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Lost in music

Cypriot composer Andys Skordis is something of a free spirit and has written an opera entirely in the Cypriot dialect. THEO PANAYIDES meets him


It’s quite funny, really. I’m sitting with Andys Skordis in the smallest Costa Coffee I’ve ever seen – not much more than a counter with a couple of tables outside, one of which we share beneath the spattering drizzle of a wet Saturday morning – when Andreas Moustoukis, another young Cypriot composer, happens to pass by, greeting Andys like a long-lost brother. Given what a rare species home-grown composers are, it’s odd to find two of them in the same tiny nook. If a bomb were to fall (it wouldn’t even have to be a big bomb), the future of contemporary music in Cyprus might be seriously jeopardised.

We can laugh about it, but it’s no laughing matter. “Basically we don’t accept artists, I would say,” muses Andys, a bushy-bearded 31-year-old with gentle eyes, ‘we’ being Cypriots in general. “I even see it from my family – not my close family – even now they will ask me, ‘So what are you doing abroad?’ and I say ‘I’m a composer’. [And they say] ‘Yeah, but what do you do for a living?’”. He shakes his head in wry amusement. “And then they will ask me, ‘So, are you playing music somewhere?’ and I say ‘No! I’m composing!’.” Clearly, the concept of simply writing music for others to play, without guitar lessons or a live-music gig on the side to pay the bills – though he’s done odd jobs over the years, from working in restaurants to “carrying things” – is hard to grasp.

Is this a Cyprus thing? Maybe, maybe not. Andys’ relationship with his native country is a bit ambivalent. On the one hand, he’s been abroad since the age of 20, now lives in Holland and recently spent a year in Bali studying ‘gamelan’ music (more on this later). On the other, he admits, “my family is here, my dear friends are here, my favourite place in the world – Akamas – is here”. He almost came back this year – but he’s “practically engaged”, as he puts it, and his not-quite-fiancée (who’s Iranian, and also writes music) must’ve pointed out that a small island is unlikely to offer enough work for two composers, one of them a non-Cypriot. For now, he remains an expatriate – but has also declared a kind of musical allegiance by composing an opera called Ou … Patsia … Ra, which had four performances earlier this month and is written entirely in the Cypriot dialect.

This is not as strange as it may sound. “In a musical context, I think the Cypriot language is very beautiful, mainly because it has a percussive character.” We hit consonants hard; we have lots of ‘shh’s and ‘kk’s and ‘tt’s. But there’s something else too – because our dialect, like our musical heritage, is something we often neglect, or feel embarrassed by. Traditional music is an outlier in Cyprus; children tend to learn guitar or violin or piano, as opposed to traditional instruments – and the dialect too is similarly ignored, picked up almost by accident.

“I think it’s totally related,” says Andys, apropos not just of his opera but the whole conflicted culture. “It’s related to everything – even our clothes, the food we eat. I think we – at least my generation – I’d say we grew up having an identity crisis, [in terms] of who we are. I don’t know what’s happening with newer generations. But I think within this fight to find who we are – in language, in music, in clothes, in everything – the only thing we did for sure is to kill the Cypriot element inside.”

His own voyage of discovery – finding out ‘who he is’ – was always music-related (his father is Marios Skordis, former DJ and Eurovision specialist at CyBC, who “pushed me into the world of music from a young age”), but still quite eventful. So far, it’s taken him from the heavy metal of his teen years to a current fascination with world music, and from this small island to another on the other side of the world. Bali has an area of 5,780 square kilometres, about the size of non-occupied Cyprus – but its culture seems to be entirely different, both in how the Balinese approach tradition and in terms of their everyday lives.

Andys went as a scholarship student, studying ‘gamelan’ (the traditional music of Java, its sound both metallic and melodic) at the university in Denpasar, the biggest town in Bali. He lived with a local family in the suburbs of Denpasar – father, mother and two children, a son and daughter, both around 12-13 – teaching the son guitar and helping the family practise their English. The dad was in charge of a local artists’ group, Mum was a housewife; she could afford not to work, explains Andys, because the family belonged to a good caste (Bali has a caste system, like India) and were fairly well-off. They’d never been to the West but knew a bit about it, mostly from watching TV. These, in other words, weren’t ‘unspoiled’ farmers in some village in the middle of nowhere – yet their daily routine owes nothing to the secular, atomised lifestyle we take for granted.

“All people in Bali are very religious, in their Hinduist-animist religion,” he explains. God is experienced in natural things, “spirits are among us, there’s no distinction. What I saw from the family I was living with is that every hour of their life is, let’s say, a result of what is supposed to happen. For instance, they wake up and do their offerings – so they offer food, cigarettes and so on to the bad spirits and the good spirits. It’s a huge philosophy”. Almost every house has a shrine or small temple, “and if not in the house, then the neighbourhood”. Food is left for the spirits, usually to be eaten by birds or animals – then, a few hours later, more offerings are brought (this happens three times a day, says Andys, which is why it helps having a spouse who doesn’t work and can prepare it all). “They also put an offering wherever the bad spirits are – they do it in the streets, for instance, so the streets are safe. Any place you can imagine – cars, motorcycles, everywhere… All these things happen throughout the year, every day. And music is there every day, gamelan music.”

