Athens, Stockholm, Kassel, London and beyond

On April19th 2017 in Athens, GR, myself and Jonas Broberg performed new original works for the legendary Synthi100 at the Athens Concert Hall and in the context of documenta 14. The next day, Lisa Stenberg and Panos Alexiadis did the same. These two concerts also featured talks and extended discussions with myself, Fylkingen’s Marie Gavois, EMS’ Mats Lidström, documenta’s sound and music advisor Paolo Thorsen-Nagel and Frances Morgan from the Royal College of Art(London, GB), as well as a series of listening sessions showcasing material from the archives of KSYME-CMRC, EMS and Fylkingen. The following week Fylkingen’s Paul Pignon composed an organic ‘automaton’ to be performed by the unaccompanied Synthi100 during its public exhibition at the Athens conservatory for the next few months. These events marked a long train of curatorial/institutional manoeuvring and concrete artistic struggle, and will, hopefully, constitute the onset of more future collaborations. The entire venture has been situated in the no mans land in-between genuine artistic concerns, equally genuine political affairs, disparate kinds of institutional logic, and, most importantly, a series of personal desires, dreams and struggles—all fused with sheer real-life  pragmatism. Largely being the instigator of this entire hybrid, as well as a key-person throughout its eventual materialisation, I feel urged to share some thoughts and feelings of mine, which I will do in a personal and largely informal manner.

Back in 2006, already being quite of an experienced composer of ‘experimental bedroom music’, I visited the Contemporary Music Research Center (KSYME-CMRC) in Athens for the first time. Some weeks later Costas Mantzoros gave me a ‘tour’ of their warehouse; this is where I first encountered the Synthi100, lying on its side amongst piles of dusty carton boxes, rusty pieces of equipment and Xenakis’ UPIC system (but that’s another story).  A few decades of humidity and dust had left their marks on the instrument; nonetheless, it would still spoke of glory and wander that might have or might have never happened. It was a very weird moment for me. I was still too young, too angry, too low in confident and too in desperate need of acceptance to properly contextualise what was in front of me. Back then I always felt that being a composer is almost not allowed. For my immediate surroundings, as well as for most mainstream media, and for what I would understand as the ‘Greek common sense’, this title was reserved for just a handful of ‘important’ few, who as a rule of thumb were already rather old, rich, and largely unapproachable. People like me would be mostly considered cranks or, at the very best, hobbyists that should go through this phaseas quickly and as silently as possible and find themselves a normal day-job some time soon. Still there I was, surrounded by men that would not question my right to the world of ‘serious’ composition and in front of one of the rarest synthesisers ever made.

KSYME-CMRC’s Synthi100 has always had a symbolic significance for me. It more or less exemplifies a series of affairs that are specific to my own coming of age. In one of his works, a famous Greek poet once paralleled contemporary Greeks as men holding very heavy pieces of marble—pieces too heavy for them to move and act freely, still too valuable to just get rid of. This more or less epitomises the kinds of questions my generation has to address.The Synthi100 has been a material manifestation of my particular ties with a history of supposedly untold value that has, nevertheless, been ever-absent throughout my entire coming of age as both an artist and a person. Albeit knowing that this is a legendary instrument of enormous importance for the world of electronic music and for an entire generation of local artists, I was simply not there on the days of its glory. All I could see was a relic in a dirty warehouse and all I could listen to were stories. There was nothing concrete to experiment with and, but for a tape with recorded ‘samples’ that we found in the archive years later, not even a document of its being ever used at all. More importantly, the generalised lack of funds and motivation that characterises everyday life in Greece since at least a decade would leave little room for thoughts of restoring or exhibiting it.

To boot, the Synthi 100 has also been a very concrete material symbol of constitutional alienation  and of a particular feeling of ‘a-priori inferiority’ and lack of confidence that, more or less, also marked my becoming an adult. Even a hardcore controversialist such as myself could not escape ever-comparing himself with all sorts of distant ’others’ that would be always out-of-reach and always unsurpassably greater than what I would be ever able to achieve. This is, I believe, central to the way my generation grew up in Greece. These alien ‘others’ would be revolutionaries, composers or artists of the past, equipment too expensive to afford buying, or important foreign artists (the concerts and publications of who would always cost many times more than those by local artists).Xenakis himself was one of those great ‘alien others: he founded KSYME-CMRC, left behind him an enormous (and enormously important) body of works, he has been a revolutionary, very rich, and he has enjoyed regular access to budgets and resources that not many composers have access to these days. Still, for artists of my generation he was nothing but a name hanging above our heads. We never met him and we would never manage to lead such careers since this is largely impossible to do these days anyway. In other words, I had always understood my existence as an a-priori non-historical one—as belonging to a generation that could never claim historical presence simply because history had been already forged forever by people that would always be out of reach.

