Of birds and bombs: new music from Eleni Karaindrou

If, like me, you’re a fan of the films of the late Theo Angelopoulos, there’s a fair chance that you are also an admirer of the music of the composer Eleni Karaindrou, who composed the music for the great Greek writer-director’s last eight features, from Voyage to Cythera (1984) to The Dust of Time (2009) –including two of his biggest successes, Ulysses’ Gaze and Eternity for a Day.

Eternity and a Day

Though she’s also written extensively for theatre and television, it’s Karaindrou’s work for Angelopoulos that remains most widely known, so unless you’re an assiduous collector of albums released by ECM – the label she’s been associated with since Music for Films appeared back in 1991 – you may well have been missing out on her highly distinctive music ever since Angelopoulos’s death in 2012. Happily, a new release, Tous des oiseaux, is utterly in keeping with her work for Angelopoulos, so fans should find much to please them.

The new album comprises two suites, one composed for the stage play Tous des oiseaux by Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad, the other – Bomb – written for a film by Iranian actor-director Payman Maadi. One certainly need not know what the play and film are about in order to enjoy the music, which is very much par for the Karaindrou course: an idiosyncratically austere-yet-lyrical blend of neo-classicism and more traditional materials. Sometimes the music is played by a string orchestra, sometimes by one or more soloists playing conventional orchestral instruments or traditional Greek or Middle Eastern instruments, sometimes by a combination of all these forces. Karaindrou contributes some pleasingly delicate piano on Bomb, the singer Savina Yannatou – herself something of an ECM regular in the past – can be heard on several pieces in the titular suite, and enthusiasts for such ancient instruments as the lyra, the kanonaki and the ney are catered for splendidly.

Eleni Karaindrou (photo courtesy Athina Kozolea and ECM)

The 12 short pieces that make up Tous des oiseaux are characteristic of Karaindrou’s best music in that they give the impression of being somehow ‘timeless’ – by which I mean not only that the folk-based neo-classicism and the mix of instruments old and new make it hard to describe what one hears as definitively ‘contemporary’, but also that much of the music feels almost static, as if time is going to come to a standstill. With a pace which is never more than measured, many of the pieces feature lengthily sustained chords over which fragments of melody make their tentative and fragile progress. The mood is mostly meditative and melancholy (hardly surprising given that Mouawad’s play deals with the Israel-Palestine conflict), and the main theme – which unless I’m mistaken is in D minor – is distilled into its purest form in Lament, sung wordlessly and unaccompanied by Yannatou, and in Je ne me consolerai jamais, a finale for solo cello performed by Alexandros Botonis. (According to Karaindrou, the theme itself derives from a song dating back to the 13th century, which bemoaned the fall of Constantinople to Frankish Crusaders in 1204.) Only the halfway interlude of David’s Dream – played by the string orchestra in A major – leavens the mesmerisingly sombre atmosphere.

The slightly shorter suite Bomb is rather more varied in mood, rhythm and colour; while the string orchestra still plays on four of its ten pieces, the archaic instruments are mostly replaced by oboe, bassoon, mandolin, accordion and – played by the composer and often well to the fore – piano. The palette is for the most part brighter, and room is even found for one of Karaindrou’s beloved waltzes. Where Tous les oiseaux speaks of loss, pain and grief, Bomb – the constituent parts of which are given titles like A New Beginning, Reconciliation Theme and Love’s First Call – feels more like an outpouring of hope, the stasis of the preceding suite replaced by forward movement. At the same time, Karaindrou’s preference for simplicity prevents any onset of unwelcome sentimentality.  In this respect, she remains true to the spirit of her work for Angelopoulos, and indeed to the spirit of his films.

You can get a taste of the music on Tous les oiseaux by scrolling down to the tracklist here; the album was released by ECM on 1st February. You can find Karaindrou speaking about the new album in the trailer below.

And you can hear a track from Voyage to Cythera, Karaindrou’s first score for Angelopoulos, in the clip below; saxophone by Jan Garbarek.

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