Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Tania Giannouli: The Future is Always Arriving

“Silence is the potential from which music can arise.” – Keith Jarrett 

Meteors are among the rarest objects on earth and have left a pervasive impact on our planet and civilization. Arriving amidst thunderous blasts and flame-streaked skies, they were once thought to be messengers from the gods, embodiments of the divine. Prized for their outlandish qualities, they are collectible as objects of art, desire and literary muses. The scientific community had only a reluctant embrace of their interplanetary origins but now has surrendered to one of their key attributes, the power to awaken a precious and near-forgotten human trait – the capacity for awe. The astute reader will see exactly where I’m going with this apparent digression: Tania Giannouli is a musical meteorite. The great jazz innovator Ornette Coleman once summed up an ideal approach to music. “The theme you play at the start of a number is the territory. And what comes after, which may have very little to do with it, is the adventure.” What a perfect place to begin to trace the trajectory of Giannouli, a talented composer, pianist, and, most importantly, solo performance artist.

Solo, the newest record release by this talented Greek musician, is also the next step in her ongoing journey into the origin of human-made sounds in a visceral location: an aural landscape situated somewhere equidistant between the heart and the mind. She is also a meteor inspired by a lengthy lineage ranging from both jazz and musique concrète to Scriabin and Tatum, yet I hesitate to say ‘influenced by’ simply because her approach is so distinctive that it reveals more of an open dialogue with the diverse constellation of composers who have nourished her unique sound. The muscularity of that sound shares a certain vibration with Keith Jarrett (especially with her latest venture into solo piano performance) while the depth of the sonic soul behind it has an alignment with the serial meditations of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young. If Sun Ra and Carla Bley went on a blind date with Cecil Taylor and Joanne Brackeen, their mythical love-child may have been named Tania.

But enough of comparisons: they mustn’t be taken too literally and are elastic at best. Composers and performing musicians hate to be compared to this or that other artist, and as a matter of fact so do painters, designers, architects, poets and novelists. And so it is for that reason, and to embark upon the amorphous voyage that is a circumnavigation of the compositions of Tania Gianoulli, that I will instead compare her music to brilliant works in other media. Her solo piano works on the newest of her five superfine releases on Rattle Records feel like paintings by Mark Tobey and Arshile Gorky, depending on the temperature of the musical piece in question (the album’s opening and closing items, “Transportal” and “Unfailing Stars”, for instance). In other words, they sound like those paintings look.

The charming lilt of “Novellete” has all the impactful emotional brevity of certain short stories by Somerset Maugham or Robert Walser, a slightly elegiac sojourn into a more peaceful time than ours. “Metal Shake” and “Punkt” sound like De Stijl-designed furniture, elbowing its way into the awesome empty space just at the edge of reach, evoking the angular and elegant jutting of form into function. “Light Sleeper” and “Gaspar” sound like a collision of Colette and Clarice Lispector stories. It’s not that this music is programmatic in any classical sense; quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that reading those stories, or viewing those paintings, or watching Martha Graham’s choreography, or even just sitting still in that Dutch furniture, at the same time as listening to Giannouli’s quantum-scaled solo operas, is to engage in an experience of parallel forces.

Photo by Yiannis Sollis.

Occasionally with a brilliantly evoked damp ECM Koln atmosphere hovering (and that’s perfectly okay, when it’s done this well) but pausing only long enough to suddenly take flight into a murmuration of near harmolodic fancies of Ornette that itself already echoes the cosmic bop of Mr. Ra, the opulent austerity of Giannouli surrrounds and suffuses us with a surprising radiance. It’s one that re-unminds me, as a longtime Zen Buddhist, of the chiming shimmer of Balinese gamelan-inspired odes constructed by the peer Americans Lou Harrison and Harry Partch. You get the picture, so to speak: it’s simply that modernist-oriented new music, the quaint term bestowed upon once threatening and aggressively avant-garde nerve-grippers, has been recursively reincarnated by the mid-career third-generation wave of postmodern composers who embody musical meaning in multi-faceted ways and means.

It’s also a post-Hassell, near fifth- or sixth-world genre that manages, especially in Giannouli’s gifted case, to handle with considerable agility the multiple layers that have evolved across the spectrum of both new music and free jazz. In particular, it is her skill at allowing for the restraint of almost-ambient Harold Budd vibes to run headlong into Thelonious Monk vibes, and for these variations to make perfect sense in the moment. She has the deftness of touch that permits a Nyman decay music wavelength to run parallel to the vim, vigor and verve of solo Bud Powell at his sanest. Basically, Giannouli’s improvised solo piano pieces are a kind of incense for our ears (very expansive incense indeed) with often Satie-like gems strung along a delicate thread of unexpected Ellingtonesque elegance. All of which indicates her mature grasp of harmolodics and forms the basis of what I’d like to pause momentarily on.

