In a small used bookstore on a side street in Thessaloniki (I can't recall exactly where) I picked up a used copy of Sakis Papadimitriou's the "other" piano for 4 euro. Papadimitriou, a veteran jazz pianist and author in northern Greece, offers a diverse and visually stunning (black and white photographs by Aris Georgiou) description of ancillary techniques for the piano. In our workshops with composers at the Aristotle University, Jana Luksts and I used the other piano as a solid visual reference tool for students beginning to experiment with extended techniques on the instrument. Second to actual experimentation itself (and good recordings of hallmark works along with score study), the photography is just great enough on its own. I've included small excerpts of the book (and photos) below - in the future, with some more free time, I'll translate it into English.
Order a copy for yourself online at Ianos, 14 euro.
I interviewed Alex in March, before the premiere of as above so below, his (now older) work for solo piano. We sat in the living room of my apartment on Platonos having coffee. Actually - Alex, an avid tea drinker, partook in a nice Harney's earl grey, which he sipped slowly over the course of three hours (I brought these from the U.S., thanks Dad). I, on the other hand, burned through three coffees. The discussion could have easily gone on for the rest of the night - Alex, an expert conversationalist, can breeze through topics as disparate as Mahnkopf and the early works of Lil' Kim. I attempted to cover three aspects of Alex's recent work - his successful formation of the Delian Academy for New Music in Mykonos, his own compositional methodology and background (including his concept of fluid identity that defines much of his current work), and as above so below. A close friend and colleague, and an impetus for my own research in Greece this year, Alex's work remains mysteriously enticing - he is full of ideas that continue to push the notion of what is traditionally successful in Greece. Check out more of his work at https://www.alexandros-spyrou.com/.
GK: So, the three areas that I wanted to focus on for this particular interview are the Delian Academy, as above so below, and some general questions concerning you and your music.
GK: So let’s start with the Delian Academy. Let’s start further away from your actual body of work so that we can narrow it down, and maybe we can draw some connections. At first, can you just tell us - why am I saying tell us, we’re not on [expletive] television.
AS: Okay, we are just talking.
GK: Tell me a little bit about how the Delian Academy started, what was it’s inception, how long you’ve been thinking about it, so on and so forth.
AS: So I had this idea for a few years. The inception is two-fold in a way: one way was completely idealistic, you know, to create an academy, I wanted to do it in the Cyclades specifically, just because I like the place, although I don’t have any connection to these islands, but also, you know the Cycladic civilization is the oldest in Greece, the most ancient.
GK: Even older than the Minoan?
GK: But Minoan is kind of its own thing in a lots of ways, though.
AS: The Cycladic also. They overlapped at some point. But it’s considered the most ancient. There was this completely idealistic vision to start something in the middle of the Aegean, something which is not like other academies, summer festivals, so on. And actually, I say this for the first time to you: my initial idea was to not have any professors. So my initial idea was completely anarchic. We would get together, a few people; now, somebody would need to choose these people, and that would be the ensembles and myself. To start with. Because there is a time limit and a space limit. We cannot accept two hundred people. So, the initial idea was just composers, who would contribute equally, and all of us would decide on the agenda. So not a top down organization where an institution tells you what to do, gives you a schedule, so on.
Now, after I though about it, I realized that many people don’t think this way, and it would not be very, I don’t want to say popular, but it wouldn’t gain a lot of attention. So then I started working on the project, like an academy which is exclusively for composers - not a new music festival, where ensembles come and play music from the repertoire of the 20th or 21st century, but rather focused on the composers who take part in it. And then, I added the professors. I added Aperghis as an honorary president, and he was very kind to accept this role. But the idea of not having any hierarchy still survives today - it survives [laughs], it’s not that old, though today it has the sense of everyone contributing. Everything is completely open, I try to set minimal limits - the only limits I set are with regard to space and time. Because we cannot escape the spacio-temporal continuum, to start with.
Then, the other very practical reason was that I was myself going to many festivals, academies, so on - and in many cases I didn’t like them. Like in Darmstadt, where I thought that the whole atmosphere was very arrogant, unfriendly, and formalized. So I didn’t like this. And I said, you know, we have to do something that is different. And since there is nothing in Greece like this, I said I will start it. Simple as that. I started working on the project very slowly and very secretly in a way. It took me about one and a half years after I had a concrete plan and after I did detailed research on what I needed with regard to the legal aspect of it, the organization aspect of it - all sorts of things, and I launched the first edition. I didn’t expect that it would go so well. I guess I was very lucky because I started with zero funding, and now we are going into the second year, and who knows what will happen.
GK: What you said about the Cyclades as your choice of the location, other than the rich history of those islands, is there a specific reason for the location of the festival there, particularly in mind of this aspect of the logistical difficulties of putting something on there when you mentioned that —
Sorry, coffee break. I ordered coffee.
AS: They deliver coffee?
GK: I know. This is the first time I’ve tried doing this.
AS: Do they have a minimum charge?
