' score [Byzantium], and a lone oboist (Melinda Maxwell) valiantly pipes piercing melodies that compel the dancers to dance, and our heads to sing with sheer pleasure. We emerge with images, melodies and colours imprinted in our minds, making us certain that we have enjoyed this evening greatly. Ann Nugent, THE STAGE (UK)
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