A “parabasis” (literally “violation”) was a section of Old Greek Comedy (c. 450 – c. 330 BCE) in which the choristers, temporarily suspending their roles as such, removed their choral cloaks and addressed the audience directly. Roland Barthes, in his essay “The Greek Theater,” outlines the form: “an (ideal) parabasis included seven pieces: a very brief song, the kommation; the anapestes, the speech of the coryphaeus (or leader of the chorus) to the public; the pnigos (suffocation), a long period spoken without taking a breath; finally, four symmetrical pieces, of strophic structure.” I was fascinated by these suggestions, and adopted this structure, substituting only a suite of dances that each have strophic tendencies for the four “symmetrical pieces.”
In my Parabasis, the “Kommation” becomes a kind of processional song. The piano is impersonal and inevitable, the flute cantabile throughout. “Anapestes,” which makes extensive use of the anapestic foot (short-short-long), is given to the pianist-come-coryphaeus. It is largely strident and aggressive, but with a prophetic quality to its middle section. “Pnigos” is for flute alone, and features, in its opening measures and repeated later, an attempt to realize in sound the experience of suffocation. The flutist, at each comma in the printed score, is instructed to forcefully expel all of her reserved air before taking the indicated breath.
The three dance movements that follow comprise a suite of imagined dances. The titles of these dances also come from Ancient Greek traditions: “Cordax” is named after an indecent dance (Aristophanes, the greatest of the Old Comedy dramatists, mentions it in The Clouds) and “Comoedia” after a processional dance in honor of Phales. Roland Barthes, again, describes “Mania” as “both the expression and exorcism of collective hysteria,” and towards the end of this movement the tune “prophesied” by the coryphaeus (in “Anapestes”) is heard again. The final movement, “Catharsis,” represents the aftermath of “Maniaʼs” exorcism; it is also a literal repeat of “Kommation,” and as such may be heard as a recessional song.
From the first, I imagined this piece to be many pieces in one: a solo flute piece (“Pnigos”), a solo piano piece (“Anapestes”), a dance suite (movements four, five, and six), and finally a major work (the whole); it has been performed in all of these forms. Parabasis was written for and premiered by flutist Mimi Stillman.