GK: It’s like 2 euro, which is insane for a delivery. So back to that question: Why Cyclades, and why specifically Mykonos? And furthermore, why not elsewhere in Greece?
AS: Well, I thought it would be more interesting for a participant to go to one of these islands rather than go to Thessaloniki or Athens. It would be much easier if it was in Athens, or Thessaloniki, or even another big city, with logistical stuff, everything would be much easier and cheaper. But it’s a completely different experience. Being on an island has its own rhythms. Although Mykonos is very touristic - it’s not the most quiet island - still in early June it’s quiet, the landscape is unique, and it would be a different thing if it was elsewhere. It would still be an academy in Greece, but it would be a completely different experience.
Why Mykonos? So I named it Delian after Delos. Delos - I don’t know if you’re familiar with the history of the island?
GK: A little bit.
AS: So, it’s where Apollo was born.
GK: They have the big palm where they believe he was born.
AS: Yes. So Leto, his mother, wandered around many places while pregnant to Apollo, and eventually gave birth on Delos. Delos was used as a political, and religious center for many years, there was the Delian league, an alliance, it was even the place where the Athenians moved their treasury. It was some sort of tax haven for a period. Something like an offshore, like the Isle of Man, in Britain.
GK: So because of its religious connotations, it in many ways became a political tool.
AS: Yes. A political, a cultural, a religious center. So, for some period you were not allowed to stay there overnight, and they would not allow pregnant women, or women close to birth -
GK: In case they birth Apollo.
AS: In case they give birth on the island. Because it was Apollo’s place. And today it’s uninhabited. You just go -
AS: Birds. In the sea, fish. You go, and you come back. And the only place that connects Delos is Mykonos. It’s such an irony that Delos is such this spiritual place, and Mykonos is on the other hand a party island, a place without limits, and so on. But also Mykonos has a bohème background. It used to be a place for hippies - not hippies exactly - it used to be an island which was a nudist destination, then it became a gay-friendly destination, then it attracted artists, celebrities, and so on. Anyway, it has its own history. In short, the most important thing for me is that you do something which is different. If I were to do this academy, let’s say -
GK: Even on another island.
AS: Even on another island. Let’s say I did it in Kerkyra [Corfu]. It would still be very nice. Kerkyra has its own color, its own atmosphere, more Italianate in a way, for me it’s a unique experience too. But based on the feedback I got from last year’s participants, they all liked it. Because we had a question in the evaluation form which asked them if they would rather do the same thing on another island, in a big city, or rather do it in Mykonos again. And more than 80% percent answered Mykonos. So I feel as it was worth it, although it’s very difficult to have to ship everything, you know, percussion instruments, equipment, and so on, in the end I believe it is worth it.
GK: And even thinking about what you said concerning Mykonos historically being an island without limits, makes it very much in line with putting together this kind of program. Especially because a program such as this, on any island in Greece, would be weird.
AS: Exactly. Saying that, now I remember a discussion I had with someone in the cultural industry sector. Initially I tried to do this in Syros. I was in touch with the municipality of Syros - I sent them an official request. They replied after two months, they sent me a very formal document with stamps and signatures and so on. Anyway. At first they said yes, so I started planning and I was sure I would do it there. And then they changed their mind, and they said no. Which was very frustrating at the time. But then I spoke with this lady that I mentioned, and she said maybe it’s for the best. Syros has a very nice theatre, the Apollo theatre, which is a copy of La Scala, and it hosts a lot of operas, festivals, renaissance music, jazz, world music, and theatre - all sorts of things. But it’s a Neoclassical building with decorations inside, it has pictures of Verdi and Mozart on the ceiling, and it’s what it is. Doing this thing there, doing something as extreme as Finnissy and Aperghis and all these new composers there, might be extremely weird for them. Mykonos is no limits anyway, it is eccentric anyway, so you know, why not. And it really is no limits. Everything is eccentric there.
GK: You mentioned that in the original design of this program, you wanted it to be different than anything else you’ve experienced, different from the format of these kinds of programs, and you mentioned that you’ve been to many of these festivals and you’ve been pretty irate with them. Likewise I have a similar experience. Can you talk a little about how Delian is designed to be different?
We know now already how it is different because of its location and because of the island and the format of the festival. Since festivals are always these things that are kind of in flux and trying to change to make themselves more relevant, do you plan on growing in some way, do you have plans for the future, do you have a vision for the long term?
AS: Definitely yes, and I’m very open to seeing it as a very dynamic process and I don’t reject other academies, festivals, and I wouldn’t consider myself a persona non grata - I still go. I go and I try to see how people think, what is their vision, and if I see something that I find positive, why not? So with regard to Delian, yes, I definitely hope that it will change in the future, responding to what composers actually need. For me that’s the main goal. Because I am a composer myself, and I wanted something that is designed, let’s say, by composers for composers. I have my ideas, but I’m open to what other people say and think, I still have this idea of no teachers, no hierarchy at all, coming together and deciding beforehand, what we are doing, and everyone taking their own initiative. I don’t use the word festival, I use the word academy on purpose.
