Sofia Kamagianni

Written by: Lampros Mitropoulos

“Art has a liberating aspect in that it acts on the most profound and mysterious layers of our existence. It frees us, smooths out contrasts and fears, brings rich feelings to the surface, opens up new perspectives, broadens the mental boundaries of our “world”, makes possible what seemed impossible”.
“Take my word, give me your hand”... the magic of approaching one another.
Sofia Kamagianni

It is our great pleasure here on Radio Art to welcome Sofia Kamagianni, a seminal music composer of our country. Sofia is one of those artists whose work is steeped in emotional depth, lyricism, tenderness and boundless sensitivity. She has studied piano, classical percussion, theater and cinematic music, as well as mathematics in Greece and England. We first made her acquaintance through her sojourn with the Patras Plucked String Instrument Orchestra, her work in scoring works by Mikis Theodorakis, and two excellent CDs, “Dockside”, featuring purely instrumental music, and “In the Halo of Stars”, featuring vocal compositions on works by great Greek poets. Several composition circles followed, including “A Cloud in Love”, a marvelous musical opera for children and young adults, based on Nazim Hikmet’s fairy tale of the same name, with a libretto written by Eleni Zafeiriou and, most recently, “The Months Singing”, twelve songs for children and adults, of great interest thanks to her ethereal music and Fontas Ladis’s delicate lyrics.
Her complete work consists of music for theater, short films, multi arts performances, operatic and dance compositions, and a wide variety of other creations. Her musical compositions are enthralling, revealing and probing, with the power to transport the audience to an exciting, magical world full of poetry and tenderness.

When viewing her work in its totality, it is readily apparent that Sofia Kamagianni is a charismatic composer and an excellent pianist “of exceptional talent, musicality, technique and imagination”, in the words of Mikis Theodorakis, and ranks among the greatest Greek creators of her generation.

Following is our conversation with her, which we believe you will find most interesting.

Conversation with Sofia Kamagianni

L.M: Dear Mrs. Kamagianni, welcome to “Radio Art”. We are particularly honored that you accepted our invitation to a conversation.

S.K: Thank you for inviting me and receiving me here on “Radio Art”.

L.M: When did you begin your journey in music, and what were the decisive factors that led you towards the magical world of art?

S.K: I began from a very young age. I was lucky enough that my parents sent me to a music pre-education class when I was still in preschool, and I immediately started taking piano lessons as soon as I entered elementary school. They both loved music and especially song, which was also part of our family and friendly gatherings. What’s more, they were bent on providing us with as much education as possible from early on.

L.M: Your later career clearly shows your preference for composition. Your artistic creations also reveal a great love of poetry. What influenced these choices?

S.K: First I’d like to comment that, while composition definitely won me over, I always enjoy playing too, for this directness and intimacy with the audience offers me a special joy and balance. Composition is my core, it combines everything, keeps me in touch with my deepest inner queries and has, at the same time, the ability to filter all these sensations, thoughts, feelings and dreams. All these have been very keenly felt since I was a child, possibly due to a combination of my own nature and a hard childhood - the only outlet for them was the way of creation. And there are many different qualities in this, from deep introspective reflection to the lightest, tender feeling of a moment… I do love poetry dearly. I no longer have the time to read as much as I did in the past. It is true that poetry is naturally imbued with much musicality, I feel as if I’m “listening” to a work when I’m reading it… It also has an existence of its own, and this is why the choice of setting poetry to music or processing its sound always produces a new work, marked by the composer’s subjective perspective - the composer’s main reason for doing so is a need to share, through their music, these words that shook them, hoping that their work can also provide glimpses of the poet’s world. Speech is an important vehicle for communication. I have always felt “at home” with poetry, as with music, perhaps it’s a brief swing on the underground (or… overground?) lines that set our lives in motion, those lives that are so tightly bound to one another - a forgotten truth in these disconnecting times. Every element of nature plays a part in this interaction. In a cherished space and time, not necessarily linear in form; a linear space and time, the present, is a call to awareness and action.

Kamagianni 3

L.M: Who were your teachers, your guides through the beginnings of your artistic career? Which of them are still your musical and poetic correspondents?

