Innerviews, music without borders

Tania Giannouli
Identity and Meaning
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2022 Anil Prasad.

Tania GiannouliPhoto: Yiannis Soulis

Tania Giannouli isn’t interested in anyone putting walls around her art. Beginning with her debut recording Forest Stories in 2012, the Greek pianist and composer has propelled forward with a singular, highly-personal, and uncompromising musical worldview that encompasses numerous genres and approaches.

Her work intersects the realms of jazz, classical, avant-garde, ambient, Māori, and Balkan musics. And it has found an emerging global following. She’s played at many of the world’s most prestigious jazz and new music festivals, and was nominated for the 2021 German Jazz Prize. Giannouli even performed inside an active Greek volcano in 2016, as part of a cross-cultural, large-scale project titled 634 Minutes Inside the Volcano.

She’s driven purely by instinct and muse, as well as her choice of diverse collaborators, including taonga pūoro master Rob Thorne, vocalist Maria Pia De Vito, multi-instrumentalist and producer Steve Garden, oud player Kyriakos Tapakis, trumpet players Andreas Polyzogopoulos and Amir ElSaffar, drummer Michele Rabbia, and winds player Paulo Chagas.

Giannouli’s most recent album, 2020’s In Fading Light, recorded with her trio featuring Polyzogopoulos and Tapakis, reflects the complexities of the modern world, including the COVID-19 crisis. The instrumental recording offers immersive, melodic compositions infused with improvised passages, minimalist approaches, and propulsive rhythms.

Her previous album Rewa, recorded with Thorne and Garden, finds Giannouli at her most experimental. Rewa was recorded in a single day and features Giannouli and Thorne collaborating and improvising with no plan or conceptual boundaries. The album feels otherworldly, yet urban, which makes sense given Giannouli grew up in Athens and Thorne in Palmerston North, New Zealand, which has deep Māori origins. In particular, Thorne’s performances on the pūrerehua, an instrument made of wood or bone that's swung around, delivers a sound akin to growling, industrial soundscapes. Garden took the duo’s performances and further shaped them with engaging textural treatments.

In her first in-depth English interview, Giannouli offers detailed perspectives on the making of her entire recorded output to date, as well as her resolute creativity-first philosophy that informs it.

You’ve said, "People need music, it's not a luxury." Elaborate on that given the unique circumstances civilization faces at the moment with COVID-19 and so much geopolitical unrest.

We need art. Without art and music, we would definitely miss something important. For me, life would then just be surviving. We need another purpose in life. Music is the only art which doesn’t really need analyzing, in terms of why you like what you’re hearing. It’s not necessarily intellectual. It goes straight to the heart. Either it reaches you or it doesn’t. Music speaks about the most inner things of our existence. I consider myself lucky to be able to compose and play music, but also to share this with other people.

The reality of COVID-19 is a really tough and very scary thing. It affected the security we had in our lives. It changed our everyday experiences so much. I spent most of the first lockdown in my house, alone. I realized how important it was to have experiences that make life a hopeful, beautiful thing. We have to communicate hope, even though the news looks scary, and everything seems so dark.

What are your thoughts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

What is happening in Ukraine is shocking. It is so anachronistic, so much of the old era, and so much against any idea of evolution of the human race. I truly hope it will lead to finally going against the powers who created it. I am truly feeling sorry for the people in Ukraine. I am pro-evolution, freedom, and prosperity. Maybe the future generations will live in better times.

Tania GiannouliPhoto: Savvas Lazaridis

You’ve started performing live again. What’s it like for you to connect with audiences after such a long pause?

It feels so good to be able to play music after so many months of not doing anything. You can almost talk about lockdowns as “seasons.” The first season of lockdown was a shocking experience and we thought we’d get over it soon. But then it happened again in Greece last winter and spring. It was really hard.

Performing live again feels amazing. It’s great to play with my fellow musicians again and, most importantly, in front of audiences. When we do it, it feels like this is how life should be and not anything else. We feel “this is what we should be doing.” The audience gives you feedback, which is important. Of course, you can make music alone. I can sit in front of my piano in my room and play something. But if I don’t communicate the music with someone else, it’s not a complete experience. And probably, even the musical work is not yet complete until that happens.

