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Dimitris Terzakis

Curriculum Vitae | Interview | Works

Curriculum Vitae

Dimitris Terzakis, son of the writer Angelos Terzakis (1907-1979), was born on 12 March 1938 in Athens. He studied composition in Athens with John G. Papaioannou and in Cologne with Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Herbert Eimert (electronic music).

In the course of his creative career and as a “composer between two worlds” he developed a personal musical language which has its roots in the music of Greece and more generally of the eastern Mediterranean. But Terzakis is not simply an imitator of the ancient traditions of the area in which he was born. He uses their technical characteristics, such as the genres of ancient Greek music (diatonic - chromatic - enharmonic) and the tetrachords, in trying to develop a personal idiom in which the horizontal, i.e. melodic factors prevail. It is a melodic concept which is not related to the equal-tempered system of Western European music, but uses micro-intervals, i.e. intervals which are smaller than a semitone, in a variety of horizontal compositional manipulations.

Terzakis perceives his music as a kind of ‘blood transfusion into the body of Western European music which, isolated from the great eastern European and non-European musical cultures for centuries, has reached to a dead end’.

The same objective motivates his activity as a teacher, too, i.e. the broadening of horizons of young composers: in 1985/86 he taught as a visiting professor at the Hochschule der Kuenste Berlin; from 1989 to 1994 he taught at the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule Duesseldorf, the same town where he started teaching in 1970; from 1990 until 1997 he was the chairman of the Department of Composition of the Konservatorium Bern, while he has been the director of the Hochschule fuer Musik und Theater “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” at Leipzig since 1994.

His international reputation dates from the premiere at Basle in 1970 of his work Oikos on a text of Romanos the Melode. His music transcended the European borders already in 1972, and works like Katavasia (1972) have been performed on all continents.

Dimitris Terzakis lives and teaches today in Leipzig, and at the same time maintains regular and substantial contact with Greece.

Sources: Unpublished autobiographical notes by the composer.

Aleka Symeonidou, Lexiko Hellenon Syntheton (Athens: Nakas 1995).

‘D. Terzakis’, in: John G. Papaioannou, ed., Apo ten Hellenike Mousike Protoporeia tou 20ou Aiona (Athens: ETEBA, 1997).

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Dimitris Terzakis was so kind as to grant us the following interview on 19 February 1998:

You describe yourself as a ‘composer between two worlds’: How would you describe your relationship with the western tradition? And what is your assessment of the musical legacy of the 20th century, now that we are moving towards its end?

My relation to western music is negative in a fruitful way. Having soon ascertained the causes which led it to the grave (because it is already dead), I tried to avoid them, and this effort helped me find my own musical language.

Why is it dead? Because an art which has no longer a public, is dead. As to the achievements, we can say that the music of our century has not succeeded in creating a new aesthetic. After Debussy nobody could discover a new world. The composers of the first half of the 20th century continued the romantic tradition. Since 1950 all the experimentations revolve around timbre as the main means of expression, condemning melody as a traditional element. Whether serial, or a composition using sound masses, or noises, it is nothing but different aspects of Impressionism. What does remain of all this and of the trumpeting with which the every time latest avantgardism is usually publicized? The early Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich are the only composers who breathe in the open air of the repertoire. Schoenberg is a composer, about whom everyone speaks with admiration, but nobody likes listening to his music. He is the first who dug the grave of western music. In the second half of the century, Messiaen is indisputably the dominant figure. But even he has a difficult position in the repertoire. Why? Because he, too, is working with timbres. The whole history of modern music shows that we cannot renounce the melodic element with impunity. In doing so, we exceed the possibilities of man. Like this, significant works of our time are condemned to death, such as, for example, some works by Ligeti, Messiaen, and others. The King is dead, long live the King, but where will the new king come from? Personally I would consider eastern Europe or Asia as the area of his origin. But these areas have something in common: the deep-seated inferiority complexes which the colonialist politics of western Europe cleverly implanted in them, teaching them to disdain their own civilization. We see the results daily: the composers of these areas compete for writing the best symphony or the best sonata. In a word: apery.

Within the framework of your relation to the musical tradition of the eastern Mediterranean, which role do references to specific aspects of this tradition play (e. g. Byzantine and Neo-byzantine chant, ancient Greek music, modes and maqam, etc.)? And how would you place yourself in relation to the approach of other composers who have turned to popular or non-European traditions (e. g. National schools, Bartok, Messiaen, Stockhausen)?

I cannot locate the source of my musical language in any of the traditions which you mention. Besides I have never imitated the Byzantine, Arabic or any other tradition. I carry the tradition of the eastern Mediterranean in me. It is my mother tongue. This helped me avoid many short-lived techniques of modern western music and thus infuse it with new, fresh blood. As to the composers whom you mentioned, each of them took different elements from the non-western traditions: Bartok used melodic and rhythmic elements of eastern Europe; Messiaen used the timbres of Indonesian music; Stockhausen adopted the technique of composing with patterns. I have never used original material. I lay the stress on the melodic element which I place on a non-western basis, specifically: in contrast with the composers whom I mentioned, I do not use equal temperament. This gives me the right to use flexible melodic lines, the structure of which is based on rules not traditional, but personal, which I created little by little over the last thirty years. The vertical aspect (chords of all sorts) has systematically subsided and has come to absolute monophony which characterizes the new phase of my musical language. This monophony ranges from solo music to works for large orchestra.