It appears to be a more communal life than we’re used to. Each neighbourhood has a community centre where people learn gamelan or shadow theatre free of charge, “and all these things are related to their religion”. Everyone tends to “go with the sun”, going to bed early and waking up around 5-5.30. It’s a bit surprising that Andys Skordis would appreciate such a controlled society – because one thing that becomes very clear in talking to him is how much he chafes at being told what to do. At one point he recalls his National Service, and lists two reasons why it wasn’t a total waste of time: first, because he played in the Army band and met lots of fellow musicians (indeed, it was the first time in his life he’d been surrounded by musicians) – and second, because he learned “how it is to have someone on top of you, who has control. Which is something I really hate, and now I know even more that I’d never want to be in a situation like this.”

Musically speaking, he’s a free spirit. He did a commercial once, but never again. Even film music makes him feel “enslaved”, because you have to serve the director. He makes the music he likes – he’s won prizes in Holland, leading to state support and a measure of creative freedom – and that’s how he likes it. Politically speaking, he’s equally defiant, indeed musical and political freedom may bleed into each other. “Let’s stir things up! Let’s have a revolution!” urges Mr. Moustoukis, briefly joining our table at Costa Coffee (yes, that really is how composers talk to each other) – and Andys’ views are indeed revolutionary, by the usual bourgeois standards. “I used to be very inspired by Karl Marx,” he explains, but nowadays “I believe more in anarchy”.

Meaning what, exactly?

Not the usual stereotype, he hastens to add. “In Cyprus, we say ‘anarchy’ and think of people with leather jackets and strange hair destroying places”. His own idea of the word is simply that “people arrive at a state where they don’t need someone to control them, and tell them that this is right or this is wrong” – and the closest he’s ever seen to anarchy, he says counter-intuitively, was indeed in Bali, that well-ordered society.

But how? People’s lives are so rigidly laid out there.

Maybe, he admits – but, for instance, “I found the police absent”; the cops were little more than “a decoration”. Instead, “every neighbourhood has their own council, and if someone does something wrong they just push him out of the neighbourhood. They don’t punish him, they don’t kill him or beat him up, but he’s not welcome anymore. He’s, in a way, exiled”. Crime exists, of course (Andys himself was robbed once, in what he calls “the touristic areas”), but it seems to be dealt with at grass-roots level, not resolved from above. And of course it works both ways: “Even the family I was living with, every night there were a lot of people sleeping in their garden” – just passing through, maybe even exiled from their own neighbourhoods, sleeping in little huts in the garden. “They would come, they wouldn’t have a place to stay, they would stay there, the next day they would do something for the house – maybe clean the garden a bit.”

Anarchy in action? Possibly. He makes it sound quite idyllic – but also admits that he may have been “too romantic” to see the bigger picture. Certainly, I get the feeling he himself might get restless in such an orderly place, and indeed might’ve ended up fleeing Bali if he were Balinese. I love “that monumental quality in your work,” says Moustoukis as they talk, and Andys later admits that “I want to write big things”. There seems to be a grand, go-for-broke streak in his makeup, the kind that’d write entire operas in Cypriot.

It’s unlikely that the ‘Brain Masturbation’ collective would do well in Bali, for instance. This is an irregular, long-running project with four main members (they’re usually joined by a few guest musicians) who get together whenever they can, pick up an instrument and “use sound to just… get out,” as he puts it. “Without any plan, without any rules, without anything. Sort of a jam, some people would say, sort of a meditative ritual others would say”. Each anarchic session lasts for a couple of hours – any more would be too exhausting. They don’t just play; they also scream, bang on the floor, even shoot small arrows loaded with TNT. It’s all about sound as a kind of primal therapy; “It needs amplitude. I mean, we play very loud”. It’s almost like sex, he enthuses, “you really feel something growing and suddenly a release… It’s real emotion, it’s really emotional”. Even in Amsterdam, where he lived in a complex for musicians, the neighbours would bang on the wall after a while; god knows how the concept would go down in Denpasar, or indeed Nicosia.

Music is another language, notes Andys Skordis – the corollary (though he doesn’t say so) being that it sometimes won’t make sense to the rest of us. Meanwhile he lives an uncertain life, from one piece of work to the next, constantly seeking both inspiration – “something to trigger your imagination” – and the more banal matter of funding. “People drink coffee every day,” he sighs, pointing vaguely to the baristas behind him, “and they pay for it – but then they complain, ‘Why do you have to pay for music?’… I can’t understand why they keep on paying money for coffee, when one day they could skip a coffee and, you know, support an artist”. He shakes his head ruefully. Don’t come back to Cyprus, urges his comrade Moustoukis – “This place is a well!” he adds darkly, making a gesture to suggest a bottomless pit where all things are forever lost. It’s hard being a home-grown composer.

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