S.K: I can definitely say that M. Hatzidakis, still unsurpassable today, has had the greatest influence on my music. My acquaintance with M. Theodorakis, through our collaboration at a very young age, had an invigorating effect on my soul, yet it took quite some time before his revelations made their appearance in my life: the side of music which is connected to the struggle for freedom and social justice. Of vital importance to my career were the theater and film music lessons I took with D. Papademetriou. His was a multifaceted lesson, with many poetic references, offering much food for thought and a motto I’ve always found very much to my taste, which I could freely describe as follows: in order to write music, turn your eyes to every other art form and to life itself, cultivate your mind and soul. All these were before my departure for England in pursuit of further music studies, and my interest in the more contemporary currents of the so-called avante garde music - this shift proved a significant breakthrough for me, into a vast new world which was to have a definitive effect later on, everything went down a different road until the time of internal fermentation came. Concerning poetry, I have left dark and pessimistic poets somewhat behind, I’m mostly drawn to perspective these days. A particularly moving recent example: while working on my latest project, I found myself rereading a book after many years. “Poems Suivi De Mirlitonnades” by Samuel Beckett (translated by Girogos Vellios). I had dog-eared several of the pages, because I had used material from the book in my multi arts work Rabila Co, twenty years ago! Without thinking, I chose the poem immediately before a dog-eared page, and it had the exact opposite meaning from the one I had used in the past…

L.M: Besides your music studies, you have also studied mathematics, among other things. How is music related to mathematics?

S.K: This takes me back many years, but I don’t mind. First of all, they find common ground in that they are both rooted in philosophy, intellectual delight, and the veneration of solving the world’s great mysteries, according to the words of Klein, a mathematician who referred to mathematics as a form of art, attributing spiritual qualities to them. In more simple and mundane words, their connection is mostly about thought and structure, in a conscious or unconscious way, meaning that a musician may think in mathematical terms without realizing. To us, this relationship goes back all the way to Pythagoras (calculating musical intervals based on the difference between height and sounds, music of the spheres, the quadrivium consisting of music, arithmetics, astronomy and geometry, comprising the study of mathematics). There are also mathematical composers, of whom Xenakis is the closest example, who “translate” different mathematical relations into sonic ones, but this is a more specialized field. Personally, I believe studying mathematics has been most helpful in composing, especially in longer forms. However, I don’t like it when music becomes “arithmeticized”, when there is no background to connect those two concepts in a more “magical” way, for then the analogy would be frightening in its emptiness. On a more macroscopic level, the entire Universe is filled with sonic frequencies, that is music, whether we can perceive them or not.

L.M: You have composed music for many stage productions, however I’d like to focus on your work for Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, presented at the Kozani Municipal and Regional Theater and directed by Nikaiti Kontouri, a famously long text of tragic poetry. What was your approach in writing music for a work of such timeless importance?

S.K: I cannot quite recall the inner effervescence I felt when I first approached, as if charmed, a text of such magnitude - it was the first tragedy I had ever written music for. I usually dive headlong and let myself be led by intuition, aided by my own reflections and the director’s guidelines. Thoughts that come to mind include the latent buildup of terror and suspense, which is hinted at before its eventual escalation, and the pervasive feeling of the presence of a higher justice, as Aeschylus’s metaphysics dictate, along with the play’s timeless moral, that “the old Hubris is wont to beget new Hubris”. It is as if all these elements are calling for a consistent, parallel underlying universe that is capable of affecting the present, of leading us into deeper waters, into the domain of the tragic and the subconscious, and yet operates underground, never standing out. To achieve this, we used digitally processed sounds coupled with the live music, which consisted of voices and a single clarinet. This production has left an imprint on me for another reason, as it featured my beloved Minas Hatzisavvas in the lead role, a person who has been very important for my career and life. I am always moved by his memory.

Dimoula Kamaginni

L.M: What is it that you find so alluring in multi arts performances, what led you to create works like “I passed”, based on Kiki Dimoula’s poetry, and several others in the past?

S.K: The composition of different art forms, bringing worlds “alive” through roles and stage actions, the interplay between the senses, the mental thread connecting the pieces of the puzzle, a multilayered motivation of the spectator-listener based on sound and musicality, at least in my own works. I perceive this approach as a more complete journey.