In our opinion intervallic variety (quarter-tone, etc.) alone is not enough to bring us in contact with the conceptual richness of monophony: which is in your opinion the values- and cognitive content which a monophonic tradition presents and with which it is worth reconciling today the individual creative work in serious music? How have you exploited this wealth?

Admittedly intervallic variety is not enough to get us in touch with other musical worlds. Generally speaking I would maintain that variety is not enough for the creation of a succesful work. A classic case is the failure of the twelve-note system. Who would believe that the twelve notes have infinitely fewer possibilities than the seven notes? But abandoning equal temperament is necessary, for the simple reason that it has exhausted its resources. Equal temperament is an artificial invention which was significant for the needs of some phases of western music, as, for instance, modulations to remote tonalities. These needs ceased to exist long-ago: with the abolition of the major-minor system the equally-tempered system abolishes itself, too. But admittedly this abolition is not enough to approach other musical civilizations. The key is the knowledge of their sound symbols, in other words, the answer to the question: by which means of sound are emotions expressed, from the simple ones (joy, sorrow, etc.) to the most complex? Every one learns these sound symbols of his cultural environment just as one learns one’s mother tongue: so my sound symbols are those of eastern Mediterranean. I use them as a poet uses the sound symbols of his mother tongue. What, however, differentiates the personality of each creative artist is the way of using symbols. Cavafis, for example, and Seferis write in the same language, but there is a world of difference that separates their styles. If we look at the subject of the elements of music in this manner, we cannot say that there are unexploited sides for me. But there are infinite ways of exploiting with which I succeed in developing my technique.

What are you trying to implant in your composition students and how do you evaluate your influence on the formation of their own work?

Teaching composition is a difficult operation in the age we live in. Once the teacher said to the student: 'Write a piano sonata, my dear'. The criteria were fixed and so the opinion of the teacher was based on generally acceptable criteria. Today no such basis exists. Everything is allowed and this makes the work of the composer, but also of the teacher, difficult.
Stravinsky said once that when he began writing, he shuddered to think that everything is allowed.
To my students I teach the contemporary techniques to begin with. Then I allow them to write in accordance with their character. I direct them with my opinion on the road which each of them has chosen because the road is prescribed by the character of each of them, and true and legitimate in Art is that which is prescribed by the nature of its creator.

Many colleagues compel their students to write as they do. This system is criminal. It results in the production of unnecessary epigones. It is an easy system, of course, and flatters the professor. But it has fatal results for the student.

The lessons in composition are complemented by the analysis of works which cover the entire spectrum of western music from the Middle Ages to our time. Another seminar is devoted to the great musical cultures, those which westerners call non-European. Here the students get in touch with other ways of musical thinking and discover other musical symbols, in other words, they learn foreign musical languages.

Which should be the ideals of a modern music education?

We are at a historical turning point and I am afraid that most people have not yet realized it. After the Second World War other social classes have come to the surface. The cultivated bourgeoisie of the past century is at death’s door. These new classes have other priorities for the time being. First of all they must heal the wounds which the social injustice of previous times inflicted upon them. The result is what we call the nouveau riche. In Greece this phenomenon is particularly blatant. I make no secret of the fact that I have great fun when I see the patrons in the coffee houses put their mobile phones ostentatiously on the table as if all the Stock Exchanges of the world waited impatiently for them to decide whether the dollar will go up or down. If we look at music education from this point of view, we shall find out that we are in expectation of the art which this new society will need once its soul is satisfied and its wounds have healed up. Which art will that be? Obviously not the one of the previous century and obviously not the so-called 'modern music' which tries to deny the classic-romantic tradition by sterile, desperate means. One thing is certain: the new dictators of the present time, i. e. the mass media, will be the future employers of the composers. They have not yet developed their music. They continue to use Grieg’s music to advertise toothpaste and Wagner's music to advertise toilet paper. But the day will come when they will need their own art. So the ideals of a modern music education should be oriented towards this direction. A difficult, very difficult undertaking.

Which are the most important problems of music education in Greece and how can they be solved?

The fundamental problem of music in Greece is the fact that music education is abandoned to the so-called private initiative, in other words, in the hands of businessmen. A businessman is interested in nothing but profit. As a result there are the 'Excellent' examination marks given so generously on the diplomas of the conservatoires which are springing up like mushrooms and many other absurd things. Excuse me, please, from the waste of energy of giving instructions. Nothing is going to change. Of course, music appears to be the most inaccessible of all the arts to a Greek, and this is not only due to the mess of music education. The musical perception of a Greek reaches only the good light music, and the truth is that Greece has had always good light music, even before Chatzidakis and Theodorakis.

Which compositional works are occupying you at present and what are your future projects?

I finished a work for Sabine Meyer (a great discovery of H. von Karajan) and am working on the fourth cycle of Songs without Words. I make an intensive study of absolute monophony, applying it to various combinations of instrumental as well as vocal music. Some people here perceive this as a slap in the beautiful face of western music and are very interested in seeing how its face will be after the slap. So let us wait ...

The questions to Mr Dimitris Terzakis were asked by Mr Panos Vlagopoulos and Mr Anargyros Deniozos.

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You can see the works of Mr Terzakis through the search form of the List of Works.

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