Advance beyond sound with Yiorgis Sakellariou
- Feb. 8, 2022
Interviewed by Vitalijus Gailius
Yiorgis Sakellariou is a creator of experimental electroacoustic music who has been wandering the unpredictable valleys of soundscapes for nearly two decades. He has an exceptional ear and a talent to put the everyday sound environment into new perspectives no one has thought of before. His works enables metaphysical access to sound and the environment around us.
Yiorgis was born and raised in Athens. Later he spent five years in London, but after that the path of his life led to Vilnius, the town also known as 'The Athens of the North', where he has been an integral part of the Lithuanian music community. And not only as a composer but also as an educator. Yiorgis shares his knowledge with the students of Vytautas Magnus University and the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. Of course, his creative ambitions are not limited to the local scene – he also constantly presents his works internationally.
This year, the Music Information Centre Lithuania released Sakellariou’s new album, “Fons et Origo”, which is based on Neris, the river that dissects the city of Vilnius. It is a record full of hollows and shallows, rapid stretches and calm estuaries, opening up an infinitely broad perspective on the perception of water. The album launched on February 10that 7 p.m. at the LAMT Julius Juzeliūnas Spatial Sound Sphere. Before diving into Neris, we talked to Yiorgis about composing, sound, cognition processes and, of course, the new album.
You have a background in classical music and also in Mediterranean folk. When and why did you turn to field recordings and electroacoustic music?
That came quite late. Since my childhood, I’ve always had an interest in sound as a way of engaging with the world in general. I have memories and stories from my mother explaining to me that I was perceiving the world sonically in a very active way. That almost naturally led me to music. During my teenage years, in the late eighties and early nineties, the main motivation was The Beatles and rock music in general. At the same time, I also played the classical guitar actively. I studied the suites of Johann Sebastian Bach and the works of Heitor Villa-Lobos and wanted to have a solid knowledge of music or, let’s say, serious background knowledge. Gradually, while I was playing guitar, I went towards sound exploration and started to work with effects, pedals, amplification, etc. Naturally, I had been extending my sonic palette much more by using synthesizers and computers. That was kind of returning to my childhood mentality, engaging with the outside world through sound. Chronologically speaking, my turn to field recordings and electroacoustic music happened around 2002-2003. Around the end of that decade, I put aside all those synthesizers and other instruments and started working exclusively with field recordings.
I gradually found myself growing a little bored or lazy to play the classical guitar. The classics require constant hard work repeating the scales and so on. You must play as many hours a day as possible. I got tired of that. I realized I didn’t want to be a performer of other people’s works, and so I turned to Mediterranean folklore. That opened up new perspectives to me. And not only other scales or melodies but even a completely different mentality. I used to play the oud, and finally I even finished my studies in this field.
So, since then you’ve no longer played a guitar?
Actually, I started playing guitar again last September. Now it’s my main musical focus. My creative path has never been a straight line. It’s always been curves, detours, setbacks, moving to a different direction. I always seek to revaluate what I do, to look at my activities from different angles.
The older I get, the more I realize that sound is not the aim anymore. A decade ago, when I was fully focused on field recordings, I concentrated my activities on the researching of sound, the exploration of soundscapes, the shaping or morphing of sound and putting it into music. Now I open myself to indescribable ways of experiencing the world. Sound of course stands in the centre of my practice, but it is not anymore the object of study.
Do you have any plans to release a guitar music album?
Yes, but those works are at an early stage. I’ve actually started a band here in Vilnius. We are rehearsing regularly and trying to finish some material and take it on stage. That should be something I’d describe as a mixture of noise rock, minimal drone, doom, doomgaze. It will be slow, heavy and with a very interesting line-up. I feel that something nice is happening there.
I’ve noticed that you use the word music when we talk about field recordings or electroacoustic experiments. But there are people who don’t consider these genres as music.
Absolutely it’s music. Fortunately, I think we have already passed the time when that which has no harmony or melody could be called non-music. Personally, my understanding of music derives from the Ancient Greek term mousiké, referring to the summoning of muses, deities or creatures that are out of this world. This is exactly what I do with my field recordings. But even if we take a look at filed recording composition from a traditional musicology perspective, it’s purely music. My works obviously do not have a typical vocabulary but the syntax is the same. I am still thinking about an introduction, a middle part, transition sections, I think of crescendo, diminuendo and other dynamic terms. I don’t feel that note-based composers do things so differently than me.
