“In my compositions, I search for answers about me, about the world. All humans have a need to create: and I have this need to create through sound.”Roxani Chatzidimitriou
Roxani Chatzidimitriou is a Greek composer, pianist, and educator based in Athens. Roxani’s compositional style amalgamates influences from minimalism, classical, contemporary, jazz, and Greek traditional music. Her music has been workshopped and performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, ERT National Symphony Orchestra, members of Thessaloniki City Symphony Orchestra, CHROMA Ensemble, Festival Mixtur, and Contemporary Music Lab Cyprus, among others; she studied at the University of Macedonia, Ionian University Music Department in Corfu, and Royal Holloway, University of London with Mark Bowden. Recent projects include her debut album Chronographies (2021), and a commission from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. Roxani spoke to PRXLUDES about her approach to melody and harmony, her extramusical influences from poetry, dance, and visual art, simplicity, improvisation as part of compositional process, and self-motivation as a composer.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Roxani! Thanks for chatting with me today — how are you? What projects have you been working on recently?
Roxani Chatzidimitriou: Hey Zyggy! My latest project was a collaboration with The Lullaby Project and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), in partnership with the music social inclusion program El Sistema Greece and the Carnegie Hall in New York. The composition I created is called ‘A day of change’ and it is composed for childrens’ choir and orchestra. It was inspired by the story of a [refugee] woman who suffered sexual abuse. She told me about her story — she’s from the Congo, she was a refugee who came [to] Greece one year ago, [and] now she’s living in a camp in Korinthos, near Athens. So I composed this piece for her child. It was a very nice collaboration, and experience. This is the latest composition I did after [we met in] Cyprus.
So I heard this new piece is for choir; is that something you’ve had experience with before?
It was the first time I composed for orchestra and choir. I have also written two more pieces for choir, but [they were] part of my composition classes in London. It was the first time I collaborated with a childrens’ choir and orchestra and it was a great experience.
I wrote quite simple — for children, you have to write more simple things. I had some text in French, because the woman [who] told me her story spoke French. The choir worked really well, and they liked the piece… So I’m very happy with the result!
Choir is one of those gaps in my portfolio at the moment — something I’ve always wanted to write for. How did you utilise those forces?
You can do so many things! There is a part where I have some text in French, and they whisper [the text] all with different rhythms, and accents, and dynamics — and this created a really nice effect. Apart from melodic material, I also used some contemporary techniques and other sounds that worked really well.
One of your projects that really stood out to me was your fantastic debut album, ‘Chronographies’ — in terms of the compositional process, what influenced the sound world of the record?
Thank you! These works in the album were composed over a period of eight years, since I was 19. I was living in different places — in Athens, in Thessaloniki, in Madrid, in London — it was part of my own compositional [process], outside of any classes of composition that I had in conservatories. I had an idea when I was 26, to make all of these compositions an album. This album is also inspired by different styles of music that I like; they have influence from romantic, classical, minimalism, some contemporary elements, some jazz elements… I tried to connect all of these in my own way.
The album consists of nine instrumental compositions; each piece has a different instrumentation. I draw inspiration from the synergy of different art forms that move in time: contemporary dance, moving images, poetry. A lot of times, I get inspired [by] extramusical influences. Through melodic lines, different instrumental colours and contemporary music techniques, Ι create “drawings” of choreographies and images that narrate a story. The concept of “transition” resides in each piece, as every composition could be seen as a path for self-exploration, a journey into our mind and soul, a reflective process towards a goal for transformation and personal freedom. Some pieces are more inspired from minimalism, some from jazz, others from romantic music, and some Greek elements and melodies…
Would you say the album reflects the compositional journey you’ve had over those eight years?
Exactly, yes! So ‘Chronographies’… “chrónos” means “time” in Greek, and “gráfo” is “write”, so it’s like “writing in time”. Because I get inspired from arts that move in time — and because it was composed over a long period. Also, I collaborated with some musicians… they are not my “basic” ensemble, but I met some fantastic musicians, and I learned a lot [from] them. We worked together; I was open for them to tell me things, I asked them for their opinion a lot.
You mention these musicians aren’t your main ensemble — do you have a group of musicians you usually play shows with?
