Film and stage composer Chrysoulla Markoulli draws inspiration from Greek music

If there’s anyone who can inspire you to pick up the musical instrument you’ve neglected in the dark corner of your wardrobe from high school, it’s Chrysoulla Markoulli.

Music is as familiar a language to the effervescent 25-year-old, as English or perhaps Greek, but the commitment to turn it into her life’s venture came just before her high school graduation.

“Growing up, my parents sent my sisters and I to piano lessons…I never took music seriously until I was in high school. I always listened to music while I was meant to be studying, especially Greek music.  When it got to selecting a course for university, I realised the only subject I liked was music,” Markoulli told Neos Kosmos. 

In finding a place to carve out her own spot in music, Markoulli found a passion for composing. She began learning with a new piano tutor, who also doubled as a composer and eventually fell in love with film music.

Her passion led her to a scholarship to be mentored by award-winning composer Steve Francis and eventually Markoulli flew the nest of study and began her venture composing for film and the stage.

“My favourite part of the composition process, is when you come up with the idea that you know is right for the project. Sometimes it comes very early on in the process, other times it comes later on, but you can always feel when it’s the right one. If the director loves it, then that’s always a good sign,” Markoulli said.

“After that you’ve got what you know is essentially like your soul to build the whole body of work around.”

Actors Alex Malone and Jane Phegan in “Before the Meeting” Photo: Danielle Lyonne

The young composer is now venturing into a new project, with acclaimed US playwright Adam Bock’s drama, Before the Meeting.

Director Kim Hardwick (White Box Theatre) reached out to Markoulli, to join her once again on her new production after having worked closely together on Dead Skin last year.

“It’s always a pleasure working with her because she’s a true collaborator. I really love working with directors who are very passionate about their work and trust you as a composer. It’s important to have good chemistry with a director, who places trust in the ideas you put forward, but also speaks up when they don’t feel something is right for the show,” Markoulli said.

The drama delves into the life of Gail and the regular members of her early morning group, as they ‘forge a path toward sobriety and wellbeing’. Things take a turn when Gail’s estranged granddaughter reopens old wounds.

Before the Meeting is not Markoulli’s first venture into drama, but has given her new perspective on how to explore the perils and challenges of ‘ordinary life’.

“I feel like every story that you work on is different. You have to treat each story as something unique, and so I always like to approach it with a blank slate,” she explained.

“I think this is a really important story to tell. Adam Bock, the playwright, has done a really great job of bringing a lot of important themes to light through the story of each character, and how they connect with the main character’s story. The struggles they all face is something that audiences will be able to relate with.”

Markoulli is still in the early stages of composing for the production, hoping to successfully strike a very delicate balance between being “present” and “invisible”.

“So far the most important thing with this show is ‘less is more.’ As a composer, you don’t want your design to distract from the strength the actors already bring on stage. When you’re writing for theatre, music and sound has to be unnoticeable to the audiences ear, but still present to support the action or help the audience feel something. I think that’s when a film or theatre score, or sound design is doing its job well; when it’s invisible,” she said.

Chrysoulla Markoulli teams up with director Kim Hardwick for “Before the Meeting” Photo: Estelle Yoon

When composing these delicate balances, Markoulli has managed to pull from her Greek-Cypriot background, weaving the sounds of her heritage into her music.

Listening to Greek music growing up created a profound respect for the artisans behind the sounds. One particular favourite singer-songwriter who stood out to her in her adolescence was Giannis Ploutarchos.

“I became very obsessed with his music. I think what I really love about his music is that it still incorporates traditional elements, whereas more modern music doesn’t do this as much. I went through a phase of listening to Greek music and then from there I explored older Greek music, which I admire because of the strong beautiful melodies. I think that through listening, I was unconsciously picking up things that I find myself now incorporating into my own music,” Markoulli said.

At times you’ll be able to hear the sound of the bouzouki in the composer’s work, which admittedly, Markoulli admits she is still learning.

“I really love to use it where I can in my music, and certain directors really love the use of more unique instruments, so I think that’s something that I can use to my advantage.”

Coming to this point in her career, with the ability to create something out of thin air undoubtedly required plenty of support.

Markoulli credits her parents for supporting her in pursuing a more ‘creative’ career path, which is often a concern in many ethnic households. When it comes to putting fingers to keys though, the 25-year-old names composer Henrique Dib alongside the aforementioned Steve Francis.

“He [Dib] was the tutor I started studying with when I started university. Ever since then he’s been a mentor, a friend, a life coach and a teacher. He’s always been someone who I’ve looked up to and respected and is one of those people who has the words of wisdom to share with you wherever you are in your life,” she said.

“Steven has also been another person that has always encouraged me to trust my instinct as a composer. That scholarship was my first encounter with theatre, so it was a very new world to me. But he always told me, ‘you’ve got an instinct for being able to compose music that tells the story’.”

Markoulli masterfully mixes all of her musical knowledge, taken from these artists and mentors over the years to create scores that she hopes will simply “touch people” and transport them into another time, place and space.

You can hear Markoulli’s latest work on Before the Meeting at the Seymour Centre in Sydney from 19 May to 11 June.