Eleni Karaindrou’s film scores to the movies of Theo Angelopoulos

On Tuesday, 24 January 2012 Theo Angelopoulos was crossing the street in Piraeus, at the filming location for his next movie. It was to be titled The Other Sea, the closing segment in his trilogy about modern Greece. The film was intended to address the troubling issues facing Greece: strikes, illegal immigrants, climbing suicide rate, unemployment and violence, with a backdrop story of a theater company trying to stage BertoltBrecht’s Threepenny Opera. He took his viewfinder with him to preview the scene he was planning to shoot the next day. A motorcycle driven by an employee on the set struck him in the middle of the street. The director was taken to the hospital, where he died after a few hours from head injuries. It was a tragic ending for what would have been the ninth collaboration between Angelopoulos and composer Eleni Karaindrou, who since 1984 created one of the most impressive collections of film scores in modern film history. This is the story of that collaboration, eight films in all, and the music that graces the striking visuals captured in these films.

Eleni Karaindrou and Theo Angelopoulos1

Eleni Karaindrou and Theo Angelopoulos

Karaindrou’s career started as a classic pianist. She moved to Paris during the Greek military junta in the late 1960s and early 1970s and started taking orchestration classes. She quickly realized she was drawn into the world of music composition. She was also taking ethnomusicology classes, and her interest in ethnic music would become critical in her film music. She is known for her work as a film composer, but she has an even more prolific career in other mediums. She wrote music for over 60 theater productions, TV films and series since 1975: “I have never planned to become a film composer. My big love is the theater. I wrote pieces for plays by Pinter, Goldoni, Chekhov and Shakespeare. For films I usually compose the music in advance, but with theater the music comes at the end. You go a few times to the rehearsals, but you only start to compose three or four weeks before the premiere.“

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Karaindrou first met Theo Angelopoulos in 1980 when he heard her music for the film Wandering by director Hristoforos Hristofis. He asked her, along with two other composers, to write the music for his film Alexander the Great. Sharing the music composition role between the composers proved to be an ill-fated idea. Karaindrou remembers: “I finally concluded that this was from insecurity, or he had not yet gained a sense of co-operation with a composer. He eventually got Chalaris Christodoulos, who did a really nice job.” In 1982 she won an award at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in 1982 for another Hristofis movie, Rosa, for which she composed the beautiful Rosa’s Song. Theo Angelopoulos was president of the jury in that festival.

Now a much better known film composer, Angelopoulos called her to work on the movie Voyage to Cythera, about the father of a successful filmmaker, who on his return from exile in the Soviet Union, finds his village turning into a ski resort for Western European tourists.

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Voyage to Cythera

Angelopoulos was listening to Vivaldi’s concerto for two mandolins when writing the script for the movie and at some point had the idea of including variations of the concerto throughout the movie. Karaindrou wrote two main motifs that repeat with different arrangements in various scenes. The first is an orchestral piece that is used for the opening of the movie. The film score to Voyage to Cythera marks the first of many appearances on Eleni Karaindrou’s musical projects by one of the most critical instrumentalists on her records: “While I was working on this movie I met Vangelis Hristopolus, the oboist who is my regular collaborator since then. He is present in all my projects. When I first heard his loud oboe it was such an emotional experience that it made me cry.”

The second motif is a folk song with lyrics by Karaindrou, featured a few times in the movie with different interpretations including jazz and rock, the most authentic as a Greek Rebetiko sang by famed singer George Dalaras.

Eleni Karaindrou George Dalaras Voyage to Cythera

Eleni Karaindrou with George Dalaras

Angelopoulos loved to create films in trilogies. In the 1970s he focused on the history of modern Greece in his first trilogy: Days of ’36, The Travelling Players, and The Hunters. Voyage to Cythera was the first in a trio of movies known as Trilogy of Silence, and it was the director’s first film set entirely in the present. The second film in that trilogy, The Beekeeper, was released in 1986. Marcello Mastroianni plays a lonely beekeeper driving a truck across Greece, who becomes involved with a young hitchhiker. Karaindrou wrote some of the most endearing Greek folk music in her repertoire for this movie, including To Vals Tou Gamou (The Wedding Waltz).

