The Sokratic method
Generally speaking, the chances of one of the gigs of the year taking place as part of an academic seminar titled “Sounds of the Hellenic World, Ancient & Modern” would probably be pretty slim. But that’s what happened yesterday evening at King’s College London, when the Greek lyra virtuoso Sokratis Sinopoulos brought his quartet — completed by Yann Keerim (piano), Dimitris Tsekouras (double bass) and Dimitris Emanouil (drums) — to make their UK debut in the Great Hall in front of an audience whose members had spent the day discussing Homer, Xenakis, Keats and Satie’s Socrate.
The traditional lyra is a tiny instrument which stirs big emotions. It has three strings, tuned by large wooden pegs, and its pear-shaped body contains its fingerboard. Today’s performers usually tune the strings a fifth apart and play it with a violin bow. Sinopoulos tunes his strings to a fifth and a fourth. (See footnote)
I first heard him as a member of the Charles Lloyd group that performed Wild Man Dance at the Barbican in 2014 and then in Berlin last November (a recording of the piece’s premiere, at the Jazztopad festival in Warsaw in 2013, was released by Blue Note). The lyra added a wonderful extra colour to the band (as did the cembalom of Lukács Miklós), and Sinopoulos’s solos were impressive. So I jumped the opportunity to attend last night’s concert.
The quartet’s first album, Eight Winds, was released by ECM last year, and they played several pieces from it, together with a couple of new ones. The live performance added an extra dimension of immediacy to compositions that had already made a strong impression on record, ranging from keening laments through elegant romantic melodies to exuberant dances.
But it was the sound of the lyra that filled the listeners’ hearts. Played straight, it more or less resembles a violin. Its available range of timbre and texture, however, is very different. Sometimes, when Sinopoulos bows near the bridge, the parched tone makes the instrument sound as though it’s been sitting on a windowsill under a burning Greek sun for a thousand years, left to gather dust and memories.
* In the original version of this post, I described Sinopoulos’s instrument as a Cretan lyra, and said that he followed the modern practice of tuning in fifths. A couple of readers challenged the description, so I checked with Sokratis himself. There are several variants of the lyra, he pointed out. His the very similar Constantinople lyra — but he adds: “I prefer to name my instrument just ‘lyra’, which for most Greeks connects directly to the Cretan lyra, which is the most popular of all.”