Greek lament meets avant-garde at the Westminster Abbey

The composer

Born in 1987 in Volos, Greece, Dimitrios Skyllas started playing the piano at an early age and went on to study musicology and piano performance at the University of Kingston, London. He has also studied composition and aesthetics at the University of Edinburgh, and holds a second postgraduate degree in composition from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.

Greek composer Dimitrios Skyllas Photo: Luca Bonatti

Greek composer Dimitrios Skyllas
Photo: Luca Bonatti

Currently based in London, Skyllas is a collaborator (composer in residence) with KYKLOS ENSEMBLE and also performs as a solo pianist next to his compositional and teaching activities.

Earlier this year, the composer’s popularity saw a sharp rise following a successful performance of his piece GRIEF GESTURES by KYKLOS ENSEMBLE in Athens. The work, originally premiered on May 26th 2012 and based on traditional laments from the region of Epirus, was particularly inspired by Greek clarinetist Petroloukas Chalkias, one of the greatest exponents of the Epirotic clarinet tradition.

The premiere

For his new organ piece EARTH MINUS, laments of Epirus (such as “Siko Mariola”) served once again as a source of inspiration for Skyllas, together with two artists who have deeply influenced and enriched his creative viewpoint: Icelandic songwriter Björk and American video artist Bill Viola.


Dimitrios Skyllas with organist Ourania Gassiou

The world premiere of EARTH MINUS is taking place on Sunday, September 27th at the Westminster Abbey in London, where London-based organist Ourania Gassiou will be performing the organ piece together with works by Johannes Brahms and Pierre Cochereau.

“I met Ourania a few months ago and she showed true interest in the fact that I composed an Epirus lament, especially because she is originally from that area of Greece! After a few discussions, she asked me if I would be interested in composing a lament for organ to be presented at the Westminster Abbey”, says Skyllas, who gladly took on the challenge. “I feel privileged to have met Ourania; she is an extraordinary musician, and I hope we keep our collaboration for future projects. I feel that my piece is absolutely ‘safe’ in her hands!”

From Epirus to the world

As to the influence Greek traditional music has had upon his work, Skyllas explains: “When I started composing, I wanted to prove that I can become what we usually call a ‘European avant-garde composer’ without realising that I was actually much closer to the musical tradition of my country. Our tradition is like our mother tongue: we might choose to speak another language, however we cannot and probably shouldn’t try to escape or ignore it.”

He goes on to analyse his fascination with laments in particular: “I started to become interested in the laments from Epirus because inside their sound I discovered some qualities that expressed in depth my emotional stages. In musical terms, the lament is characterized by quite a distinctive sound, the simplicity of the melodic lines, the dialogue between the instruments, the pedal notes that allow space for improvisation, the pulse and atmosphere of its ritual. Besides, it is music about death… and my own obsession with Death and Time was certainly an important parameter.”

“Our tradition is like our mother tongue: we might choose to speak another language, however we cannot and probably shouldn’t try to escape or ignore it”

Epirus is well-known for its folk songs, polyphonic tradition, and highly virtuosic instrumentalists, while its music has managed to attract international attention in large part due to the unique expressivity and emotional depth of its traditional laments – an expression of the universal practice of dealing with grief through musical means.

The fact that elements of this rich tradition are being incorporated into avant-garde compositions by a young contemporary composer with popular appeal is indeed remarkable. And certainly hopeful, since it helps highlight the unity and continuity of music regardless of labels, as Skyllas’s 21st-century laments so tellingly demonstrate.

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A week at the music village

The village

Besides being the home of the mythical centaurs, Pelion is widely considered one of the most beautiful Greek mountains. It is known for its unique combination of thick forests, hiking trails, natural springs, streams, gorges and amazing beaches, making it a highly popular attraction all year round.

Perhaps not as well-known is the annual “Music Village” event which takes place every August in Agios Lavrentios, a small village situated at an altitude of 600 metres on Pelion’s southern slopes. A place that seems untouched by the passing of time, Agios Lavrentios captivates you instantly with its traditional Pelian architecture, intricate web of cobblestone alleys, and fascinating vistas of the surrounding landscape.

Moreover, thanks to its natural location and the total absence of motor vehicles, it is marked by a special ambience of serenity that invites you to wind down and enjoy the overflowing tranquility. Until the festivities begin, that is.

The music

This year marked the 10th consecutive edition of the Music Village, adding a festive flavor to the event’s already celebratory and Dionysian nature. A combination of daily workshops, organized events and performances, as well as spontaneous jams and all sorts of music-related happenings, the festival takes on a dynamic character that transforms the whole village into a vivid, pulsating arena of continuous artistic activity.