GK: It’s interesting, the usage of the term academy. Because it’s such an implication, especially in classical music, of formalism, that you were attempting to eschew.
AS: Yes, but as you know, that’s the problem of changing the meaning of a word. Because academy in the West suggests formalization and institutionalism perhaps with a conservative nuance, but the idea stems from Ancient Greece, from the Platonic Academy, which was formalized in it’s own way, but was nothing like the Western academies. But I’m trying to bring back this term in its original sense. There are many terms, many Greek words, which have been distorted in western vocabulary, literature, and way of thinking. And we take them for granted, and that is a problem in general, not only in music. In Greece we import Greek words from the west. And it’s not the import of words, it’s the import of meanings. That’s the problem. To give you an example, I don’t know if this is relevant, but the University of Athens hosted some sort of event. And it said, “the event takes place, in the aula of the School of Philosophy of the University of Athens.” Aula, they use this term in German-speaking universities and academies, come from the greek word αυλη, in Doric αυλα. And everything was in Greek but this, which was spelled in Latin aula, and I’m thinking, how stupid is this person? I don’t know who did it. It might be one of the biggest experts. But we import the distorted Greek concepts from the west, and we are aping. This is what I don’t like at all, and what I want to break.
GK: Speaking of Greece actually, is the academy, being located in Greece, a non-negotiable, or highly important element? Could you see, in an alternate timeline, doing something similar but not necessarily in Greece?
AS: It would be a completely different project. I think it’s very common to see a lot of academies in Italy, which are organized by Americans, and they are practically American academies in Italy. They might have an Italian name, okay, you enjoy the Italian environment, food, atmosphere, venues, art, and so on, but the whole concept is still American. I didn’t want to do an American or a western academy in Greece. I wanted to create a Greek academy with a completely international perspective. So, yes, I can imagine something different in a different location in Greece, in a different country, but it would be a different project.
GK: And so, in what way does being in Greece make this a Greek academy?
AS: It’s not necessarily territorial, because someone could come here and do as I say an American or a German academy in Greece, so it’s not a matter of geography, it’s a matter of philosophy.
GK: Can you elaborate.
AS: So, one part is the non formalization on which I started talking about earlier. Now, is the question what makes this academy Greek?
AS: [laughs]. You know, that’s very difficult. Something which is unique is that there is a cordial atmosphere, and my impression from last year is that there was no competition. And I try to not include any elements which would make this competitive. Although it’s not completely non-competitive, because to start with there is a selection process, but that goes back to the problem of limitations - we cannot accept 200 people, there is no infrastructure for this. But what makes this academy Greek is that it is more humane, in a Greek way. This is a difficult question.
GK: Think about that one and you can get back to me. My last question for you, concerning the Delian, is the Delian Academy your utopic summer program, and if not, as a sort of thought experiment, can you describe your utopic summer program for composers?
AS: It started as a utopic project, but it is not a utopia project because it happens. You know the definition of u - topos, utopia. Now to describe my utopia… I described it a little bit earlier, it would be in a way that there is no hierarchy - this is important for me - that people come together, composers who take part in this academy, get in touch beforehand, they discuss, and they develop an agenda. They say, for example, that on day 1 we will do this, then we will do the presentations, the topic will be this, each of us will have this much time, and so on. And everything would be decided by voting, just in between us, it would be a sort of small scale direct democracy project without any hierarchy and I would just be… I wouldn’t have any leading role. I hate it, actually - I am the kind of person who prefers to stay a little bit in the background, but I would be -
GK: You like to be more of an Oz.
AS: You know, the problem is that I had to do this in Delian. I mean talk in front of people etc. But it was so easy because it felt like a group of friends. It didn’t feel like you’re going on stage and there is an audience, and you go to the podium and you say something ex cathedra like you are in a position of authority. It was just a place where everybody could just go at any moment. So, back to the utopia. It would be a project of direct democracy, where everybody would be able to take initiatives and to decide.
GK: What about things like the financial limitations? Would you say, in this utopic vision of yours, do you have limitations in terms of those practical aspects in relation to creativity, or do you have no limitations, the only limitations being what the members decide to vote on? So if the members decide to vote for the first three days of the academy to be workshops of pieces for 10,000 piece orchestra - is that something that is possible because they vote?
AS: No. But, the utopia project would be self funded. When you don’t have external funding, it’s a problem, but, it might also be an advantage, because you have no liabilities. But, it’s very expensive. If this was completely self funded, it would be extremely expensive for the average composer to attend.
GK: So as an aside, your utopia would not be free for participants?
AS: No. It would actually be so that everyone would contribute financially and they would decide by vote. So we wouldn’t have external funding and it would be completely self funded. And when you are paying for something you consider it to be your own project too. So this goes back to direct democracy. But this cannot work like this right now. Because it would be extremely expensive and extremely exclusive. In many cases there are many people who are very talented, very good at what they are doing, but they cannot afford even this partial cost, because the fees that they pay are only a small part of the total cost - the rest is covered by very generous funding from several European organizations. All these institutions that I criticize actually make this happen. So without them it would not be possible. It would be a utopia, and thus not happen.