L.M: Your recent composition, “A Cloud in Love”, an opera for children and young adults, based on Nazim Hikmet’s fairytale of the same name, with a libretto by Eleni Zafeiriou, was performed at the Greek National Opera, to rave reviews. What were the challenges you had to overcome during composition, to make the result appealing to both children and adults?

S.K: My earlier collaboration with Rosarte, an amazing children’s-youth choir, was what egged me on this magical journey, as I entered talks with conductor Rozi Mastrosavva about a longer form project that would feature the choir in a leading role - an endeavor that was bold right from the start - before even deciding on the exact work we would use. “A Cloud in Love”, a fairytale by the great Nazim Hikmet, is rife with tenderness and deep sensitivity, and these elements were highlighted in its successful libretto adaptation by Eleni Zafeiriou, who also gave the choir the characteristics of a narrator-author-chorus. The ensuing challenges mostly concerned the language (speech and music), which needed to be ripe, without “child-centered conveniences”, and then every other element that was instrumental in keeping children interested, while carrying deep meaning at the same time. In terms of music, these include lyricism, emotion, rhythmic dynamism, frequent changes, the overall duration and duration of each part (especially important for a work of this genre, not that familiar with a younger audience), a dialogue using a more modern musical language (mainly based on timbre), the difficulty the score presented for the children-performers, since the main parts were played by professional opera singers; in short, the balance of so many parameters to create a project open to people of all ages. The road to the coveted final result was a unique experience that left us all full of priceless feelings. We hope that a rerun in the immediate future will create these same feelings in us.

Kamagianni 5

L.M: I thought your rendition of Eric Satie’s Gnossienne no. 1 composition, featuring Manos Avarakis, was excellent. Could you tell us a few words about your collaboration with this great artist?

S.K: He is a great artist indeed, with several traits unique to his person. His biggest advantage, besides deep expressiveness, is improvisation, in which he can be truly uplifting! We worked together for years, seeking common musical grounds without any limitations, and enjoyed the process greatly (unfortunately, the pandemic put a halt to the project when we were already making good progress…). Our rehearsals and sessions were characterized by a lot of “openness”, ranging from experiments to very classical pieces. Furthemore, by occasionally raising our standards, we faced good challenges concerning productive improvisation within structured works - perhaps my own background as a composer helped us in choosing our direction here. Certainly, my collaboration with Manos contributed greatly to my development as a musician.

L.M: Radio Art is especially interested in the healing role of music, one of its main purposes. I am aware of your participation in music healing workshops. What is your experience with them? Can music serve a healing function?

S.K: My experience with purely music healing workshops, as well as ordinary music workshops, which have a de facto healing side effect, have been emotionally nourishing for me, and I feel deeply grateful for them. I have worked with many different teams (children, teenagers, adults, teachers, university students, music students, special education, mixed…), where each team’s composition and members lead to its specific goal. As of late, I am particularly interested in music in the community. I believe that music possesses “magical” powers, and I’m glad that, in spite of the tons of ink spilt in vain efforts to describe it, it still eludes a precise definition capable of covering all that it encompasses. Yes, music can have a healing aspect. This is especially true today, at a time when contact, the “meeting” of people, is so sorely missing, and our psyche is loaded with malfunctions caused by alienation and severe stress. What is mostly experienced in workshops is the “here and now”, an attunement to our feelings, expression through music, getting close to one another. Liberation. There are also certain categories of people with special skills for whom music is one of the most powerful means of expression and contact, since they feel its influence to a truly touching depth.
Closer to home, I have found my own healing through music - it has kept me alive through times of much hardship.

Kamagianni 2

L.M: I am also aware of your important teaching experience, as a professor. What is the teacher’s role today?