Karaindrou recalls an episode from the movie: “There is a scene in The Beekeeper where Marcello Mastroianni dances with his daughter before leaving on a trip. And in the end of that journey he will commit suicide, so that dance is also a farewell. I found a way to voice that sadness, and Theo shot the scene based on my music.”

The Beekeeper

The Beekeeper

The film score is unique for its collaboration between the composer and Norwegian saxophone player Jan Garbarek, a dream realized after “years I spent on beaches listening to his sound”. She was first introduced to his music after listening to his 1978 album Places: “When I heard his piece Reflections I felt I’d found something very close to my heart and to my country. There is a strong Balkan flavor there. And when I wrote the theme for the Beekeeper, I understood very quickly that only Jan could provide the necessary colors.”

Not realizing at the time that she could easily get his phone number through the ECM record label for which Garbarek recorded numerous albums, she acquired it through the Oslo National Theatre instead. After making contact, she flew to meet Garbarek and gave him the written music to a number of pieces she composed. Garbarek recorded them prima vista, sight-reading the score at the recording session. The result was something that could have easily come from one of Garbarek’s atmospheric recordings for ECM, as in Thema Tou Apoheretismou Kai Vals (The Wedding Wave).

Angelopoulos had some reservations about including Garbarek in the score: “I am still not quite sure whether she was right or not. It was her decision to use saxophonist Jan Garbarek for The Beekeeper. True enough, on this occasion it wasn’t exactly jazz he was playing (though he does play plenty of jazz with Keith Jarrett and others) but something much closer to Greek folk music. The soundtrack is something in between the two, not quite the one nor the other. I am satisfied with the music; however, I wonder whether there weren’t other solutions, for there is still something that bothers me, the feeling that at times the music is not sufficiently integrated in the picture.”

Eleni Karaindrou Jan Garbarek The Beekeeper

Eleni Karaindrou with Jan Garbarek

Landscape in the Mist followed in 1988, one of Angelopoulos most moving films about an adolescent girl and her little brother who flee their small town in search of their absent father, believed to immigrate to Germany. Between hopping trains and hitchhiking, they befriend a young man who helps them on their way. The film does not sentimentalize the experiences of its characters and the conditions of their lives. Angelopoulos said of the movie: “I don’t often look at my films, and when I do I immediately see the things I do not like, which I could have done differently. But there are films that I wasn’t happy with at first which have slowly developed a life of their own, and which I now like better. For example, Landscape in the Mist. Today I find that to be one of the most touching films that I have made – in fact, I love that film.” For the final scene of the movie, when the children are on the German border and walk towards a tree in the distance, Karaindrou wrote the melancholic Adagio for Strings and Oboe.


In an interview Karaindru said about her style of scoring a film: “American film music that follows the action, that is just a lot of noise. Of course they also made beautiful things, for example by Bernard Hermann. But I feel myself especially related to composers such as Delerue, Duhamel (composer of Pierrot le Fou) and Rota.”


Landscape in the Mist

Karaindrou reflected about the sadness in her music: “I express my emotions in my music. Certain things have hurt me, the fact that my mother died when I was seven, the move from the countryside to Athens. As a child I ran barefoot through the forest, the running water, the snow. I’ve lost that. Afterwards came the Greek dictatorship, these are all examples of separation and loss. Yet I do not believe that my music expresses black melancholy. It does not break you. You feel a deeper dimension of life. Maybe nostalgia is a better word to describe it.”

Eleni Karaindrou 2

In 1991 Angelopoulos embarked on another trilogy, this time about borders. In the first movie of that trilogy, The Suspended Step of the Stork, Angelopoulos captures the hopelessness and confusion of politics. A TV journalist spots a lost soul in a refugee village and believes he is a politician who has disappeared from the Greek Parliament. The journalist seeks out the politician’s wife to confirm his suspicions and becomes romantically entangled with the man’s daughter, who is on the verge of marriage with a young man on the other side of the border.  Again, the final scene is both visually striking and musically emotional and nostalgic.

