Historical Resonances of Nichori

Author: Salih Demirtaş

9 April 2021

Cavafy’s statue in the garden of Panayia Orthodox Church (photo by Salih Demirtaş)

Studies on ocularcentric aspects of visual culture in modernity cover broad epistemological areas that focus on priority to the eyesight over other senses; in other words, a vision-oriented construction of knowledge, truth and reality. As part of anti-ocularcentric discourses across the social sciences including multisensory research methods, listening sounds of our environment through soundwalks could also develop distinctive creative sensitivities in relation with the subjects and the methodologies of our research areas. My first soundwalk at Yeniköy, a beautiful neighbourhood in the Sarıyer district of Istanbul, took place at the end of November 2020. It was a Sunday afternoon. The streets were crowded despite social restrictions for the pandemic. I began my soundwalk from the pier of Yeniköy during the sunrise with the inspiring view of the Bosphorus. Sounds of sea waves and sea gulls were mixed with human conversations and mechanical drones that were coming from ships passing by from the Bosphorus. After I left the pier, I walked through the back streets of Yeniköy through Said Halim Paşa Caddesi together with the characteristic call of the local junk dealer echoing in the street to let the residents know that he is ready to collect any objects they want to get rid of. My last stop was the Greek Orthodox Church of Panayia Koumariotissa. The church’s location is next to one of the main streets of Yeniköy, Köybaşı Caddesi, and is exposed to many urban noises such as the sound of traffic. However, entering the courtyard of the church was a distinctive solitary experience. My first encounter with the Greek poet Constantin P. Cavafy (1863-1933) occurred in this garden when I saw his statue in the yard. Under the statue it was written on the information plate that he had penned down a poem called Nichori, which is the old Greek name of Yeniköy.

Cavafy and his poem Nichori

Cavafy was born in Alexandria, then the Egyptian province of the Ottoman Empire, and his parents originated from the Greek community of Phanar (Turk. Fener), and Nichori. During the Anglo-Egyptian War (the British Conquest of Egypt) in 1882, he moved to Istanbul together with his family and lived in Yeniköy for three years. Main themes of his poetry are a combination of personal experience, historical knowledge and historical imagery (especially the Hellenistic era); he describes himself as a ‘poet-historian’. His stay in Istanbul was an important transitional era that reflects both the tenderness of his early works and the maturity of his late oeuvre.

After a preliminary research about him, I discovered his digitized personal archive on the internet[1]. The archive included the original handwritten version of his poem Nichori in the Greek language as well (see appendix). Out of curiosity to hear the original poem with the prosody in Greek as an authentic experience, I sent the digital version of the poem to my Turkish friend living in Greece and asked him to make a sound recording of the poem. The spoken poem was recorded by his Greek musician friend Elena Mudiri Hasiotu[2]. After I received the digital file of the recorded poem from Elena, I went back to Yeniköy for another soundwalk, this time with Cavafy, to hear the echoes of his poem in Yeniköy where he lived and dedicated a poem to the time he lived there. I played back the spoken poem at the pier of Yeniköy and in the garden of Panayia church next to his statue with my bluetooth speaker. While doing this playback of the spoken poem, I recorded it with my field recorder together with the sounds of today’s Yeniköy. What would be the experience of hearing the original poem voiced by my Greek friend in today’s Yeniköy teach me about the past? How can I hear the echoes of individual and social memories about Yeniköy from the late nineteenth century? What does a practice of listening to historical resonance teach us? How could we define the agency of both poem and field recordings of Yeniköy?

My personal experience while recording the spoken poem in Yeniköy was refreshing, subjective and imaginary. Spreading echoes of the original poem from my bluetooth speaker to the streets of contemporary Yeniköy was like a portal that was altering my experience of time and space. Despite my lack of knowledge of the Greek language, hearing the poem was like having a personal dialogue with late nineteenth century Yeniköy, accompanied by Cavafy. A further phase of my listening experience occurred when I began to listen to different recorded versions of the spoken poem in Yeniköy together with the English translation of the poem:

Nichori (1885)

Stranger, when you see a town where nature smiles

and where a girl as lovely as a rose is hidden near

every plane tree—you must stop there. Stranger,

you have reached Nichori.

 

And if, when evening comes, you go outside to stroll

and find before you walnut trees—do not proceed

any further on your way. Where else could you seek

a place more lovely than Nichori?

 

Nowhere else on earth are springs as fresh as these,

mountains elsewhere do not have our hills’ nobility,

and you will be inebriated by earth’s perfume alone

if you stay a while in Nichori.

 

Do not hope to find, elsewhere, the greenery

that you will see there. From the hilltop look and see

the plains below and say you could not love

this, our little Nichori.

 

Do not think, O Stranger, that I love hyperbole.

There are many places that have rich and fruitful fields.

But there is something special, as you’ll certainly agree,

about the fruit and flowers of Nichori.

 

If you should wish to go with me inside the church

of the Virgin of Coumariés, forgive my zealotry

when I am there. Prayers, I daresay, win a different

grace in pious Nichori.

 

If you cannot stay, O Stranger, then before you leave,

you must go, one Sunday, to the Quay of Gregory;

peace, and youth, and joy you’ll see, and you will know

what it is, our Nichori.

