When double bass player and modern art music composer Nick Tsiavos first embarked on a journey of deconstructing the Akathistos hymn, a series of Byzantine chants that praise the Virgin Mary, it wasn’t for his religion beliefs as such.
It was a journey through his memories, more likely, of a Greece-born Greek Australian.
A seven hour epic, a large kontakion performed in the Holy Week before Easter, first took Nick’s imagination in the ’90s. It didn’t come as a surprise – Nick’s first memories are of beautiful church voices singing ancient Byzantine chants at his family’s Greek Orthodox church.
Composers make new music, yes. But for Nick it was about using ancient texts as material to work with.
After smaller sections of Nick’s Akathistos were recorded with ABC, it was
just last year that MONA FOMA, an annual Hobart music festival, approached him to perform the seven hour long original version of Akathistos.
It was an impressive experience, Nick says today.
“For me it was that thing of duration. There are three aspects of this. If art can be transformative, it’s about embarkation – you go on the journey, something
happens to you during the journey, and you come out of the journey.
“And this is the great arc that goes through the seven hours. It’s about exploring memory for me, because it has to do with my cultural history.
“I wouldn’t say that you’ll see me much at church or anything like that, but it’s my fragments of memory and displaced memory that collides with my own practices as a contemporary musician and composer,” Nick tells Neos Kosmos.
For Nick, it’s about confusion – of what is very modern and what is old, exploring the dialogue between contemporary thought and ancient chant. He explores the past which has survived for over a thousand years and countless generations through tradition and culture. He takes some of the most culturally significant music of ancient Greece – and beyond – and reimagines them.
“I was using and I was looking at why some texts are so profound and dangerous that they continue 2000 years later on, and not just the Byzantine – I was also doing the medieval chant of western tradition as well.
“Not in terms of presenting it as an exotic object – but more of an active critique and engagement, bringing what I’m working on at the moment to work with the text that I’m looking at.”
The initial inspiration to tackle the Akathistos was the memory of the Greek church on Good Friday, but more so the exploration of the mysticism underpinning it rather than the theology behind it, Nick explains.
“I wanted to explore that idea, that ritual. If I change subjectivities within it – what happens? I sort of destabilised it in my own way. But really, what is the purpose for seven hours immersion? Who is brave enough to sit there for seven hours?”
The brave ones will make their way to the Victorian regional town of Ballarat, as Nick Tsiavos takes part in this year’s Festival of Slow Music from 23 to 31 August.
Supported by Arts Victoria and the City of Ballarat, the festival will nourish classical music lovers with nine days of acoustic music, performance, collaboration and discovery in the intimate venues of Ballarat.
Apart from the lectures and symposiums Nick Tsiavos will take part in during the festival, his main ‘offering’ to the audience will be a seven hour long performance of Akathistos, alongside his ensemble of seven.
Having performed the challenging piece at last year’s Dark MOFO music festival in Hobart, Nick says it’s about performing the piece in an architectural environment that allows the audience to disembark if need be.
With the Festival of Slow Music only in its second year now, Nick says it’s the festival that appreciates acoustic music – and he is always happy to perform at those.
“They do happen more in Melbourne but it’s such a busy city that it’s easy to just forget something is going on. It’s very much like in Hobart, with MONA FOMA and Dark MOFO – in regional towns, the festivals take over the town.
Last year’s seven hour performance of Akathistos in Tasmania left even Nick himself astounded by what the ensemble went through.
The excitement about Akathistos was enough to accept when the invitation came from Ballarat. But as the performance comes closer, Nick jokingly sighs just at the thought of it.
“It’s a bit of a marathon, we have to be fit. It’s something you don’t do that often, it’s not simple – but you wouldn’t miss the opportunity to be in it. All the musicians in the ensemble are like that, I’m very happy they are working with me for the second time – they haven’t learned their lesson from last year,” he says with a laugh.
As Nick brings together a group of creative and intuitively aware musicians who have worked throughout the world across a multitude of genres, he is not ready to talk about his future plans.
When you have a seven hour thing coming, it’s hard not to focus only on that, he says.
With two midnight performances at the recent and wildly successful Dark MOFO, Nick Tsiavos’ other ensemble received standing ovations from a jam-packed St David’s Cathedral in Hobart.
His seven hour epic, Akathistos, to be performed on Sunday 24 August in Ballarat, is not to be missed either.
Nick Tsiavos will give a talk at the Festival of Slow Music, Ballarat, on Saturday 23 August at 5.00 pm. He will perform Akathistos on Sunday 24 August, 1.00 pm to 8.00 pm. For more information and tickets, visit www.festivalofslowmusic.com/