I want to have one now — because now I’m composing pieces for another album, for string quartet, piano, and electronics. I want to find a specific ensemble, but it’s hard to find musicians that really have time! My goal is that after I compose my second album, I will be in the process of finding my own ensemble.
I get that. Everyone’s always busy, no one has time for anything…
The same in Greece!
Let’s talk a bit about the composition scene in Athens — how do you find the musical environment you’re in at the moment, stylistically and in the kinds of opportunities you get?
Yes! There are a lot of things happening around. We have so [many] great musicians —One thing, for me, is sometimes I’m concerned about the fact that the style of music I write is not very “popular” and commercial in Greece. I think in other countries, my style is more recognisable, but I want to create something also in my country. You cannot listen to this kind of music very commonly, but I want to create something new here — [especially as] some of my compositions have traditional melodic elements.
I really respect that — if your style is different from the “status quo”, it’s so much more important to stick to your guns. Maybe you’re starting a movement!
Exactly! So this is a challenge — something that also encourages me to write more and more, and do my own thing, as I want. Always, when I compose — anything I compose — I try to be authentic, to reflect my own compositional voice without any restrictions, or to do anything that I don’t want. I want to be myself in everything.
How did you originally get involved with composition — I heard you initially trained as a pianist?
My first involvement with music was at the age of six years old, when I started to play classical piano; in the first steps, I was classically trained in piano. I was very exposed and inspired [by] classical composers — I especially liked Romantic composers — and from the Greek traditional songs that I also played on the piano. As a child, when I practiced the piano, I always had a tendency to improvise on the piano, to compose my own melodies… I had an inclination to create my own things. This need to express myself through the piano — improvising — was very strong. That was why after I finished my diploma in piano — at the age of 21 — I wanted to focus on composition more. Basically, I do both, but I wanted also to extend my knowledge.
Does your practice as a pianist impact your compositional process — and if so, how?
Sometimes, composition comes after improvisation in the piano — but not necessarily. I use the piano to create some themes, and melodies, and find harmony, but the compositional process that follows — that has to do with textures, orchestration, form — all of this happens away from the piano. Sometimes, playing an instrument is restrictive, because I have a specific musical vocabulary in my hands, [and] this is limited. For me, composition is a space where you should feel free to imagine anything, and to use your imagination without any limit. So imagining all of these things — sounds, textures, anything — for example, for a string orchestra… you cannot play it in the piano.
So the piano, for me, is [useful] in the first processes of the composition, in order to find some melodies. Especially when I composed for the album, of course, I used a lot of piano. [But] when I compose for orchestras, and other ensembles, it’s another type of [process].
You’ve mentioned your influence from both jazz and Greek idioms; tell me a bit about how they inform your practice…
I have attended some classes in jazz piano, after I got my diploma in classical piano — which really opened my mind to harmony, [and] the way they improvise. I also get inspired a lot from Ottoman music; I tried [to] play the ney, [which] is a traditional Turkish wind instrument. I also have some inspiration from this.
A composer that I really like is Manos Hatzidakis — his melodies, the orchestration he does, really inspires me. Subconsciously, I have a tendency to compose melodies that remind, or reflect, this tradition — the Greek tradition. But as you learn more about theory, and composition, consciously, I’m interested in inventing ways to create a “counterpoint” of different idioms. A big challenge for me is how I can connect all these styles in a harmonious way, that will also reflect my own compositional voice. A challenge for any composer is to make connections that have never been realised before, to use [their] imagination to [combine] different things. I think we all like a lot of different styles of music, not only one. The challenge is how you can connect all of these.
Considering that you did some classes in jazz piano — how direct of a relationship do you have with improvisation?
I cannot deny the fact that improvisation can reflect very intuitive and hidden parts of us; and that’s why it’s also a great part of my compositional practice. In the next album I am doing, I record some improvisation of mine, and I try to see what parts I like from the recordings — and then I construct the form of the composition out of these motifs.
It’s so interesting — how our understanding of music is so tied to the instruments you learn…
Yeah. And then I’m thinking [about] how I develop it!
