Christos Hatzis is a Juno award winning composer and professor of composition at the University of Toronto. I was recently blown away by his score for Going Home Star, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s extraordinary piece in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Click here to get a current update of where you can hear him: a composer being heard all over Canada.
I feel privileged to be able to ask a series of questions in hope of shedding light on an interesting soul, his process and his ongoing composition.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I don’t believe that we are simply a product of our parents’ genes. There are inherited characteristics in everyone’s personality and others induced by one’s environment, to be sure, but the determining factor of our personality is our free will and the choices we make in life. I am quite the mystic, so I believe that there is also karma, things we must face and address because of the exercise of our free will in our past, in our future, on this earth or some other corner of this vast universe. I believe that space and time are not what they seem to be. Everything is a constant “here” and “now”. The past, future and elsewhere are reflections in a cosmic mirror. Even what we consider to be our inherited characteristics are the result of a choice made by us before birth. The older I get, the more natural all this feels to me.
I was born in a small city in Greece, and lived a life that nowadays feels like it was someone else’s, although I recognize everything that I have become as having been unarticulated in me since I was a child. I loved my parents and my siblings and they loved me back. I was a reluctant participant in my early life, did not do well at school, had very few friends and chose to mostly stay home keeping busy with music and painting and feeling rather conflicted about the cultural norms around me in the world outside my home. My father was a rebel and had spent part of his youth in a political concentration camp. He was always viewed with suspicion by the authorities, particularly during my formative years when Greece was under a military junta. My subsequent rebellious disposition and my uncompromising stance on human rights is definitely something I have inherited from him. My mother was very religious, in a doctrinal manner that, in my heart of hearts, I could never resonate with. My mother’s family looked up to the powerful social-religious establishment and looked down upon my father. I loved her and them but my religious feelings were alive, fiery, fearless, unconventional and very real. Formalized religion endorsed the political status quo and the status quo was of no interest to me then or now. My reality was a world of dreams, visions, symbols and archetypes. In the best of days, it still is. I loved the mystical essence of Christianity, its inner pounding heart. I could not articulate it until many years later when, as a student in the United States, I came across the documented utterances of the American mystic Edgar Cayce. It was only then, in 1980 and 1981 that my imaginal world burst open and exposed as illusion what everyone else understands as “reality”.
2) What is the best thing about what you do?
What I do most of the time is compose, teach and search incessantly for answers to the question of our collective origin and destiny. All these eventually merge into a single quest. I can’t define what it is but increasingly my composing, teaching and searching feel like three approaches to the same problem. In my older age I am slowly realizing that in life and creativity the more you give means the more you end up having. This is true with composing as much as with teaching or a conversation with friends, colleagues or students about life in general. Energy is a more evasive concept than what common sense proposes. Because of my diabetes and other ailments, my energy level is no longer what it used to be. Having said this, at the end of a nine-hour teaching day, with no attempt at conserving energy and instead pouring it out to my students, I end up feeling better and more energetic than when my day started. I see younger colleagues feeling exhausted at the end of their teaching day while I feel on the top of the world. Same thing with composing. When I give it all, I end up having more energy than when I started. Sharing my energy with young composers who are groping in the darkness of a creative activity which, at its best, has no certitudes, no methodology and no prescribed path, while asking them to trust their instinct and nothing else can be frustrating to them, but when I occasionally witness a creative breakthrough in them and see their trust pay dividends . . . well . . . there is nothing that can top this in my view. All of a sudden, energy is everywhere and we all soak in it.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
When I am not teaching at the University of Toronto I am in my home out in the country south of Uxbridge, ON. I love the natural seclusion of forests surrounding our home. I am not sure if it is the location, but I feel that I am turning slowly into a cultural hermit. I listen to everything and nothing. Most of my listening is holistic, not attentive. It filters in unconsciously and it sits there waiting to be called at the right creative moment and situation to play a role. Because it has not gone through the anatomical table, it remains fresh, alive and pertinent, and always unconscious. During the creative process, it re-enters the picture but, again, unfiltered and unconsciously. With a few exceptions my music is not inspired by art or even nature. It is the human spirit that inspires me and this spirit can be found in everyday life far more glorious than in the imperfect artistic creations of our species. I am a paradox: an artist who engages with his art almost constantly but who does not get his kicks from art. Even though this makes me a difficult and hapless