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Interview with Thanos Chrysakis

img  Tobias Fischer

To Thanos Chrysakis, there can be no art without uncertainties, without risk, without commitment. Or, as he puts it himself in his official biography: "Something must be staked, something must be ventured". His music infallibly does. Over the course of the past two decades, Chrysakis has explored the tangents between timbral transformation and thematic development, making use of both traditional acoustic instruments and electronic means, of composition and improvisation, of the familiar and the unknown. Examples for this approach in his body of work are plentiful, ranging from the majestic twelve and a half minute long electro-acoustic fantasy "Eknepsis II" to the engaging stream-of-consciousness-trialogues captured on recent collaborative release Garnet Skein. The constant tightrope walk between genres and categories has resulted in a fascinatingly diverse discography and entries on imprints such as experimental sound art platform Test Tube (Errant Waves), pioneering micro-sound- and sound-art-netlabel Con-V (Inscapes) or electronic music label Monochrome Vision (Magma). Since 2007, however, he has mostly chosen to publish his oeuvre through Aural Terrains, which Chrysakis refers to as a 'milieu', and which is, as he's put it in an earlier interview with this site, part of a wider artistic vision "that motivates and generates collaborations,  performances, and releases". Being in control of his music from beginning to end has allowed him to avoid compromise and focus entirely on the transformative potentials of sound. As such, his compositions can be understood as an offer for engagement, for participation and leaving impressions that extend beyond the concert situation. Music can really change our lives for the better, according to Chrysakis – at least, if the audience is willing to follow in his footsteps, to venture and put something at stake, too.

One of the things that make your work stand out is how naturally it bridges and oscillates between the worlds of improvisation and composition. With regards to your natural interest in both aspects, why do you feel, is there still such a divide between listeners of contemporary composition, sound art, electro-acoustic music and improv? Although listening habits are converging, there nonetheless remain borders and prejudices which should long have become obsolete on paper. 
The divide, —as you say— between the listeners of the areas that you’ve  just mentioned, in a certain sense, exists. It’s kind of rare that concert goers of the above areas mix together in a consistent manner —except occasionally— as listening is heavily codified. Perhaps, the mainstream mentality of segregating and dividing everything in safe marketable boxes and genres, seems to have a grip on the adventurous side of music as well. I would also say, that usually the listeners themselves play this “game” of segregation consciously or unconsciously. We can also add to the mix a certain amount of pretense and competitive attitude that prevail in our narcissistic culture. I guess, when listeners are kind of just consumers of sound (it’s not uncommon these days), they either swallow everything and anything in a voracious, consumerist way, or just create a listening zone that they are comfortable with —and that’s it!

But since music is an experience that has to be lived — even the recorded music — it means that it contains the unknown, it is a potential peripeteia with the ability of transforming us — if we allow it to. In that sense, listening becomes what actually is: It is an activity, it is praxis. And in that way, music is more than sound as sound. It goes beyond listening and it’s only then that it actually becomes a transformative experience. Music then starts listening to us!

Of course, no one can follow the above areas with an exact and equal interest for all. But what's important is an aspect of genuine curiosity, mixed with respect and unselfish appreciation of the music itself. I’m sure there are inquisitive listeners with these qualities out there. Sometimes, it happens that they are musicians themselves. I remember attending a Francisco López concert at ICA back in 2003, and seeing, in the audience, the composer Jonathan Harvey. Jonathan Harvey with a blindfold! And on another occasion, in a concert of Luigi Nono’s music like "...sofferte onde serene..." and "A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida" at QEH in 2007, the excellent improviser John Butcher was in the audience! 


At least formally, you still seem to be making a distinction between composition and improvisation. Tell me about the way the two combine to shape your own language, please?
Certainly, I make a distinction, because they are indeed distinct practices themselves, even if they overlap in certain ways. I used to view them more closely connected in the past, but as I’m getting more involved and engaged in both of them, I’m sure they are not the same. 