                                                                        (translation by Mendelsohn 2012)

Listening to the echoes of the past: “past-in-present”

Keywords in Cavafy’s poem Nichori

Focusing on the functions of multiple agencies in this listening process, communicating with the poem as the first actor could be defined as an attempt to do ethnography or cultural dialogue with Cavafy through an anthropology of his poem. There is an encounter with the individual memories of Cavafy and the social memories of the old Yeniköy reflected through the poem. One of the most used keywords in the poem is ‘stranger’, with which Cavafy introduces the beauties of Nichori to a visitor. Cavafy also depicts portraits of nature from old Yeniköy such as walnut trees, roses, fruits, and mountains. Specific locations he mentions in the poem are the Virgin of Coumariés (Panayia Orthodox Church) and the Quay of Gregory (the pier in Yeniköy). Apart from his individual memories such as ‘a girl as lovely as a rose is hidden near every plane tree’ or praying with grace inside the church, his form of address for Nichori is variable but always implies an acclaim: “lovely Nichori”, “our little Nichori”, “fruits and flowers of Nichori”, “pious Nichori”. Further than individual memories, the poem was transmitting social scenes of late nineteenth century Yeniköy, together with cultural concepts of the particular time and ecological information from Nichori.

For this essay[3], a video has been prepared for the spoken poem that includes the English translation text of the poem and the field recordings of today’s Yeniköy. This primary version of my sound arrangement consists of two layers. The main layer is the recorded playback of the spoken poem at the pier of Yeniköy and at the courtyard of the church that includes sounds of today’s Yeniköy. Since there are sometimes several recordings at the same location, the direction and the intensity of the voice or other sounds could change in different sections of the poem. A secondary layer, not active all the time, consists of other field recordings I made in my Yeniköy soundwalks such as chants heard from the entrance of the church at the end of the recording.

Cavafy’s Nichori, vocalized by Elena Mudiri Hasiotu; field recordings, video and sound arrangement by Salih Demirtaş (© Salih Demirtaş)

Another aspect of this multi-layered listening experience is listening to the spoken poem recorded in today’s Yeniköy. This sonic practice could be defined as an intervention in shared public space with the representation of the past through the poem. Apart from aspects of performance practice in public space, when examining Steven Feld’s (2017) acoustemology as relational ontology, knowing through listening the spoken poem reflects between-ness of the experience, between the echoes of the past and today’s Yeniköy. Referencing Marie Abe’s (2018) work on historical resonance, encountering with the memories of late nineteenth century Yeniköy transmitted through the poem, creates this resonant space of listening with multiple temporalities and memories of the past. While Khalil’s (2019) concept of “echoing palimpsest” defines the chanter’s individual space during ritual practices as a social and cultural space in which the remembered voices of others resonate, accumulated through long participation in the tradition, his other term „past-in-present“, an artificial present experience dressed as a past that is in dialogue with past voices could be also reflected through the spoken poem of Nichori in today’s Yeniköy. The practice of listening to Nichori in Yeniköy creates a past-in-present experience with the poem as an acoustic palimpsest that transmits resonances from the nineteenth century Yeniköy of Cavafy. Josh Kun’s (2005) term “auditopia” also helps us to elaborate more on the private act of listening that creates auditory imagination with an alternate set of cultural spaces; in our case, listening, then attempting to hear historical resonances of Yeniköy through alteration of time and space with the sonic practice of the spoken poem. This study could be even further enriched together with a collection of different essays by individuals on the listening experience of Nichori and further studies that include different versions of the field recordings in video or installation form.

APPENDIX: Original poem Nichori with the handwriting of C.P. Cavafy in Greek

GR-OF CA CA-SF01-S01-F01-SF001-0030 (1637) © 2016-2018 Cavafy Archive, Onassis Foundation

GR-OF CA CA-SF01-S01-F01-SF001-0030 (1637) © 2016-2018 Cavafy Archive, Onassis Foundation


[1] The Digital Collection of the Cavafy Archive is housed  by the Onassis Foundation: https://cavafy.onassis.org/

[2] I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my Turkish friend Pamir Panya and the Greek musician Elena Mudiri Hasiotu for their valuable contributions.

[3] A first version of this essay was prepared for my PhD course Recent Trends in Music Studies: The Turn to Ecology instructed by Dr. Robert O. Beahrs at the ITU Centre for Advanced Studies in Music (MIAM) during the fall term 2020–2021. It was also presented online at the MIAM Colloquium 2020 Fall: Current Research In Music (February 4–5, 2021).

Salih Demirtaş is a PhD candidate in the Musicology and Music Theory program at Istanbul Technical University (ITU). He has worked for the Corpus Musicae Ottomanicae (CMO) project as a research associate at the Orient-Institut Istanbul since September 2019.

References:

Abe, Marie. 2018. Resonances of Chindon-ya: Sounding Space and Sociality in Contemporary Japan. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Feld, Steven. 2017. “On Post-Ethnomusicology Alternatives: Acoustemology.” Ethnomusicology or Transcultural Musicology? Eds. Francesco Giannattasio and Giovanni Giuriati. Udine: NOTA.

Khalil, Alexander K. 2019. “The Echoing Palimpsest: Singing and the Experience of Time at the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople” In: The Oxford Handbook of Voice Studies. Eds. Nina Sun Eidsheim and Katherine Meizel. Cambridge: New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 345–362.

Kun, Josh. 2005. Audiotopia: Music, Race and America. California: University of California Press.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. 2012. C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Citation: Demirtaş, Salih. “Historical Resonances of Nichori,” Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 9 April 2021, https://www.oiist.org/historical-resonances-of-nichori/

Keywords

Islamicate World; Ottoman Empire; Turkey; Istanbul; Yeniköy; Nichori; 19-21st century; Constantin P. Cavavy; acoustemology; literature; research project; OII-Music; OII-History & Life Narratives