Karaindrou: “My relationship to the movement of the camera is, fundamentally, more important than my relationship to the screenplay. Of course, the music has to underline the story, but the meaning of a film is not always explicit in the script. Image and music have to combine to say what cannot easily be said in words. Sometimes you look at a screenplay and it seems like nothing: As Harold Pinter says, the real meaning is behind the words.”

Eleni Karaidrou_The Suspended Step Of The Stork_Front

The Suspended Step of the Stork was the first release of a complete film score by Eleni Karaindrou on the ECM label. A collection of pieces from previous movies, originally released on other labels, were released on ECM in 1991 on the album Music for Films. This started a long and lasting relationship with the label and its founder Manfred Eicher. Karaindrou: “I did not know Manfred personally when I recorded with Jan Garbarek the music for the Beekeeper. I admired his work on ECM with a whole generation of musicians like Keith Jarrett, Ralph Towner and other improvisers. Manfred saw Voyage to Cythera and loved it. That’s why he agreed to Garbarek playing on the soundtrack of The Beekeeper. We started talking to each other in 1988, and it took three years before we actually worked together. He is the glue between all those artists on his label. He always gives himself fully. Every time I work with him, I feel like I’m dealing with a real musician. He has a special feeling for editing. He knows where each instrument should be used. The dramaturgy of my soundtracks, the order of the songs, we always do together.”

Karaindrou Eicher

Eleni Karaindrou with Manfred Eicher

1995 saw the release of Ulysses’ Gaze, where Harvey Keitel plays a Greek-born American filmmaker who is trying to locate reels of undeveloped film shot in 1905, the first motion picture in the Balkans. The post-communist Eastern Europe landscape is a study of collapse during wartime. Viola player Kim Kashkashian makes her first appearance on a Karaindrou album here, and she is perfect for the somber, slow music that the composer wrote. It is one of Karaindrou’s most minimalistic film scores, with a single theme that repeats in many variations throughout the film, always with a tempo-less drone background played by a string orchestra.

Eleni Karaindrou Jan Garbarek Kim Kashkashian

Eleni Karaindrou, Jan Garbarek, Kim Kashkashian

The music to the film was written after Angelopoulos told Karaindrou the story and before a single scene was filmed. As in many of their collaborations, the music is not timed precisely to the scenes but rather enhances the mood of what the camera captures: “We begin, in most cases, before there is a screenplay, working outwards from the film’s underlying concepts. Angelopoulos is a man who feels much and says little, so it’s important for me to understand the ideas at the root of his work, and how I can help convey the things which will not be verbally expressed in the film. Sometimes I’ve already found the main theme by the time we have a script.”

The film holds a special place in the composer’s heart: “Ulyesses’ Gaze, for me, is one of the most powerful moments in my life. These are emotions that cannot be compared with anything else. One of the most important films I have ever worked on. Although I like all the films by Angelopoulos and I have motherly relationship with them, I harbor special emotion for this specific one.”

eleni karaindrou - ulysses' gaze - front

The last film in the trilogy of borders came out in 1998. Eternity and a Day features Bruno Ganz as a celebrated and terminally ill writer whose daughter has married a yuppie. He becomes obsessed with saving a little boy living on the street from being sold to wealthy Western Europeans who want to adopt children. They travel toward the Greek-Albanian border. Angelopoulos on the music for the film: “In Eternity and a Day I asked Eleni not to write a sad piece, despite the fact that it might have seemed to be the obvious choice for a film dealing with a person who faces the distinct eventuality of death. In my eyes, however, the film is almost an invitation to life. Eleni had originally composed something very sad, probably because of her own state of mind, her father having died shortly before. But that was not at all what I was looking for. I told her what she had written was beautiful but not for me. She tried to insist, but I would not change my mind. And then she said she had a few more improvisations, which she didn’t really find very interesting. She started playing and I immediately told her: ‘This is it.’ That was the key phrase for all the music of the film.”

The film score for Eternity and a Day includes one of the most recognizable themes in Karaindrou’s repertoire. She plays it herself as a solo piano piece

and it can also be heard with a full orchestral arrangement.

