New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
When Christos Hadzis, a professor on the faculty of music at the University of Toronto, composed Credo, his musical composition based on the Nicene Creed, he had Greek music giant George Dalaras in mind.
As fate would have it, on November 12 the New York public had an opportunity to hear Mr. Dalaras sing Credo — as well as a group of songs Dalaras has sung during the last decade and a half– in a filled-to-capacity fundraising concert for the completion of the Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church’s new Cultural & Education Center in Port Washington, NY at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Avery Fisher Hall in New York. Mr. Dalaras was accompanied by the CityMusic Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Alexandre Myrat. Mr. Hatzis’s three-part composition, Telluric Dances, was also on the program.
The Volos – born Mr. Hatzis talks about his music and Dalaras with the Greek News.
GN: What composers have influenced your artistic development?
CH: Quite a few composers and songwriters have inspired and influenced me during my life as an artist. When I was a teenager it was the Beetles, and slightly later Johann Sebastian Bach. It was upon hearing the latter’s music for the first time on the radio in my hometown of Volos that I decided to become a composer. During my university years it was Iannis Xenakis, Luciano Berio and (in a different universe) Apostolos Kaldaras, particularly his “Byzantinos Esperinos”. A bit later, it was Claude Debussy, who for me was and still remains a great alchemist of sound. A lasting influence was American composer Morton Feldman, my teacher during my doctoral studies in Buffalo who is now considered an icon of the abstract expressionist movement.
GN: Why was Morton Feldman particularly influential?
CH: It was not Feldman’s music that exerted a strong influence on me but his uncompromising attitude towards art and life and his ability to cut through thick layers of convention to get to the essence of things. My music could not possibly be more different from his but I have always admired his no-nonsense approach to the investigation of essence in all things.
GN: Have Greek composers inspired you?
CH: Since I moved to Toronto in 1982 and started making a living as a keyboard player in the “boites” of Danforth Avenue, I became more familiar with the Greek art song and its important musical contributors — Hadjidakis, Theodorakis, Mikroutsikos, Savopoulos, Leontis, etc — but also of the Rebetiko songwriters/musicians. These songwriters and their singers started ringing in my ears and have become part of my musical memory banks ever since. My interest in world music, which I pioneered in Canada within the classical music field in the mid-to-late eighties, grew naturally from my initial engagement with the Greek art song. It then spread rapidly like a forest fire to musical genres as far from each other as Inuit throat singing, North Indian music, Armenian and Ukrainian religious chants to jazz, hip-hop, and beyond. I am a proponent of a borderless music that transcends geographical, chronological and sociocultural divides and exists as an indivisible continuum. This is how I approach music as a listener and as a composer.
The concert with George Dalaras at the Lincoln Center was an experiment in audience cross-pollination. It was overwhelmingly successful. There were of course those who, unwilling to experience anything they were not already familiar with, left the hall to smoke outside while Credo and Telluric Dances were being performed. However, the vast majority of the audience stayed and enjoyed what was for them a new musical experience.
GN: You said that you wrote Credo with Dalaras in mind.
CH: Credo was primarily influenced by the voice of George Dalaras and only secondarily by the songwriters who helped him define his unique voice. My interest was to make the vocal lines that Dalaras sang to sound like “Dalaras,” which means idiosyncratic and reminiscent of the particular turns of phrase, timbral modulations and other compositional and interpretive aspects that have defined his voice over the years.
GN: Was setting the Nicene Creed to difficult?
CH: The fact that the piece is a setting of the Greek Orthodox Symbol of Faith, a mostly legalistic text which is spoken, not sung, was the particularly difficult challenge: to bring Dalaras’ voice home to listeners who are people of faith, to reference it to its Byzantine roots and to reconcile aspects that on the surface appear to be moving in opposite directions, like the radicalism of Dalaras’ early songs and the radicalism that hides at the very heart of Christianity under thick layers of worldliness and conservatism. Christianity’s heart is not in the same political space that its worldly leadership has mostly been for the past two millennia. Jesus was not an endorser of the sociopolitical (and religious) status quo. He was victimized by it.
GN. What aspects of Credo’s composition express the Nicene Creed?
CH: I hope all. Credo was a challenge for me in many ways. My own approach to worshiping God is through personal connection, prayer and communion with the world of spirit that feels as natural as one’s conversation with a parent. For me a world without Christ is an inconceivable world. However, because of this closeness, I feel limited by a protocol that defines the relationship, even though I do not disagree with its contents.
