Photo Credit: Laszlo Juhasz
The music of Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga is difficult to explain without omitting something essential. Put simply, she brings the traditional folk timbres of the zither into modernist drone structures, often lasting over an hour in the live performances. There are clear nods here to likes of avant-jazz minimalism, and yet the sound is distinctly time-honoured, with woody textures and a lo-tech meditative playing style. At times, the sonic quality of the zither is so small and elusory that it feels as though you have to crane your neck to hear its subtle tones. At others, the harsh, interlocking frequencies are enough to make to make you wince. The dynamics in this music are crucial, and the sonic palette that it possesses for the very small and the very large is truly staggering. We caught up with Lazaridou-Chatzigoga ahead of her performance at Cafe OTO’s seemingly half-built Project Space to talk about John Cage, the Greek financial crisis and electric heaters.
How would you define the music you play?
You could call the kind of music I play ‘improvised’ or ‘electro acoustic improvisation’ or ‘experimental’ but I prefer to just call it just music. It’s also experimental in its approach - I don’t play my instrument in a traditional way, and it’s improvised in that I don’t follow a predetermined score. One of the things I care about a lot is texture and the way you can create structure on the spot drawing from your previous practice and the moment when the music is actually happening.
What’s your set up this evening? What is that instrument?
So my instrument is a zither from Saxony, so a central European zither. I picked it up because it reminded me the inside of a piano but on a portable scale. It has this horizontal structure that invites you to adopt a different perspective than the one you would have with a guitar for instance, where you would normally have it parallel to your body. This horizontality reminded me of the way Keith Rowe used his guitar on a table, enabling him to play the instrument in a new way. I can thus play the strings in new ways and place objects (metallic, wooden, magnetic) on top of them. I also use e-bows, which are electronic bows which magnetically vibrate the strings, a vibration that is extended to the body of the instrument and whatever objects I have on the instrument.
Would you say then that almost every performance you do is unique? Do you think your music translates better live or as a recording in this regard?
There are several things that are repeated in my sets such as which objects I use, how I place the instrument itself and so on, but then almost always, I would use the objects in a different order or I would decide to explore that particular sound more in one performance or to work more on a combination of sounds in another. So although I might be using the same ingredients it doesn’t mean it will always come out in the same way. I feel you always discover new things as you play. It’s also important that the audience, the context and the space shape the music played on each occasion. When it comes to recordings, I think the listener can abstract away from the visual details, which are salient in a live performance, and can concentrate more on the quality of the sound.
Some of the sounds you make almost sound synthesised. It’s interesting how noise artists can be appreciated and arrived at both from the world of electronic music and the avant-garde jazz world but someone coming from one tradition may not know anything about the other. From which tradition would you say you stem from?
That is an interesting point indeed. People who have listened to my music without having seen how it is performed live have asked me quite a few times if I play some kind of synth. Imagine their reaction when I tell them “I play the zither!” I certainly don’t stem ffrom noise, even though I have listened to it here and there. Avant-garde jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman were a big influence, before even starting to play or perform. Then there are composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, who have been instrumental in the way I see music. There’s also free improvisation groups like AMM and the way they explore music or the minimalist composer Phil Niblock with his dense multi-layered music. I guess I diverge from electronic music in that my approach starts from the instrument and then goes towards abstract sounds, whereas electronic music may do the opposite. A big influence in that respect is Sachiko M, a Japanese musician who manipulates the internal test tones from her sample as her musical material, a radical approach both to what music sounds like and also to the relation of a musician with their instrument, creating pure ear-piercing sine waves.
How does the recording process work for your music?
I often don’t even use a studio – it could be at a house, or in a church. I do like studio time, but it’s often more a case of who will record you – you need someone that is interested in that kind of music, and it’s important that the sound engineer recognises the requirements, which can differ greatly from the ones of other musicians. I remember when we were in Sweden recording a concert at a Jazz festival, the heating was on and it was making a very loud constant noise, and we ended up arguing with them saying ‘this thing is actually making a sound very similar to our sound so you should turn it off!’ and they looked really puzzled.
I understand that you’re originally from Greece – what’s the music scene like there? Has your music been received differently here than there?
I am from Greece, but I started playing when I was in Barcelona and there’s a small scene there for this kind of music, people like Ferran Fages, Alfredo Monteiro and Ruth Barberán. They had been doing concerts for many years so I was very influenced by the way they treat their instruments and the way the scene works there. In Greece, there is a lot of music going on, a lot of things used to happen at the Small Music Theatre in Athens with Nikos Veliotis and Anastasis Grivas organizing, but then because of the situation in Greece now, it is difficult to organize concerts. Plus, a lot of Greek musicians leave Greece to make music and a living elsewhere. I think this kind of music doesn’t really originate from one place; it’s more like a community of people across the world.
Have you noticed a difference in how the audience responds to this music, say between Barcelona and London?
I think it depends on how much exposure people have had to this kind of music. Here in London, there is already an audience ready to hear this kind of stuff, where in Greece or in Spain it would be very marginal – sometimes with just 5 people in the audience. The reaction is different here too; in London, I find that people don’t really express what they think after a show. In Greece or other places I played live, people would come up to you when you are finished and ask you ‘how do you do that?’ and they want to know why, but here people are more reserved.
You spoke about the broad cross-cultural nature of this kind of music. What are some of your non-musical influences?
I do think this kind of music is very connected to other art forms, especially painting. Recently, I drew a line between Paul Klee’s paintings with some aspects of my music. ‘Stroke by Stroke’ took its name from a poetry collection by the Belgian poet Henri Michaux and my duo album ‘Corgroc’ borrowed lines from an E.E.Cummings poem for the track titles. One of the last projects I did was inspired by Alexander Calder’s mobile structures – the idea of which was to write basic instructions for people and then follow the basic archetype of a mobile structure with its flow and stillness.
So tell us about the concert tonight, who will you be playing with?
Tonight I’m playing with Birgit Ulher who’s a trumpet player from Hamburg who I met in Barcelona. She’s just here in London for a few days so we decided to play as a duo, which we’ve never done before. I find her playing really interesting because she’s playing trumpet but also different radio transmitters and she responds to sound in a very peculiar way, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that will pan out. Tonight’s concert will be OTO’s project space around the corner from the café – it’s a really interesting space because you can only fit a few people in there and you can hear different aspects of the environment around it coming through such as the trains.
Finally, what other plans have you got for the rest of the year?
I just released a duo CD called ‘Bauchredner’ with Martin Küchen, a saxophonist from Sweden, and we’re currently organising a tour together in some places in Europe. I am also playing with Ute Kanngieser (cello) and Jennifer Allum (violin) regularly working on our trio sound and I am preparing a split solo release with Daichi Yoshikawa, who plays feedback. I also want to work on finding some funds to present the mobile #2 OR odds ratio composition (inspired by Calder) in London, a project with Nate Wooley, Cremaster (Alfredo Costa Monteiro and Ferran Fages), Xavier Charles, Enrico Malatesta and Christian Weber.