I’d be interested in how your approaches translate into your orchestration? Especially considering your recent premiere with the ERT National Symphony Orchestra…
Yeah, ‘Zero Star Cognac’! It was my first orchestral piece. I composed it in London, in my Masters degree, at Royal Holloway University. The process for this piece… I was, like, trying to find the idea [for] one month! So I came along with this poem, Zero Star Cognac, by Kiki Dimoula, who is one of my favourite poets.
This orchestral piece is in three movements, and draws inspiration from this poem. To talk a bit about the idea of the poem: “zero star cognac” refers to the loss of youth, of something that we lose due to the relentless passing of time. In the music, I created a metaphor of this idea; I didn’t [directly] refer to the loss of youth, but I wanted to reflect musically the transcience and ephemerality of [the] innocent, child-like, and naive part we have inside, and sometimes we [force] it to go away because of external things as we grow up. This idea also [informs] the formal structure of the piece: in the first movement, the theme of youth, the child-like part, is more prominent; in the second movement, it [appears] less; and in the third movement, it goes away and it’s more faint. Each movement reflects this, [as] the “zero star cognac” grows to gradually fade away.
How did you realise these ideas in the melodic ideas & instrumentation of the piece?
I thought a lot about the idea first, and then I tried to create the form and some musical elements. I have two contrasting themes in the composition: the theme of youth, and the theme of time. The “time” is reflected musically by aesthetic motifs, polyrhythms, contemporary techniques, ambiguities regarding harmony and melodic material… but also, it’s static. [Whereas] the theme of “youth” — or innocence, let’s say — is expressed musically by expressive, lyrical and melodic musical material . I tried to combine these two worlds to reflect the external and the internal — how all of this is connected. The theme of innocence is also sometimes played from solo instruments: [for example], in the first movement I use the solo violin and flute in the higher register; in the second movement, I use viola and oboe in the lower register; and in the third movement I use cello and bassoon. This reflects the gradual distancing in register in the macro-structure of the piece.
Of course, I created all of this outside the piano… But the first process, of course, is to create melodies and harmonies. For me, it’s really important to play the piano to hear [those].
Is it like, you can go as hard as you like on the textures, but keeping the foundations rooted in your pianistic practice keeps the piece more organic?
Yes, exactly. I try to use little material — three themes, some little motifs — and out of this, to create a whole orchestral piece of 22 minutes, with a lot of variations regarding texture [and] orchestration. I worked a lot on the variations.
I love the simplicity of that. I remember seeing a quote attributed to Chopin along the lines of “simplicity is the final achievement”1… does the idea of simplicity resonate with you?
Me too, yes! Exactly. You have to keep a balance between things, and to keep some things simple. The way you construct something — to put layers, and orchestration — this creates some complication, but this comes from simple things. The raw elements are simple.
So you draw a lot of influence from poetry and dance… How have extramusical art forms influenced other facets of your artistic practice?
Yes! Basically, all of my pieces are influenced from it… -laughs- For example, it could be from contemporary dance. I have a piece I wrote for CHROMA Ensemble in London, called ‘Choreographing Feelings’.I used this melody from the album (there is also a piece in the album which is called [the same]) — it’s inspired from a choreography by a friend of mine. I tried to depict some movements of hers, as she was moving in space. I also dance contemporary dance, so there are so many similarities between my music [and dance], so many analogies [and] things in common — articulations, dynamics, rhythms created through forms, breathing — that’s why one of my interests is to create projects that [involve] music and dancers, and contemporary dance.
How symbiotic of a relationship did you have with the choreographer during the compositional process?
I told her just to create a choreography, and I got inspired from this. I happened to work with another choreographer [Fenia Chatzakou] before, though — seven years, I think — where she created a choreography out of my music. So it was the opposite process. The piece is called ‘Para, Para ti’, which means “stop, for you” in Spanish. We did an audiovisual concert where there was a video projected behind [Fenia], and we also had some text that I wrote… She created the choreography out of my music.
I’d be interested in how your collaborative process would translate into something larger-form, such as a ballet or opera…
Until now, I haven’t written anything for ballet or opera — but I’m interested [in doing] something in [the] future! I have friends [who] dance, so it was easier until now for me to collaborate with them. Projects that involve different kinds of art — text, narration, dance — would be something I would really like to do in the future.
Speaking of the future… Do you have any pieces you’re working on at the moment?