I find human language to be severely limited when it deals with anything other than mundane certainties. When we attempt to use language to describe the ineffable aspects of Being, it is best to use metaphor, as poets do or as Jesus did in his parables.
GN: Can you give an example of this poetry?
CH: In her “Troparion of Kassiani,” Kassia, the ninth century abbess and poet, calls Christ “You who bends the heavens to your ineffable self-emptying.” Now this is grand poetry and reveals a poet whose intimations of the Divine are profound and visionary. Yet in the Creed, we use quite effable expressions to describe the structure of the Godhead and our relationship to it…we try to reach with words where words were never meant to reach. The Word cannot be reached with words: it is beyond words. It is futile (and perhaps intellectually arrogant) to attempt to approach it with anything other than a humble and contrite heart. Having said this, I can understand the historical reasons that have necessitated the Creed’s existence. At the time it was composed, wars, schisms, and persecutions caused and were caused by its wording and it is not inconceivable that Islam’s advent may have been a belated reaction to the Christian Creed’s institutional enforcement. On the other hand (some would argue,) without a commonly accepted and easily understood code of belief, Christianity might have splintered into a million pieces and have disappeared long ago. This is the dilemma that has dogged Church history for almost two millennia: do you control its progress or do you trust that the Holy Spirit will guide this progress independently of human agency? Most Church councils and prelates throughout Christian history have opted for the former.
As an artist I am attracted to the hard questions where perhaps music can elucidate realms of being that language cannot. Therefore, my emotional ambivalence to the Creed (not as to its truth, but rather as to its historical necessity) offered me a musical/theological challenge. Like my father, who spent his youth in political concentration camps for his political beliefs, but who, like every other Christian, uttered the Creed from memory in Church every Sunday, the Creed is indelibly connected to the Greek soul, regardless of station in life or political affiliation. When uttered, it has a deep and often unconscious effect on people who may otherwise not have a particularly good relationship with the Church. It has become a strange attractor for religious, national and racial meanings and permeates people who might otherwise be adverse to its specific assertions.
GN: Does this thought link to Dalaras?
CH: I find that in the past forty years or so, the voice of George Dalaras has become a similar strange attractor in the cultural consciousness of Greeks. I know people who are strong adherents of the political right but who love Dalaras’ songs and sing them often, even though they disagree with his politics or even with the content of the lyrics that they sing with relish. This is what happens when something manages to transcend its semantic particulars and become part of race memory. It was imperative for me for this and other reasons to bring the Nicene Creed and Dalaras together, for they have both become archetypes of a certain kind of “Greekness” that lies beyond the geographic and racial particulars of what we normally understand by this term. My own understanding of God and Christianity is non-local and embraces everyone and everything with patience and understanding, so I am not keen on weaving the creedal flag if it is going to alienate another human being from getting closer to God and to my Master who is the epicentre of my own existence’s continuing tremor. Seeing the forces that were converging before me, I laid my own concerns aside and sought to capture these forces in the best way I could musically. Judging from the emotional reactions of some people who attended the rehearsals in Cleveland and New York (we experienced some technical problems during the performance of Credo in Avery Fisher Hall,) I believe that I have reached my goal as closely as my limited musical ability has allowed me.
GN: Might you compose more works for popular singers?
CH: Popular singers are not a particular interest. Great singers are, popular or not. The fact, however, that singers with significant outreach can bring the kind of music that deals with fundamental questions of our humanity to considerably greater audiences than it would be possible otherwise, makes the proposition attractive. I imagine, however, that many popular singers would not be attracted to the kind of music that does not provide easy and immediate fixes and answers, such as my music, even if these answers are false and more often than not aim at a quick profit. I may be proven wrong in the future for thinking so and it would not be the first time…one never knows.
GN: What are you working on now?
CH: I just finished a song cycle for soprano and chamber orchestra on songs by the American poet and Pulitzer Prize laureate Elizabeth Bishop. The songs were written for soprano Suzy LeBlanc and Symphony Nova Scotia and will premiere next February in Halifax as part of a celebration of Bishop’s 100th birthday. Another work I completed recently but will not start playing until next season is two “encore” pieces for the incredible violinist Hilary Hahn. There are a few orchestral works planned for the next two years and a full-length opera collaboration with internationally renowned author Margaret Atwood. There are also some cross-over projects under development with some well known artists in the pop music field but I am not at liberty to discuss particulars about them yet.