Ulysses'Gaze

Composer Eleni Karaindrou blends traditional and popular instruments to create an archaic, almost mythic sound

If Homer had written music, it might sound something like this: dark and brooding, redolent of rich red wine and the salty brine of the sea. At once plaintive and erotically lyrical, it would sing of love and loss, of the passion that motivates humans to achieve great things. It would, in short, sound very much like the music of Eleni Karaindrou, Greece's most eloquent living composer--and a movie-music composer at that.

Who is Karaindrou? Aside from Pan, the lusty Greek god who invented the pipes that bear his name, and Iannis Xenakis, a spiky modernist composer who made his reputation in the 1960s, Greece has offered few major musical figures. But Karaindrou, 54, called the "Tenth Muse" by fellow Greeks, may be just the woman to put her nation back on the musical map. Blending the sounds of traditional Greek instruments such as the santouri (a kind of zither), conventional popular instruments like the accordion and the full orchestral panoply of woodwinds, brass and strings, Karaindrou creates an archaic, almost mythic sound. "I like marrying sounds I know--Greek traditional folk to jazz or classical," she says. "I feel like a painter, taking dabs of color from a wide variety of sources and making something out of it.

"This adventurous quality marks her music for the controversial film director Theo Angelopoulos, with whom she has worked on five films since 1984. Their most recent project, the moving three-hour epic Ulysses' Gaze--starring Harvey Keitel in a topical updating of the Homeric legend, set against the Bosnian conflict--won the Grand Prix at Cannes last May. Karaindrou's creative role is so important that she often writes the music before Angelopoulos has shot a scene, inspiring him to find a visual equivalent for her aural material, rather than the other way around. "It is a feeling and a common language of communication that creates an invisible bond between us, an alchemy," notes Angelopoulos.

The album spun off from Ulysses' Gaze is Karaindrou's most impressive credit to date. An extended suite for solo viola, oboe, accordion, trumpet, horn, cello, voice and string orchestra, it has been a classical-chart best-seller in Greece since its October release and has just come out in the U.S. on the Munich-based ECM label. Amazingly, the basic score was composed in a single midwinter's night. "After reading the script, talking to Theo and hearing his narration of the story, I was immersed in deep thought, returning to and feeling the innocence of my childhood years," says Karaindrou. "To what extent the Greek element comes out is an issue for others to ponder."

Like her other music for Angelopoulo--such as 1986's The Beekeeper, featuring the soulful playing of Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and 1991's lyric The Suspended Step of the Stork--Ulysses' Gaze is marked by arching, folklike melodies played over droning string chords, imparting an elegiac, inexpressibly sad aura. "I was looking for multinational music, from Russian revolutionary songs, litanies with Byzantine psalms, Bulgarian and Serb folk songs," says Karaindrou. "This search for the lost gaze of innocence, and return to pristine, true feelings and faith, is what inspired me."

Karaindrou found inspiration early. Born in the remote mountain village of Teichio in central Greece, she remembers "the music of wind, rain on the slate roof, the nightingale singing, the silence of the snow, the playing of clarinets and flutes and village festivals." When she was six, her family moved to Athens into an apartment overlooking an outdoor summer theater; a few years later, she started piano lessons. Fifteen years of music study at the Hellenikon Odion school in Athens followed, as well as courses in history and archaeology at the University of Athens.

In 1967 Karaindrou--married but estranged from her husband--fled the repressive Greece of the generals with her young son and headed to Paris, where she studied ethnomusicology and fell in with a group of like-minded liberal expatriates. After the restoration of democracy in 1974, she returned to Athens. Following a divorce, she married the avant-garde stage director Antonis Antipas in 1988 and continued writing music for theater. Since her 1975 debut album, The Big Wakefulness, she has put out 18 stand-alone records and scored 33 plays and 16 films.

MICHAEL WALSH
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