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Throughout the two periods of the Music Village, the various instructors, students, visitors and even village residents all participate in a prolonged musical feast, where learning from one another and enjoying music all together becomes a daily routine.

Every morning I would walk down to the central square of Agios Lavrentios, where the sound of violins in unison would slowly wake me up over a cup of coffee. After tuning in to the village sounds (the murmuring of purling water, a clarinet playing from inside a nearby building), I would move towards the court of St. Athanasios Church (dating from 1777) where our instructor and master percussionist Kostas Anastasiadis would talk to us about the harmony of rhythm.

The rhythm of nature

Listening to Kostas and learning from such a great musician was a privilege: over a period of just a few days, he was able to initiate us into the world of Indian polyrhythmic techniques (some of the new words I learned include tihai and chakradhar), analyze complicated rhythmic patterns and show us how to best tackle them, and -perhaps most importantly- share some of his insights into the philosophy of music and how to become a better musician not by mindless practicing but by listening to the others and help them sound and perform better. For music is not just notes on paper, but the interaction between players, the spontaneous response of the performer to the stimuli he receives from his bandmates and the audience.

Finally, I shall never forget how he kept time to the singing of the nightingale, thus demonstrating that nature is really the most perfect metronome of them all. Machines, after all, are only around for a few hundred years, while nature has been singing long before man started to imitate her…

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The new old sound of Greek folk rock

Into the forest

In a beautiful green setting just a couple of hours away from the hustle and bustle of Athens, a unique get together of different people, sounds, and musical styles took place around mid-August in the 4th edition of the Arvanitsa Music Forest Festival.

Nestled inside a lush landscape, the stage was surrounded by tall green firs, its powerful projectors and strong lights bringing forth a symbolism that run throughout the festival: the convergence of old and new, traditional and modern, urban and rural.


The stage lights vanishing into the night sky above the forest in Arvanitsa

The music of uprooting

Intensified and increasingly relevant due to the ongoing socio-economic crisis in Greece, the theme of emigration and resettling was recurrent in the performances of several artists who treated it both as a vehicle for artistic expression and socio-political commentary.

A case in point is Hamayun and Wakar by Greek songwriter Thanassis Papakonstantinou. The song relates the tragic story of Hamayun Anwar and Wakar Ahmed, two young men from Pakistan who lost their lives in 2012 while trying to save an elderly Greek couple that was trapped on rail tracks.

Another highlight included the electrifying renditions of popular folk tunes by Villagers of Ioannina City (aka VIC), a Greek band that brings together folk influences with post, stoner and psychedelic rock elements. Songs such as Jiannim or Chalasia combine skilfully the traditional form and emotional undertones of Greek folk song with a contemporary sound and orchestration, thus reaching out to audiences that would otherwise have little or no interest in folk music.

Old folk, new folks

The amplified sound of clarinets, lutes and lyres next to resounding guitars, electric bass and thundering drumming. Familiar lyrics and popular tunes sung again in different ways, performed through different mediums, and heard again through different ears.

This happens when city folks gather in the forest to play, listen and sing to the the new old sound of Greek folk rock music.

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Vivaldi, jazz and the Greek summer

It is common to associate certain songs, albums or artists with the occasion and the place where we first listened to them. This is especially true when the first hearing is linked to a place of exceptional beauty, which stays forever intertwined with the tune/artist in question.

I have such a memory from some distant summer holidays in the small island of Elafonisos, just off the Southern coast of Peloponnese in Greece. Known for its sandy beaches and blue-green waters, Elafonisos is an ideal place to wind down and tune in your body and soul with the beautiful, serene scenery.

Elafonisos, Greece

Every day we would walk up to a small beach bar for a snack, casual talk and enjoy the splendid surroundings. To top it all off, there was almost always some intriguing music coming from the bar’s speakers that seemed to blend perfectly with the surrounding space.

One time, while I was enjoying the most delicious karydópita (pecan pie) with fresh vanilla ice cream I have ever tasted, I decided to walk up and ask the bartender/cook/DJ what was the tune we were listening to.

I could tell it was some sort of jazz adaptation of Vivaldi, but I had never heard something like it before. He wrote down the name of the artist on a piece of paper and handed over to me (back then there was no mobile phones, let alone Wi-Fi). The note read Jacques Loussier”.

That’s how I was introduced to the wonderful world of the Jacques Loussier Trio and their magnificent renditions of classical music (from Bach and Vivaldi to Chopin and Debussy).

To this day, when I listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ played by Loussier’s jazzy piano trio, my mind flies instantly toward the Greek summer – the most beautiful season of all.

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor & Xylouris White in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

It was one of those gigs where everything sounded just right. Already from the opening act, the -crowded- main hall of Amsterdam’s Paradiso was filled with music of both otherworldly beauty and great intensity.