GK: So, as a part of my Fulbright project here, I’ve been curating these concerts - curating being a word I’ve actually been criticized for, I’ve been called cliché for using it, I’ve actually been called a hipster, but part of this curating has been designing these kinds of programs and actually picking the repertoire for these programs. Since you were someone who was very pivotal in me actually applying for this Fulbright, I obviously wanted to include you as a part of my project in some way, and this is why I reached out to you to see if you have any piano works that could be programmed. And so here we are.
You mentioned that you wrote as above so below while in the “laboratory” of Michael Finnissy. Firstly, if you can tell me what laboratory means, because that’s a term I hear a lot in Europe in relation to new music, or if you were just in his studio, or if you were literally in a mad scientist’s laboratory, and if you can tell me a little bit more about your relationship with Finnissy.
AS: I don’t know why I thought of this word. And now that you say it, yes, it is frequently used in Europe, “lab”, and so on. What I meant is that this piece was a large scale experiment for me, because now I write in a different way, but still there are traces of this language in what I do now, it is still my music after all, but as I told you specifically with this piece, I had kind of forgotten about it. It’s not that I erased it from my memory, but I never thought it would be performed - simply because it is very demanding, and I didn’t think I would ever find a performer, a pianist, who would deal with it. I’m really glad Jana is playing it and she is doing a fantastic job.
I wrote this piece when I started my masters. It was in my composition portfolio, and I worked on it for several months. I was working on it little by little, I didn’t write it in a linear way, and I didn’t make the score in a linear way. I don’t have one file for this. When I started my masters I went to Southampton specifically to study with Finnissy. I didn’t know him before, he didn’t know me, I was just very impressed by his music, all this new complexity style, so I really wanted to study with him, and I did, and this period was very fruitful for me - it was also a very introspective period, both musically and personally. I was reading a lot - England was a completely different lifestyle, a completely different atmosphere, being 22 years old, and going from Thessaloniki to Southampton was quite the change for me, and this piece is a summary of this year in Southampton.
Now with Finnissy, I had, I still do, a very close relationship, you know he’s coming this year to the Delian Academy. He’s a very resourceful teacher, what is really impressive is that he might have several students who write in a completely different way and he can be equally resourceful for everyone. I remember this very clearly, because before me there would be someone else having a lesson, and sometimes I would overlap so I would stay in his office, and I would see they were doing something completely different. He had so many things to say. What I regret is that I didn’t record my lessons. Because now, I believe, I would go back to them and I would understand much more. We were working completely conceptually. Of course I would show him scores, and so on, but, most the work we did was purely on the level of ideas. And, at the time, I believe I could not understand everything, and I remember that in many lessons, he would say things that I just didn’t understand, and I would ask him, and he would elaborate, but still, I understood that I didn’t understand all of it. So, now I believe that if I had these lessons recorded, I would really understand much more.
Now, for this piece.
GK: Can you recall how he perceived this piece?
AS: I still remember our first lesson when I first started writing it, which was not the beginning of the piece, it was some other part, which I don’t even know if I have kept as it was. It was a difficult lesson, because he asked me very difficult questions, and I felt really stupid, and I was very disappointed, of course he didn’t do it in a bad way, but the questions were very challenging, and I didn’t know how to answer. Then I started again, probably from a different part of the piece, and then, I went to a different section of the piece, and as this was coming together, I think he liked it. In the end, I believe he liked it, but it took me a lot of time, and I think, the final version of it, I only emailed it to him, because I had already left Southampton.
GK: So in many ways, the performance of this on Mykonos will be very interesting. There have been many years of buildup to this. We can finally find out how he feels about the piece - maybe he wants you to completely redo it.
AS: Maybe. Maybe he will have a very, you know, British phlegm comment about the piece.
GK: Or maybe it will be, in reality, something a little more anti-climactic, that you’ve been looking for his validation, and then he’ll listen to the piece, and he’ll be like, “Eh, it’s fine.”
AS: Maybe. It might be, it might be, I don’t know.
GK: So I wanted to read you something as a prompt. This is from the programme notes to a piece of Finnissy’s. “Michael Finnissy was born in 1946 in London, started playing piano at age 4…attended Royal College in 1965 where his principal teacher was Bernard Stevens. Whilst there, he secretly planned that his body of work would gradually assemble a complete, intensely personal history of world music representing, sometimes ironically, all periods and genres. His ideology and aesthetics were influenced by underground and avant-garde cinema, Markopoulos, Brackage, Jack Smith, Warhol, Pasolini, and Godard.” So, can you comment on Michael Finnissy’s musical worldview, or Weltanschauung, as they say? And talk about how it, in some cases, affects you. Because this is a composer who has a cohesive musical language, but he explores folk music, world music, waltzes, there is no discrimination.
AS: Yes. It is extremely diverse. It’s true that he has many references, influences, I don’t know what is the best term for what he does. Not only musical influences.
