I interviewed composer and musician Rania Chrysostomou who draws on her Greek-Cypriot roots, using folk rhythms like zeibekiko and kalamatiano, and is currently leading a year-long project with 2 vocalists inspired by parenthood and womanhood. Some of Rania‘s work features different dialects in the Greek and English languages, developing music as storytelling. Her varied and innovative music has been commissioned and performed in London, Cyprus, Denmark, USA and on film. Rania has composed and produced a series of 3 concerts in Cyprus called Stories, Odes and Chants. The video will be available to watch later in the summer.
Leslie: Can you tell us the story of how your interest in music began, grew and developed from childhood onwards?
Rania: I don’t think there was ever a clear sign that music would be my true calling. I have a terrible singing voice, and over the years after graduating I tried to test my relationship with music, doing unrelated work. However, I can state confidently that I simply love my life more when I am making music.
My parents still have the songs I wrote when I was three about my imaginary cat and sang them playing on my toy piano. I started piano and music theory lessons when I was 6 years old, as many people did, but what might have differentiated me from some of my peers is my persistence. As a child I would do anything to continue my music lessons. One day, my mum discovered how unpleasant my piano teacher was because another parent mentioned their experience with her. I was 8 at the time and we found a different teacher. When most of my friends were stopping their music lessons as teenagers, I added 4 more hours of weekly lessons: saxophone, solfege, music history and harmony, but still without having any conscious intention of pursuing music as a career. I studied maths and physics formulas while playing scales on the piano, and even skipped school lessons to complete more harmony exercises; of course these are two things I do not recommend anyone doing. It was obvious that my intentions of becoming a dentist weren’t as solid as I thought they were. After all, I wanted to become a dentist out of fear of not succeeding as a musician because, as far as I knew, only brilliant musicians make a living, and I didn’t believe that a girl from a nonmusical family and a small country could ever become an important music figure in the world.
I was delighted to be accepted into the first university of my choice which was the Ionian University’s music department in Corfu, Greece where I studied composition and I carry on learning.
Leslie: You write ‘blended’ music. Why does that style suit you, and how did it come about?
Rania: I think it came about organically. The music I have strong connections with becomes part of my writing almost subconsciously through themes, or the form I choose my piece to have or the soundscapes I create.
It wasn’t until after I finished my studies that I felt brave enough to incorporate more of the ‘musics’ that formed me into my compositions. Traditional and folk musics of Cyprus and Greece are forever embedded into my psyche and I think there will always be hints of this in my compositions, even if well disguised. I focused on jazz saxophone and harmony and baroque music during my studies so attributes of these styles will appear in my music as well. I think most of the time this happens subconsciously because when I studied these styles I was 100% focused on them and internalised them.
If you listen to my viola piece with Katherine Clarke Statue of the Earth for singing viola you will hear how the last part is based on different rhythmic motifs being played together creating an almost polyrhythmic harmony, while the second part is built on eloquent melodies trying to resemble a hymn with plagal cadences but without a true sense of ending or musical belonging, and the first part is building the sound. I feel that music and my personal experiences are connected and since I draw inspiration for my musical themes from my experiences, the types of music or songs or pieces I am intrigued by and have been over the years will appear in my music. Watch here
Leslie: What quirks/routines/work patterns help you to compose?
Rania: Before becoming a parent my composition routine was quite simple involving going to concerts, thinking while on the go, and of course just writing – both in the morning, and at night.
Now as a parent I need to have structure, and be organised and kind with myself. Not every day or even every week will see me compose, my youngest turns 1 year in May so expecting him to wait patiently until I conclude my idea is unreasonable, so I have some little routines in place which make it easier to dive into writing as soon as I get the chance.
I keep a notebook next to my laptop (assuming my 3-year-old daughter isn’t using it as a detective’s notebook) where I write down my immediate plans for the piece I am working on, what bar I fixed before stopping and what I did during the last composition session.
I’ve learnt how to write faster, trust my instincts and do what I trained myself to do before I had children, which is to think about the piece I’m working on throughout the day. This way I am ready when I do get a chance to write, which lately is past 10pm.
