Q&A with NY-based Greek composer Pericles Kanaris, Greek Identity with Global Sounds - a mirror of his journey

The experience of music and its power to bring people together, has made me appreciate any process which aspires to achieve this result. As Yannis Ritsos, a famous Greek poet wrote, “we don’t sing to separate ourselves from people - we sing to unite them.”

Pericles Kanaris: Music Odyssey

Pericles Kanaris was born in Athens, Greece where he began his study of piano at an early age. He  won the B.E.S.T. scholarship from Berklee College of Music where he studied voice and composition with a concentration on Film Scoring (B.Mus. - Summa Cum Laude). During his studies at Berklee, he also studied piano and composition privately with Jazz guru Charlie Banacos. He is the recipient of the Barnes and Noble Award, and the Soren Christensen Award, both for outstanding musicianship during his presence at the writing division of Berklee. He also holds a M.Sc. in Mass Communication from Boston University and a B.A. in Media Studies from the University of Kent at Canterbury, England, where he wrote extensively on the potential of music as a medium of communication. He wrote his main master's thesis on The Communicative Nature of Music under the supervision of Roger Scruton, a world authority on the Philosophy of Music. He wrote a second thesis on The Contribution of Nino Rota's Music to the films of Federico Fellini, under the supervision of renowned American screenwriter Stephen Geller. He has composed music for various international media. Among other distinguished credits, his composition “Project Innocence”, originally written for film, was given its world-premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall in May 2007. Greek music has equally been a great source of passion and inspiration since the beginning of his career.

Pericles Kanaris / Photo by Yorgos Mavropoulos

In 2000 he formed the Contemporary Greek Music Ensemble which he led with memorable success in major concert venues of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the producer of “Music of Greece”,  the first compilation of Greek music ever released by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in conjunction with the reopening of its world-renowned Greek and Roman galleries in April 2007. In 2008, building on his Boston experience of presenting Greek music to audiences in America, Kanaris formed Synolon, a New York-based ensemble. Synolon consistently sold out the world music venue Drom in the East Village for consecutive seasons and was credited with changing the presentation of Greek music in the city.  In October 2014 he released his debut album "Aoratos", seven original songs that were composed on the verses of acclaimed Greek poet Manos Eleftheriou and sang by a distinct list of prominent Greek vocalists. The International New York Times recognized his music as “a Greek Identity with Global Sounds”. In the Spring of 2019, the composer presented the “Road to Athens” series at New York’s premiere World Music venue, DROM, as well at the Consulate General of Greece. Pericles Kanaris called this “a milestone for his career” as he presented material from two new collections of songs. One collection is inspired by classic poets such as Constantine P. Kavafy and T.S Eliot and the other by unreleased material from contemporary poets, such as Manos Eleftheriou and the younger generation of Greek poets. From January 2020, he will be teaching at NYU a new class which he created, entitled “Songs of the Underdog”: American Blues meets Greek Rebetiko”.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has music influenced your views of the world?

The experience of music and its power to bring people together, has made me appreciate any process which aspires to achieve this result. As Yannis Ritsos, a famous Greek poet wrote, “we don’t sing to separate ourselves from people - we sing to unite them.”

How has music influenced the journeys you’ve taken?

Fundamentally. It has been the compass of my choices. I was born in Athens, Greece and have by now lived most of my life away from by birthplace, in different cities and different continents. Physically and mentally, these journeys were the result of my passion for music.

How do you describe your songbook and sound?

I would describe my songbook as a mirror of my journey as a person and a musician. My sound is syncretic: a mix of many influences that have shaped it over the years, studying and interacting with different music cultures. It’s been described by the International edition of the New York Times as having "a Greek identity with global sounds". I find that this captures it pretty well.

"A simple look at the cultures of Greece and the United States reveals that the two genres eventually became the foundations of their respective popular musics. The social implications of this impact are immensely significant because in both cases the genres manage to rise up from the bottom of society to the very top, in spite of the fierce reaction with which they both met when their journeys began."

Where does your creative drive come from?

The sources of my creative drive vary. They can come anywhere from a deeply personal emotion to pure intellectual curiosity. However, making a living as a creator adds a very different and important factor in this equation. There, the goal is to deliver something above and beyond what’s expected.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past?

If we are talking about popular music, I miss its thematic power - the melodies of the 70s and 80s. These days you rarely see that kind of depth of musical knowledge in the creation of music. I also feel that there was a stronger bond between audience and music when my generation was growing up. The release of a new musical work used to generate more excitement.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

My hope is that societies will continue to recognize the value of music in people’s lives and make sure that they nurture music by supporting the livelihoods of musicians - performers and educators alike. Since antiquity, the world’s greatest philosophers have stressed the importance of music in our lives. My fear is that musicians will not be supported enough to survive.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

At this point, my biggest wish would be to bring everyone safely back to concert venues. The musical world is bleeding right now, and I wish we can get back to a new normal as soon as possible.

Which acquaintances have been the most important as experiences in your life? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

All acquaintances that have allowed me to grow as a human being have been equally important for me. If I had to pick one it would be the poet Manos Eleftheriou, with whom I collaborated as a composer. The best advice I ever got from anyone was back when my career was just beginning. A dear friend had simply said, “just stay focused” and that really stayed with me.

"The sources of my creative drive vary. They can come anywhere from a deeply personal emotion to pure intellectual curiosity. However, making a living as a creator adds a very different and important factor in this equation. There, the goal is to deliver something above and beyond what’s expected." (The late great Greek poet Manos Eleftheriou & Pericles Kanaris / Photo by Stavros Charisopoulos)

American Blues Meet Greek Rebetiko: What are the differences and similarities? What touched you the most?

This is a vast subject, so it is hard for me to answer this question staying within the limits of this interview. What I can say is that their similarities are less obvious but more powerful than their differences. Observing these similarities allows us to learn much more about the human condition than observing their differences. This discovery is precisely what touched me the most.

Do you consider the Blues and Rebetiko a specific music genre or do you think it’s a state of mind?

In their original form, the two were inseparable. This combination was largely responsible for their authenticity and expressive power. Over time, this condition has been modified as the newer generations of musicians were progressively removed from the original environments within which the genres were created.

What is the impact of American Blues and Greek Rebetiko music on their respective cultures? What are the social implications of this impact?

A simple look at the cultures of Greece and the United States reveals that the two genres eventually became the foundations of their respective popular musics. The social implications of this impact are immensely significant because in both cases the genres manage to rise up from the bottom of society to the very top, in spite of the fierce reaction with which they both met when their journeys began.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would like to visit Athens in the middle of the 19th century, where my great grandfather, Konstantinos Kanaris lived. I would have liked to spend a day with him.

Pericles Kanaris - Home

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