I was contemplating the term composer from a field recordings perspective and the idea of a sound manager came to me. This term I think might be pretty accurate, describing a person who connects various sounds which are not in his disposition in general.
There are many ways this could be described. I was thinking recently about Luc Ferrari and his “Presque rien n°4, la remontée du village” which challenged the idea of what a composer is. In 2022, the term composer is far broader than what it was 30 or 40 years ago. Following the well-known phrase “music is organized sound” implies that composers are merely organizers of sound. But I would like to return to the idea of summoning the muses. From my perspective, a composer is not somebody who puts sound together but attaches or adds an essence of human spirit to this process. It’s not only a technical job, there’s a magic that comes with it. And it’s not salt and pepper on the top, it’s actually the essence of the work that makes a composer a composer. That links to the way composers have thought of themselves ever since the romantic era. It’s mainly German composers who formed such a view in the late romantic period. The term composer will inevitably change even further and encompass even more different understandings and meanings. I still feel very comfortable calling myself a composer. I’ve also witnessed many composers stepping back from the idea of composing a “masterpiece” – that seems not to be the need of society – and turning more to workshops, bringing people together. So their focus leads more to the process but not to a certain result.
I would like to touch on the material you work with, I mean the sounds of woods, rivers, cities, etc. Do you think it’s possible to compose such sources of sound?
Composing itself is an ongoing process always divided into various stages. I do consider going out for field recordings as one part or stage of the compositional process. And it does include several compositional decisions. Anything from when, where and how long to record or where to place the microphones. In other words it’s not only about capturing sounds but rather about engaging with an environment, exploring it with a musical ear and then continuing the process back in the studio with the recordings. Going a little bit back into the past, let me remind you of a quote by Igor Stravinsky: “The sounds of nature are promises of music”. But nature cannot become music without conscious human interaction. And I think that act is listening. It’s a very important method if we put it that way. It’s a key method for what I do. Through listening you are engaging, interpreting and then shaping and putting things into perspective in a more structured way. And then your published album is not even the end of the composition. Composition will continue its life, it’s an ongoing process, the listeners alter it according to their memories, and the piece changes the listeners. Nothing remains static. I have no idea when this process ends.
Before we met, you mentioned that interest in field recordings is growing. Do you know why?
Interest in field recordings is increasing rapidly. I don’t even talk about a global scale but just look here at Vilnius. While working on various projects, workshops and lecturing I see a strong interest in field recordings. First because of the availability of cheap recorders, even mobile phones that have a recording function. Nowadays we have an opportunity to be able to very easily record something. Second, in a sound-filled environment many people just want to stop, to feel what’s going on around them and discover themselves in the environment where they live in or get out from noisy urban areas to a forest, lake or river. Field recordings give you an opportunity to do that. By pressing “record” it is like pressing pause in the rapid tempo of everyday life and turning from hearing to listening mode.
Yet such sonic experiments are still a niche thing.
Obviously, and I am very fine with that. I think this music is more about quality than quantity. I would rather have thirty concentrated members in my audience who are exclusively appreciating the piece and engage with it than a few thousand people who perceive music only as a background. And let me say that live music is so important these days because, if I may be so bold, recorded music is dead. Having a transcendental experience while listening to a music record is almost impossible, you hear music everywhere now. A couple of clicks and you have access to everything that was ever recorded right in your computer. So where can you get a chance to sit down, focus and experience something very unique? Only at a concert.
Some people have special places for music listening in their homes.
Yeah, but it is very, very rare these days. And it’s not the equivalent of a concert experience. At home it’s difficult to maximize your focus on music, there are so many distractions. The value of music increases if we think about it in terms of listening live, when we met together. Sharing is crucial. The pandemic has demonstrated that. People missed live concerts, where bodies can be in the same room and feel something indescribable that touches them emotionally and spiritually.
Looking at your discography, some records, such as “Nympholepsia” or “Stykhia”, seem to have certain connections with history, literature, etc., while others to the contrary focus on pure sound exploration. What’s more important to you – concept or pure sound?