I find ways throughout the day to stay connected with the act of music making. Sometimes I might write an idea on my phone, otherwise I’ll write in an uncensored improvisatory manner for 5 minutes a very small practice sketch, improvise on the piano and every now and again learn a piece. Finally, but very importantly, I listen to new music releases (contemporary classical as well as more mainstream) and watch music analysis videos on YouTube.
Leslie: Could you choose one seminal piece, please, and describe the creative process that went into it.
Rania: I will share with you the piece called In the Clouds, performed in Cyprus in June 2021 by Eva Stavrou on the Flute and Natasa Hadjiandreou on the vibraphone. I originally wrote it for voice and piano but I made 4 different transcriptions with combinations of these four instruments, with a Greek and English text. You can find the scores here.
This piece is based on a poem written by my dad. So I first tried to understand the lyrics and decide how the meaning connects with me. In this case I think the poem is about a parent that is in full adoration of their child.
If I visualise the poem, it takes place in an imaginary place around lilac clouds and a parent hiding behind a pillar while their daughter is dancing to herself.
This looks like a fragile moment, where the parent doesn’t want to intervene in the child’s experience but is proud of their confidence. This immense love sometimes feels as if your heart wants to break out of your body.
So now it is time to put this analysis into music. I first wrote the lyrics into a song so it was easier in a sense to create this melody you hear on the flute. I had to decide early on on the instrumentation. I chose the flute because it can transfer easily between a frail, airy sound to a more robust yet sweet tone. Which fits with the sense of fragility and confidence. The delicacy of the vibraphonist tapping the bars reminds me of the parent hiding behind the pillar and harmonies remind me of the lilac clouds.
I know all this sounds arbitrary but this is what I love about music. It’s personal and communal at once.
I was looking into ASMR music when I was composing this and listening to Billie Eillish so the entire dynamic of this piece is around piano (softly). I think this dynamic also fits with the context of love, personal experience and fragility. This piece is dedicated to my daughter. The other strong influence are songs by Hans Abrehamsen and techniques he uses particularly in his piece Schnee, like the gliding the fingers on the piano keys, and in this instance it happens on the vibraphone. Watch here
Leslie: Tell us about your community work with adults during lockdown and with children in schools.
Rania: Pre-pandemic I had been devising a workshop where participants would create music through games and feel more confident with contemporary music in the process.. I was planning on organising workshops at schools but then the pandemic kicked in.
I felt this was the best time anyone would ever have in their lives to go wild in terms of playing and making music and practice defying any notions of right or wrong. Through a series of arbitrary games we would create a composition and play it with others. There are no right or wrong sounds as long as the player can justify what they are playing and of course operate within the arbitrary, abstract and ambiguous rules of my games which are designed to inspire creativity.
When I did the workshop for school children, it was for flautists and it so happened to be all young teenage girls. The sense of ‘pretty’ was hardwired in their playing that it was obvious how it was blocking them from discovering and playing new (for them) sounds on the flute. As their teacher, Eva Stavrou, demonstrated, to make extended or contemporary sounds, or in terms of the game show emotions through sounds and not through melodies, the player has to change their facial expression which may look ‘ugly’ because of changing how you use the face muscles around your mouth. We had a lovely conversation about convention, beauty and confidence and how it influences a musician’s performance and creativity, and how this may translate into everyday life. The girls recorded the piece we were working on later in the year and sent it to me. The difference in their performance was amazing!
Leslie: What have been the hardest and most rewarding things you’ve done as a musician and composer What have you learned about yourself from doing them?
Rania: Networking, I would say. Especially after finishing my studies and moving to London, it took me much longer than it should to find the confidence to connect with other musicians and put myself out there. It meant that I had to deal with many failed attempts in approaching other musicians, having my pieces played but not as intended, or receiving multiple rejection letters from organisations on funding, which at times, only made me hide deeper into my shell.
But meeting other musicians is the most rewarding thing any musician, even more so a composer who needs said musicians to play their pieces, can do. First and foremost,they are a support group, and what the pandemic has reminded us is that we’re not alone and every day rejections happen all the time to everybody. With a close network of like-minded peers, I gain confidence and extract new opportunities…
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
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2. Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
3. The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here