FEATURE/INTERVIEW for #IWD2019: Tania Giannouli, Greek pianist and composer

Tania Giannouli, 2019
Photo credit: Pinelopi Gerasimou

Greek pianist and composer TANIA GIANNOULI studied classical piano, Advanced Theory and Composition at conservatoires in Athens. Her albums, particularly Rewa from 2018, have increasingly been finding their way into annual best-of lists. Feature by Emily Palmer:

“Since I was young, I have always loved to improvise,” explains Tania. “And so, it was a natural progression for me to start forming groups and creating projects that were driven by improvisation.”

In 2014, she formed the Tania Giannouli Ensemble, which has performed widely in Greece, Austria, Turkey and Spain. Her most recent project, the Tania Giannouli Trio (comprising of piano, oud and trumpet), recently made its acclaimed debut at the Jazzfest Berlin. This coming year, she plans to release two albums, one with the ensemble and one with the trio.

“I don’t think I could put a label on my work. With my previous projects and albums, a lot of reviewers commented on the strong Greek elements in my compositions. I don’t do things like that consciously and I don’t analyse my work in that way. Everything I have done so far influences my work, everything plays a role here – my studies of the classical piano repertoire as well as contemporary composers of the 21st century, my Greek heritage, the new musicians I work with that have broadened my horizons. All of these influences are just something that I carry with me without realising.”

Such influences create a rich, eclectic and unique sound. For Tania, this is a natural process that isn’t forced and in fact, is something she is not even aware is happening. As an artist this must bring a certain freedom in composing and performing. This freedom is an essential element of Tania’s work. It allows her to remain curious, creative and truly connected to the work she is sharing with audiences.

It’s no coincidence that her projects have varied significantly over the years. In August 2016, she participated in one of the most exciting and demanding site-concerts in Greece, called 634 Minutes inside the Volcano. Alongside 14 other Greek musicians, she improvised for over ten hours inside the crater of Nisyros’ active volcano under a full moon. “I knew of the other musicians but had never played with them before. There was no rehearsal, just a sound check the night before, so it was a very free and organic performance. The whole experience was out of this world. Not only was the music so unique and poignant, but the landscape was breathtaking. It’s a performance I will remember for the rest of my life.”

The following May, Tania recorded the album Rewa with Māori musician Rob Thorne. The album explores the ancient cultures of Greece and Aotearoa with ethereal music created by the piano and traditional musical instruments of the Māori people, taonga pūoro, which translates to ‘singing treasures’.

“We met for the first time the afternoon before we were supposed to be recording in the studio. I had prepared some rough ideas for us to try and work on. But for Rob this was a completely alien approach to making music. The Māori music tradition is rooted in spirituality and for him, the spirits of his ancestors and the ancient gods of Māori communicate through the instruments.” The next day, Tania tried a different approach, leaving all her ideas and preconceptions at the door. For her it was an extreme version of improvisation, but an invaluable experience. It taught her that when there is an honest and authentic interaction and communication between artists, anything is possible. It opened her mind to new ideas and ways of working and helped her feel more confident musically. There are now plans in place to bring the project to the stage for audiences to experience the music live.

Alongside collaborative projects, Tania often finds herself alone in a studio with just her piano and notepad for company. “I have written a lot for film and video and with that process you are more or less solitary until the very end. I think this sort of experience is just as important with regards to developing as a musician. Of course, I love collaborating with talented artists and performing, it brings a certain vivid energy to my art, but one mustn’t underestimate the importance of working alone from time to time.”

When it comes to composing, Tania finds inspiration in every corner. Be it from other music, a book she has read or a film she has watched, nature or a recent conversation. For Tania, composing is an enjoyable process, but one that needs care, attention and regular practice. How does it feel sharing her compositions with audiences for the first time? “It’s out of my hands. For me, a composition is very personal and familiar but at the same time has its own existence, it becomes something new. That’s a strange feeling.”

As a performer, Tania has a compelling, understated stage presence. Being on stage, receiving immediate feedback from other performers and audience members is an integral part of Tania’s work. As a performer, she doesn’t strive for great showmanship, the focus is on creating those special moments and sharing that magic with the audience. How does she hope audiences view her as an artist?

“I like that people find it hard to categorize my music, I want that to continue. For me that means that I have a lot to say and that I am constantly exploring new possibilities and evolving as an artist. My music is personal, it’s an expression of myself and my experiences. As a woman, I think in some cases it does take more hard work to gain recognition. Having said that, I find the collaborative process in some way negates this. Working with other artists always requires effort and dedication, regardless of gender. Is the effort worth it? Always. When we as musicians get it right, the results can be astonishing.”

LINK: Tania Giannouli website

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