GK: Perhaps homage is a better term.
AS: Yes, maybe homage. In some cases it is a paraphrase, in other cases it might be a reconstruction. It is not one thing. It is pluralistic in its own way, and it is not only musical influences. One of his main pieces is the History of Photography in Sound. So, he draws influences from literature, photography, other arts, from several things. And I remember that in his office he has a very big bookcase with books on literature, philosophy, art, music. And sometimes he would point at a book during one of our discussions and he would say, “Are you familiar with this, or that?” and he can connect the most unimaginable things. Finnissy is not exactly a composer of new complexity. I don’t think he would like this category really. He has done so many different works that cannot be put in a box, cannot be put under an umbrella term. When I was there, he did for example, Mozart’s Requiem. He did a new completion of Mozart’s Requiem. He has done the Verdi Transcriptions, he has done the waltzes. He has done the early new complexity piano works or orchestra works, like Red Earth, and so on. He has done several pieces which are very humorous. Many pieces inspired by folk music or world music. It really is very diverse. And I don’t think he perceives himself just in the domain of “serious music”, orchestral music. He is very open. For the occasion of his 71st birthday, I was in London, where the City University London had a conference on his music. And he was actually rehearsing a piece that was played by a student ensemble. And one guy there was playing trichordo bouzouki – he was Greek. He is very open… He is not the type of person who would say “I only want this famous orchestra, or this famous ensemble, to play my music.” He is doing music for amateurs, he has no limit in that regard. I know that he was playing music, he was playing the piano, for dancers. And I think that has influenced him as well. He also played, I believe, in something like night bars, cabaret style. I don’t remember for sure. I believe he was making a living out of this for some time.
GK: As we said, it’s hard to define what his usage of the materials in his music are, whether it falls under quotation or homage or these various - it’s something that’s a case to case basis, or is in flux throughout the piece. But is this strong relationship with, let’s say, extra-musical concepts, because obviously he utilizes lots of musical materials, but this idea of having a full bookcase, of so many different topics, and being able to draw upon these topics. Would you say this is something that has influenced someone such as yourself, for whom philosophy is so important, and for whom ideas actually become very present in your own compositions.
AS: Yes. The difference is, my influences are not so diverse. I mainly deal with concepts, with philosophy yes, but for example my knowledge of literature is very limited. Therefore, my influence from it is very limited. I am influenced only from very specific areas. And this is one of the discussions I had with him. He told me that I completely avoid the vulgar, and I didn’t understand what he meant by “vulgar”. And he went on to explain to me that he means the, let’s say the secular in a way, vulgar, in the sense of the Latin term vulgaris -
GK: The banal.
AS: Not the banal, necessarily. The things of the people. So back to the concept of musica humana and musica mundana. I am directed towards a more musica mundana, while he wants to use, let’s say, the trash. And this is something that he told me. He likes taking, picking up, what others dispose. This was one of our main discussions about my music. That it is too much focused on an ideal world, let’s say. While he is interested in the… - I don’t have the right vocabulary to express this - in the menial, in some cases in the rubbish. What others dispose, he takes it, and he re-contextualizes it, in a very unique way. In that sense his work is very anti-elitist. What I say might sound provocative, because his music is not the most accessible, but his thinking is completely anti-elitist. He is an anti-royalist and so on.
GK: And then lastly, as above so below is a piece that is old for you. How do you feel that it fits into your body of work as a whole, and into your current compositional style? And with this piece being performed at the end of this cycle, it will be performed three times. Where do you see its future, where do you see it playing into your future compositional goals?
AS: As I said earlier, I feel extremely lucky for this. For now, I see its future in Jana’s hands, and I am very glad for it. It is an older piece, probably I would not write something like this now, but it is still my piece, it is still my music.
GK: It is your rubbish.
AS: No, it is not my rubbish! It’s my rubbish in a way. My thinking was not picking up what other’s don’t use, and using it, or quotations, or… It’s all original material. The only part that relates to this idea, going back to the concept of reference, is that I did not use any extended techniques, which I would normally do. It’s all written on the keyboard. This, for me, was the quotation of the past. Just this.
GK: It utilizes a very traditional type of playing.
AS: I’m not sure if the playing is traditional, but the sounds are not extended. For example, I wrote another piece for piano six hands two years ago, and it has very limited material actually played on the keyboard. What I did with the piece, and it was my intention since I started writing it, is to write everything on the keyboard, this is the most extreme thing you can do now. Because you go to concerts, and you hear all the clichés on the piano, played inside, with all sorts of techniques, and everyone is doing the same thing, it’s so predictable, they do it with very predictable rhetoric, because you can use the same techniques, but in a different way.
GK: Or with different meaning.