While I do not expect others to empathise with my perspective, I see the Synthi 100 as a very concrete material manifestation of a broader series of concerns that have been topical to my generation. Coming of age simply cannot happen unless we somehow manage to address and transcend those concerns and their particular significations in the course of our individual lives. In this sense, the concert at the Athens Concert Hall has been an act of my own ongoing coming of age. It proved that there are very concrete and straightforward ways to transcend any lack of funds or motivation, to question the past as well as to creative exploit its heritage, and to, eventually, forge my own present with respect to challenging, yet achievable, goals and desires instead of unassailable dominant symbols. This was neither the first, not the most important achievement in my professional career. Still, it has been one where I witnessed several controversial aspects of my life forging a rather successful hybrid: my personal ties to an important, but at the same time not at all relevant, historical heritage, the anger, the fear and the anxiety of living in contemporary Greece and a dynamic, extrovert and pragmatic approach to ‘making things happen’ aside ideologies and dramas.

The above sound, and are, of course very personal and subjective readings of a much broader collective effort. Still, I am quite sure that the entire venture has held a similar quasi-metaphysical signification for most of those involved in the project.With Daniel Araya from EMS, I have been discussing the possibility of a restoration since my first visit in Stockholm around 2011, and he has always been very looking forward to finding out that someone did it—eventually he has been the one, alongside Jari Suominen, to do it! And what about Paul Pignon, who has been one of the key-figures in the development of the instrument and who had spent almost 15 years in everyday contact with it several decades ago? I do not thinkI can even imagine how it feels to be back there in front such a big part of one’s life.

I will finish saying that I consider the entire project a landmark personal accomplishment. Not because of its professional impact and certainly not because it might have raised my ‘market value’. Albeit being generally very interested in that kind of professional accomplishments and, certainly, in finding ways to monetise them, there have been much more important things at stake here. This project brought together diverse aspects of my professional and personal life in all material, political and symbolic respects, eventually corroborating that the way I chose to lead my professional and personal life—that is driven by concrete pragmatism and defying leaky ideological schemata—can be indeed an effective way to cope with history. In my understanding, the two concerts in Athens prove that although it takes several years of hard work, it is definitely possible to have one’s dream realised in the most straightforward way and even amidst a landscapes dead blown in disparities, complexities, shortcomings and contradictions of all shorts.

Material specifics:

Greece is a small country in the edge of Europe, ruthlessly stroke by the recent financial crisis and the austerity measures it brought, and historically forged by the devastating outcomes—in all political, financial and humanitarian respects—of the numerous wars the country has been involved over the last two centuries. The contemporary cultural landscape of Athens is largely dominated by just a few leading private organisations; partly because Athenian artists failed to support one another amidst this broader ‘crisis’ and partly because of the explicit anti-art and anti-cultural policies/laws of the state and the Municipality—the latter, among other things, have led to the demise of several independent art initiatives.

KSYME-CMRC has been founded by I. Xenakis in 1979. It inherited the Synthi100 by the long defunct Hellenic Association for Contemporary Music—it was bought in 1971 from EMS London. Since more than a decade KSYME-CMRC, has access to very limited, if any, funds and cannot really support its members in pursuing research. More importantly, the local scene never really actively supported the Centre. It exists today exclusively because of the hard work of a very few individuals, who more or less dedicated their lives in keeping it alive and—up to the extent they could afford it—active. The Centre is responsible for several short-scale concerts and other events happening several times per year. Still, but for the work of Petros Fragkiskos, Costas Mantzoros, Nikos Harizanos and, to a lesser extent, a few others, the Centre would have been long shut down and the Synthi100 would be long lost.

documenta is one of the most important festivals of contemporary art that occurs every five years in the city of Kassel in Germany. Adopting the moto ‘Learn from Athens’, documenta has its 14th incarnation taking place in both Athens and Kassel. Such a decision has a political flavour, of course. Considering the general disapproval of Germany’s political agenda by the vast majority of the Greek population, as well as documenta’s international prestige and its enormous budgets, it is of no surprise that the festival has been ruthlessly criticised by both local and international press and artists. Following a few haphazard talks with documenta’s sound and music advisor Paolo, documenta approached KSYME-CMRC for a possible inclusion in its program. The idea of restoring the  Synthi100 and commissioning a series of new works for it has been mine. documenta responded positively and with enthusiasm. It was then decided to approach Fylkingen and EMS as possible partners.

I have worked extensively in Sweden and Scandinavia, in general, and I have a first hand knowledge of how different the ‘Nordic’ paradigm is from the Greek one. Stockholm and Athens are entire different cities, still, they both feature very active—and very interesting, in my opinion, artistic scenes. In my experience, they also share a profound, albeit implicit, necessity for extrovert interaction, for reaching out and engage with the rest of the world.

I have presented my work many times in Fylkingen and I have also co-curated other events. Since a few years I am also a member. Even if I, literally, always end up having to carry loudspeakers and subwoofers outside in the snow at 5am and most likely drunk, it is still one of my all-time favourite places to perform. Fylkingen has remained artist-run and dedicated solely an experimental/exploratory forms of art since almost a century. Fylkingen contributed own funds, as well as three artists, a speaker and several archival pieces to the project.

ElektronMusicStudion (EMS), located just a few floors below Fylkingen, has historically been a very important institution for the development of electronic music in Scandinavia and worldwide. Under the direction of Mats Lindström, EMS has become an active hub that hosts composers and artists from all parts of the world. EMS took care of restoring the instrument—a task carried out by Daniel Araya and Jari Suominen—and also contributed one of the speakers and several archival pieces.

By Marinos Kuotsomichalis