audience member, it also imparts a strange advantage on me. For many classical listeners, and for the longest time, music has become a substitute for religion. I sense a kind of cultism surrounding artistic activity and I believe that, in the case of classical contemporary music, it is this cultism that has alienated our audiences. I find it hard to be moved by art so, when I compose, I need to feel chills in my body which means that I have to try harder to experience the sensation that someone else experiences more easily. I am not sure if there is a medical term that describes the opposite of musicophilia, but I am convinced I suffer from it. Yet there are times when I hear something profound, like a daylong series of concerts of Giya Kanchelli’s music at the Winnipeg New Music Festival a few years ago, and I am completely overpowered, with tears streaming uncontrollably from my eyes and feeling utterly possessed by the music. Those are rare moments but they make life worth living. They open up windows to a reality that I wish I could inhabit all the time.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
To be able to cancel my own ego. I mean totally. I know what power that would unleash. But to do this would entail stretching willingly your body on a cross and offer yourself as the sacrificial ram, holding nothing more important than this act of self-sacrifice. I am not ready for this skill yet, no matter how much I fantasize the possibility, but I know that I and everyone else must master it, if our world is to survive past the crucible that we are entering as a species on this planet this present moment in our collective history.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
I occasionally vegetate in front of the TV set, but the more I do it the more depressed and uncreative I become. Thank God for deadlines, like nowadays, which keep me constantly in front of my computer composing. At night, before going to bed, I always read. Mostly physics books nowadays but also religious esotericism and history. I keep different bedside books at our home and different ones in our condo in Toronto where Beverley Johnston, my wife and I stay during the middle of our teaching week at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. This scrambled intake does not seem to bother me at all, in fact it causes a weird clarity in my comprehension. My head buzzes pleasantly in environments with complex random access intake.
More questions about two musical projects, namely 1-Going Home Star, the score & recording from the collaboration with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and 2-a collaboration over the next month with Sarah Slean
1- I recall a composer once telling me that one learns to recognize one’s own authentic voice by imitating the things you like, trying out different procedures and sounds, until finally you discover something you like. Our culture has a fetish for newness & originality, while some other cultures make more of a virtue of the imitation of models or emulation of styles. Could you please address this both as a composer AND as a teacher of musical composition, namely how do you reconcile imitation and originality?
In his ground-breaking book “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” neuropsychologist Iain McGilchrist makes some astute comments about newness and originality. We have perverted the meaning of these words in our days and the price of this perversion is that our art suffers from a profound lack of authenticity. One of my favourite admonitions to young composers is “You are as original as your fingerprint. The only way you will not sound original is if you try to sound original in which case you will just sound like everyone else who is trying to sound original and that includes just about everybody”. Learning by imitation at an early age can be a good learning strategy. This is how I learned music and this is how many masters in the past learned from their masters. But instead of imitating some other composer’s style I tried to get inside their mind, not their scores. I tried to fantasize what kind of thinking would make their music sound the way it does. If that mind’s thinking was readily discernible by just studying the score, then it was not worth the exercise as far as I was concerned. But if there is magic in the sound, despite of what you get out of reading the score, then you’ve found your master, the one worth following. Claude Debussy is one of the few composers who has kept me occupied for the longest time in this regard.
I don’t think about originality—it’s a chimera. I am not interested in leadership and I have avoided it for the longest time, shying away from administrative positions, or other positions of authority. We are infested with inauthentic leaders that ultimately let us down. In moments of psychic clarity, I realize that, far from being a leader, I have always been a reluctant follower because I have felt betrayed often during my cosmic journey as most of us have. The only leader I have trusted and continue to trust is one who has never let anyone down. He is the central protagonist in our species’ cosmic drama and selflessly keeps on guiding us even though he is no longer bound by earthliness like the rest of us. We know him historically from one of his most recent incarnations as Yeshua of Nazareth but he has experienced many sojourns in many cultures and religions from the very beginning of human life. He is my guiding light. Without him I would not be able to breath, let alone create. I feel him as the living, beating heart of our species. In my best days, all I wish for is to abandon myself completely in his embrace. When you feel like I do, the pursuit of originality is a rather silly concept. It is he who holds the patterns and patents of my being. Without him I am a severed and discarded part. With him, my personality, originality and individuality are washed off by blinding light and dissolve completely into it.