AS: Yes. For me, rhetoric is the key. We all draw from the same pool of sounds, more or less. Of course there are people who have extended this pool, but in the end, there are some sounds which are common. The question is how you use them, and the majority of new music pieces that you listen to today, are the same. And they are extremely predictable. Anyway, for me, that was the extreme, to write a piece for piano, where everything is played on the keyboard. Now going back to the question about how this has influenced my current style and so on. I still use several layers of metric and rhythmic activity in my music, but now I do it within more confined spaces. This piece is written for a soloist, it has no barlines, it has a tempo indication which is fluctuating. It is approximately 60, but it can fluctuate freely, it has a strict rhythmic design, not a strict metric design, it has a relatively creative, not so strict, pitch organization, and it focuses more on the…, not evolution, but unfolding of outbursts and energies of localized events, but also, of macro scale design. My music now has moved away from such rhythmic complexity. In a way, I have tried to simplify rhythmic complexity, by using several meters at the same time, and it has also moved away from pitch, from the traditional sense of pitch.
GK: Your most recent string quartet [in limbo] being a good example of this.
AS: Yes. At the time I was working very much with schemata. So, I would start with a conceptual schema, which could be a pitch schema, a rhythmic, a metric, all sorts of things, and these would unfold in various rates, in several continuous temporalities. But as my music evolved I started deconstructing this, and their mutations started becoming more and more free, and their - no I don’t like the word deconstructing, erase it. I use the word decomposition on purpose, because deconstruction has a specific allusion to a school of thought and analysis and so on. So I started decomposing these conceptual schemata, and now I don’t have any schema at all. So now, the impulse for me is just a point that has no dimensions, while a schema has clearly defined dimensions, it can be defined, it can be an original, solid concept. And therefore it can be mutated, or developed. Now I start with something that does not have a solid definition, it is a fluid concept. That’s what I call fluid identity. And this is what I’m working on in my dissertation. So this is just a point, in a geometric sense, it has no dimensions. So I have moved from this period, but still, much of my style and techniques are similar, because I cannot avoid them. I write in many cases, in a very intuitive way, and then when I go back and see what I wrote, after I finish, I recognize traces of my older music.
GK: Is this fluid identity what you mean when you describe your compositional work as “Questioning a modernistic paradigm of dialectics and dualism and proposing a ontogenesis of a-centered multiplicities which are a continuous morphallaxis in a constant state of becoming”?
AS: You said it perfectly.
GK: Okay, but that’s what fluid identity is? Because if not, I was going to ask you to define that for our younger viewers.
AS: laughs. Now to explain this a little bit. So, when you start with something that is not solid, this cannot be defined in terms of solid ontology. You cannot say for example, “I start with this motif, which is this one, then these iterations of the motif are mutations, developments.” Several concepts in the history of new music have a solid identity. For example, a series, a twelve tone row. These are solid concepts. You can say “this” is “this”. When you have something that does not have a solid identity to begin with, then it is in a continuous state of becoming something, it is in a continuous morphallaxis - it changes all the time, but it didn’t have an original, solid identity.
GK: Does it ever become? Is that something “it” can do in a piece?
AS: Maybe, yes. But the way I’m thinking of it, is that it is constantly in a state of in-betweeness, you know? So there are moments -
GK: It’s in limbo.
AS: Yes, exactly. So this is my thinking, but now the question is how this is perceived by the listener. Because one might say, these are very nice words, but what I hear is “this”. And this is true, because our perception is based on our experiences, so we always go back and look for familiar patterns. So one might say I hear “this”, then “that”, so I can connect them - so where is the liquid identity? But the way I think, is precisely what I explained - something that is in a constant state of changing, maybe becoming, but not becoming.
GK: It’s challenging, because it almost seems for a listener, the way that one would perceive this concept would be in a piece of music where you had spontaneous events, in a capricious sense. So you would perceive that as only completely isolated spontaneous events. But in reality, it seems like what you are trying to explain is actually process music. And so, can you describe how this differs?
AS: I didn’t understand the part of spontaneous events that you mentioned.
GK: I was just saying it as an aside, that it’s interesting because you talk about how someone might perceive this, and how they might not perceive this piece as having a fluid identity, because they can draw the development, so in that sense, there’s that dialectic that is established of the original motif, then the development. So my aside, was it seems like for a listener or a layperson, a piece that would actually elaborate on your theoretical concept, is something where the events of the piece were complete isolated and completely spontaneous, so that one could not, in that sense, actually draw that kind of relationship to them. So it seems that this free, atonal music could be a kind of an example of that. But that was more of a side thought of mine. What I really wanted to know was what differentiates your music then, from process music, which attempts something very similar.
AS: So, one thing about the completely isolated events. Even with the intent of constructing completely isolated events, the listener in the end, is trying to create a narrative. Because this is how we understand things, this is how our cognition works. So I’m not sure if we can really create a new aural experience, which is completely devoid of this. I mean, our perception -
AS: Yes, I think this is partly cultural in the western world.
GK: You don’t have this in gamelan music, for example.
