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.
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.
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.
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.