To begin with, improvisation is mainly a performance art-form, this is how I see it. It’s about making music in the moment, through the activity of playing. Its aim is not to create a finished and polished composed piece of music that someone can repeat in performance, but to engage in a genuine dialogue. In other words, setting the conditions of a continuous feedback loop between the players. At its best, improvisation is a really concentrated and focused activity that works with the unexpected, the unforeseen and the immediate.
The kind of improvisation that I’ve got in mind creates a heightened sense of listening between the performers themselves, and the surrounding sounding environment. It’s not about being novel all the time —or for the sake of it— it’s about being present and concentrated while playing, absorbed in the becoming of the music. What I find really genuine about improvisation is a transparent aspect of tacit knowledge that is involved in many levels. In an improvised session, you’ve got a tacit awareness of what is happening at this particular present moment, but also an awareness of the overall shape of the music and its trajectory as well being perceptive of the sensation that permeates the performance place. I find all these aspects of improvisation intriguing, fertile and thought-provoking for my own artistic practice.

Now, talking about composition, Morton Feldman once said that he used ‘concentration as a guide’ for his music, and in that sense, composing is a kind of performative act. I find this a rather subtle and refined thought, and closely relevant to my practice in composition, both in notated and electronic music. It has also been said in the past, that composition is the ‘art of transition’. And transition in music is closely connected with questions about form and shaping —primarily— sound and time. In improvisation, form has an emergent quality as it usually comes through an interaction between more than one participants. As I’m interested in thinking about this emergent, instantaneous quality of form and shaping, also in composition, there is an overlap and exchange of insights between the two practices regarding the aspects of ‘transition’, ‘structuring’ and ‘form’. When form does not appear as if it was imposed into the music but happens as if it was actually emerged, then music becomes a living entity. Even sudden changes can have this emergent quality, even in a kind of moment-form. It comes from being really involved and perceptive with ones materials.
Composing for me is a matter of how to infuse with creative energy someone’s chosen material so that sound reveals itself, not only as sound, but as spirit. It is how another dimension of ourselves and the world around us can be reached through sound. If this sounds kind of lofty, let it be, as there aren’t other words for it! 

Ultimately someone works to be surprised as Paul Valéry once nicely said.


In which way has the mere existence and possibility of electronic means changed composition in general, do you feel – and how has it changed your approach in particular?
The appearance of electronic instruments —hardware and software— with the addition of recorded-sound directed composition —primarily— to a more immediate level in which the composer is also the performer of his work.  Composing with colour, nuances, texture, other types of gesture, in short with the microscopic and macroscopic dimensions of sound, became more apparent with electronic music. It appears also that as we were coming more and more closer to the aural with these electronic means, at the same time composing came —in some ways—  closer to practices like painting or sculpting for example in their immediacy and perceptive attitude with one’s materials. I see this as a fascinating paradox. It’s also evident and well-known that the adventure of electronic music (live and in the studio) has influenced in many aspects the course of instrumental music, and how we think about material and form as well as bringing forward other kinds of forms in music making.

Personally, my overall approach changed in several ways: sound obtained an interior life itself and the realization that I’m interested primarily in its elusive quality. Also, the immediacy and intimacy of working with electronic instruments and sound itself, makes possible a form that comes forward as if it occurred in a natural way. It’s this suggestiveness, ambiguity, this abstract plasticity in which a particular and special state of sound can be achieved as a mixture of the external environment and states of mind, internal worlds.


What has the dimension of sound, particularly electronic sound, added in terms of the age-old tension between timbre and composition?
I would say that the apparitional quality of music becomes more explicit once someone pays attention to timbre and allows texture, colour, nuance, transitory and fragile acoustic phenomena to become components of the overall form. Since we started thinking in terms of sounds rather than only notes we became more aware that nearly all sounds exhibit timbre and pitch height, but not all of them a clear sense of pitch. With electronic sound it became apparent sense that sound itself could be transformed and composed even before the actual composing process.
Speaking about timbre, it’s a strange uncertain world indeed that cannot be systematised once and for all, and that’s why is a really interesting world to work with in composition. Working with timbre makes you to think in terms of register or tessitura —a term that I usually prefer. For me the shaping both in notated and electronic music takes place in thinking about aspects of registration and the transfigured capacity of sound. I’m interested in those black flowers and obscure vegetation that exist and bloom in the depths of sonic matter.


How do you rate the importance of the tools used to create music versus the musicians using them?
Someone needs quality equipment/instruments to work with, at least in a competent way, but obviously it’s the musician that makes the music. Otherwise, its like having an incompetent air-force pilot with a versatile aircraft or the reverse situation. But what is an instrument actually or equipment is up to the musicians to decide, so it depends on what someone wants to do, the important thing is what someone does with this or that equipment. Ultimately, it is the musician that makes equipment and instruments speak. But it seems that there is also some kind of technological fetishism with one way or another, regarding musical or sound equipment, some people getting thrills about technical specs and new updates or when talking about code/patches. It’s like being an organist and the artistic horizon begins and ends with stops/mixtures/mutations. A narrow horizon indeed.


Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay once asserted that "writing for electronics requires the same knowledge as writing for orchestra". What are your thoughts on that?
I’m not aware about the context of this phrase so I’m not sure if it’s very clear to me. The orchestra is a special kind of instrument, that has a long history and development which means there is involvement of knowledge on many levels. The studio is also a special kind of instrument. Knowing about writing for orchestra can help someone in certain aspects when is making music with electronic means, but I’m not sure if this is required —it depends. Having a good grasp of orchestral works or studying orchestration can definitely give someone an understanding of music’s multidimensionality and the complexity of the different layers involved.
Personally, I have orchestrated a number of piano pieces by Messiaen, Berg, Beethoven for large orchestra, while studying orchestration privately with Dmitri Smirnov. I have since acquired a new understanding on the notion of the musical instrument, which has helped me whatever I do music-wise. Finally, electronics has been part of the musical instrumentarium for many decades already –even within orchestral pieces.


From reading your newsletters and updates on Facebook, I'm under the impression that you feel very strongly about the wider impact of what you're doing. Can you tell me about your perspective on the role of the artist and the role of the arts, please?
If you say so. The capacity of the arts to transform us and make us more experientially perceptive and aware is almost always operating as a field of resistance, responsibility, liberation, renewal and understanding of our inner and outer worlds. It does not stop with the production of a book, a piece of music, a film or a picture as it resonates in us and through us. There is strength and wider implications in art that’s why has been tried to be neutralised, commercialised and become an entertainment kind of thing, mere decoration, a safe area with moderate qualities. Art makes us remember ourselves, while entertainment is about forgetting ourselves.
So, the artist seems like having a difficult role. No? But a privileged one as well …


Even experimental music these days often tends to try and lower the threshold for audiences. Your music, on the other hand, does not try to suck up to the listener. What's the importance of staying 'inconvenient' to a certain degree?
Thank you. I’m not making music to ingratiate the listeners as I’m not offering “easy-chairs for the ears to lie back” but the possibility of transgressing their own boundaries - and perhaps experience that the transcendent is immanent.

Interview with Thanos Chrysakis January/February 2014 by Tobias Fischer
If you enjoyed this interview, why not continue reading our conversation with  Thanos Chrysakis about the recording of Garnet Skein?

Homepage: Thanos Chrysakis
Homepage: Aural Terrains
Homepage: Aural Terrains on Soundcloud

Thanos Chrysakis Discography
Above the Hidden Track an Endless Blaze [Electroshock Records, 2014]
Garnet Skein [Aural Terrains, TRRN0625 – 2013]
Zafiros en el Barro [Aural Terrains, TRRN0624 – 2013]
The Marvellous Transatlantic [Ápice, AP002 – 2013]
EKNHΨΙΣ   [Aural Terrains, TRRN0622 – 2012]
SYNEUMA [Aural Terrains, TRRN0621 – 2012]
Magnetic River [Aural Terrains, TRRN0620 – 2012]
Numen [Aural Terrains, TRRN0618 – 2012]
MAGMA [Monochrome Vision, MV40 – 2011]
Knotted Alembic [Aural Terrains, TRRN0517 – 2011]
Vertex [Aural Terrains, TRRN0515 – 2011]
Parállaxis [Aural Terrains, TRRN0514 – 2011]
Subterranean Sky [Aural Terrains, TRRN04012– 2010]
ENANTIO_DROMIA [Aural Terrains, TRRN0308 – 2009]
Instant–Cascade–Distant [Aural Terrains, TRRN0306 – 2009]
A Scar In The Air [Aural Terrains, TRRN0205 – 2008] 
Palimpsesto [Aural Terrains, TRRN0202 – 2008]
Klage  [Aural Terrains, TRRN0101 – 2007]

Compilations
THE HMMM REMIX [LE SON 666 – 2007]  (Montreal, Canada)
Bend it like Beckett  [Art Trail – 2006] (Cork, Ireland)
Belly of the Whale [Important Records – 2006]  (Massachusetts, USA)