His relevance today
Jani Christou was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1926 and died in a car accident in Athens, Greece in 1970. Already at an early age his works displayed an inclination towards the mystical and the ecstatic. This tendency culminated during his last years (1965-1970) producing, next to incidental music for the staging of ancient Greek dramas, his works Mysterion, Praxis for 12, The Strychnine Lady, Enantiodromia, Anaparastasis I & Anaparastasis III and Epicycle that share a strong ritual feel, an exploration of primeval acts and of the state of trance plus an urge to unleash powers and behaviours that go beyond the self (a state Christou had named metapraxis).
I find that the late works of Jani Christou somehow exemplify today what we could call “the bad habits of contemporary music” by offering solutions against these.
1. They achieve striking results by the simplest of means
2. They are rich though solely skin and bone
3. They manage to include improvisation widely while always retaining a strongly determinate character
4. They do not belong anywhere; they exhibit a singularity, that is, a very personal style
At the same time they pose fundamental questions:
When does art stop being an intelligence game or a cut diamond to become a life-changing experience?
Why can’t we tolerate silence?
Why do we seem to bear to lay down less and less, the more we have?
Why is it so important to be earnest (or is it perhaps earnest to be important?)?
When are we going to expose ourselves for good and compromise our reputation?
The late works of Christou need no conventional practicing at home alone; they are realized collectively through and during the rehearsals. They indeed contain the minimum of pitch-notes, but they demand an eagerness to try out things in an unusual way, free of solidified views on what is music and what is not.
For all these reasons I find Christou’s music more valid and relevant than ever. I also see it as deeply educational, since it still confronts people with unknown procedures of making music and triggers off their creativity.
His tragic death at his birthday anniversary abruptly ended a fruitful quest. Today, more than 40 years after his death, he remains completely unknown outside Greece, mainly because of ill promotion and unwillingness to delve into his world and understand his intentions. This phenomenon is worsened by the fact that his late works are indeed very idiosyncratic and stand quite afar from what people expect of ‘conventional concert music’, requiring thus unbiased minds.
Anaparastasis I & Anaparastasis III shine amongst his late works: Αναπαράστασις means re-enactment, representation, a concept harking back to the mediaeval sacra rappresentazione: Christou aims at a revival of the atmosphere of a primordial ritual, without restricting its content to anything specific (e.g. religious, pagan etc.). Both pieces exhibit a desperate dash for expression and communication. They do not provide answers, but they may offer cleansing and renewal through fear – what, in other words, Aristotle had called catharsis.
Anaparastasis I “The Baritone” for baritone solo & ensemble was written in 1968. The baritone’s text is verses 1-7 out of Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon, recited in ancient Greek: the tragedy begins with an exhausted and apprehensive watchman waiting for a year on the roof-top of the palace at Argos for a fire signal that would signify the fall of Troy into the hands of the Achaeans:
Θεοὺς μὲν αἰτῶ τῶνδ’ ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων,
φρουρᾶς ἐτείας μῆκος, ἣν κοιμώμενος
στέγαις Ἀτρειδῶν ἄγκαθεν, κυνὸς δίκην,
ἄστρων κάτοιδα νυκτέρων ομήγυριν,
καὶ τοὺς φέροντας χεῖμα καὶ θέρος βροτοῖς
λαμπροὺς δυνάστας, ἐμπρέποντας αἰθέρι
ἀστέρας, ὅταν φθίνωσιν, ἀντολάς τε τῶν.
I request the Gods to release me from this labour
of a year-long watch, where I, laying crouched
on my elbows on the Atreidae’s roof-top like a dog,
observe the gatherings of the nocturnal stars,
those luminous lords that bring about winter and summer
to mortals, the stars that stud
the sky, as they wane, and their waxing.
Neither does the baritone impersonate the watchman nor are we transported into the set of the Aeschylean tragedy: the soloist uses the text as a vehicle as well as a fétiche, striving to utter the words as if they possess magical properties. The ensemble is not accompanying him but actively taking part in the rite. The text they are heard reciting consists of international maritime safety regulations, while the conductor points out traffic lights, becoming thus a warden of a critical operation.
Anaparastasis III “The Pianist” for actor, tapes & ensemble was written in 1968-69. Less specified; more conceptual. Two worlds unfold before us – coming across each other through violent intersections: That of the conductor and his team, who come to bear witness to these events in life that threaten the coherence of any system behind which we snugly take shelter; and that of the soloist, who goes on the stage unsuspecting, ready for his piano recital…
IN THE BEGINNING, THE HAGUE
It all began in 2012 by my friend Michalis Paraskakis and me: under the auspices of the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague we presented Anaparastasis I thrice – Michalis handling the solo role and me conducting the ensemble of students.
This was a revelation for us in all respects:
1. a score to be discovered anew – fixed ideas and preconceptions about how it “should be” washed off
2. an objective most easily communicated to the students, regardless of e.g. the synthetic notation, the ‘avant-garde aura’ and the unusual demands
3. a public left impressed
So, we repeated the ‘experiment’ at the Royal Conservatory of Ghent as the focal point of the Week of Contemporary Music (which I was curating), in April 2014: this time we presented both Anaparastasis I (twice, with two different soloists) & Anaparastasis III.
The intense documentary of Costis Zouliatis Anaparastasis: life and work of Jani Christou (1926-1970) was also screened twice during the Week (Belgian première).
Again the same results: enthralled audiences and an unforgettable week of rehearsals with students assuring us that Christou works.
The nucleus-team consists of
nikos ioakeim, conducting
katerina konstantourou, piano
michalis paraskakis, singer