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“Thoughts on culture and Europe” series: Exclusive interview with Eleni Karaindrou


Eleni Karaindrou
Does art or music have a subversive dimension? If so, in what way?

Ε.Κ. Art is in itself subversive. It not only embraces things and takes them with it but also subverts them. However, it is somewhat difficult for this aspect of art to be brought out. It would be an exaggeration to say that there have been revolutions where art was used as a weapon, but through art people can participate in the affairs of society, in a pioneering or even “revolutionary” way. Although I am not a fan of definitions, we should, first of all, clarify what art is.

I shall make an attempt: art is the expression of the artist and also the expression of the artist’s time through his art. That’s how the artist helps his time move forward. Art contributes to the political process of a society and does so without any need for labels of any kind. The artist is the mirror of his time which yearns for better days. Even if art expresses something dark, melancholic or pessimistic, it does so in order to exorcise it. Nowadays, as well as in the past, artists are the vehicles of a time that allows little optimism. We thus encounter many works which express this situation: the lack of hope and light. The fact that art is able to express those emotions means that it can also redeem them. In this respect I could give two good examples: Arvo Pärt’s work and Christian Frey’s documentary War Photographer, which was nominated for an Oscar. These works focus on man’s exile within his own time. They are works that truly awaken the conscience. A work of its time is both arousing and subversive in nature.

You referred to the redeeming and rousing capacity of art. Aren’t these two concepts potentially conflicting?

Ε.Κ. In my opinion, redemption and awakening are synonymous. When I speak of redemption, I’m not referring to its religious sense, of relaxation or contemplation, but to a dynamic freedom, meaning that I place myself in my time, even though this might cost me dearly. I am a person of my time and I don’t hide in a glass sphere of romanticism. Redemption means that I learn the truth, that I come face to face with it. One effect of redemption may be to rise and take to the streets. Great art can generate such a feeling without being committed to a particular cause.

Commitment in this sense is an easy road which personally I would never take. I always preferred the hard way. If you commit yourself to a cause, you give a different dimension to your work and to your soul, and other people see you differently from what you really are.

So you believe it is a positive development that committed art appears to be disappearing?

Ε.Κ. No, I don’t want to label anything. To say that “committed art appears to be … or should …” is simply reiterating the words of others. I always speak for myself, without ever claiming to be infallible. I just speak about how I see things. I analyse the life of an artist who lives and moves among us, and also how he sees things.

Your music does accompany the images. It helps the image acquire a transcendent dimension and escape from the specific place in which it unfolds.

E.K. I never do anything on the basis of pre-planning or a particular system. In retrospect, I could say that music really does escape from specific places; it expresses things that cannot be stated in the image. We could also say it has a contrapuntal relationship with the image. There is something unsaid in the image, which may be searching for what I persistently seek. I cannot find this in the image; I find it in the idea…

As regards the way you work, I can’t imagine you first looking at the images of the film and then writing music based on them.

E.K. I shall make an inflammatory statement: I don’t believe I am a soundtrack musician. I don’t make music in an orthodox way and I am not interested in doing this professionally. I write my music based on ideas that shake me. These ideas could be the basic outline of a movie by Theo Angelopoulos. On many occasions, I write the music even before shooting begins. I prefer Theodoros to tell me what he is thinking or read to me what he has written. Then, I try to hear the deeper things which led him to create a film. I observe the way he reads, the way he stresses words, the way he pauses… All these elements constitute music and a semiotic blend of feelings, thoughts and ideas which converge in the vision of Angelopoulos. For example, the idea behind the film Ulysses’ gaze is the pursuit of humanity’s lost innocence. In order to touch this idea, I had to rely on something abstract, which I had to look for inside myself. I could not just draw on forms and knowledge that I have acquired.

The artist leaves all his baggage at the doorstep of his inspiration and continues with a clean slate. If you don’t do this, all you are left with is a patchwork of memories and knowledge. You will end up making descriptive music. The film directors with whom I have worked weren’t looking for this. My music is not based on images; it is deeply linked to what the images create inside me; it is a kind of self-knowledge. There are seven notes and the musician will each time combine them in some way. A composer is not simply someone who knows music or knows how to put one note after the other. A composer is someone who leaves his baggage behind and recomposes the available material in a primary way. What guides him is unknown. Each time I write music I am not sure I’ll be able to do it again. My music has to do with the stimuli I receive each time and with my ability to respond to those stimuli.

Do you feel strange when your music is performed without the image with which it is associated, as will be the case at the Brussels Opera Theatre concert on 24 March?

E.K. No, because this has happened so many times. The first time, at a concert at the Herodes Atticus Theatre in 1988, I too had been curious about this. I composed material from music I had written for films and the theatre and I didn’t know whether it was going to create any response. But at that concert, something happened which demonstrated that my music is autonomous. The question is whether music composed for the cinema is autonomous. Music composed in the orthodox, professional way for the cinema will be boring. However, great composers of our time have been motivated by the cinema to write important works and also to develop a new musical idiom. I cannot imagine a Nino Rota concert not failing to satisfy even the most demanding audience. It is simply music. This is exactly what I want to be, simply a musician. Gradually, I wish to devote more time to composing for myself and to concerts.

