As I was listening to Brian Elias’ Pythikos Nomos, I tried to understand why I liked the piece so much. After all, it opens with harsh chords played by the piano and saxophone that sound like arbitrary banging. An ambiguous dialogue between the instruments follows, and then a crazy dance-like part with more rough piano chords and squeaking saxophone sounds at the extreme end of the instrument’s range. And yet, when I finished listening to it, I immediately wanted to go back and hear it again. And each time I listened to it, I liked it more and found new things in it.
So why, indeed, did I like this strange piece so much?
First of all, I loved the ending. It is surprising, unusual, and breathtaking (literally breathtaking, as I found out later). Secondly, there is coherence in the musical language. In other words, although quirky and bizarre, the piece has its own unique sound world. These are not just random chords and passages; they are a result of strict harmonic rules that the composer set for himself. And although the musical language is odd, I found myself enchanted by it. Finally, the piece has perfect timing. You can sense that nothing is too long or too short—everything happens exactly at the right time. I find that this is a critical condition for a great piece.
Pythikos Nomos was inspired by another musical piece with the same name that was written in 586 BC by a Greek composer named Sakadas of Argos. At that time, in addition to the Olympic Games, there were a few other Panhellenic sport festivals occurring regularly in Ancient Greece. One of them was the Pythian Games that were unique for hosting art and dance competitions in addition to the athletic ones. Legend says that the Pythian Games were created by the god Apollo to commemorate his stunning victory over the enormous Python that had terrorized all humans. In honor of Apollo’s triumph, Sakadas wrote a musical piece for the Pythian Games’ music competition, and he was declared the winner. Sakadas’ piece is considered to be the first evidence of programmatic music (music that tells a story). The piece itself did not survive, and we only know some theoretical information about it, such as its form that contained five different sections.
Brian Elias’ Pythikos Nomos, written for alto saxophone and piano, was inspired by the story of Sakadas’ piece and adheres to its form of five sections. In the opening section, Apollo examines the surface of the land to see if it is suitable for battle and then incites the serpent to fight. Like a snake, the music slithers around the note B-flat, gets closer, goes farther, and comes back to it. The battle then erupts, and the music becomes a funky, violent dance. Although the harmonies are harsh, the music is exciting because of its groovy rhythms and the high pitches of the saxophone, which sounds almost like a klezmer clarinet.
The focal point of the piece is the victory hymn of Apollo. Surprisingly, it is a poignant, melancholic hymn, as if Apollo is mourning for the animal. The saxophone plays so nasally that it almost sounds like an aulos—an ancient Greek wind instrument with two connected pipes, on which Sakadas originally performed his piece in the competition back in the 6th century BC. (You can listen to the aulos here.)
The final part represents “the last breaths of the dying monster.” The saxophone plays the same descending scale a few times, each time softer and softer, until all you can hear are the keys of the instrument being pressed down. But that’s not the end yet. The musician then plays “flutter tongue” into the instrument without pressing the keys, creating the effect of the serpent’s death rattle. Flutter tongue is a special technique in which the performers flutter their tongues, kind of like rolling your ‘r’, which gives a unique “Frrrr” sound. Flutter tonguing is not an unusual technique, but in this particular case, the effect is striking.
I first heard about Brian Elias from violinist Sasha Pavlovsky, member of the Jerusalem String Quartet, while running into him in a small, old café in Jerusalem last month. As we were catching up, Sasha told me that Elias had been working on a new piece for the Quartet. “He takes a lot of time,” Sasha said, “because he really labors on each and every note.”
Listen to Brian Elias' Pythikos Nomos here