I [wrote] a piece for string orchestra in January — for twelve solo strings. I wrote it by myself, here, and I want to send it to some orchestras — or find an opportunity to apply —After that, I want to write for ensemble, and again, [another] piece for orchestra. So I write these, and when I finish them, I try to find an opportunity for my piece to be performed.
How do you motivate yourself when you don’t have performers, or an “end goal”, in mind?
That’s a good question. -laughs- I did these recently. I try to find time, [because] it’s not easy; when you finish your studies, your Masters, it’s difficult to find time for writing [when] you have to work, and do so many things. It takes a lot of time to compose. It’s not easy, it’s very hard; but for me, it’s something I want to do. It’s an inner need to develop my techniques, to continue composing. It’s similar to practicing an instrument. So for me, it’s really important to find the time to compose. I’m very optimistic that someday, [these pieces] will be performed, because there are a lot of opportunities out there. I believe that when a composer writes [a piece] that reflects something that is deep, and true, then it’s about time to be performed.
Also, regarding my orchestral piece [‘Zero Star Cognac’]… I didn’t know if it would be played. I wrote it in my Masters degree, and after that I made two applications, and it was selected. So for me, the most important thing is to write something good that really reflects yourself, your voice; and experiment with new things, develop your own language, Through this compositional process, you learn a lot [about] yourself. It’s a continuous process that never ends. And we all hope to someday have commissions… But the good thing with that is you don’t have a specific deadline, so when I compose by myself, I’m more relaxed.
There’s something liberating about having projects that are self-imposed.
Yes. And that’s a good thing. -laughs- I try to be optimistic.
It very much seems to have paid off for you, though! I always find it daunting to write a piece without a performer, or ensemble, in mind.
It is! Of course, it’s easier to find musicians to play solos, or duos, or trios. But for me, I like to write for bigger ensembles so much — to orchestrate, with a lot of instruments. This intrigues me more in composition.
“In my compositions, I search for answers about me, about the world. All humans have a need to create: and I have this need to create through sound.” Roxani Chatzidimitriou, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
What other musical projects do you have on the go?
I’m trying now to organise some concerts to present my debut album ‘Chronographies’ in Greece, from September. I don’t know the days exactly now, but I’ve spoken with some venues in Greece. After that, I will search more around Europe, to see if I can do something to present my album.
And also, I’m working a lot [on] my next album — which is a big project, because I want to experiment with new things and new techniques I haven’t used before. For example, how to combine electronics with piano and strings, and to [infuse] improvisation. It’s a challenge for me — how to use all this — it will take time, but I’m in the process of composing these pieces. Also, at the end of August (or September), I will record a piece I wrote for piano and soprano — ‘Oι καημοί της Λιμνοθάλασσας’ (The Woes of the Lagoon).
Apart from that, I have a commission from the cellist who played on my album to write a piece for solo cello, as he wants to do a project with solo cello pieces from contemporary composers. So I will also write for him! These, at the moment, are my main projects.
So exciting — it seems like you have a lot on! As a broader final question: is there anything in particular that draws you to writing music? Is there anything pushing you to do what you do?
It’s an inner need for self-expression. Since I was very young, it was very intuitive to express myself through sound,. Composition, for me, is a space where I feel free, where I can create my own worlds, where I can live things [which] maybe in reality you can not live… – It’s a journey into the unknown. You don’t know where a composition can take you. Sometimes composition shows me what kind of person I am. ; it’s like a mirror, like a diary. I get inspired a lot from psychology, and poetry. I want to raise issues regarding the way we live, the way we construct our lives, and some reflections of mine about these themes. I always have a need to see what is “hidden” behind something — I want to go deeper.
It’s about self-exploration [for me]; it’s a very internal process. I’m inspired [by] everything I see around where I live. In my compositions, I search for answers about me, about the world. All humans have a need to create: and I have this need to create through sound.
Check out more of Roxani’s work at the links below:
Stream and download Roxani’s album Chronographies at the links below:
- Manos Hatzidakis – Gioconda’s Smile (Fontana/EMI, 1965)
- Note: the only source PRXLUDES has found on this particular quote is from Chopin: An Introduction to His Piano Works, ed. Willard A. Palmer (2005), p. 4.