Tag Archives: organ

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.

Gassiou_Skyllas

Dimitrios Skyllas with organist Ourania Gassiou

The world premiere of EARTH MINUS took place on Sunday, September 27th at the Westminster Abbey, where London-based organist Ourania Gassiou performed 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.

Haarlem’s musical treasure

The cathedral

Just a 15-minute train ride from boisterous and cosmopolitan Amsterdam lies the charming city of Haarlem (which incidentally gave its name to Nieuw Haarlem in the northern part of Manhattan Island back in 1658). Its skyline has been dominated by the imposing Grote Kerk (or Sint-Bavokerk) cathedral, a Protestant church situated on the city’s central market square.

The organ

The organ situated inside the church (known as the Christiaan Müller organ) is considered as one of the world’s most important organs. Built by the Amsterdam organ builder Christian Müller between 1735 and 1738, it was the largest organ in the world by the time of its completion with 60 voices and 32-feet pedal-towers.

Such has been the instrument’s reputation that even Herman Melville mentioned it in his classic novel Moby-Dick (1851) when describing the inside of a whale’s mouth:

“Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes”

Many important musicians and composers have played the Christiaan Müller organ over the centuries including Mendelssohn, Händel, as well as the 10-year old Mozart who visited Haarlem in 1766 in order to play the renowned organ.

The concerts

Having been modified a number of times over the course of the past centuries, the organ underwent a major renovation between 1959 and 1961. Today regular organ concerts together with several special events are being held in the Grote Kerk in order to give the opportunity to the public to listen to the unique sound of this celebrated organ.

Although I have visited Haarlem in the past, it was only recently that I had the chance to attend one of these concerts. Listening to the sound of this spectacular instrument filling up the vast space of the cathedral’s interior was quite a special experience. And it was only made possible through the masterful  playing of Haarlem’s city ​​organists Jos van der Kooy and Anton Pauw, who treated the audience to an excellent program including works by J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Max Reger, and Hendrik Andriessen.

Ray Manzarek on the intro of “Light My Fire”

Ray Manzarek explaining how the introduction for “Light My Fire” came to life.  The background music is Invention No. 8, BWV 779 by Johann Sebastian Bach, which served as an inspiration for Manzarek.

The song’s distinctive organ intro has been characterized as “one of the most recognizable sounds in the history of rock music”.

Ray Manzarek (1939-2013)

In Ray’s words: “It just came out of, you know, fifteen or twenty years of music practice”.