The quick answer obviously would be pure sound. Toru Takemitsu once said that when sound is full of ideas then it suffers. On the other hand, of course, there are many things that fuel purely sonic experiences. For me it could be mythology and ritual studies, but I don’t use sound to transmit a message of those ideas. I let my compositions be open to the listeners’ interpretations. We cannot compose in an isolated bubble worrying and caring only about our sound. That becomes a little bit self-referential. This is perhaps one of the problems of electroacoustic music nowadays, why it doesn’t have much of an audience. Because it seems almost like isolated experiments about sounds. This is not what I do. Philosophy, mythology and other ideas bring in elements that, hopefully, make my music a little bit more relatable.
Have you ever been faced with a situation where you came to a place and didn’t record anything on that particular day but returned the next day instead?
Absolutely. Sounds are unpredictable. When I go for recording I never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes I don’t even set up my microphones although I would be ready to do that. I’m fascinated that when I start my work outside the studio everything is out of my control. It can be frustrating sometimes, in terms of having to finish a piece and having to have material as soon as possible. But most of the time it’s very fascinating. I am exposed and open to whatever sound brings to me. That is one of the things I enjoy. I’m more of a Morton Feldman kind a guy – I let the sound tell me what I have to do.
Do you have a sound you have never captured but would like to so badly?
Actually yes. Last year, when the Neris river froze and turned into ice, the sound that reminded of a thousand breaking glasses caught me. That particular phenomenon happened right under the Mindaugas Bridge. I regret I wasn’t carrying my recorder with me at that time. I wanted to go back home to take it and return under the bridge. Unfortunately, though, because of the constant traffic on the bridge I understood I wouldn’t be able to record that undisturbed sound I particularly heard. I really hope that during the winter when the temperature drops I’ll have a chance to record that fascinating sound.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about how you came to Lithuania. When and why did you come?
My first visit was in 2010. I was in an artist-in-residence programme in Tallinn and a friend of mine suggested making some contacts across the Baltics. So during my residency I also went to Riga, Vilnius and Kaunas. I spent two or three days in Lithuania and it woke something up inside me, the country touched me. By the way, at that time I also met my future wife who is Lithuanian. Consequently, I moved to Klaipėda for one year but later went to London for five years (Yiorgis holds a Master of Arts in Sound from the University of the Arts London and a PhD in Music Theory and Composition from Coventry University – V.G.). After finishing my studies in London, my wife and I, we decided to move to Vilnius and live here. I am in love with living in Lithuania, I feel very comfortable here. In a sense it’s my home, but I will always be a stranger because I wasn’t born here. But I feel like a stranger everywhere, even in the city I was born, Athens. This is an emotion I’m in negotiation with myself about every day and it’s somehow related to my personality. I see my identity as totally shifting all the time. It’s a dynamic thing. I identify myself as partly Greek, Lithuanian, a little bit English as well after five years in London. I am carrying all these different experiences from the different countries with me. I see myself as a continuously growing person with no idea where everything will end up.
Does being a stranger give you an opportunity to keep a critical distance with your object, I mean your sound environment?
Honestly, I don’t want to do that. When you work with sound you never can feel at a distance. Sound by default touches you in a way even from a distance. We listen not to a soundscape but in a soundscape. I don’t intend to separate myself as a subject from the environment as an object. Just to clarify, when I talk about being a stranger that doesn’t necessary mean isolation or loneliness. Sometimes I do need solitude in order to record, to engage with nature, to make a profound connection with the surrounding environment. It’s a big part of my practice and it doesn’t have negative connotations.
On “Shift” you recorded Soviet-era urban places in Kaunas. So, sound to you is an instrument to learn more about Lithuanian history or culture?
Sound always opens up new perspectives. I’m glad at having the privilege of diving into Lithuania more through sound than perhaps others do. I explore industrial and nature sounds. I have to underline how much I was entranced by the soundscape around Ventė and Kintai. Also, a few years ago, I was doing a recording project with the support of The British Library and recorded the “Skamba, skamba kankliai” folk music festival soundscape. I’ve been interested in folk music but I would like to learn more about Lithuanian folk music. My staying in Lithuania is a very interesting journey and I want to keep on exploring.
You also recorded in Morocco, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, etc. How does Lithuania sound compared to other countries? Does it have any distinctiveness?
Well, sound doesn’t understand borders or nations. Of course, if we use language the distinctiveness appears clearer. So obviously Ventė has its particular soundscape but that doesn’t make it a Lithuanian soundscape. Marrakesh has its distinctive sound, but I couldn’t label it as the sound of Morocco. The particularity of Lithuania comes mostly from my emotional response to it rather than anything else.