2- The score for Going Home Star is an intriguing mix of influences and styles. Some of it seems designed to exploit the particular idiom, the specific timbres & particular skills of your collaborators, Tanya Tagaq and Steve Wood. The resulting score seems like a genuine synthesis of different approaches into a music that doesn’t submerge anyone, but still honours their individuality in the mix. Could you please reflect on how that happened, both your objectives and your approach, as one of the first world participants in a piece about reconciliation?
Going Home Star was a very difficult project for me. As I have already mentioned I am deeply religious and a project about the Indian Residential Schools where religion was perverted and turned into cultural genocide required long and painful soul searching on my part. I would have not been able to approach this project analytically, that is from the outside, nor from its political, or even historical specifics. The story’s humanity was the only way I could enter it. Since I am religious, I had to understand how idealism severed from deep empathy can turn monstrous. We have witnessed it repeatedly throughout history, but my question was “how does it feel?” not “how or why does it happen?” to answer it, I had to step into the shoes of the perpetrators. As a person professing to be religious, it was them that I needed to understand. “Clergymen’s Dance”, the first scene of Act 2, documents this inner struggle with my own demons. It starts with two notes a major second apart alternating endlessly over different musical contexts. The music has a naïve enthusiasm about it: young people leave the comforts of Europe hoping to be of service to God and humanity in the New World. Gradually the music becomes ever more militant and dark, showing a growing despair frustrating the surface idealism. When despair becomes overwhelming, the music suddenly becomes violent, unhinged and wildly gestural. This loss of control, however, does not result in any learning or understanding. Instead, the music retreats back to its beginning as if nothing happened. Instead of learning we retreat to institutional hypocrisy. On stage, the clergymen cover their eyes as one of them sexually abuses a child on the stage floor.
I often tell my students that, when I am asked to compose a string quartet, I am totally incapable of composing music for two violins, a viola and a cello. I can only compose music for two violinists, a violist and a cellist. This may sound like a sophism to most people but it is very indicative of the way I understand and experience the world. Treating my indigenous musical collaborators as fellow human travelers, trying to feel their fears and aspirations as they engaged in a project like this was the only way for me and Mark Godden, the choreographer, to move forward with our collective story-telling. More than the music or the dance, what one sees and hears in this ballet is the rapprochement of people from diverse backgrounds who attempt reconciliation at a personal level before they can ponder how this may depicted artistically.
Multiplicity of styles, genres and conflicting ways of thinking about music has always been an ever-present element in most of my work. I don’t resort to this multiplicity deliberately, like some kind of menu of “let me show you how many different things I can do”. If it were so, it would have been trite and shallow and I am not interested in showing off my compositional ability as a self-directed goal or for any other reason for that matter. Multiplicity is what I see around me everywhere I look. It seems increasingly harder for us to fit it all together and we eventually resign any attempt to do so, accepting it instead as a kind of meaningless “collage”. Philosophically, to me at least, “collage” is a Frankenstein assembly of parts after death: a zombie creature. All my life I have dug deeper and deeper until the multiplicity of contradictory elements we encounter on the surface reveals their common roots. The “virtual nightclub” of the first scene, spanning from Swing Era Big Band, to Disco, Scratch DJ-ing and Dubstep developed naturally as an intuitive stream of consciousness. While I was composing it I was dumbfounded by its disconnectedness, but I trusted that some deeper essence would eventually reveal itself as it has invariably done in the past. After it was written I could finally see and understand the deeper metaphor. The exploitation of our aboriginal people, the central theme of the ballet, spans centuries. The uncomfortable coexistence between natives and urbanism runs nearly as long. The nightclub of the first scene “time-stretched” itself naturally to drive home this point. If you think about people while composing, not abstract aesthetic notions, and think about people with as much empathy as you are capable of, the music will write itself. If you don’t, you end with a collage.
