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Music, an obstinate promise of regeneration

· Eleni Karaindrou ·

 The myth of Ulysses is a myth of solitude. In the 20th century the ungrantable desire for return becomes the narration of the uprooting of entire peoples, of their indefinite wandering in search of the way home.

“How many boundaries must we cross before we get home?”, the Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos (1935-2012), wondered at the beginning of the 1990s, speaking of his film The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991). The year of the breaking-up of boundaries – the collapse of Communism, the explosion in the Balkans, the tragic beginning of a movement of peoples, still continuing, which is redefining our ideas of tradition, of nation, of home – is the beginning of an odyssey whose landing place we are still unable to make out. The plot which with varying degrees of success the Greek director has sought to disentangle –– from The Beekeeper (1986) to Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) and Eternity and a Day (1998), to The Weeping Meadow (2004) and The Dust of Time (2009) – discovered a non-episodic voice in the soundtracks of Eleni Karaindrou.

We would like to say something of this reserved musician, born in the village of Teichio in Phocis, Central Greece, in 1941, who has been able to touch with lightness and poetry profound chords of the drama of the time in which we are living – an invitation to listening and at the same time to reflection. If film music is considered a light type of music which must avoid the constructive, executive and formal problems of cultured music, Karaindrou’s compositions transcend the conventions of genre: the cinema and the theatre really are the natural outlet of a career which has always endeavoured to establish an emotional atmosphere with the listener.

Her association with Angelopoulos was not only a felicitous collaboration (Karaindrou has also worked with Christofis, Xanthopoulos, Marker, Dassin and Margarethe von Trotta), but an elective affinity. Both exiles from the Greece of the Colonels (1967-1974), the two met only in 1982 at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. “One of my works [Rosa, 1982] had “spoken”, the composer recounted: “Theodoros is not a professional, he is a poet”.

Her encounter with Angelopoulos was preceded in 1976 by her meeting with Manfred Eicher, the founder and artistic director of the Edition of Contemporary Music, (ecm), the record company which made known and hosted, among others, musicians such as Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli and Keith Jarrett. Through them, Karaindrou’s sound palette was enriched with previously unimaginable colours: the saxophone of Jan Garbarek, “the ardent and sensual sound of Kim’s viola” (Kaskashian).

Eleni Karaindrou is interested in all that is an in-depth search in contemporary music, but she is not attracted by experimentalism as an end in itself. The crucial question is whether the artist, the musician, can be uprooted from human suffering. Eleni’s music lets itself be burned by the very matter to which she seeks to give a voice: the mute destiny of exiles, illegal immigrants, people on their way in the exodus of life; the desperate loneliness of Medea, abandoned, who decides to kill her children.

Her art gives us profound emotion, exploring unredeemed parts of our souls: but, as in Greek tragedy, the heart-rending singable quality of her themes accompanies the dramatic action to its catharsis. Her muse is melancholic, it is not difficult to weep as one abandons ourselves to her embrace, but it is a weeping which leads to a strange happiness: tears as purification, catharsis, regeneration. “Before beginning to write I felt within me something like birth-pains”. It is a music which acts maieutically on the listener, as in the female choirs of the score for Medea, a culmination of the tragic devastation and at the same time an obstinate promise of regeneration:

Behind the sources sacred rivers rise.

Justice and the whole world are born anew

Honour to women: their era is arising,

Their lives are crowned in glory.

Eleni Karaindrou’s music helps us to go on dreaming as the lyrics of Christofis’ Rosa [Luxemburg] sing:

My name is Rosa

And I am the song of the soul

On the rooftops

Beyond the wind.

I sought to change the world

And I transformed myself into a song

To save the dream.

The oneiric vein does not abandon the Greek musician even in her dramaturgically more complex works: the scores for Euripides’ The Trojan Women, a “cry against war”; The Weeping Meadow (which became Le sorgenti del fiume [the sources of the river] in the Italian distribution); the Elegy of the Uprooting: “The meadow weeps, it has always wept, it matters not that people continue to implore. There will always be a lament for Astyanax, for a Hecuba”. Greek folk instruments – the Constantinopolitan lyra, the kanonaki, the harp, the ney, the santouri, the lute, the daouli, “Sounds of the East, Greek but also global” – are used in a non-traditional way, in accordance with an estranging intention: “I was certain that only these sounds could paint the countryside of the Trojan women [...] who gave a lesson of morality and inner grandeur to the Greek conquerors”. They are the sounds and colours of an interior geography which sings of the uprooting of our day. Eleni Karaindrou knows that there is no longer an awaiting Ulysses, but that music can sing indefinitely of his nostalgia, making it present in the desire and courage of continuing to hope. To Garbarek’s aphorism, “It might be said that I live in a spiritual neighbourhood, scattered geographically across the world”, reply the verses of Georgios Seferis, which Eleni loves to repeat to herself: “Wherever I travel / Greece continues to wound me”. 

Adalberto Mainardi




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 20, 2020