Do you have a favourite sounding town in Lithuania?
I am not objective here, but it’s obviously Vilnius. “Fons et Origo” I consider one of my better works, and it was made out of sounds recorded in this city. I recorded in literally walking distances from my flat in the Žirmūnai neighborhood. I also covered the banks of the Neris river from Karoliniškės to Verkiai Palace. On foot and both sides. Of course that took more than one day – maybe two weeks. I have an emotional attachment with Vilnius. Klaipėda also has a special place in my memory, where I lived and recorded.
Klaipėda seems popular among field recorders. Recently I listened to Donatas Bielkauskas’ album “Mirštantis. Miestas. Gyvenimui” and your work dedicated to Klaipėda. It’s fascinating how differently both of you hear the same city.
We can use the same microphones, go to the same spaces, but the recordings will be different. If we took a photo of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre building across the street, our photos would be different. There is always our personal filter. By the way, Donatas recorded relatively recently, I recorded in 2012, so the town changed as well. Klaipeda is a seaport and has a very particular sound, I enjoyed it very much when I was there.
Are you interested in what other Lithuanian sound artists are doing, such as Darius Čiuta?
Of course, we have so much music and culture here. Incredible composers, field recordists, sound artists, improvising musicians. I really believe that any visitor who spends any time of the year in Vilnius would be impressed with how many cultural activities are happening here. Of course, I speak more on behalf of music, for which I know more, but I think the same applies to exhibitions, cinema, the visual arts. There are many platforms for artists to present their works. I’m very happy to be a part of this.
But some Lithuanians argue that there’s nothing special here and Lithuania is just a nook.
Maybe I have the enthusiasm of the outsider. I can compare the situation with London. Obviously, a lot of things happen in London but everything seems scattered. You simply don’t feel a connection around. Everyone is doing his own little thing. But here, on a smaller scale, you can easily see how other people work, meet them, communicate, exchange ideas. The hubs here always have something going on.
We already touched a bit on your latest album “Fons et Origo”. Honestly, it’s a fascinating album because of so many unexpected layers of sound. How do you see this album in the context of your previous works? What are the differences from your previous works?
I think listeners should decide on their own. Personally, every work is different even though we can see similar methods behind them. Every single time, the working and recording process on a new album or project is a strenuous struggle, a painful creative process. Every time this process gives me different challenges, technical, conceptual, etc. Working on a new album means a completely new chapter of my career. Speaking about the differences of “Fons et Origo”, it will probably reach an audience that has never engaged with my music before because the album was released by the Music Information Centre Lithuania – the first time I’m doing something with a Lithuanian record label. I’m so happy to contribute to the cultural landscape of Lithuania.
By the way, in the liner notes you mention the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and refer to various myths. Do you consider this album a conceptual one?
Of course there is a concept, I wrote about it a little bit in the liner notes. But I wouldn’t call it conceptual. My approach is not about the sound of water or the almost self-referential process of me recording what I can do with the water sound but to extend the thoughts that we have about rivers and water. Each us as has personal memories and experiences, and while listening to the album we are able to understand it differently. People just have to listen to the music and not bother themselves with concepts.
In that case, would it be better to have a totally blank CD booklet?
That reminds me of Francisco López who has always been notorious for releasing untitled pieces, just the music. For many, many years he was also releasing CDs usually without any artwork, in a blank jewel case. And he would say that any text, any artwork would be a distraction from the sound and the listening experience. There was a period when I was releasing albums where the only information was the duration. Then I realized that I didn’t want to lock myself in a self-referential bubble and I decided to extend things a bit. Anyway, practically speaking nobody needs to read anything before experiencing. It’s not a conceptual modern art piece where you won’t be able to understand what it’s about without reading beforehand. Music needs to be listened to, and if you listen to it carefully something will definitely touch your heart.
YIORGIS SAKELLARIOU “Fons et Origo”
Mastered by Jos Smolders at EARLab Studios
Graphic design: Ugnė Balčiūnaitė
English proofreading: Howard Jarwis
Executive producer: Radvilė Buivydienė
Record company: Music Information Centre Lithuania
Supported by the Lithuanian Council for Culture and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania
Album can be purchased at our e-shop “MusicLithuania.com”.