AS: Exactly. Or in Tibetan monks’ singing. There, there is no concept of duality. Dualistic understanding, antithesis, synthesis and all these concepts, are western concepts. So the way we perceive new music too is western. So coming myself from this modernistic, western paradigm, I’m trying to dispute this by examining, 1) pre-modern western music, which is different and 2) non-western musics, like the ones we just mentioned - but not with the intent to recreate these, or just to draw influence from oriental philosophy. This is not my intent. My intent is to go forward, beyond modernity, but I am interested in looking at what happened before modernity, and I use “modernity” in a general sense, as a historical period. What was the other question?
GK: Processes. In relation to processes, when you say you look at pre-modern western music, is this where your relationship with the Ars Antiqua and even earlier music, particular vocal music, comes in to play, because of this particular lack of that kind of dualistic perspective?
AS: Yes. For example, in Medieval western music or eastern music, I mean eastern Roman “Byzantine” music, these concepts don’t exist. I’m sorry - I wanted to fill in before I say that. I also wanted to say, that I am not trying to propose some sort of aleatoric approach either. I write, I don’t leave things to chance.
GK: That’s actually what you said about isolated phenomena too. Looking at something like Cage’s “Freeman Etudes”, which are pieces that are in a determined via chance operations, that’s something that in many ways results in isolated phenomena that we were talking about.
AS: Yes, but even in this, we still try to find a connection to create. It’s partly how our perception works. We cannot completely escape this. But I wanted to say that these also came as a reaction to the over-determinism of serialism and so on, or the case of Xenakis approaching stochasm, and so on. I am not trying to do this. This has been very successfully done by Xenakis and Cage.
GK: Let’s go back to processes. Would you describe your music as process music then?
AS: Partly yes. There are processes. What I’m interested in differentiating is, teleological and a-teleological processes. There are processes that do not lead to a telos, a goal. There is no, in the way I perceive my music, there is no grand narrative. There are just the very localized, small-scale events. There are processes within these events, but they are not teleological. In other words, there is no grand design, which is achieved through these processes.
GK: Let’s move on from the dense questions, because we’ll be here all night if we do that, and ask something lighter, that yields some more general answers. What are you working on now?
AS: Okay. So, now I’m working on my dissertation piece. It is a piece for sinfonietta; I have started writing it, and I find it quite hard because of my self-censorship. I don’t correct myself after writing something, but before. I don’t write it at all. I’m writing in a quite sporadic way, I don’t have a linear process in mind, but there are localized processes. With this piece I am hoping to explore these concepts that we just discussed but for a larger medium, and I am also hoping to explore some new sounds in instruments like the brass section, which I don’t often use.
GK: The composer’s enemy, as I jokingly call it.
AS: Exactly. Percussion too. Which you know, there is so many possibilities with percussion, that you cannot even imagine. So I am trying to find the right sounds to describe these ideas, so this work is still in the beginning and I hope to finish it by August.
GK: Have you written for such a large ensemble before?
AS: No. It is the first time. And I am not writing it in an orchestral style, but more in a chamber style, or solo instruments all together. So it needs time and work.
GK: So do you find, since you’re someone who tends to begin with the idea of what you want to do, rather than begin with the ensemble, then place the ensemble on top of the idea, rather, you’re trying to express the idea effectively through the ensemble. Do you find that working then with a large ensemble has exponentially increased the time in which you have to flesh out the piece, just because of what you were saying in terms of the percussion, and what sounds you’re attempting to achieve? There are just so many options.
AS: Yes. I always start with the idea. But in the music that I write now, I don’t start with a predetermined design. This is what makes writing for me difficult. In the past, I would design things in detail. Of course, I would leave many elements to the creativity of the moment, but all in all there was a very solid background. Now, I have moved from that, and my only plan is to have no plan. I want to go wherever music takes me. I want to… - you know sometimes, I give the example of ancient cities, old cities, and cities which are new, and have been designed. For example in New York, in Manhattan, everything is square.
AS: Yes. If you go here, to Ano Poli, everything is rhizomatic. This result, of roads in Ano Poli, is a result of so many different factors. It’s maybe a result of natural pathways of water, responding to the morphology of the ground. It’s a result of human intervention. It’s a result of conquest perhaps, because you know, “I claim this spot here so I make this road.” So it’s not designed logically. We do not take a grid and apply it. You decide about something along the way, this is what I’m trying to do now. I’m not taking a grid, or another very complex structure, and I impose it on the music. I’m thinking in a mode of…, I use this Greek word, ζητησις. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this term, zetetic, like looking for something.
AS: Yes, seeking. This is what takes time, because I don’t have a map.
GK: Do you have any unrealized projects?
AS: Yes, a lot. There are many pieces which I have started and have never completed.
GK: I feel this is a question for another interview. What do you think about the problem of the economics of music, and its nature as a constraint today?
AS: Economics, you mean financially.
GK: Particularly as someone who has studied in so many environments. You’ve gotten to experience so many fiscal environments in how they relate to music, most recently in the United States, where this issue is sort of front and center in the arts.
AS: So, historically, music has been dependent on a source of funding. In some periods it was a church, in other periods it was wealthy individuals. How do you say this word in English, Maecenas?