After one of the first concerts, it was so great to feel the energy and mood of the audience, and to see how much they enjoyed it and needed the music, too. After the concert, when I went to the foyer to sell CDs, people started applauding me again. They came up and thanked me. They said the music reached them and was something good for their soul. I felt we did something really good that night.

You’ve described your musical approach as an “open sound language.” What does that idea mean for you?

It means I don’t believe my music belongs to one concrete genre. I don’t like that idea. I don’t like having anyone expecting me to play or compose in a specific way. I like to experiment. I don’t want labels on my music. I would find myself very restricted and even imprisoned if I had to do something to get success in a commercial way. That doesn’t mean I don’t want my music to reach a bigger audience. Of course, I do, but I won’t do something just to please an audience, because that would be fake.

I come from a classical background. I studied piano and composition. I didn’t study jazz in terms of how it’s taught in universities. But since I was a kid, I loved improvising and that’s part of my composition process. In my trio, I play with Andreas Polyzogopoulos, a jazz trumpet player, and Kyriakos Tapakis, an oud player that comes from traditional folk music. It’s a very interesting experience as we have these three elements mixing together, but what comes out isn’t mainstream jazz. I don’t think at all in terms of having to play in a “jazzy” way. Exactly the same thing happened with my collaboration with Rob Thorne in Rewa. I like to experiment, discover new sounds, timbres, and combinations without any restrictions related to genre, style, or external expectations.

You’ve worked with very diverse musicians. What drives you to make those connections?

It often starts with knowing a musician, what they do, what their sound is, and how they play. Some other times it relates to the sound of their instrument, specifically.

In 2016, I participated in a project called 634 Minutes Inside the Volcano, in which I played with 15 Greek improvisors in the crater of the active volcano on Nisyros, an island in Greece. There was an oud player in this group of musicians. When he started playing some chords during soundcheck, within scenery that was out of this world, under an almost full moon, I thought “Wow, what am I listening to? Where am I right now?” It felt so different and precious. At that point, I said to myself “I want to do something with oud.” It wasn’t about a specific musician. Later, I added trumpet because I like that sound, too.

Sometimes, I make a connection because I like the musician. For instance, I knew Michele Rabbia’s music before I met him. I still find what he does completely magical because he doesn't play like a traditional drummer or percussionist. He makes a universal sound that provides endless possibilities. After I met him, I sent him some music and it was almost like a dream to play with him during performances with Rewa, and also later with The Book of Lost Songs. So, collaborations are all about my desire to explore new ways and new sounds through which to make music.

Tania GiannouliMusicians and production team members preparing for the 634 Minutes Inside the Volcano event, Nisyros, Greece, 2016 | Photo: Savvas Lazaridis

Tell me more about your experiences during the 634 Minutes Inside the Volcano performance.

We played in the crater itself. We had to climb down a really tough path for 10-15 minutes to get to it. The night before the concert, it was really empty and surreal. During the night of the concert, there were many people, and the audience would walk around the musicians, which was very special. The musicians were configured around a big circle with 40-50 meters between us. There were monitors and a small console in front of each of us, so we could control what we heard a bit, but in terms of physical space, I couldn’t hear what the other musicians playing next to me or opposite from me were doing.

It felt like the audience was in a bit of a trance mode. Some of them were even dancing. The music itself was like a “dream soundtrack”— a sort of electro-acoustic trance music. A lot of musicians played electronic instruments and electric guitars. Some of them were doing looping things. And then there were people like me on acoustic instruments. The energy was unlike anything I’ve experienced.

Explore how In Fading Light is a response to the period we’re living in.

I am overall an optimistic person, but also a very realistic person. I don’t like to ignore the difficulties of the world or live a dream life in the clouds. I believe we should acknowledge difficulties, but not lose hope and feel desperate. It’s the main idea of this album.

The pieces on In Fading Light have really concrete melodies, harmony, and rhythm, but it is definitely not an easy-listening album. It felt right for me to include more melodic elements, so it felt reassuring and beautiful to the listener. I usually don’t like the word “beautiful,” but I know for sure that we all need beauty. There’s a lot of ugliness in this world and we need to reach for beauty in any form.

With In Fading Light, there was also the fact that it features a very unusual trio with no drums or bass. It’s piano, oud, and trumpet. The oud is a very delicate-sounding instrument, and the trumpet has a strong, melodic element. Because of this combination, it’s not possible to fake anything. Everything you do is out there and transparent. So, the challenge is to create music that really has a sense of identity and meaning. The keys are to be simple, clear, and direct with both the musicians and listeners.

