(All) Music is Political

The filmmaker Costas Gavras has said throughout his career that every film is a political film. I deeply agree with his position, since no matter what you choose to show on screen, it will, in one way or another, take a political stand, either by making a statement, or by not making one.

In this sense, I believe that my artistic practice as a contemporary music composer is political, not only for what it is, what it chooses to be, but also, and maybe even more so, for what it chooses not to be. In general my work is in no way »friendly« to the listener or the performer, but it is based on respect for both. It requires time and dedication; it demands attention to detail and a taste for the not immediately obvious. It is not there to please a passive listener, but to award the curious one, the person that will see beyond the surface and try to look deeper into things. I know that this will alienate some parts of the audience, even some musicians, but it’s what interests me. I’d rather overestimate my audience than underestimate it. Unfortunately, I feel that far too many composers, and artists in general, underestimate the public.

In my music, repetitions are rare. Things do not need to be iterated twice, since I believe that repetition is a propaganda instrument, as if the composer were trying to force the music into the listener’s head. I hate that. I cannot allow myself to do it, because it reminds me of TV ads that try to sell me something. I do not like people trying to sell me stuff, or their work, or themselves, and I try not to do it myself. I cannot accept that composers use pop music quotes in their music. I find it cheap, easy, lazy, and boring, and I certainly cannot accept when these quotes are repeated over and over again.

When writing, I do not follow a pre-existing plan for the macrostructure or the pitch and sound material of the work. I prefer to rely on an auto-regulated type of work, inspired by the writings of Cornelius Castoriadis on autonomy. My thesis was called »Towards an auto-regulated music.« Every piece starts with a vague idea in my head, an intuition, an imaginary destination, but I have no clue what will happen in the next second. As I move on, the music finds its form step by step, based on what I have written thus far, on the possible paths that it proposes itself at any given moment. I try to approach each piece as an organism, letting it grow, trying to understand what it needs in orde to be the best possible version of itself, interacting with it and being open to suggestions that might arise, as it unfolds. I do not make my decisions based on what I »like,« but on what I think is »right« for the music, and that usually leads to surprises, hopefully pleasant ones.

In recent works, the purely political dimension has been ever more present, not only on an abstract compositional level that has to do with my aesthetics and general approach, but on a more concrete level. I am going to cite four examples.

In Tropfblut, for 16 voices, a piece commemorating the 100 years since beginning of World War I, I used the poems of August Stramm, a German poet that died on the front. In the piece, the choir starts out singing normally, but as the music moves on, singing voices gradually fade away, giving their way to short-of-breath speaking, ending with cries of pain. No celebrating the war, just the image of suffocating soldiers from the mustard gas and, finally, death.

Incompatible(s) VIII, written in September 2013, deals with the rise of the neo-Nazis in Greece and the murder of Panayotis Fyssas by some far-right fanatic. In the piece, the percussionist, the victim, speaks in a catatonic state about war and destruction, while the female flute player speaks, as if interviewed, like an ignorant middle class housewife that excuses herself for voting the far right party because she simply »didn’t know.« Dehors, for six instruments and electronics, is based on recordings of prisoners from the women’s prison in Thebes and is inspired by what I imagine life in prison to be. The music moves around five musical situations that return slightly altered and gradually shorter, as if the walls of a room keep closing in. Toward the end, we hear the voices of the prisoners, like a distant and distorted echo, forgotten from the people on the »outside.«

My latest piece, Tâtonnement, a piano trio, is my first feminist piece, an issue I feel more and more strongly about. In this work, the cellist, a woman, tries to express herself verbally but the male violinist does not allow her to do so. She finally stands up, finds her personal voice and goes on a rant. In the end, right before she reaches her highest point, the violinist stands up shouting, stealing her thunder, forces her to sit back down and remains standing to affirm his dominance. As it happens often, the woman has done most of the work, only to see her male counterpart get all the glory.

Making contemporary music today is, I believe, in itself political, given how hard it is to survive solely on composition, especially if one choses not to follow the major existing trends that are based on superficial, easy-listening, »catchy« ideas. In my mind, music is not supposed to be easy, nor is it supposed to be completely inaccessible. It should build a relationship with the audience based on respect and honesty, doing what it does because it absolutely has to, in order to exist, not because that is what is in fashion at the moment. Some people will appreciate the difficulty, some will not, and that is something I am perfectly okay with. As I believe that everyone has the right to live life as one thinks is best, this is a right that a composer should have as well.