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The Sokratic method

Sokratis Sinopoulos's lyraGenerally 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.”

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Where can the rest of us hear it?

    July 5, 2016
    • You mean the gig itself? I don’t suppose you can. It wasn’t recorded.

      July 5, 2016
      • I meant the music in general. Any albums available?

        July 5, 2016
    • Nikos #

      Hey, you can check out the sound of a lyra by looking up Psarantonis, a very famous Cretan singer who uses the lyra in a unique way. I will give you two examples of his style of playing. Check out either of these songs on Youtube

      Ψαραντώνης – Άχι λουσακιανό κρασί (Psarantonis – Axi, Lousakinao Krasi) [meaning Oh, Wine from Lousaska)

      (Ψαραντώνης – Ο Δίας) (Psarantonis – O Dias) [means Zeus]

      If you can copy and past the Greek text to look them up that would be better, especially for the first song, because I don’t think it comes up when you type it with English letters. Not sure.

      Anyway enjoy.. he is my favorite musician and his brother (also a lyra player but more of a famous singer) Nikos Xilouris, is one of the most famous Greek musicians ever. He worked with many composers and is known for his beautiful voice. Also Nikos and Psarantonis are very different, their early work is similar but as time goes on Nikos’ really expanded into different genres including classical, even sometimes heavy rock, whereas Antonis has stayed rooted in Cretan folk, but always being innovative along the way.

      Niko passed away very young in the early 80s and Antonis still lives and plays all over the world. He is a living legend. His son Giorgos Xilouris (George) is also a very famous musician and has many projects ranging from Cretan folk to progressive new stuff…Their whole family is filled with musicians but these 3 are most famous and best.


      July 12, 2016
  2. Coincidence — just returned today from Crete where we witnessed two wonderful concerts from Psarantonis the other Cretan genius improvisor with the Lyra.

    July 6, 2016
  3. What an extraordinary and beautiful piece. And unforgettable. I love the way your sense of wonder has never deserted you.

    July 26, 2016

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