Decoding the composition
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Kartsigar a string quartet commissioned by the Wellington Chamber Music Society with financial support from Creative New Zealand explores the rich traditions of Greek music, drawing from the improvisatory nature of taximi and the virtuosity of master musicians such as Manos and Vagelis. Through the fusion of these elements and the unique language of the string quartet, Psathas creates a captivating musical experience that showcases the expressive possibilities of the ensemble.


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Project Details


for String Quartet

Commissioner: Wellington Chamber Music Society with financial support from Creative New Zealand

Collaborator: Manos Achalintopoulos

Instrumentation: Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola & Cello

Premiered by the New Zealand String Quartet on May 1, 2005 at the Illot Theatre, Wellington Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand

Difficulty Level:
Instrument Tags:
Greek traditional woodwind

Programme Note

Both movements of this work began as transcriptions of recorded performances by two of Greece’s living master-musicians, clarino player Manos Achalinotopoulos and percussionist Vagelis Karypis. The transcriptions are based on two separate recordings of a traditional taximi entitled Kartsigar. Taximia form part of an oral tradition where improvisation played an important role. Songs always began with an instrumental prelude, the taximi in which a musician showed off his prowess. This set the mood for the song to follow, and could last for as long as 20 minutes.

The taximi Kartsigar comprises two elements, an ostinato and the improvised melody. The melody forms the basis of the first movement of the quartet, and the ostinato forms the basis of the second.

I – Unbridled, Manos Breathes the Voice of Life into Kartsigar

The first movement grows from my transcription of Manos (whose surname translates to ‘he who cannot be bridled’) performing his own astonishing realisation of Kartsigar on the CD Klarino (FM Records FM688) – this is Volume 11 in a wonderful series of recordings entitled The Greek Folk Instruments). The traditional ostinato has been removed from this movement and replaced by a pedal note (F-sharp), which creates a very different set of tensions and resolutions for the improvised melody.

When talking with Manos about his approach to playing the clarino, it becomes clear that his concept is of emulating as nearly as possible the human voice. This is the ideal that lies at the heart of much traditional musical expression in the instrumental folk music of Greece, and it is the key to understanding the phenomenon of listening to a unique player such as Manos and becoming gradually unaware of the presence of the instrument he is playing.

II – Vagelis Varies the Sazi Riff at the Paradiso

The ostinato in Kartsigar is heard unaccompanied in the first two measures of this movement, and then continues throughout. It is based on a mode beginning on E in which the second degree of the scale is flexible – sometimes closer to F-sharp, sometimes closer to F-natural. This riff is normally played on the sazi, a long-necked relative of the bouzouki. During 2004 I collaborated with Manos and Vagelis in a series of concerts in the Netherlands, a programme of Greek music spanning 2500 years. We decided to include Kartsigar – not the least of the reasons for this being that we would have the privilege of hearing Manos reinterpret the taximi over the course of several performances. In the piece, Vagelis, an exceptional percussionist, was required to play the ostinato on the sazi. His quiet underpinning of Manos’ soaring expression went largely unnoticed in performance, but when I explored the recordings of these concerts, I realized that Vagelis was performing the ostinato in exactly the way a master-percussionist would, with perfectly chosen and constantly evolving variation of the simple two-measure phrase. Having transcribed this understated sazi element from the recordings I discovered that Vagelis had produced, in a single performance, some 80 separate variations of the ostinato almost without repetition. This sequence of variations became the basis for the second movement of the quartet. It is overlaid with fragments of transcriptions of Manos’ live interpretation of Kartsigar in the Netherlands concerts alongside my own developments.