The album’s cover features a photo taken by the Greek photographer Savvas Lazaridis. In the photo, we see an empty pool in a garden. It’s in a place that looks deserted. Nobody’s been there for a long time. But still, all these plants and flowers are growing and blooming in the emptiness. It’s like jungle scenery. I chose it because again, I wanted to communicate that there is beauty and hope even in emptiness, abandonment, and in difficult times like these.

I didn’t know if releasing this album during lockdown was the best idea, especially when we didn’t know if we would play any concerts. But in the end, I decided it’s not good to keep music in the closet for too long. It needs to be shared.

Tania GiannouliTania Gianoulli during the 634 Minutes in the Volcano concert | Photo: Savvas Lazaridis

What are the biggest challenges you face in your creative process?

The compositional part is always a challenge. When I sit at my piano, there are periods in which I have good ideas and things come easily. But on other days, nothing comes easily at all. I think most artists have this agony. “Inspiration” can come from different places, but I believe that the “instant” is not instant at all. It’s the accumulation of past moments, words, feelings, relationships, and travels. Inspiration is the starting point. Anything that comes after is just hard work.

When I complete a piece, sometimes when I listen to it afterwards, I don’t recognize it anymore. It’s a bit strange. I might think “Did I write this? How did I do it?” I’ve had this happen several times. I’ll remember the procedure and the day-to-day and week-to-week struggles to complete a piece. But then I’ll rehearse it or hear it recorded and not be able to explain how it was written.

Another big challenge is how to create music with other musicians. It’s not always easy. It’s rare when it happens in a good way, because it’s not possible for everyone to connect with everyone else. There are often ego things. People will have different approaches, ideas, and behavior. It’s like any other relationship. It’s really good when it works, but it’s rare.

Joe Zawinul once told me he believed the great instrumentalists are the ones that tell meaningful stories through their music. What’s your perspective on that?

I agree. I believe composers and musicians “compose” and “play” their actual lives. The music I make is definitely about me and my life. I hope the music tells interesting stories and paints interesting pictures. You don’t need words to tell a story. This is why music is so important. It lets you communicate without verbalizing or explaining.

Tania Giannouli Rob ThorneTania Gianoulli and Rob Thorne | Photo: Eleanna Martinou

Your 2018 album, Rewa, is quite dark, and sometimes even industrial and experimental. How did you arrive at its direction?

I knew Rob Thorne, because he also records for Rattle Records. Rob plays taonga pūoro, a collection of traditional Māori wind and percussion instruments. He was coming to play in Athens, and we got in contact. We decided to go into the studio for two days and see what happens. I tried to prepare some music we could work on, including themes and written material.

So, we met in the afternoon before we went into the studio. Rob showed me all his instruments, including stones, bones, and seashells. There’s one called a pūrerehua that he swings on a long cord that produces a deep whirling, drone-like sound. All of his instruments come from nature.

The first day in the studio was a complete failure, because we tried working on some of my ideas and It didn’t work because Rob doesn’t think in conventional musical terms like melodies and themes. His philosophy is anyone who plays Māori instruments is enabling their ancestors to speak through the instruments, and that they are messengers. Rob had a procedure for doing this, which involves taking his shoes off and connecting to the ground, and also making an invocation to his Māori ancestors.

We decided for the second day in the studio to forget about any prepared ideas and just play. We recorded the whole album in that one day and it came together very naturally. In fact, we really surprised ourselves. Rob said he played in a completely different way from how he usually does. In the case of the last track on the album, “Te Tangi A Mutu,” we listened back and couldn’t explain how we came up with it.

We then gave the material to Steve Garden, the owner of Rattle Records. He did some treatments, editing, and mixed it. He was very sensitive to the material and didn’t change anything dramatically. Our raw material is very close to what you hear on the album. It really is a recording based on raw intuition.

Let’s discuss the making of 2015’s Transcendence. Describe the conceptual overlay that informed it.

This is an album in which all the musicians are more or less classically trained, with the exception of percussionist Solis Barki, who is more from the world of ethnic music. There’s some improvisation on the album, but it’s closer to being a chamber ensemble, with most of the music written in advance.

