His most recent “Resorts & Ruins” is a collection of three visionary sound works whose common entangling elements are a pernickety work on spaces and narrative aspects of composition as well as a careful selection of source material from specific vocal and musical traditions. There are a variety of influences, such as Turkish pop music, Cypriot epic song and Baroque opera. Let’s dig into the artistic and sonic vision and personality of one of the founders of the Dutch label Unsounds, the composer and sound artist Yannis Kyriakides.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Yannis! How are you?
Yannis Kyriakides: Fine thanks! Just back from one month traveling to various concerts and festivals – which included one in Madrid with Andy Moor – where I managed to fall off the stage during the soundcheck (don’t ask how!) and I’m still nursing a sore knee from that – but not too serious.
Chain D.L.K.: Could you introduce yourself in your own words to our readers?
Yannis Kyriakides: This is always the hardest question – because it’s never easy to sum up what your music is about in one neat sentence. On my biography it says “As a composer and sound artist he strives to create new forms and hybrids of media, synthesizing disparate sound sources and exploring spatial and temporal experience… The question as to what music is actually communicating is also a recurring theme in his work and he is often drawn to the relation between music and language.” – That’s still relevant to me now.
Chain D.L.K.: How did you begin your passion for electronic music and field recordings?
Yannis Kyriakides: I’m a classically trained musician and I started composing when I was quite young. When I was in my teens I discovered avant-garde music, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Cage etc… and I started messing around with a 4-track recorder. I started using the sounds I recorded or found sounds in pieces and I liked the collision of worlds that it created. Never really approached field recordings in a purist way, I liked the way recordings displaced the perception of what we were listening to.
Chain D.L.K.: Compliments on your last release “Resorts & Ruins”… it’s really mind-blowing… do you remember the moment when you “envisioned” it?
Yannis Kyriakides: Thanks! It’s three separate pieces – so they were conceived at different times. The idea to put them together on CD came about simply because I saw that there was an overlap in content, concept and form. The focus on voice and space, being something that binds them; and also the fact that they were conceived for specific installations. I wanted to make versions of the pieces that worked purely as a listening experience.
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s dig deeper… on “Covertures” you built an astonishing wall of sound by means of Monteverdi’s “Poppea” and rowdy crowds… I have to admit that there is something ghostly in that, and one of the first things I thought about were the hallucinations of Kubrick’s “Shining” main character, which he experienced until he went completely mad… are there any other sources of inspiration for those recordings that come from cinema (if I remember correctly it was commissioned for the Dutch Pavillion at the Venice Biennale 2011…) or from literature?
Yannis Kyriakides: The idea came out of conversations I had with the curator and other (visual) artists involved in the Dutch Pavilion. The curator wanted to use the idea of opera as a model of gesamtkunstwerk, and we talked about ways of turning the form inside out. I suggested the idea of inverted overtures that marked the moment where the outside world gives over to the theatre and vice versa, the moments that the curtain is raised or lowered. So I created 48 of these covertures where the sound of an audience or crowds bleeds into frozen moments of Monteverdi’s opera. In Venice they played one every 10 minutes or so, throughout the day. In the version I made for the CD, I chose to present these in a form that is similar to some kind of maze of doors which open and close into different sonic spaces.
Chain D.L.K.: Memory, decadence, “white elephants” and that icy guiding voice seems to reference the critical situation that Greece, Cyprus and those areas of Mediterranean region are experiencing… is it a coincidence or is there any connection with that?
Yannis Kyriakides: Partly this is interpretation, but it’s also somehow in the history, certainly of Cyprus; which has always attracted wealth to its shores, and has often been burned by that (Venetians included). The connection for me has to do with how thin a surface there is between the carefree hedonism depicted on those idyllic postcards, and the economic or political ruination. What is happening in Cyprus at the moment has to do with power struggles (economic rather than strategic political this time) being played out on a global stage, where little Cyprus gets burnt again.
Chain D.L.K.: How did you find the sonic material you used for “Varosha (Disco Debris)”?
