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Palimpsests

February 10, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Recently, I was having a discussion about Plutarch and I found myself really interested in the history behind place names. I give Plutarch much credit for preserving the stories and details behind stories that certainly would have been lost otherwise. We often take for granted the places where live and the streets we drive upon, not realizing that, often, a great deal of effort and thought went into the naming of the place. Or that great, important and interesting events happened on the land before we arrived upon it.

In my discussion, I attempted to express how the names of a specific place created a palimpsest of recorded history. In other words, places are often named and then renamed. More often than not, names are given by a victorious group, military or government. In this way, the local place becomes not just a name, but a physical conglomeration of people, event, location and language. I believe that renaming a place does not really change its original significance, but merely adds to it. For example, there are many sites of sacred importance to Native American cultures that have been renamed. These sites, however, are still revered in the ancient culture as much as they are used by more modern day, non-Natives. This melding is really interesting to me, though I am unable to eloquently express the importance that I see of such a developing palimpsest.

Then, I happened to be listening to the Piano Puzzler and I felt drawn to the way that Bruce Adolphe combined Mussorgsky with Amazing Grace (click on the Puzzler for 2/8/17). After listening to it, it became clear that we develop language and music in the same way that we create significance in place too. In order to understand my thinking, we have to go back to the original Mussorgsky piece (played here by Vladimir Horowitz). The introduction - or Promenade – becomes a standout piece that repeats throughout. It also folds into the next version by Maurice Revel, but in a very different way and with very different emotional language, I believe. Mussorgsky's piece was originally written for piano alone, yet Revel adds orchestral music and the effect is astonishingly different. Yet, the Promenade lingers evocatively as if calling us back to the original, solo piano piece. Having the horns play the introductory Promenade changes many things about the the audience's entrance, but yet it is still clearly attached to the original in a way that makes this piece a mixture of both Mussorgsky and Ravel. Next, Adolphe wrote a short, whimsical piece that simply inserts Amazing Grace into the Promenade. Again, we have the original instrument alone, but this time, a well-known tune is tucked neatly inside. Listening to the new piece is meant to be a puzzle, but the puzzle works best when recalling all iterations of the piece. The music signifies cultural meaning in a very tangible way. It also, can be completely new to a first-time listener, just as a piece of land can appear untouched to a first time traveler. This strikes me as very similar to the way that Plutarch describes place. I suppose that whichever piece you hear first will be your baseline, but that places carry so much emotional and historical weight is what interests me. Even a first-time listener ties emotion to the music. Likewise, a first-time traveler often attaches meaning to a place.

When listening to Adolphe's piece, I hear the notes of Amazing Grace with such clarity and yet, they are also hiding, in a way, within the music of Mussorgsky. This amazing blend transforms both pieces for me in a way that I could not express with words. Plutarch also felt something similar in his descriptions of place. Place names are created and immortalized by individuals and cultures. Therefore, these names exist only within the mind. That we have created maps and charts in no way changes the way that places exist in theory. They may be named due to an event or a geographical feature. They may be immortalized in the name of some great person. They may be the local hangout or the best way of giving directions. Whatever the reason for creating a name, the significance of a place becomes more embedded through years and iterations. Therefore, places are a literal palimpsest that we weave into our being, creating some rich fabric of self and location.

One story which demonstrates this idea comes from Plutarch's “Pelopidas”. After agreeing upon a battle, Pelopidas arrives on a piece of land rich with local folklore. He must have felt or sensed the importance of this place because he did not know the local history and yet he felt compelled to offer a sacrifice. Plutarch writes:

“And so when a battle was agreed on, and they encamped in front of the Spartans at Leuctra, Pelopidas saw a vision, which much discomposed him. In that plain lie the bodies of the daughters of one Scedasus, called from the place Leuctridae, having been buried there after having been ravished by some Spartan strangers. When this base and lawless deed was done, and their father could get no satisfaction at Lacedaemon, with bitter imprecations on the Spartans, he killed himself at his daughter's tombs; and from that time the prophecies and oracles still warned them to have a great care of the divine vengeance at Leuctra. Many, however, did not understand the meaning, being uncertain about the place, because there was a little maritime town of Laconia called Leuctron, and near Megalopolis in Arcadia a place of the same name; and the villainy was committed long before this battle.

Now Pelopidas, being asleep in the camp, thought he saw the maidens weeping about their tombs, and cursing the Spartans, and Scedasus commanding, if they desired victory, to sacrifice a virgin with chestnut hair to his daughters. Pelopidas looked on this as a harsh and impious injunction, but rose and told it to the prophets and commanders of the army....”

After much debate over the harsh realities of this dream, they finally decide to sacrifice a young chestnut mare and in this, all were satisfied. And of course, Pelopidas was victorious in battle. Plutarch writes, “Pelopidas coming up with such incredible speed and fury, so broke their courage and baffled their art that there began such a flight and slaughter amongst the Spartans as was never known before. And so Pelopidas, though in no high office, but only captain of a small band, got as much reputation by the victory as Epaminondas, who was general and chief captain of Boeotia.” It interests me that Plutarch gives us the place name of this battle along with the local lore of the place, which creates a textual richness that the story of Pelopidas' victory alone would lack. In this case, the battle did not rename the site of the offering, but reinforced the original story while also introducing it to a new audience. At the end of Pelopidas' siege, two cultures have memorialized this complicated piece of land.

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