The dynamic duo Xylouris White (consisting of Cretan lute player and singer Giorgos Xylouris and Australian drummer Jim White) set the tone for the rest of the evening. An exemplary blend where tradition meets innovative forms and improvisational mood, the duo’s musical explorations took the audience on a journey from the Greek island of Crete all the way to Australia and New York.

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A real master of his instrument, Giorgos Xylouris comes from a celebrated musical family (his father is the Cretan singer and lyra player Psarantonis, and his late uncle was the legendary singer Nikos Xylouris). His virtuosity combined with White’s exceptional skill in complementing and conversing with his partner’s playing resulted in a technically demanding performance delivered with passion and rigor.

Following Xylouris White, the Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor took the stage to perform songs from their latest album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. Using film loop projections to accompany their performance (as is customary in their live shows), the band created a unique atmosphere and went on to give a truly memorable show.

As is often the case when post-rock is at its best (think of Moqwai or Sigur Rós), the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor invites the listener to partake both mentally and physically in the live experience. This is made possible by the wide range of dynamics and extensive build-ups that create the necessary space for this kind of engagement, leading to powerful peaks and climaxes.

It is perhaps this quality of total absorption that lies in the heart of this music’s beauty and mystery – leading to a sense of deep satisfaction for both mind and ears.

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Thanasis Papakonstantinou in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

Who’s that again?

Born in 1959, Thanasis Papakonstantinou slowly emerged in the Greek music scene around the early 1990s. Influenced by folk and world music, he progressively developed his own style incorporating jazz, rock and electronic elements. This fusion has led to the creation of a unique and highly distinctive sound, establishing him as one of today’s most original Greek songwriters.

The prophet’s (hoarse) voice

The release of the album Vrachnos Profitis (‘Hoarse Prophet’) in 2000 was a turning point for Papakonstantinou’s career as a songwriter. Throughout the following years he turned increasingly experimental with regards to the production and orchestration of his records. Meanwhile, collaborating with major Greek musicians and singers has enabled him to enrich his sound and complement his own hoarse voice and limited vocal range.

His efforts have yielded some truly remarkable results, as testified by the aesthetic and artistic merits of albums like Agrypnia (‘Vigil’, 2002), O elachistos eaftos (‘The Minimal Self’, 2011), or his latest release Prosklisi se Deipno Kianiou (‘Invitation to Cyanide Dinner’, 2014).

Vigil in Amsterdam

Next to his low profile, modest media presence, and unpretentious nature, Thanasis is characterized by his relaxed stage presence and direct communication with his audience during his live performances.

This was also the case during his recent gig at Amsterdam’s Paradiso, which went on to last for more than 2 hours after an atmospheric opening with the highly evocative Agrypnia.

Shortly after the gig was over, Thanasis came down from the stage and performed a song by Greek composer Markos Vamvakaris (known as the “patriarch of the rebetiko”) to a small group of people that gathered around him to listen.

It was an intimate closing to a long evening full of enthusiasm, emotion and great music.

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How a -great- record taught me an important life lesson

I first listened to it some years ago, not exactly sure when or where anymore. But I fell in love with it instantly, from the first hearing. I knew immediately that this was a record I could listen to again and again, without ever getting tired of it.

And so it happened. To this day, Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert remains one my favorite albums; not just as far as jazz is concerned, but from any music genre. 

What I didn’t know until recently is the fascinating story behind the making of this remarkable record.

Jarrett had originally requested a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano for his performance at Cologne’s Opera House. However, when he arrived at the venue (tired from not sleeping well in several nights and in pain from back problems), he was in for a surprise: due to some confusion by the opera house staff a different, much smaller baby grand piano was waiting for him instead.

Although the instrument was in quite poor condition (thin in the upper registers, weak in the bass register, the pedals not working properly), Jarrett eventually decided to go on with the concert. And in spite -or rather, because- of the adverse circumstances, he delivered an inspiring performance that later went on to become the best selling piano album of all times.

Köln was different because there was just so many negative things in a row”

Keith Jarrett

As producer Manfred Eicher, who recorded the performance, has commented on Jarrett’s magnificent playing: “Probably he played it the way it sounds now because it was not a good piano. Because he could not fall in love with the instrument, he found another way to get the most out of it.”

I think the way Jarrett managed to create something so beautiful under such unlikely circumstances can be seen as a valuable lesson – not just for pianists, jazz musicians or improvisers but for all of us. No matter how hard or unfavorable the conditions, one can always manage to make the best out of a situation. And, furthermore, even excel exactly because of the obstacles presented to him or her.

Something to ponder on next time you happen to listen to Jarrett’s inspired and seemingly effortless improvisation…

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