Yannis Kyriakides: The material in this piece consists of several layers. Many voices, Ayelet Harpaz, who hums pop tunes from the 70es, granulated as if walking through them. Deconstructed disco tracks,Turkish pop music from the 70’s. For one layer I took a Demis Roussos record, ‘On The Greek Side of My Mind’ and blow torched the Varosha map on each side, then played it back and made samples. There were also some field recordings that I had made around Famagusta, which are also granulated. This is the overriding image in the piece; all sounds eventually being granulated, ground to dust. Actually the Greek name of Famagusta is Ammohousto, which means ‘hidden in sand’, referring to another settlement underneath it from antiquity, called Arsinoe, which was probably destroyed in an earthquake.
Chain D.L.K.: Which tiles of this sonic patchwork/mosaic were you most uncomfortable with?
Yannis Kyriakides: Interesting question. I suppose it’s the question about using Turkish music samples. Firstly I didn’t want to use Greek music samples so clearly because I didn’t want to have a layer of nostalgia that I myself could relate to or could somehow represent as a loss on my part. I wanted to put in some kind of faux-nostalgia. The reason that I felt uncomfortable with it is because any political message can be construed by doing that; like ‘Why are there Turkish music samples when Varosha was a Greek tourist development? or ‘Why are the Turkish pop tunes being distorted? Is it expressing some kind of contempt of Turkish culture?’… This is incidentally a question that very few people ask me, and in fact hardly comes up in reviews of the CD. Actually the decision to use this material came about partly because my father had a night club in Nicosia in the 70es for live popular music (from all over the Middle East), and this is mingled with my earliest memories of the place. Also I had an interesting encounter when I visited Famagusta (which is now in the Turkish part of the Island) in 2009. I spent several hours in a music shop chatting to the Turkish Cypriot owner about life in Famagusta before and after 1974. In the meantime he was copying stacks of CD compilations of Turkish pop music from the period for me. It was a treasure trove of really lovely tunes, some also recognizable to me because they are in fact Turkish covers of Greek tunes. So when I got home and listened to these, I knew I had to do something with this material.
Chain D.L.K.: It’s quite difficult to deal with imaginary projections from the past, isn’t it? Would you say that sound art has never been so close to the activity of a clairvoyant who speaks with ghosts?
Yannis Kyriakides: Yes – you could say that. I think what sound does is connect things. It connects things in the world around us so that we can navigate through it, and it also connects our inner and outer reality. Sound for me comes already layered with so much connotation, that just by juxtaposing elements we can conjure ghosts and collide disparate worlds.
Chain D.L.K.: Varosha was created for the exhibition “Suspended Spaces” for Maison de la Culture, Amiens, and then presented in the Centre Pompidou, Paris, for an installation where people were asked to interact with an invisible architecture of granulated sounds… do you remember people’s reaction to that? What were the main technical or compositional problems in creating such an installation?
Yannis Kyriakides: This was actually my first interactive installation, and while being excited about the possibilities that the medium offered me, there were also some pitfalls. What happened in the first version, is that people would enter a dark space, lit by four blinding theatre lights delineating an ‘imaginary dance floor. A video tracking system would pick up each persons individual movement in the space and map it onto a topography of these granulated voices. What was exciting was actually discovering that I could structure sound in terms of space rather than time, that the piece could exist frozen in a space and that the spectator would be like the head of a tape deck, or the needle of a record player cartridge that could uncover these voices. The disappointing part, I suppose, was that the interactive aspect took over the content, and a lot of people experienced only the sensation of it rather than really exploring the musical and representational part. People would enter the space for just a minute and wave their arms around, rather than spending time exploring the different facts of the space. This has also something to do with the different expectations audiences have in a visual art context and with how a sound piece can be experienced there. So the trade off in this context is that one doesn’t have the discipline imposed by a concert listening experience, where an artist has the undivided attention of the audience for an extended period of time; what you get instead is the possibility of giving the responsibility to the spectator to engage with the work and letting them find their own perspective. Finding the balance between these two experiences of sound is something that I think about quite a lot, but I don’t know if I have yet found any one answer to it.
Chain D.L.K.: Could you tell us something about the birth of “The One-Hundred Words”?
