Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Evis Sammoutis Portrait Concert

Monogenesis for solo violin
Dimorphism for two violins
Tesserae for violin and cello
Taftophonia for vocalising violinist
Echopraxia for string sextet

The Kreutzer Quartet Peter Sheppard Skærved & Mihailo Trandafilovksi (violins) Morgan Goff (viola) and Neil Heyde (cello), with Pedro Mereiles (viola) and Rohan de Saram (cello)

Duke's Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London Friday 13 April 2007

A substantial audience attended a very enjoyable concert of music by a composer with an individual and highly expressive language whose name is getting about; Evis Sammoutis (currently based in York) is surely destined for greater and greater success.

This was my first experience of the SPNM shortlisted, Greek/Cypriot born, Sammoutis' works, and after 60-70 minutes worth of his music played without pause I left wanting to hear more - a telling comment. Another concert-goer had bemoaned the lack of an interval, but I disagreed - there was a logic to the ordering of the pieces - solo violin, then two violins, then the addition of cello etc - that an interval would have dissipated.

Throughout the concert I found myself contemplating the relationship between music and programme notes. This is a subject that vexes many composers - some try very hard to produce meaningful and descriptive notes, others find them unnecessary, and when forced to write them, contribute meaningless or deliberately subversive or sarcastic remarks. Sammoutis belongs to the former category; reading his programme notes before the concert made me salivate with anticipation at what I was about to hear.

He wrote cogently about both the inspiration behind the pieces, and how they were structured as a consequence of that inspiration. Yet curiously, despite enjoying both the writing and the music, I didn't experience a link between them in the performance, except in Taftophonia, and to some extent Echopraxia.

Monogenesis employs a cluster “cell” of microtones between E and G, representing the theory that all living organisms are ultimately descended from a single cell, yet the proliferation of timbres and registers left me unable to follow the progression of the development of the cell throughout the piece (I remember a passage with pizzicato as puzzling me in relation to this connection). It could be that the progression of the cell becomes easier to register on repeated hearings, or through listening with the score; or that the progression is deliberately obscured to some extent. Whatever the reason, I wondered whether I would have enjoyed the piece even more having not read the programme notes beforehand, relying on my own observations and not worrying about trying to hear what the composer had pointed out to me beforehand.

Monogenesis is certainly an attractive piece. I admired its layered timbres and the wide variety of colours brought out of the violin. I found myself listening to it as I do electro-acoustic music - contemplating the development of timbre, and not so much the instrumental aspects. The ending did not instill in me a feeling of closure - a final gesture yes, but on this first hearing I didn't grasp its dramatic relationship to the preceding material.

I had a similar experience with Dimorphism. The programme notes were fascinating, but the picture of the two-faced vase that inspired the piece did not provoke in me a reaction that I could link to the music. Dimorphism is based on two pitches (G and A) and open strings on the violins. On this first hearing I found my ear drawn to the A more strongly in the first half and the G in the second.

The two violinists of the much-recorded Kreutzer Quartet, which specialises in contemporary music, were well balanced as a duo, not jostling for prominence as the picture of the vase suggested they might; looking at it I had sensed the two faces competing for my attention. The two violin parts were antiphonal certainly, but their different identities were not nearly as striking as those of the vase. The variety of sounds - rich in partials - I found very satisfying, though I eventually tired of the dropping bow motif.

The white noise effect reminded me of radio interference, and subsequently of electro-acoustic music again. (I hasten to add that I like electro-acoustic music very much!) The ending I found more effective than that of Monogenesis - but maybe this it because it seemed much more obvious (which does not make it better, only more easily understandable.)

Tesserae followed, and it was a wonderful sensation to hear the lower range of the cello after two violin pieces. This piece was more clearly sectional than the previous two, pizzicato-dominated passages giving way quite abruptly to long arco notes.

It was with Tesserae that my internal debate about programme notes reached its zenith, Sammoutis stating that: Tesserae are the small square or cubical pieces usually made of marble, glass or tile of which a mosaic is composed. The arrangement of the tesserae defines the mosaic's type and rhythm. In every mosaic, the combination of tesserae results in a clear representation or picture, if one does not look too closely. In the context of this composition, though, the overall picture is not so easily discerned. Listening to this composition should feel like looking at a mosaic from an extremely short distance, one's eyes almost touching the tesserae. From this alternative perspective, one begins to observe completely different patterns, which went unperceived as part of the greater picture, just as a closer look at a mosaic might reveal intricate bands of colour that would have been unnoticed from a greater distance. When this happens one can really appreciate the individuality, the texture and shape of each tessera and concentrate more on the tiny details and nuances of the composition...

Once again, a creative and interesting concept, but not one that I grasped while listening to the music! I enjoyed following the events of the composition, but I did not ascertain which sections were microscopic tesserae. Perhaps this will become clearer on repeated listening...

It has for some time now been a notorious compositional challenge to translate the experiences of visual art into music. Following the analogy given above, I would question whether one piece of music can really capture the two distinct feelings of looking at a mosaic at a correct distance, and looking at it with your eye up against a tessera. To understand the relation of one to the other, each has to be perceptively distinct. While I enjoyed listening to the piece, I did not experience a musical representation of the concept described in the notes.

Taftophonia (which had its world premiere in London the previous month) followed - a piece for vocalising violinist, in which the aim is to create a synthesis between the performer's gesture, voice and instrumental part.

This piece, expertly performed by Peter Sheppard Skaerved, was extremely successful, and the programme notes were of great help to me in enjoying and appreciating the music. I wondered whether Taftophonia could be performable by any voice range, as some of the timbral balances seemed dependent on a particular register?

The combination of violin and voice produced some exquisite timbres. I have heard this effect in Rzewski's music, among others, but Taftophonia is the most powerful example of its extended use that I have experienced so far. The foot stamp was dramatic, and the whistled B at the end of the piece ghostly. A wide palette of colours and a beautiful piece.

The last composition of the concert, Echopraxia for string sextet, had Pedro Mereiles (viola) and Rohan de Saram (cello) join the Kreutzer Quartet. This was certainly an exciting affair, with all the molten energy of Xenakis combined with a careful juxtaposition of effects. The piece had to be restarted due to a sudden snapped string - at which point the audience were informed that Echopraxia had now claimed 7 strings since the start of rehearsals!

It was during this performance that I realised that the programme as a whole had shown Sammoutis to be a master of exploiting unison and near-unison pitches - a wonderful feature of his language, with microtonal clusters and their fluctuations bristling with tension. The ending was superb, the texture dissipating down to the sound of bowed wood and then silence. The players were impressively marshalled by PSS, who whilst playing himself literally conducted them through complicated ensemble demands.

The snapping of the string and re-starting of Echopraxia led me to ponder the strengths of a live performance compared to a studio recording in a piece such as this. Instruments played unconventionally, in a way which they were not originally designed for, understandably are put to unusual strain. A live performance is far more exciting of course, the visual spectacle adding to the virtuosic expression, but I would like to hear too a professionally recorded version of this work, supervised by the composer; I think that it would be an unforgettable listening experience.*

Aleksander Szram

* Note: There is a privately recorded performance of Echopraxia's premiere in Amsterdam, when it was conducted independently. See also Evis Sammoutis at Hellenic Centre and Wapping Hydraulic Power Station

Echopraxia and Dimorphism have been filmed at RAM the following evening; enquiries for DVD Colin Still at Optic Nerve

Congratulations to Evis Sammoutis who is the 2008 RPS Composition Prize Winner
and also won the Lizst Scholarship in Weimar last month. [Editor]

Illustration: Filming Dimorphism at Duke's Hall, director Colin Still