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Explaining the process of writing the scores to his films, Angelopoulos added: “We have a very close relationship. First I tell her the story of the next film. She has a tape recorder and records it. She does not want to read the script – she insists she needs to hear the sound of my voice and my inflection when telling her the story. Strangely enough, I have the same request from all the actors in my films. It is not the script they want to familiarize themselves with, but my interpretation of it. It is probably because when I am telling a story, I do not do it in a logical, linear sequence. I am trying to create an adequate climate for it. The words I choose to express my thoughts, the structure of the phrases, the silences, all these establish a direct contact between me and my listeners, something they cannot get by reading a manuscript.” Karaindrou adds: “The main themes were ready before we started shooting the scenes. Sometimes he used them while directing the scenes.” The result of their work together made a hypnotic visual and sonic combination: “The music of Eleni does not only follow the images, but it becomes inseparable with them. Because of that, it cannot be defined what is what because they are so tightly interconnected”.


Eleni Karaindrou and Theo Angelopoulos

Angelopoulos had one more trilogy in mind, returning to the theme of modern Greece. The first part was The Weeping Meadow, released in 2004, telling the story of an orphaned girl, adopted by refugees returning to Greece in 1919 after the newly formed Soviet Union has exiled Greeks from Odessa. The plot spans the events of World War II and the Greek Civil War that followed. Karaindrou wrote about the music she composed for the film: “The Weeping Meadow is made of fragments of memory and of the resonance of a land which felt the steps of thousands of uprooted people from Odessa and Smyrni. This land saw them set roots again and sing their sorrows, it felt their expectation, their faith, their dreams and silently wept with them over their lost hopes.” In addition to a string orchestra, Karaindrou added a harp, accordion and Constantinople lyra, a medieval bowed string instrument from the Byzantine era. Theme of the Uprooting conveys well what she felt about the displaced people of her land.

Karaindroy - The weeping meadow - Front

In The Dust of Time from 2008 an American director of Greek descent, played by Willem Dafoe, comes to Rome’s Cinecitta to make a film based on his own life and the lives of his parents. In the liner notes to the film score CD Karaindrou wrote a short poem, thanking the soloists on this soundtrack: Sergiu Nastasa on violin, Renato Ripo on Violoncello and Maria Bildea on harp:

A few notes, a dance by the river,

A passing touch, a separation.

Hunted lives

And a century disappearing,

Covering poets’ dreams

With dust.

Nostalgia’s song

Digs into the soul.

Sergiu, Maria, Renato,…

Thank you for singing it

Along with me.

Waltz by the River showcases the three instrumentalists in a beautiful melody.

Dust of Time Front

The third part of the trilogy was in motion when the tragic accident took place. Karaindrou said in an interview: “Very little was filmed. Even if all the scenes were filmed the movie could never be released. Angelopoulos would have rewrote it two hundred times. When he came to the set, he changed everything. The same during editing. That was the genius of Angelopoulos. How could someone else finish the film?”

Never in the history of director/composer collaborations has there been a pair so appreciative of the value of silence. Angelopoulos: “In today’s cinema, the so-called dead time – silence and pauses – has become obsolete. This undefined time that functions between one act and another has disappeared. For me, even silence needs to function in an almost musical way, not to be fabricated through cuts or through dead shots but to exist internally inside the shot.” Karaindrou: “I think it’s no coincidence that I’m in a record company, ECM, whose motto is ‘The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence.’ For me, silence is the nicest music. It includes everything. Because it makes you hear the beat of your heart, the sound of your breath, the smartest whisper of nature. Silence is what is most musical. I remember, when I was still a child, that I grasped the terrifying power of silence. When I was in the village, about five years later, one night it was snowing. What happens when the snow covers everything is incredible. No sound is heard. When we came to Athens I had a deep nostalgia for my nature and my village. One night, then, I woke up, because suddenly there was no noise, but only absolute silence. I looked at the shutters and everything was white. Athens, all-white. I woke up from the memory of the silence of the snow that I had experienced in my village.” Writer Nicholas Triandafyllidis summarized it well: “In all these hundreds of feet of film, Eleni’s music represents the blood not shed on the screen”

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