Manoeuvring in the slipstream of artists such as the renowned Ross Daly, Kelly Thoma created her own highly original body of work. On the occasion of her latest album, "Ama kopasoun oi kairoi" (As the Winds Die Down), Kelly Thoma talked about her particular instrument, the Cretan lyre, and her particular kind of music.
Kelly Thoma: When I was 15 years old I came across a compilation cassette which included a piece of Ross’. I can say with certainty that these 8 minutes of listening changed my life. I was fascinated by the sound, the aesthetics and the melody, all new to me at the time. During the whole process that followed in the next few months of me trying to find out what this music was, who was playing, what was that instrument, I think I developed a mystical world of my own in which I can still very often “go” and re-experience the beauty. The fact that the cassette was a pirate one and had no info or indications about the tracks, and not even the name of the artists, played a crucial role in the mystery and in the whole adventure of trying to find the name of Ross and thereafter to start following his art.
I have heard many similar stories of people discovering music in various odd ways and they all have to say that the magic of the first encounter is a treasure and a kind of motivation to continue this trip of listening, or creating music. It is important to be able to go back to those moments and “remember”.
You obviously followed that trail!?
A year later I went to a concert of Ross in Athens, where I used to live at the time, and the experience of listening to this music live for the first time was another powerful moment during which I said to myself, basically out of the blue, because I had no other experience of playing music, that I wanted to play the lyra.
Besides studying with Ross Daly and playing with his Labyrinth ensemble, what made an impact in particular?
Being a member of Labyrinth ensemble as well as of Labyrinth Musical Workshop since 2002 I have had the chance to meet, play and study with many masters of various musical traditions. Some of them have exerted a greater influence on me as a musician as well as a person and I am extremely grateful to them for their generosity and inspiration.
Ballake Sissoko, Sokratis Sinopoulos, Efrén López, Giorgis Xylouris (Psarogiorgis), Habil Aliyev, Dhruba Ghosh, Evgenios Voulgaris, Vasilis Stavrakakis, Zohar Fresco, Pedram Khavarzamini, Georgi Petrov, Yurdal Tokcan, Djamchid Chemirani are definitely some of them, as well as many others who I have not met but who I have deeply appreciated and have been influenced by their art, like Dr.N.Rajam the great master of Hindustani violin, classical ballet dancers Natalia Osipova and Silvie Guillem and choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine and William Forsythe. I am also certain that I am influenced and inspired by my friends, my family, my dogs, food, films, photos, paintings and moments. As everyone, I guess.
How would you place your music then in the context of other Cretan music?
It’s not easy for someone to describe their own music, especially when it is not a product of a very specific musical environment or an existing genre. I know I have been influenced by many different styles and techniques and have studied Cretan music as well as some styles of Turkish, Azeri and Indian music but I would never consider myself an expert on any of the above. I compose “new” music based on various old traditions, at times based on given forms, scales and aesthetics, at other times on completely free ground, and the result of this procedure has been described as "contemporary modal music". This term has been created by my teacher, Ross, and describes the sum total of contemporary compositions created today by musicians working within various modal traditions. This music is the continuation of the procedure of modal composing through a very free perspective and is not at all connected with the goal of "preserving traditions". It is the contemporary expression of the beauty of modality (phrase-orientated non-harmonic music which often employs non-tempered intervals).
I would not by any means consider my music Cretan. The instrument which I play is the Cretan lyra indeed, but the music I have explored with it is definitely not only the Cretan tradition. I have composed a few pieces that are clearly influenced by this musical tradition, but would never be considered part of it. However on my last album I put the challenge to myself to compose in a manner as close as I could to this specific style, only because I thought I owed to myself the opportunity to search in depth what I have accumulated all these years here on the island of Crete, listening to this music, playing some of this repertoire and mainly being in close friendly relationships with some amazing Cretan musicians, singers and poets.
You mentioned your latest recording... After two albums of instrumental compositions, "Anamkhara" (2009) and "7Fish" (2014), your latest CD "As the Winds Die Down" is a departure featuring original vocal music. Please tell me a little bit about it!
On this album I assigned to myself the task of composing melodies within the strict confines of the folk forms of Cretan music as well as to explore the treasures of Cretan poetry and its idiomatic expression. The poetic form, called mantinada, is almost exclusively iambic 15-syllable couplets that rhyme (with the exception of a freer form used for Rizitika) and these lyrics are sung on traditional or original melodies which also serve to accompany specific Cretan folk dances (syrto, pentozali, maleviziotis etc). I composed 8 songs in collaboration primarily with Mitsos Stavrakakis, a much loved and very acknowledged Cretan poet (mantinadologos, as they are called), as well as with two other poets, Giorgos Dagalakis and the deceased Nikos Andreadakis. The two singers, Vassilis Stavrakakis and Giorgos Manolakis are two of Crete’s foremost singers today.
Musically I tried to relate as much as possible to those magic moments I had experienced while listening to the traditional repertoire or to contemporary Cretan compositions, sung by some of my favorite singers, during these past 20 years that I have been living on Crete. The result is for me a tiny contribution to the huge repertoire of Cretan music and I am very proud of it.
Non-Greek speakers have a disadvantage in fully appreciating these songs...
