Involving Compositions

Thanasis Deligiannis is an Amsterdam-based Greek composer. He is artistic coordinator of the platform RE-FUSE. For which he has gathered an international team that will explore the role and development of music theatre in this day and age. Laura Roling met with Thanasis in order to discover what drives him, how he composes his music and what role he wants it to play in society.

As I enter Thanasis Deligiannis’ apartment in Bos en Lommer, I realise that it’s not what I had expected. I imagined the apartment would be filled to the brim with various musical instruments and a huge computer, surrounded by synthesizers and mixing boards. I also worried that his answers to my questions would be as abstract and hard to decipher as the music of some contemporary composers. But surprisingly, Deligiannis doesn’t seem to own any musical instruments and his computer is a regular, run-of-the-mill notebook. Neither does he talk like an incomprehensible mathematician. Instead he reflects clearly and invitingly on the personal, social and cultural aspects that play an important role in his art.

Foto: Bowie Verschuuren

Greek traditional music
The family in which Deligiannis grew up is deeply involved with traditional Greek music. ‘My father plays instrumental music, while my mother is a researcher of traditional dance. As children, my sister and I were involved as singer and percussionist respectively. We travelled a lot to various places, mainly in the countryside, where we performed at parties. My father also contributed to theatrical performances, and occasionally I took to the stage as well.’ What Deligiannis found at least as interesting as performing, was observing. ‘I especially liked to observe the way in which performers engaged with the audience, and how the audience responded.’

There are composers who want to create abstract sound, and there are composers who are more involved with the social and communicative aspects of their compositions.

Involving audiences
The profound influence of growing up in an environment full of music, theatre and audiences can be discerned in much of Deligiannis’ work. According to Deligiannis, composers generally belong to one of two types. ‘There are composers who want to create abstract sound, and there are composers who are more involved with the social and communicative aspects of their compositions.’ Deligiannis considers himself an example of this last category. Even if his compositions are performed in a conventional concert hall, a performance composed by him consists of much more than musicians playing music. There are unexpected effects, sounds and movements that add an engaging sense of theatricality. Deligiannis prefers to compose for spaces in which the relationship between audience and performers is not one of clear spatial separation. With his colleagues of the music-theatre company I/O, for instance, he has made use of spaces in which the audience and musicians move and interact in the same space. As the young composer puts it, ‘I want to make people aware that they are not just passive recipients of a performance, but that it is a social experience in which they participate.’

Music as social experience
This notion of music-theatre as a social experience in which an audience reacts and reflects, has lead to Deligiannis’ work on experimental projects such as The Meal, which Deligiannis created with an archaeologist friend, Efthimis Theou, in Neo Monastiri, a village where a fenced-off archeological dig site had appeared. ‘We wanted the locals to feel that it was also their space, not just that of the English archaeologists, or the people who had lived there thousands of years ago.’ In order to let the locals feel a connection with the archaeologists and long-dead ancient peoples, the duo decided to have the project centred around food and eating, themes that play an important role in all human societies. During the performance, food was prepared in order to be enjoyed by the locals and performers afterwards. ‘The performance itself consisted of my friend and I reciting texts varying from soap opera to a cookbook. These texts were connected by the theme of food and eating.’ Currently, there are plans for similar performances at three very different archaeological sites in the Netherlands, Italy and Greece.

Foto: Bowie Verschuuren

Process of composition
Deligiannis’ process of composition differs a lot from what one might expect. He doesn’t make use of a synthesizer or piano, since he has never mastered playing it well. Rather, when he composes, he first tries to identify for himself what the energy of a piece should be. Then sound textures, the direction of the piece and the visual and spatial dynamics of the composition come to him. Sometimes, he records himself singing various instruments, and then combines these recordings in order to see how the instruments would sound together. Only when he feels that it fits the energy he has in mind, is he satisfied with the results. Generally, a score is produced at the end of the composition process. Deligiannis prefers, however, not to work with a score. ‘I want performers of my music to be in a position in which they commit fully. I don’t want musicians to just play the written notes.’

I consider it my job to create, not just to write.

A desire for flexible opera
Even though his compositions generally contain theatrical components, Deligiannis would not want to write a traditional opera. In the opera world, he finds a relatively strict and inflexible division of labour between composer, stage director, conductor and performers that doesn’t appeal to him. ‘I don’t want to be the composer whose job is done after delivering the score. I consider it my job to create, not just to write.’ In the future, Deligiannis hopes to see new operas being produced in a much more flexible way, unhampered by the accustomed strategies and practices of the opera world. This would allow for an artistic process of creation that explores the relation between music and theatre, creators and performers, spectacle and audience.