I have not made a profession out of the cinema. I want to keep my relationship with the cinema on an erotic note. I want it to be a secret conversation between myself and the other creator. Angelopoulos inspires me and I express myself in parallel to him. He often choreographs scenes to my music. The theme from Ulysses’ Gaze lasts seventeen and a half minutes; the whole of it could never go into a film whole. But Theodoros has the talent to take musical units and fit them into the film to the point where I can always sense what is going to happen. The entire chemistry is in the moment the image becomes one with the music and the music brings to the surface what cannot be said by the image.

Angelopoulos’ films narrate an alternative history of Greece, in a way that refutes the orthodox version as reproduced by the national education system. How does your music contribute to this process?

E.K. Like any true artist, Angelopoulos sheds light on history in his own special way. I share with Theodoros an ideological and aesthetic affinity. The way he reads history is recognisable and familiar to me. It is as if this world was expecting me. When I was seeking music for the Beekeeper I came up with the arbitrary idea of using a saxophone to put across the sound of the Greece that carries the wounds and memories of its history.

On this point I disagreed with Angelopoulos. I explained to him that the saxophone is not jazz or free jazz. The saxophone is simply a role. It can give something Greek, in the same way that Mastroianni plays the role of a teacher in a Greek province. Of course, I did not want to use just any saxophone, but one particular saxophone: that of Jan Garbarek. When I listened to his record Places I felt an affinity with him. He was more Balkan than anyone I had ever heard.

There is something happening at the concert which is perhaps something of a paradox. It will be accompanied by a video art show by Vouvoula Skoura, created especially for this event and inspired by your music.

E.K. This is not a reverse process of what I would do for the cinema. It is a coexistence of two artists, a beautiful game, a challenge. Vouvoula’s video art show is not an effort to describe or interpret music. It is a minimalist piece inspired by my music and that makes no attempt to replace a film. I would say it is something supplementary to my music. It will be interesting for me to see what I can evoke. It is like an experiment.

You compose mostly symphonic music. Aren’t you interested in combining music with words?

E.K. I taste and enjoy the musical dimension of words. I don’t see however why I should involve them with music per se. I try to write musical sounds that do not bind and are not bound by anyone. What makes me freer is music because it is a language without frontiers. My imagination sails on seas of freedom when I deal with pure and simple sounds. Poetry has its own autonomous music; it is self-sufficient. It does not need music to be brought out.

In your opinion, why is there so much fear about the role of technology in art? Is it seen as something that can deprive art of its genuineness?

E.K. A musician’s aim is not to replace all natural sounds with artificial ones. Certainly, in some cases artificial sounds can be useful to the musician. When I was writing music for Rosa I turned to such sounds. I wanted to give something frozen; something from which the human element was absent. This feeling, as a musical result, was better achieved through a synthetic sound, from which the breath and pulse of the physical body are absent.

I am particularly interested in the immense potential of natural sounds. With the synthesiser you keep coming back to the same sound. On the other hand, the cellist or the contrabassist never produce the same sound twice. The music they play is different each time, depending on the feeling, the pressure, the movement, and also what rises from within and is transmitted to the instrument. This uniqueness cannot be replaced by technology. Certainly, there are ardent supporters of technology that never crossed over to the other side; they have never penetrated the world of music. They push a button, program the machine and believe they are composers… this is deception.

Of course, technology helps musicians save a lot of time… in writing, in organising scores. Once, I wasted many hours copying scores for the State Orchestra… technology has rescued us from that sort of drudgery.

You spoke before about music as an art without frontiers. Aren’t frontiers required sometimes, either in order to protect something that is in danger of being swallowed up, or in order to be able to define something? Is there a risk that the effort to define a European culture could create new frontiers?

E.K. Are we talking about frontiers or limits? Frontiers are a fact, something that have been built. Sounds are an international language. By choosing music I have chosen a universal language. Going beyond frontiers is also a fact. This does not mean there are no particularities. The sounds that map Ireland are different to Greece’s. This does not mean that there are no particularities even within a country such as Greece: Crete’s sound geography differs from that of the Ionian Islands. However, moments of communion, moments of Dionysian celebration find common ground in the dance music of the north and the south.

I am Greek and I conduct an orchestra that belongs to the tradition of artistic Western music. However, through music it is possible to spread my country’s scent and make it comprehensible and acceptable worldwide.

Europe does not need to dig in. A cultured Turk, Arab or American has already received the flower of European tradition and spirit.

How would you compose or write something that could be called “European”?

E.K. I would do nothing more or less than I already do. I would be myself. Whatever I write is in advance “European”. I move within the tradition of Western music.

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