S.K: I think the teacher’s role needs to maintain a permanent connection to certain standard values, regardless of era. Concerning music teachers today, they need to make a greater effort to introduce children - I’m talking about the majority and not about unquestionable talents - to the world of music, since the direction of today’s education is completely technocratic and devoid of creativity. Children are faced with a myriad of useless information (like all of us, but even more so because they absorb everything), as well as a cheap, paltry aesthetic, bereft of any value system. Attention deficit is at its highest. Studying music, among its many other merits, also has a vastly helpful impact on concentration, calmness, and discipline - an effect that one only realizes growing up. And, naturally, participation in teams promotes the power of cooperation, solidarity, sharing, and joy. Moreover, teachers today shouldn’t leave the struggle for public, free education to the future generations. Fewer and fewer students can afford to pay for music studies, which in Greece have the unique “advantage” of being entirely private, down to the most basic level. Our schools are in need of a lot more teachers (as well as quality hours of music teaching). I wish we had more public music schools, a perfectly successful institution, judging by the results. It pains me greatly when I think how many children can’t afford to even approach a Conservatory or Music School today. And every Municipality should provide free lessons (instruments, ensembles, listenings, conversations, seminars, workshops) for the benefit of their citizens’ aesthetic growth.
L.M: Tell us a few words about your latest song cycle, “The Months Singing”, twelve songs for children and adults, which is of great interest due to your excellent music and the sensitivity of Phontas Ladis’s lyrics.
S.K: I was honored when Phontas Ladis invited me to set his work to music, after our acquaintance via a mutual friend a few years ago. And, at some point in the summer of 2020, during the pandemic, I felt it was finally time to compose music for these poems. It is important to note that the poems were written in 1982. Right from the start, I was aware of the tenderness and imaginativeness of the lyrics, of the fact that they created vivid images using only a few “ringing” words, and carried something from the past. I thought it would be intriguing for each month to show a different attitude, as dictated by the lines. Naturally, from an objective point of view, there are more than one side to each month, and everyone has their own preferences. However, I felt that in this way I could create a flow incorporating a diversity of emotions, akin to the way time flows within us. The original form was written for a children’s monophonic choir (with a few soli) and piano. A conversation with Tasos Rosopoulos, then director of the Musical Ensembles, and the fervor of collaborating with ERT’s Contemporary Music Orchestra, conducted by Giorgos Aravidis, filled me with joy. The limitations imposed by the pandemic ruled out a children’s choir, and so we initially opted for two singers. Later on, with things having somewhat improved, and only after the work had been recorded in this form, we set about adding children’s voices to accompany some of the songs (performed by the Typaldos children’s choir, directed by Apostolis Psychramis). The two amazing performers, whose acting background proved especially valuable for such a work, are Apostolis Psychramis and Theodosia Savvaki. That’s the whole story…
What is exceptionally pleasing is that, a few days ago, the work became available to the public via ERT’s new platform, ertecho. It will be uploaded on a monthly basis, starting with September.

Kamagianni 4

L.M: What is your view on our era?

S.K: Attempting to pinpoint the characteristics of our era is an arduous and complex work (and the pandemic has ushered in many additional issues), it is beset by contrasts, rapid changes, confusion, loosening of the social fabric, but also presents its own challenges, like every other era. The fundamental, “principal” injuries that come to mind, mostly in Western societies, are the worship of individuality, an extremely distorted view of reality from every angle, philosophical or political, the blatant materialism, a lack of spirituality and empathy, and our alienation from (our) nature. With money dominating everywhere, and the global financial elite grown to gargantuan proportions. All these produce exploitation, violence, mounting inequalities, fascism… And also a denial of responsibility, both on a personal and collective level, meaning a denial to look at ourselves in the mirror - this has long-term effects. On the other hand, pluralism, with the rapid transmission of information, which shortens distance, enables us access to knowledge that would otherwise require two or three entire lives to master, opening up new horizons - and of course often making our lives easier. However, where is the education to ensure the development of composite thought? Where is the limit to what the brain can hold and process? Without them, fragmentation is inevitable, which is all too convenient for “sheepification” of people. To this we might add the fact that the speed of advancing technology, which “pushes” us down a completely digital world we didn’t choose, is contrary to our biological rhythm. And what of dreaming? What of all this stolen time? How are we to calm down, envision the best future?

L.M: Do you believe that universal human values like freedom, solidarity, friendship, and social justice have faltered in our time?