Including in the project aboriginal artists was never in question. How to include them was a philosophical and technical problem. When Tanya Tagaq performs on her own, she is an elemental presence, a powerhouse, a shaman of cosmic but unpredictable strength. There would be no way of combining her with an orchestra and ballet dancers, for whom predictability and repeatability of musical action is paramount, and not diminish her in the process. A similar situation would be the case with the Northern Cree Singers. Their heartbeat emanates from within their pow-wow circle, their sacred drum, not from an orchestra conductor’s metronomic gestures. It became clear to me that, given the time constraints for producing this score (eight months, instead of the usual two or two and a half years), I would need to bring Tanya and Steve Wood, the founder and leader of the NCS into a studio and record them performing their own songs, improvisations, vocal imitations of birds and animals used during the hunt, etc., and then incorporate these recordings into the soundscape of the composition. Given that the orchestra is in the pit and hence not visually central to the action on stage, I could assign their modified recordings along with other electroacoustic soundscapes on keys on a MIDI keyboard and have a keyboard player in the pit deliver them to the sound system along with the live orchestra delivering its own musical soundscape.
3-As far as the sound-scape / score for Going Home Star is concerned my basic question is: how did you do it?
The ideal way to perform the score is with an orchestra in the pit and with the native material and the additional electronics delivered from a sample playback device, in our case a piano keyboard. This is how it was presented in Winnipeg over a year ago (with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra) and more recently at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (with the National Arts Centre Orchestra), the first stop of the current Royal Winnipeg Ballet cross-Canada tour. Additionally, in Winnipeg and Ottawa, Tanya Tagaq gave a short solo performance from the stage before Act 2 and the NCR and a different pow-group in Ottawa opened Act 1 of these performances.
I can talk a bit more technically about the actual mechanics of composing such a complex score. I compose on Cubase, a Digital Audio and MIDI workstation developed by Steinberg. I own an extensive array of MIDI libraries, which I use to simulate a symphony orchestra in my workstation’s MIDI tracks. Additionally, I use several audio tracks into which I import my audio material (the recordings by Tanya, Steve and the NCR, in addition to processed sounds from these artists and other sources). In this way, I can constantly track and cross-reference the relationships between the playback audio and what a real orchestra will sound like playing along with it. Once the music of a scene was completed and Mark Godden approved the MP3 demos that I sent him over the internet, I transferred the orchestral part into a notation software (Finale 2014) and notated a conventional orchestral score. The score included a piano part whose notation indicated the precise firing of the playback samples. This way the pre-recorded material and the orchestra can follow the conductor without any need for invasive click-tracks in the conductor’s ear. Since I had never tried this system before, I felt constant anxiety about how effective it would be in performance. but it turned out to be very effective.
There are no orchestras available for every venue of the tour, so for most venues the music will be played back from the audio booth, as it did in Toronto’s Sony Centre on February 5 and 6. This is how you heard it and how most people will hear it for the remainder of the tour.
4- Please describe your upcoming collaboration with Sarah Slean for the Thunder Bay Symphony.
This will be my second collaboration with this amazing singer-songwriter. Our first one, Lamento, for her voice and Symphony Nova Scotia was about loss of a loved one, mental illness and suicide, a dark song cycle based on the aria “When I Am Laid in Earth” from Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”. (All three songs of this cycle are available on YouTube).
The texts and the music for Lamento are my own, but for our new collaboration, called Ecstasy, Sarah has penned her own texts.
The project is a commission by the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. About a year and a half ago, Sarah performed Lamento with the TBSO and it was after the success of that performance that the possibility for a new song cycle presented itself. Sarah is well known as an immensely talented songwriter and singer but she is less known for her profound and mystical understanding of things. Her poems for this project are inspiring and resonate deeply with my own view of the world. I don’t think she would mind if I shared a small excerpt of her poem for the second song which is as yet untitled:
the present moment bursts from its fog
turning slowly before me,
Like the earth on its axis
Massive, significant, silent
All other tenses
Of all verbs
There is a magnificent jewel
I cannot see within myself
Unless it is glittering
Whose eyes I have entered
And nothing else.
