Classical Connections: It’s all Greek to me


Well, I don’t know whether you’ve noticed but today, Friday 25th March is Greek Independence Day, a national holiday commemorating the start of the War of Greek Independence in 1821.  It’s a day of food, drink, dance and music.  I came across Greek folk music as a college student because a friend had somehow acquired a collection of Eastern European music tapes.  And what wonderful music it was!  Greek dances are often set to complex time signatures which gives them an enticing lilt and invariably a sense of the musically unexpected.

Sadly, at school we kids never had the chance to learn Greek.  The only classical language on the curriculum was Latin and everyone had to study it for a year or two, learning sentences like “The soldiers have laid waste the farmers’ fields” and similar useful everyday expressions.

Iannis Xenakis.

Try to think of Greek classical composers and you’ll probably come up with precious few.  Mikis Theodorakis of Zorba the Greek fame is one of the best-known but few people realise that he’s also written over a thousand songs, five operas, seven symphonies as well as a vast amount of other works.  It’s a pity we don’t hear more of his music.  Dimitri Mitropoulos is better known as a conductor but was also a composer while Vangelis Papathanassiou – who understandably goes by his first name – has carved a niche for himself in more popular musical styles.

Most classical music listeners will recall the names Nikos Skalkottas and Iannis Xenakis though neither of them is heard much these days.  Skalkottas was a prolific composer though his austere post-Schoenberg musical style won him few admirers in the Greek musical establishment.  A few of his more approachable works were tonal in nature and surprisingly attractive, like this one for instance.

Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949): Five Greek Dances for String Orchestra. Camerata Aragón dir. Rolando Prusak (Duration: 19:03; Video 480p)

There are actually thirty-six of these short Greek dances and this performance includes five of them.  You can’t miss the distinctive Eastern European flavours that pervade this lively music.

The first dance Epirotikos has Hungarian overtones and shades of Bartók with percussive, insistent rhythms and brilliant string writing.  The remaining dances are characterized by incisive spiky rhythms, contrasted with quieter reflective passages.  The fourth dance Arkadikos is romantic in outlook with lovely folk-like melodies.  The final dance whirls along with some brilliant playing from this fine Spanish ensemble, actually the chamber orchestra of the Aragón Music Conservatoire.

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001): Terretektorh for Orchestra. Radio Orchestra of Hessischer Rundfunk cond. Matthias Pintscher (Duration: 17:18; Video 720p HD)

This is a work that you’ll probably either find exhilarating and aesthetically stimulating, or you will hate it.  Iannis Xenakis (YAH-nis zeh-NAH-kis) was not known for catchy melodies and foot-tapping rhythms because he had more serious things on his mind.  His background in architecture and advanced mathematics gave him the incentive to explore new territories in time and space and in this music you may even notice echoes of Messiaen and Varèse.

Xenakis delights in creating his own sound-world and in a sense this work, though music it certainly is, takes us far away from the conventional conceptions of music.  It dates from 1966, and the members of the audience are placed among the orchestra.  As a result, there’s no clear divide between the eighty-eight performers and the audience: the psychological barrier between audience and performers has been removed.  The orchestral players are required to double on percussion instruments such as the maracas, the wood-block, the whip (two pieces of wood slapped together) and a siren whistle.

The first single note on the viola moves from instrument to instrument around the performance area and the work is built up by creating contrasting textures.  The composer wrote that “the speeds and accelerations of the movement of the sounds will be realized including logarithmic or Archimedean spirals in time and geometrically creating ordered or disordered sonorous masses”.  This seems to mean that if you can produce a large enough number of sounds and make them occur slightly out of sync with each other on different instruments in different positions the overall effect is like clouds of sound moving around.  Xenakis created elaborate diagrams to indicate how the instruments of the orchestra were to be arranged and although his technical description might seem a bit opaque, the music has a raw visceral energy which is quite thrilling to experience.

You need the best audio system available to get an idea of how this work might sound in a live performance.  Even a top-quality stereo system is not enough because the music is ambiophonic in that the sounds come from all directions.  The best way to hear this work is to turn off the video and listen to it in total darkness but don’t blame me if the experience completely freaks you out.