S.K: They have, yes. Mostly belief in them, and the struggle - by the entire society, not just minorities - to attain them. Capitalism is showing its most savage face. It is a tough time we live in, and I feel we need to somewhat distance ourselves from our emotions, observing and analyzing, if we are to withstand all the pressure. Yet, it is invigorating and self-furthering when we take a stand through our actions, beginning from our simple daily life, with (all) those happening to the people around us, as well as in public life - especially with the encroachment on the rights of the weak. Aside from these, the tendency to scorn politics and communal issues (though not entirely unjustified) has enormous negative implications.
I think the case is different for friendship, for it can still flourish today, regardless of social circumstances. It’s just that young people should learn of its existence in real life, not just on the Internet.

L.M: Why are most people more concerned about surface than substance?

S.K: Substance requires effort, exploration, and connection to things larger than us. However, it also requires self-awareness, to know one’s beginnings. Naturally, the propaganda spread by television, the social networks, and lifestyles also plays an important part, producing a veritable epidemic of imitation, especially when alienation from substance serves the interests of those in power.
There is a common denominator to many questions: the necessity of an as yet missing education (where substance can be inserted into the process in a more natural way). Later, the chain of interactions will reveal a lot of evils either way.
On a different note, I also remember an interview given by the actress Marisa Paredes, in which she had said that the surface of things acts as a protective barrier for their actual depth - we should think that “surface” includes several useful qualities capable of enriching our daily life. I imagine the surface you had in mind refers to the insubstantial, the baseness that is often overrunning today’s world.

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L.M: Where does true “interest” reside?

S.K: Wherever one can find it, depending on the moment and each person’s progress until then. I’m not exactly sure I can comprehend the word “true”, for it seems to be implying an objectivity which I don’t think exists. I would add a further dimension to the question, thinking how our view of what is “interesting” changes with the passing of time and new experiences. Personally I’m intrigued by things that appear unexpectedly and chime in with things I already have in me, whether consciously or unconsciously…

L.M: Do you believe that knowledge can lead to happiness?

S.K: Knowledge certainly is a great step if one is to feel moments of joy and fullness. But of course, it isn’t enough to lead to happiness all by itself.

L.M: Why is art liberating?

S.K: Because it acts on the most profound and mysterious layers of our existence. It frees us, smooths out contrasts and fears, brings rich feelings to the surface, opens up new perspectives, broadens the mental boundaries of our “world”, makes possible what seemed impossible”.
“Take my word, give me your hand”... the magic of approaching one another.

L.M: What are the main reasons to keep on living?

S.K: Creativity, according to each person’s inclinations, human relationships, ascribing meaning to things and thus becoming motivated to connect to the world. The motivating powers are love, and the gift of life itself.

L.M: Are you optimistic about the future?

S.K: I think that overall optimism isn’t exactly an option, considering all that is happening around us. Not even optimism for the continuation of the human species. However, our everyday stance provides an answer to all those we cannot handle, for they are beyond us. I refuse to submit to fears, phobias, leveling attitudes and one-way roads, I try to resist. Mostly through art, creativity and perspective, we should strive to “build”, leaving behind what weighs us down. Naturally, we have the privilege of busying ourselves with what we love, those of us still standing at least, since our (the artists’) position in society has been greatly diminished. Solidarity is another factor capable of shifting the axis of everyday life’s mundanity. Similarly to how negativity is so rapidly diffused, we should allow everything beautiful or powerful to spread the same way. And we should highlight their existence. It brings to mind those beloved lines by Seferis, not necessarily as an argument for optimism, but because “they are so”, indifferent to the beholder’s eye.

Be it night
or be it light
will be always white

L.M: We are sincerely grateful for your presence here on Radio Art, our conversation was most interesting. I would like to bid you farewell with a poem by Nikephoros Vrettakos, “The music numbers”

Without mathematical order, nothing
can stand: Neither starlit sky
nor rose. Especially not a poem.
And I was lucky that fate gave me
a knowledge of the music numbers,
that the day star gave my eyes
an extra beam of light to see by
and now I can, with my knees for a table
labor, and try to make
a starlit sky, or a rose.

S.K: A beautiful closing… It should be the final conclusion of our talk, yet I cannot but thank you myself for your questions, they were really demanding and made me seek “inwards”. Take care.

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