AS: Patrons, yes. This guy, Maecenas, this roman guy who was funding the arts. Today it’s institutions, universities, foundations and so on. I think we as composers, have to look into the future - we have to create ways that provide for us. We have to create sources of funding. Of course, we must use what we have now, but we need to take action, because we cannot depend on the state. Here it has very much been state dependent, the arts. In places like the United States, there is a very good system of donations, with tax benefits, that works pretty well, but the problem with this is that you will only have funding for more commercial projects, or projects which are accessible by wider audiences.
GK: Chances are, realistically, these types of projects will only occur in urban centers.
AS: That too. So I think that we ourselves have to create sources of funding for the arts. The arts in general consume money, do not produce much money. In that sense, I often say that something is art if it is useless, (if a condition for something to be art is to be useless) in the sense that, it does not have any utilitarian value. For example, if you use this mug to drink tea, you can sell it, it has utilitarian value. But if you expose it, exhibit it in a museum -
GK: Where you can’t utilize it.
AS: Where you can’t utilize it, then it might become an art object. So since art is consuming money, and in most cases it doesn’t produce - although studies say, that the whole artistic value is translated in the long term into monetary value - we have to create the sources of funding. We have to use technology. We have to take action. We should not just sit and depend on state or private funding.
GK: Are there any young composers you find interesting?
AS: Many. Many composers. I won’t say any names. There are also many I do not find interesting. But this is just personal. I mean, there are several composers who are very well recognized whom I don’t find interesting at all, and others, that literally nobody knows them who, I think, are very interesting.
GK: And my last question is a bit on the heavier side, we don’t have to elaborate. It actually has to do with the impetus for my research here in Greece. When I first met you, we actually met in a group lesson with Marc Andre, in Darmstadt in 2016. And you said something when you were presenting that really struck me, which was that, you believe that specifically in relationship to the financial crisis to 2008, we, not just as artists, but as a society, need to find new ways to express ourselves. And not just new ways and means, but a new lexicon, and a whole new - I’m not sure you can elaborate specifically - and a whole new way of describing the world. And you have utilized the 2008 crisis as a point of this. Can you talk about this? This struck me a bit, one, because of the effects of the 2008 crisis in the United States, but also because of my own background of Greek heritage, and my own interest in researching Greek composers who have been heavily affected by this crisis. I’m curious about this.
AS: So, we are now in the 21st century, but many composers, many artists, think in terms of the 20th century. I mentioned the 2008 crisis, because for me it has been such a huge turning point. But for the American society, perhaps you could mention the 9/11 attack. So the 21st century has arrived, it’s here, it’s very different than the 20th, and you know 2001 and 2008 are not very far apart. The historian of the future will probably group them under the same era, as the early 21st century. So there have been some ongoing social, political, economic changes, which are taking place at an enormous rate of change. If in the ’80’s, you needed to run as fast as possible to stay at the same place, now, even if you run twice as fast as you came, you are left behind.
What I meant with this is, because of all these changes, we need new conceptual tools to address the current state of affairs. In art, in music, but also in society and politics and so on. If we are still thinking, if we are still trying to address the current status quo, which is not status at all, it’s not static, I claim it’s very fluid…. if we are trying to address this with terms of the 20th century, we are making a huge mistake. And I see that very much in Greece, I see it in Europe, and in America of course, things have now taken a different path which is still undefined, we have moved on from traditional politics as we knew it in the 20th century, we have moved on from traditional politics in Europe too, and as with my piece, we don’t know where this will take us, because there is no map - it’s a new paradigm. It’s a paradigm shift. In every century there is an important event that defines the turn of the century. And it might not be in the beginning of the century. We don’t know if this big event has already happened, it might be 9/11, it might be the subsequent 2008 crisis, but it might even be something bigger that has not come yet. So I believe we are in the state of becoming, something new, which we don’t know what it is, we cannot define yet, and this is what my music is about.
Below is an excerpt from Fivos Anogeianakis' (Anoyanakis) seminal work, Greek Popular Music Instruments describing the construction of the laouto (laghouto in his text, attempting to better translate the letter γ). The depth of detail of this section in comparison to the other instrument families (with the exception of tsambouna, perhaps) is interesting to note. Furthermore, I am interested in this largely historical depiction of laouto construction for its parallels (and differences) to modern (and historically-informed methods) of Renaissance lute construction. I am posting this as a resource to laouto players and lutenists alike (and luthiers, of course - although I don't know how many of those check out my website), particularly as they tend to be most interested in the construction of and ultimately the playability of their instruments. Furthermore, this resource is expensive and hard to find outside of Greece, and I will be responding to it in its entirety over the coming months as part of my own research.
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Featured on the NY Times and Wall Street Journal today: "Young Composer Makes an Awful Decision."
I too like to let my listeners draw their own conclusions. But I also don't quote Nazi anthems. Read the official NYYS statement on the removal of the work, highlighting the composer's lack of willingness to simply justify the presence of the material (which would have mitigated this fiasco).