Harmolodics is a musical philosophy of composition, and especially of improvisation, first developed by the American avant master Ornette Coleman in the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s, as he inaugurated a sense of timing and tone sometimes called harmolodic funk. As the name suggests, harmony and melody are fused into a single propulsive force, in a manner that Ornette characterized as “the use of the physical and the mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison, executed by a single person or with a group. Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrases all have an equal position in the results that come about from the placing and spacing of ideas.” Coleman sought to free musical compositions from any tonal centre, allowing “harmonic progression independent of traditional European notions of tensions and release. The general effect is that the music achieves an immediate and open expression, without being constrained by tonal limits, rhythmic pre-determination or harmonic rules.”

But enough rhapsodizing by my admittedly ekphrastic and Wallace-like inclinations, as we return to terra firma, and offer herewith a little practical detail to dine on. The folks at Rattle Records perhaps summed it up most succinctly by describing her as a vital voice in Greek/European music who regularly employs improvisation in her musical practice, as can be heard on all five of her Rattle releases: Forest Stories (2012), Transcendence (2015), Rewa (2018), In Fading Light (2020), and Solo. Giannouli confidently declares, “True music is beyond notes. Finding your own voice, your own sound, what makes you unique – these are the main preoccupations for an artist, and it’s a pursuit that takes years to develop.”

Giannouli has remarked on the importance of music above and beyond either pleasure or entertainment: “Despite what’s happening to our world at present, people need music. They need art. It is not a luxury. It’s essential for our psychology, for maintaining health and balance – mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and even politically.” This astute observation reminded me of a favourite poet, Jorge Luis Borges, and his insight into the proper practice of music as a kind of spontaneous meditation on embodied meaning: “Music, those faces worn by Time, wants to tell us something, or is about to tell us something: that the imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, its primary aesthetic fact.”

Photo by Savvas Lazaridis.

Hers has been a consistently provocative and carefully textured mission, one that seemed to commence in a larger ensemble setting, progressed through a smaller trio setting, and finally has arrived in a setting where the only relationship is with herself, alone at a piano, without any apparent intentions. The results often feel like the kind of flashing insights found in haiku as rendered not in the classical seventeen-syllable form but more like that of modernist Japanese poet such as Minoru Yoshioka. In fact I was reading Yoshioka’s Lilac Garden while I was listening to Solo, and the results were often startling in their aleatory resonances:

There, not there, bubbles flow on the water, gentler than their own shadows, young days dreaming. Upstream water, spring hazed, and before I became aware of it, the seagulls above have grown invisible.

Her solo piano music – such as the piece “Intone,” so crisp, so fertile, so fragile, or “The Call,” so ethereal, and yet, as in “Hidden,” so muscular – evokes the murmuration of flocks of birds, where the pattern of all simultaneously becomes the pattern of one. When Giannouli was in her ensemble, and then in her trio, that murmuration made the fellow performers shimmer and shift their way through flocks of shared notes and intuited phrases. Good collaborators like those are a rare find. But in her solo work, another type of murmuration occurs, one of the solitary performing heart, where a soliloquy takes place between a piano and a person. The end result is another kind of improvised flight pattern: a series of quivering reveries melting in the same time of which she is painting a portrait. Unison. Ornette said it was the core of harmolodics. And when playing solo, Giannouli has to be not only in unison solely with herself, but also in unison with the silence out of which Keith Jarrett said all music arises.

While I was reading Yoshioka’s dreamlike poetic work, while sitting in a Rietveld chair (or at least a replica of one) looking at the exotic surrealist collages used to illustrate the poems, and listening to Giannouli’s disc of solo piano pieces, it was almost as if this musician had composed a soundtrack for the movie between my ears being conducted by the screenplay poetry of Yoshioka. As one poem put it: “Lidded music. Performing ablutions under the arch in night’s perfumery-medicine.” And another poem, equally nebulous, seemed to be saturated with the composer’s piano piece “Folegandros,” while I listened, enraptured by the misty fog she was conjuring and pouring all over Yoshioka’s mysterious words:

Still Life

Inside the rigid-surfaced bowl of the night,
increasing vividness,
autumn fruit
piled up as they are in a pose
in a unified harmony,
entering into magnificent music.
Each one's deepest place having been reached into,
cores leisurely lay themselves down.

That “ineffable imminence” that Borges referenced in his spectacular definition of what music is and does, as well as in that “revelation as yet unproduced,” at least until her finger touches a piano key, is at the very heart and mind of the music of Tania Giannouli. Yoshioka may have put it best: “The purple colour, night’s tribute, so all music may sink with ease, foaming little by little, as if through the heart a wet bird runs past.”

Hear hear.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

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