Yannis Kyriakides: About 10 years ago, I received a beautiful publication of archive material of folk music from Cyprus. Included in this were some wonderful story-telling traditions with which I made a piece; ‘Paramyth’, where I spectrally time-stretched the voiced part of the story-teller speech, so that it sounded like singing, and orchestrated those onto some instruments. Another piece in this collection was one that was called ‘Ekatologia’, literally meaning the one hundred words. I was fascinated by the title, because I had made several pieces previously that made use of list of words, or list of the most common words in a particular language as a way of playing with the relation of music and language. The reason that the Cypriot fragment was called the ‘one hundred words’ was as if to say that it was a piece where a lot of words were uttered. I made a scheme for the piece where I took 100 words, that appeared in the text and transplanted them into sound, letting them modulate oscillators, resonances and pulses, as a way of embedding the language into the music. So we hear speech like patterns in the music, words split up in space, as well as the original Cypriot song deconstructed and dissolving into the fabric of the piece.
Chain D.L.K.: You composed it in the legendary GRM Studios… how was it to work inside this proper temple for electroacoustic and electronic music?
Yannis Kyriakides: Being at GRM was a novelty for me because I rarely get the chance to just be in a space for one week/10 days and just compose from morning to midnight without distraction or disturbance. So indeed it was like being in a hi-tech monastery. I did feel the pressure of doing something that used spatiality in some way, because there were so many speakers, but I’m not a fan of moving sounds around, so I chose to layer sounds in different positions. Actually I remember traveling there and thinking: I’m going to an amazing studio, with lots of speakers, they probably have lots of subs – so I’ll do a ‘low’ piece”… and then getting there and finding out that the subs were all being repaired. There went my initial idea.
Chain D.L.K.: Any hypothesis about the possible 101st word?
Yannis Kyriakides: ‘Because’.
Chain D.L.K.: You’re one of the co-founders of Unsounds… why did you base it in Amsterdam?
Yannis Kyriakides: Andy Moor, Isabelle Vigier and I are all based there. We were friends and we decided to start a label together, that was about 13 years ago. And we are all still there…
Chain D.L.K.: Any forthcoming projects in your personal sonic pathways or your label’s?
Yannis Kyriakides: The next CD we are releasing is a 1 hour version of Memory Space, or (Amsterdam) Memory Space as it is called by the great Alvin Lucier, interpreted by the new group we have formed with former Ensemble MAE players. The new group is called MAZE, line up is Anne La Berge, Reinier van Houdt, Wiek Hijmans, Dario Calderone, Gareth Davis and myself. It’s a really lovely group and our first live project is going to be with Christian Marclay in June at the Holland Festival. Then we have a big project with the label, planned for September, a book and double CD called ‘Things That a Mutant Needs to Know’. It’s a project initiated by Reinaldo Laddaga consisting of 55 stories and 55 pieces of music, which we co-curated and involves about 18 musicians, many of which are related to Unsounds. This is going to be a really special release.
Chain D.L.K.: I got the impression that the interest around so-called experimental music has remarkably increased… are there any specific reasons from your point of view?
Yannis Kyriakides: I suppose that in times of economic uncertainty we tend to question the value of more conventional artistic production, and we look for other possible musical models. Then again it could just be the internet…
Chain D.L.K.: What are your main sources of satisfaction in your activity?
Yannis Kyriakides: I suppose I get satisfaction from all the stages of music production, which also involve composing, rehearsing with musicians, gigging, recording, and other activities like teaching, doing label stuff etc… the thing that excites me the most is just being in my studio and discovering new sound possibilities or trying to imagine the next piece. I especially love the stage of composing when an idea is not fully formed and has the potential to morph from one possibility into another.
Chain D.L.K.: What’s your take on the future of sound art?
Yannis Kyriakides: Leave the easy question for the end then! I think it’s impossible to predict the dominance of any one particular stream of sound art practice, as many new forms are always proliferating. I find myself fascinated by how our ways of listening are changing and how traditional ideas of musical narrative are being replaced by other concepts. I’m doing some research at the moment on the idea of the ‘inner voice’, so I’m personally curious as to where the future sound art can go, blurring the boundaries between the real and the imagined.
visit Yannis Kyriakides on the web at: kyriakides.com