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Destined: Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri

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Otis Hart gets metaphysical with composer-improviser Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri.

Destined: Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri

  • Download Still Life, performed by ensemble QNG 138 (quartet for recorders) in Ravensbrück, Germany, June 2003

Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri’s fall from grace began, fittingly, with an apple.

She arrived at AMM headquarters that day without any instruments or expectations. Accompanying a friend, Marianthi intended to lay low and observe as renowned percussionist Eddie Prevost ran his improvisation workshop. After four years of study and a Bachelors in Music from Goldsmiths College, she had composed pieces for quartets, ensembles and analog tape manipulation, but had never improvised.

“I went there just to listen,” Marianthi said. “I did not have an instrument with me, but then Eddie asked me to join. There were 22 guys and me. So I had to find a way to make some sounds.”

All she had was an apple. So, with forbidden fruit in hand, Marianthi shook off the bounds of determination and made some noise, pushing the workshop in a direction even Prevost couldn’t have predicted. “I used it as an instrument,” she said. “Then I moved to the objects around me... It was great and on the edge.”

Marianthi had always been on the edge, at least compared to her peers. Growing up in Greece, she soon grew frustrated with her native country’s dogmatic approach to the musical canon. “The Greek system was …is still very conservative,” she said. “So I had to escape.” She went off to college in London. But it wasn’t until that day at Prevost’s studio that she realized her untapped potential.

“Improvising with Eddie and other people like the Scratch Orchestra [and] Steve Beresford gave me the chance to explore composition and the meaning of form and structure from another perspective,” she said. “I would consider improvisation as a composition in real-time.”

It’s a fundamental paradox that relatively few have grasped. Marianthi’s experience as an improviser inspired her to work indeterminancy into her scores. John Cage wasn’t a fan of improvisation, but he first brought this concept of indeterminancy to the attention of his audiences with his infamous 4’ 33” in 1952. “When a composer feels a responsibility to make, rather than accept, he eliminates from the area of possibility all those events that do not suggest this at that point in time vogue for profundity,” he wrote.

Marianthi learned to balance acceptance and ardor rather quickly. Since 1999, she has written 24 pieces that rely both on her scripture and the performer’s imagination. She’s worked with Christina Kubisch, the Orchestra De Volharding (founded by Louis Andriessen and Willem Breuker in 1972), and the London Improvisers Orchestra. She’s currently pursuing her PhD in composition at the University of California-San Diego.

“Since June 1999, I have been composing with a particular interest in exploring new sounds and textures deriving from the extended sound world of conventional instruments,” she said. “Therefore, my compositions reflect my approach to all musical instruments, which consists of modifying the image of an instrument by making it produce sounds [that would not normally be associated with it]. In this context, 'modifying' refers to a deformation and deconstruction of the conventional use of the instrument, in order to produce innovative and meaningful formal principles and to explore a new quality of sounds as an expansion of the power of noises.”

While sound plays the starring role in Marianthi’s productions, it is by no means on its own. For Marianthi literally sees music as “a compartmentalized area of experience… essentially intuitive, not systematic.” What you hear can be as important as what you see, or what you feel. “Sometimes,” she said, “the stage looks like an installation and has a more artistic flavor. I also explore a lot of sonic absence and vision presence while composing and improvising.”

The score to her 2002 composition Nº 45 Immense looks more like a football playbook than musical notation. The first page consists of an overhead shot of a table, with items like shoeboxes, X-rays and bass drum pedals meticulously sketched out. Instructions like “Make noise with the money/notes at the same time, hum and try to express joy, fear, etc.” teeter between maniacal and abstract.

“It’s not about control, but interpretation,” she said. “I’m using drawings in order to attract your attention to the visual aspect of the performance and also to visualize the sounds and gestures.”

Marianthi amalgamates sound and gesture into one sensory experience. Gulping water, waving paper, eating apples; it’s all part and parcel. The same could be said for classical instruments and the change from last night’s dinner.

“I see instruments as objects and objects as instruments,” she said. “The question is, is it you who is touching the object or the object that is touching you? Objects and gestures have their own associations [and] histories. My intention is to create an illusion or moments that seem to appear as something with no name… fresh.”

no name is actually one of her latest projects. In a piece commissioned by the Orchestra De Volharding in Amsterdam, Marianthi wanted to examine the point where everyday movement becomes music. “Where is the line that tells you tapping your fingers on a table is music? It’s just a gesture of daily life, but if there were a keyboard there, it would be associated with music. So I wanted to make a piece for a musician without an instrument.” That’s just what she did in June 2004 on a boat in the Dutch capital. She sat a trombonist and a pianist on opposite sides of a table and had them ‘play’ their instruments, a quasi-deliberate take on air guitar that tested the limits of both her and the musicians’ imagination.

Her most recent piece b as I eye us be, which premiered at the University of California-San Diego on January 15, is just as challenging. Bassist Scott Walton performed solo but while imagining another set of hands sharing the instrument. “When you play, it’s automatic, but I want to break that continuity, that automatica," Marianthi said. "It’s not silence – there’s no one else there, but for the performer, it’s not actually a silence, he’s giving his space to someone else."

These types of brainbusting ideas keep Marianthi writing, studying and teaching. Still Life will be featured in two upcoming concerts, one in May in Holland with choreographer Harriët Ordelman, and possibly another in New York in April. She’s also slated to perform at Trummerflora’s 4th Annual Spring Reverb festival in San Diego and Tijuana on June 2-5.

“I really care about trying to find ways to challenge myself as a composer, as an improviser and as a listener,” she said. “It’s like trying to find ways to appreciate the same food every day.”

Marianthi knows what she’s talking about. She turned one apple into a lifetime of food for thought.

By Otis Hart

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