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World Music Features

Eleni Karaindrou

By Christina Roden
Published January 26, 2006

Eleni Karaindrou, often described in the press as the “tenth muse,” is one of Greece’s most honored contemporary composers. A classically trained pianist, she sometimes incorporates subtle folk or jazz flavors into her work.

Eleni Karaindrou (Eh-LEH-ni Kah-rah-IN-droo), often described in the press as the “tenth muse,” is one of Greece’s most honored contemporary composers. A classically trained pianist, she sometimes incorporates subtle folk or jazz flavors into her work. Her latest release, Trojan Women (ECM New Series 289 472 139-2), is a suite of incidental music written for a production of Euripides’ antiwar tragedy of the same name. In it, the playwright does not dwell on male-oriented battlefield “heroics,” but describes the plight of the new widows, bereaved mothers and vulnerable young girls left at the mercy of their conquerors. Crouching numbly amid the rubble of their former lives, they must face exile, slavery or the hideous indignity of concubinage. The revival was directed by Antonis Antypas and premiered at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus during August and September of 2001. The project was then taken on the road in and around Greece, achieving rapturous acclaim, concluding with a presentation on the island of Cyprus.
   In Karaindrou’s elegiac score, the captive women achieve a pathetic dignity while expressing emotions that are, unfortunately, still as immediate and disturbing as today’s headlines. Their voices are interwoven with breathy reed flutes, a scratchy fiddle, lutes, a harp, zithers and drums, all of which probably sound much as they did when the play was first performed in 415 B.C.E. However, despite the mournful context, what comes across most powerfully is the poetic loveliness of the work. Like the best theater music, Trojan Woman is equally effective whether heard in its intended dramatic setting or on its own terms.
   Karaindrou is among a select pantheon of modern Greek composers. Yannis Xenakis was an intellectual iconoclast and thus his music is not always accessible to the untrained ear. However, his contemporaries, Manos Hatzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis, were early exponents of entékhno (literally, artistic) music, a movement that emerged during the mid-20th century. It was a radical departure in that it blended Greek folkloric sources with Western compositional techniques, but was also highly melodic and easy to listen to. Hatzidakis once rattled a few bourgeois cages by admitting that he was partly inspired by rembétika, a naughty street style that was then never mentioned in polite society, but is now as mainstream as the similarly rehabilitated American blues, Argentinean tango and Portuguese fado traditions. Both men subsequently produced magnificent song cycles and orchestral works, but like Karaindrou, Theodorakis is particularly admired for his film soundtracks. Indeed, his catchy bouzouki theme from Jules Dassin’s Zorba The Greek has long since passed beyond legend into supermarket Muzak.
   Eleni Karaindrou was born in Teichio, a rural village in central Greece, but her family moved to Athens when she was six years old. Her passion for music began quite early. “I was seven and at my first school. This was the first time I ever saw a piano and its sound literally enchanted me,” she recalls. “I delighted in improvising, in conversing with my piano. However, if I look for the sounds and influences that led me to music, I turn to the mountain village where I was born, to the precious sounds of nature, my grandfather’s mandolin, and the chanting at church.” Her family was pleased enough that she excelled at her music studies, but were opposed to her choosing it as a career. Although in Karaindrou’s own mind her life path was set irrevocably, she nonetheless earned Masters’ degrees in history and anthropology from Athens University. “I had to battle to become a musician,” she says. “My father, who was quite conservative, decided I had to pursue an academic career. So, standing on my own two feet, I continued parallel musical studies.”
   During the late 1960s, Karaindrou moved to Paris, fleei