I am working day and night trying to finish this cycle. Its premiere performance is at the end of March and it is a race against the clock. I am not cutting any corners, however. Actually when I am under the pressure of a deadline I compose some of my best music.
5-What direction do you see yourself going at this point?
For a person who constantly aspires to live in the present moment, it is an impossible question to answer. The projects that have truly changed me as an artist and human being have come looking for me rather than the other way around. There is a deeper thinker in us who thinks in an ineffable manner that cannot be articulated by any language. This is the heart’s thinking. When we think at this deep level the universe around us begins to sing and speak these thoughts like a language in its own right. Things begin to magically happen around us and these ineffable thoughts begin to turn into reality. To the extent that I am able to say anything specific about current interests and future plans, I am deeply concerned about negative attitudes towards migration, in North America and Europe but also other parts of the world. The fear of the Other and the way it is stoked by political opportunism is very worrisome. We are at the gateway of a possible and widespread new apartheid in the western world unless we embrace the Other and consider it part of us. Being an immigrant myself and having been welcomed in both the United States and Canada as a young man, I am weary of our changing attitudes towards immigration. Part of our fear is caused by a deeper awareness of how in the past migrant Europeans nearly decimated native cultures in North America. We are afraid that we may now find ourselves on the receiving end of such cultural supplanting. Fear is the enemy. As John Cage said once “nothing is lost when everything is given away”. This to me is the deeper message of the Cross, the message that we are stubbornly refusing to understand and practice. Nothing is lost when everything is given away. Wonderful new things emerge from such generosity and self-sacrifice, impossible to predict beforehand. Perhaps the phone might ring and I may plunge myself in a project on such a subject or, again, it may just be wishful thinking on my part. It may be that there is a higher necessity why we must collectively experience this crucible that we appear to be headed into and that no work of art may be able to stem the tide and deprive us of such crucible experience. Nothing is random in this world or any other.
6) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
So many! Many of them before my time. At the very top, the soul entity who entered as the first human avatar and fell and was willingly raised on the Cross and redeemed humanity as a whole: not mechanically, as most Christian doctrines would have it, but by pointing the Way of the Cross for the rest of us. He has been my greatest teacher and influence.
Edgar Cayce gave language to all the things I felt inside me as a child and could not articulate. He has been a lasting influence in my life and creativity.
Composer Morton Feldman, my last composition teacher, who taught me to mistrust reason and follow my aesthetic instinct. I have followed my heart’s reasoning instead, something that he would have probably not approved, but I learned from him to risk everything for a faint promise of access to something beyond illusory certitude. I learned from him to stand naked in front of the Abyss and know that nothing can possibly happen to me unless I allow fear to weaken me.
A woman who will not be named (in my upcoming autobiography I call her Anne). I thought of her as my inferior when I was fresh out of graduate school with inflated brains only to find out that she had been granted unimaginable cosmic power for one reason only: because she would never use it under any circumstances and would not display her power and cosmic knowledge for any reason. I learned humility from her. For the past thirty five years I have been processing what she had taught me in a few short months. It will take several lifetimes to process completely.
The music of Christos Hatzis can be heard in several places across Canada (this is not a complete list).
- The Royal Winnipeg Ballet national tour of Going Home Star continues in March and April, encompassing locations in each province going westward from Manitoba to British Columbia .
- Ecstasy, a song cycle and the second collaboration between Hatzis and Sarah Slean, receives its world premiere March 31st with the Thunder Bay Symphony.
- Lamento, the earlier collaboration with Slean, will be presented by the Saskatoon Symphony May 14th
- Sepuchre of Life, commissioned by four different Canadian philharmonic choirs, written in 2003, will be presented by Mount Royal Kantorei, Mount Royal Artio Cum Vino Cantus; The Calgary Youth Orchestra May 14th
- The Isle is Full of Noises, a 2013 work using Shakespeare texts commissioned by L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, will be presented by the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall April 12 & 13th 2017.
“I feel strongly that
with my music, I am trying
to force a tiny opening in the clouds
that will allow His Light to shine through.
At best, I am a follower, not a master,
and my MASTER holds the patterns
and patents of my being and work.
So, in the best of circumstances,
I can only think of myself
as an imitator.“