At the time of making it, Greece was going through a financial crisis that lasted more than 10 years. It was a very rough time. Everybody’s daily lives were affected. I began writing the music on its own, but the concept of transcending the crisis came later and it fit the album. It wasn’t the starting point.

Again, the album doesn’t have bass, but it has cello, as well as percussion, which makes a huge difference. It also has both edges of the saxophone: soprano and baritone, but not alto. It all combines to create a richer sound with more possibilities. I'd like to work with this ensemble again in the future.

Tania GiannouliPhoto: Dimitris Sakalakis

Let’s go back to 2012 and discuss the creation of Forest Stories, the duo album you did with Paulo Chagas, and how it changed your career trajectory.

It’s also an improvisation album. It involved exchanging ideas and recordings between our studios. It’s quite different from Rewa. Rewa captured an experience that happened in one day. We didn’t actually realize what was happening. Forest Stories was more about a process of recording and exchanging ideas with a purpose in mind.

The German-Swiss poet and philosopher Hermann Hesse wrote about nature and deeply acknowledged how much we have to learn from it. Forest Stories was mainly created during a period that I spent living in a German village at the edge of the forest, during the summer. The connection with nature influenced me a great deal. Hesse wrote a lot about the symbolism of a tree, including the fact that trees have trust in life. Trees know that after winter, spring will come again. They trust that even though their leaves are falling off, they will return. It’s a symbol of strength and life that we should look to for inspiration. The majority of humans are isolated from this because so many of us live in big cities, away from nature. We’re living in our own cosmos, with our own worries and problems. But the truth is, we are not alone on the Earth, and our connection to nature can become a great source of inspiration and healing.

I was very lucky after making Forest Stories to encounter Rattle Records from New Zealand. I was looking for a label to release it and wanted one that was abroad, not based in Greece. Rattle Records is very close to what I’m doing. They release music that cannot be categorized easily.

I proposed the album to Steve Garden and he immediately understood that my sound is very complementary to what the label is doing. So, things moved very quickly after he said “We like it. Let’s do it.” Ten years later, I’m still working with them. Steve has a lot of trust in me. When I proposed the ensemble album Transcendence, he also immediately jumped at it. We have a very good relationship and I think he feels happy I’m with the label.

I also have huge respect for what he is doing. What Steve does is really incredible. He’s a one-man force who can do anything. He’s the sound and recording engineer. He does an incredibly high-quality job with packaging and releasing the music, without being connected to a major corporation.

You contributed to Exiles, a new duo album by Garden and multi-instrumentalist Ivan Zagni. Provide some insight into the project.

It’s something Steve has been working on since the ‘80s with Ivan. Listening to the album is the musical equivalent of watching a movie. Steve is very much into cinema. So, the album has a cinematic narrative overlay. It combines acoustic instruments with electronics, as well as spoken word. It also includes historic recordings from the late Richard Nunns, who is probably the most important taonga pūoro instrumentalist. When Steve asked me to contribute piano to it, I was, of course, very happy.

Earlier, you mentioned The Book of Lost Songs, your ongoing collaboration with Maria Pia De Vito. Describe it for me.

It's the first time I’ve ever worked with voice. At first, I was struggling about whether or not to use lyrics. I decided not to, and rather chose to use voice as an instrument. I think working with lyrics is a completely different thing. Writing a successful song can be really special, but it’s something different from composing music, because it involves words and the meaning of those words. I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. It’s a different challenge. It’s why it’s called The Book of Lost Songs—we’re telling stories without lyrics.

Of course, Maria was the ideal musician for this because she can improvise in many styles, including jazz. She has a great range of techniques, sounds, moods, and colors. She’s also classically trained and can sing opera.

The Book of Lost Songs has been performed live once so far, at the 2020 Enjoy Jazz festival in Ludwigshafen, Germany. I had met Maria months previously, did some rough recordings with her for reference, and rehearsed together with the band. But what Maria could do on stage was so far beyond what she did in rehearsals. She was incredible. She totally transformed on stage and gave the performance 1000%. I’d like to make an album with her, but we should perform it a few more times before that happens. It’s a work in progress.

Is there a spiritual element in what you do?

Yes, but not in a very conscious way. I’m not a religious person or part of anything in an official way. But I believe in something that exists which is bigger than this life. I feel the act of creativity is part of this bigger thing. It comes from somewhere else. I don’t believe it just happens.