Nick Tsiavos is a mysterious musician. He creates new mysteries, built from the divine and the secular. And he does extraordinary things with a contrabass.
He has been described as “an architect of sound” and his music as “otherworldly avant-garde” and “spacious, mysterious, edgy and beautiful“. His music is a link between a brooding Byzantium, an alchemic Medieval Europe, and the tension of 21st Century which at times can hint at King Crimson, Stravinsky or Weather Report.
In appearance, Tsiavos could easily be an 8th Century monk locked in an abbey balanced on the edge of northern Greece’s Pindus Mountains. His balding pate, unruly grey black hair and beard, would be complete with a cassock and glass of sharp red wine as he builds his new Byzantine hymn for the morning sun.
The Australia Council has funded Tsiavos to tour Greece with his new work, One hundred months, Third of East. It is a musical contemplation on Tsiavos’ father and uncles’ deaths, as children of the post war migration.
“When my son Max was young he asked his mum what infinity was, and after some explanation she said; ‘it is like one hundred months, third of east’ thus the title,” the musician says.
Tsiavos is now re-engaging with Greece after years of touring the Baltic States, Eastern Europe, France and Australia. He began making a name for himself in Estonia, France and Poland during the mid-’90s and now tours to Greece most years. For his upcoming Greek tour he will play cathedrals, libraries, town halls and the village of his birth.
Since the collapse of its economy, Greece has had the world’s gaze on it. Skilled, middle-class Greeks are now like Rōnin; samurai without lord or master, travelling the world only to bring new ideas back. New Greek migrants are creative and educated, not our poor parents from the ’50s, they are multilingual and go to New York City, Berlin, Melbourne and Vienna.
Artists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, architects, dancers, and musicians are sparking new waves. In Greece the creative sector seems to be ushering in a creative renewal. Some even enthusiastically claim Athens maybe the new Berlin.
“There is a lot of activity in Greece (and) my need is to be connected and engaged in Greece as an artist,” Tsiavos says.
“Last year we did an ensemble work in Preveza and the audiences ranged from the Yia Yia, (grandmothers) to the academic and the hipster. I was surprised at the diversity of the people turning up.”
Tsiavos’ music is ministered by his partner Deborah Kayser’s transcendent soprano voice. Kayser has carved her own significant career as a master of ancient chant, Baroque, and contemporary explorations of music. She’s been at the cutting edge of New Music and in Australia has worked with Chamber Made Opera, Aphids, and Not Yet It’s Difficult among many others. On Tsiavos’ 2014 release Liminal she takes one possibly the most demanding Byzantine homonymous hymn Axion Esti and succeeds.
Their music, which seems to emanate from the ecclesiastical and secular past, finds its roots in the Byzantine.
“The first music I remember as a child is the Byzantine music in the Greek Church, or from vinyls from Epirus that my parents brought over with them. Not bouzouki music — we never really knew bouzouki music,” Tsiavos says.
His family is from Ioannina in Epirus which was founded in the 600CE by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Tsiavos’ clan perfected the sublime μοιρολόι, miroloi, an ancient musical lament sung by ordinary people.
“At Dark MOFO in 2015 and someone asked me if I was going to play a μοιρολόι miroloi and I said I would not dream of playing them at a concert. These are peoples’ requiems for the dead.”
But he did challenge the DARK MOFO audiences with a 14 and a half hour odyssey titled Immersion. It was described as “epic cartography of an unknown landscape”, the cartography being the souls thrown together on the edges of past Ottoman, Slavic, Hellenic and European empires.
Tsiavos believes art can be transformative. He does not want to create “just something that you consume and walk away from, but something that actually stays with you and changes you”.