In the liner notes of this album I chose not to include translations of the mantinades for two reasons. Firstly, because I never thought that this very idiomatic project would attract the interest of people outside of Crete, let alone outside of Greece, but mainly because I find it almost impossible to transmit the atmosphere and the connotations of these words, some of which have no corresponding ones in English. Translating poetry is anyway an extremely difficult task, especially when the poetry is folk, very idiomatic and talks mainly about love, flowers, lemon trees, weather conditions, shepherds’ life or trimming vegetable fields … However, the way these common or seemingly ordinary topics are transformed into symbols of very strong feelings, or complex philosophical thoughts, the humor often hidden behind combinations of words and the images and colors that are revealed by the use of such simple concepts, is to me somewhat magical. The words denoting love are numerous, depending on at what stage of the relationship one finds oneself, or if it is a fruitful or a desperate one, there are also specific flowers for specific types of women, just as the names of various winds, depending on if they blow from the South or the North, relate to different feelings… So the task becomes very complicated and the mission quite impossible, at least for me.
I noticed that you caught up with this in the meantime and that you provided some basic translations on your website. (Have a look @ www.kellythoma.com, dear readers!) Well, I guess not everybody is familiar with the Cretan lyre! Please tell me a little bit about your instrument!
The Cretan lyra is a three string upright fiddle. The appearance of this instrument on Crete is estimated to be in the middle of the 18th century. The earliest one we have is from 1743. Before that the common instruments played in weddings and celebrations were little reeds (thiamboli) and small barrel percussions (daoulaki).
The instrument which I play is a modification of the original Cretan lyra and was first designed by Ross and constructed by Nikos Bras in Athens back in 1991. This lyra keeps the basic elements of the older type but in addition to the 3 main strings it also has 22 sympathetic strings, an idea of Ross’ which arises from other string instruments such as the sarangi, the sitar or the Bulgarian gadulka. The sympathetic strings resonate in accordance with the three main strings and produce a special sound with an effect of a natural reverb. In my opinion, because the sound of this instrument is more versatile and neutral than the “geographically located sound” of the original Cretan lyra, it is much easier to be free and use various techniques and styles, which is definitely something that I like to do.
I learned that you have been involved in many musical projects other than Greek music. For example, the Tokso string quartet featuring Norwegian and French musicians. What is it all about?
My main performing work is of course with Ross Daly and the artists I have met in collaborations I have participated in thanks to him. However, I felt free from the beginning to start my own musical relationships with other musicians of even different genres, of which I am very fond and I think they help me develop my own sound and artistic world. Tokso is indeed the main one, as we have been together for 11 years. This ensemble was first presented in Norway in the summer of 2008. It consists of four musicians and composers: Sigrun Eng (cello) and Anne Hytta (hardanger fiddle) from Norway, Eleonore Billy (nyckelharpa) from France and myself.
The repertoire consists exclusively of our own compositions in which we make extended use of improvisation as well as of various techniques inspired by the traditions which we come from, utilizing techniques of our own invention. The Norwegian hardanger fiddle, the cello, the Swedish nyckelharpa and the Cretan lyra are all four played with a bow, but traditionally, they neither share a common repertoire nor are they ever used together in the same orchestra. However, in Tokso, thanks to our open attitude to new ideas, the instruments bind together in a very interesting way in a fresh group sound of coherence and depth.
I also perform as duet with the multi-instrumentalist and amazing composer Efrén López, as well as in another duet with the remarkable cello player Mayu Shviro.
You have toured all four corners of the world. Is there any chance to see you over here in the near future?
Tokso will be touring in Germany in November 2020. Unfortunately, I do not have any details to share right now… For me, being Greek, planning so much in advance is extremely rare. In fact, November 2020 seems like next century, but Tokso consists of another three very well organized North European girls who make things happen so smoothly and effectively! I guess we will announce the program soon on our website.
By the way, what is your experience of presenting your music outside of Crete?
The feeling of playing for an audience that is not familiar with the music that you offer is actually very special. It is always of course challenging and a big pleasure to share your music with people that know and can appreciate what you are playing, but sometimes a more initiated audience can be prejudiced and expect very specific things while they can’t allow themselves to receive new musical proposals without being judgmental. For example people on Crete, when they see a musician on stage holding a lyra, they expect, in their majority, to listen to Cretan music or even if they are more open minded they at least cannot get away from the connotation as easily as someone who has no idea! So I very often enjoy more playing for people who are listening for the first time, as I can relate to them and remember how it was for me when I was 15 or 16 years old and all this was new to me.
Is anything else in the pipeline?
I am preparing my next solo album, hopefully to be recorded before the end of the year. It will be comprised of 8 or 9 new instrumental compositions with the participation of musicians from the Musical Workshop Labyrinth. In the next few months I will be travelling with Ross, with Tokso in France as well as with Efrén López in Spain, being extremely blessed to play only music that I love. My goal is to never stop playing.
Photo Credits: (1ff) Kelly Thoma, (3) Psarantonis, (4) Ross Daly, (6) Tokso Quartet (8) Mayu Shviro, (9) Efren Lopez (unknown/website); (2) Various models of the Cretan Lyra at the Museum of Greek Traditional Instruments, Athens (by Wikipedia).