A Penelopean Performance

On the occasion of the “AWAY | TAKIY ‒ Raise the Curtain for Weaving” exhibition, we brought together into an experimental performance some of the elements, technologies and languages that the PENELOPE project is exploring and developing: a sample of ancient Greek poetry, live coded algo-rhythmical textures generated with our TidalCycles software, and six Pattern Matrix-controlled and tablet-woven Penelopean robots.

Photograph of our first performance as part of the RODEO festival

This three-layered performance aimed at giving a sense of potential areas of interaction between ancient weaving, digital technology, Greek choral song-and-dance, and rhythmical patterns. Wide-ranging as this may sound, much of these associations are attested in, and triggered by, ancient sources: a recurrent image in archaic Greek choral lyric is that of “weaving/plaiting a choral dance”, meant to be referred, at least at times, to the actual dancing movements of the choristers (their “interlaced feet”, or their choreography as a whole as something “plaited” by the chorus-leader); a further connection linking weaving and Greek poetry pertains to the dimension of meter and rhythm: ancient metricians refer to a mechanism of rhythmical modulation between types of rhythm as an “interlacement/interweaving” of metrical units – and such a marked use of textile terminology in the technical language of metrical theory (attested as well for instrumental music) suggests that a fundamental analogy was perceived between weaving as a binary system, and musical rhythm as comparably grounded on the binary opposition of short and long quantities (syllables) combined into larger sequences of metres.

Short (u) and long (-) syllable patterns, transcribed from Sophocles, Philoctetes 686-690

Poetry, rhythm, dance, weaving: the lack of sources on ancient Greek choral dance and music somewhat ‘freed’ us in terms of frames of ‘historical/archaeological/philological authenticity’ for our experiment, and our aim was clearly to explore the association(s) rather than reconstructing a plausible archaic Greek choral performance.

Yet, we tried to get our facts right, and we based our recitation on the authentic rhythmical structure of two passages of Greek poetry (a passage in dactylic hexameters, and one in lyric meters, with the modulation from trochaic to iambic rhythm); since the rhythmical sensibility of ancient Greeks appears to have been much different from ours, we tried for the performance to find a satisfying compromise as to the rhythms, and also to adapt to our own purposes and possibilities: as the Tidal Cycles environment works with cycles of rhythmically homogeneous patterns and builds up any possible texture to it, we thought of reducing the dactylic hexameter to a 4/4-based  rhythm (with different possibilities of emphasising any of the four beats: we decided to divide the dactyl into two ‘long’ elements, the second one in turn realised as two short beats, thus getting quite close to the real structure of the metre), and the iambo-trochaic sequence to a 6/8-based rhythm, with Alex emphasising the first (and fourth) or the second (and fifth) beat in the trochaic and iambic sequences respectively. What Alex also did was to build a progressively richer texture to the recitation, creating a dynamic crescendo also by adding sound and melody; this suited nicely the second passage we performed, a choral ode from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (lines 883-896 ⁓ 897-910) where a growing sense of anxiety is perceived throughout the strophe-antistrophe sequence, with the chorus wondering where religious piety has gone, and in the last lines (just where the rhythm shifts from trochees to iambs) directly invoking Zeus. You can hear an excerpt of this in the following short video:

A core element of the association between Greek choral song and weaving is the dance: it was the chorus who sang the poem, and any reference to the woven/plaited nature of the performance would have naturally been taken as pointing to the dancing; the dancers for our experimental performance were Penelopean robots, whose body was indeed woven (with tablet weaving), and whose synchronized evolutions were controlled by the Pattern Matrix machine as if they really were the threads of a fabric; dancers as automata (moving statues, and thus somewhat robots) is indeed a pervasive image in Archaic Greek representations of performing choruses, as the first passage we chose for our performance (Homer, Iliad 590-605) showed: there, the choral dancing is inlaid by the god Hephaestus on the bronze Shield of Achilles, and the choristers may be envisaged as bronze ‘robots’. Furthermore, the ‘insect-like’ nature of Dave’s robots come close to a further feature of the imagery of dancing choruses in Greek poetry, where formations of dolphins, cranes, and other animals are often depicted as archetypical choruses that inspired the dance of men.

Dave puzzling over his Penelopean robots.

The Penelopean robots were able to perform a synchronized dance, and to move in different directions and turn: there is a lot of potential there, and we wish we will able to develop it further, maybe for having them dancing a maze-like choreography, or generating a braid through a Maypole-like dance… Some of the questions we received from the audience, both after the performance at the exhibition opening, and the day after (when we replicated the experiment for a class of performance studies students), regarded the possibility of a direct connection between weaving and musical metre/rhythm in terms of the very sequences and patterns generated: would there be the possibility, someone wondered and asked us, to weave in a meaningful way the metrical sequences of a piece of Greek poetry? It is a complicated question with no straightforward answer: as far as metrical structures like Homeric hexameter and choral lyric strophic systems are concerned, this would be impossible for the high degree of irregularity of those verse designs (hexameters have a quite regular overall structure, but the realisation of the six feet may vary a lot), but there are strophe systems in Aeolic poetry (Sappho, Alcaeus) where we find the repetition of a fixed pattern throughout the strophe – a feature that may come closer to the way ancient weaving constructed pattern through both repetition and variegation.


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