Dimitris Skyllas is exploring music paths that patiently waited to be mapped

Dimitris Skyllas

A brilliant matchmaking of pop and classical music

Text: Yorgos Papadimitriou
Dimitris Skyllas

With a series of impressive collaborations and accolades under his belt, which are nothing less than extraordinary given his young age, composer Dimitris Skyllas breaks free from labels and conventions, crafting a unique and beguiling mosaic of countless references and influences. In this exciting and multifaceted mix, interweaving classical and pop music, he combines elements taken from the folklore and religious tradition (Epirus lamentations, Byzantine music), exploring music paths that patiently waited to be mapped.

How did this sui generis blend come up? “The key notion is probably “came up”. If you strive to build an artificial persona, you are bound to fail. In my view, everything leads up to the inevitability of death and the way we cope with this feeling. Consider that lamentations in Epirus are often performed on the occasion of weddings, in a grandiose contradiction that binds life and death together. Making use of pop culture while refraining from getting consumed by it is a task that demands an incredible amount of inner struggle: you have to embrace it, but not get entangled in its grip. In reality, every human manifestation of an intense feeling is associated with our fear of death. The quest for ecstasy and the Dionysian frenzy is inextricably linked with the human despair over the finite of life and our all innermost quests, whether it is God, sex or love. The true challenge was not to dig up all these references, as they sprang out naturally from within, but to allow them to smother me. Coming from an academic background, it took a great deal of courage and audacity to stand up for a different approach, where pop music would play a key role. The only thing I’m certain of is that my greatest accomplishment so far is that I succeeded in finding a point of balance between the contrasts within me.”

The feats of Dimitris Skyllas, when laid out all together, make an endless and overwhelming list. At the shocking age of 30, Dimitris became the first ever Greek composer to be commissioned by BBC’s Symphonic Orchestra. Kyrie Eleison (2020), a co-production of BBC and Onassis Stegi, was showcased at Barbican, the latest entry in a series of iconic venues that have opened their doors for the Volos-born composer (Victoria & Albert Museum, Royal Albert Hall, Westminster Abbey). Dimitris Skyllas went on to compose the music for the staging of The Free Besieged by the National Theatre of Greece, while Athens Music Hall hosted his work, The Dance of Zalongo, commissioned by Athens State Orchestra, on the occasion of the completion of 200 years since the 1821 Revolution. A few years earlier, in 2018, the multidimensional artist had composed the music for Electra, produced by the National Theater of Greece and staged at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus.

How was the transition from the mindset of the performer to the maze-like world of the composer? Was he forced to “kill” the performer inside of him so that the composer could step up? Here’s what he has to say: “Actually, I would say that it is kind of the other way round. In my humble opinion, the greatest problem with today’s composers is that they have never performed their own works. It is only through personal experience that you come to realize the often appearing gap between theory and implementation, between initial intentions and the final materialization of an idea. That is why we come across talented musicians who refuse to perform contemporary works as these works completely dismiss the performer’s point of view. Performing my compositions as I work on them allows me to discern my mistakes, to take notice of what does not work out, of what needs to be changed. In the current stage of my career, I relish the prospect of performing my own works and consolidating my two qualities, as a performer and as a composer, into one single identity, as in the early days of classical music. A performer can easily fall right into the trap of technical mastery when attempting to step up as a composer. On the other hand, a composer who profits from a previous stint as a performer can usually channel this mastery into an advantage.”

A documentary centered on Dimitris stood as a capstone recognition of his breathtaking journey as an artist. Dimitris Skyllas: AFTERPOP, produced by Onassis Culture and directed by Dimitris Zivopoulos, celebrated its world premiere within the framework of the 24th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, on March 12th 2022. A breezy, joyful and sparkling movie, blessed with an effortless narrative flow and a romantic mood, that introduces us to an artist who keeps rediscovering and renegotiating his next creative destination along the way. A special mention deserves to be made to the fact that Dimitris Skyllas was the one to compose the doc’s soundtrack, scheduled to be released soon at Spotify, iTunes and other platforms. The film’s screening, in this special event included in TDF’s program, was followed by a live on-stage performance, where the audience had the

chance to take delight in four tracks featured in the soundtrack. All signs point out that cinema will become the new challenge in the career of a musician who is not afraid to take chances and test himself in new creative paths. 

“I had no second thoughts as to who would compose the documentary’s soundtrack. Even though not a tech-fan in my everyday life – quite the opposite I would say, I glorify all natural aspects of life – I am in awe of the role of recording in music. In a way, a film soundtrack is a recording that becomes perpetually attached to a visual depiction. Being a control freak in my work, I take delight in this feeling of unconditional safety net. I take delight in the idea that the music I’m composing for a film will take a definite shape that will remain unaltered in the course of time. Throughout the last few years, I was fortunate and privileged to work with prestigious institutions and multi-member orchestras, for large-scale works presented in live performances. The experience was spectacular, by all means. Nevertheless, it is impossible to have complete control over your own work in such circumstances. While working on the film’s soundtrack, I was filled with joy, feeling I have the power to affect the audience’s emotions through my music,” he explains.

“Having taken part in such dense and complex productions, I now long to write film scores and try something new, without renouncing or altering my personal glance. My goal is to create musical landscapes that could exceed the boundaries of the film, accompanying the audience to different destinations. As to the term “film composer”, as outlined in the academic playbook, I have many objections and reservations: its definition seems extremely confined and restricted to me. My ambition is to collaborate with directors sharing my vision. I can easily single out several directors who are music connoisseurs. Such is the case of Lars von Trier or Yorgos Lanthimos, to cite an example coming from Greek cinema. I have no doubt in my mind that I will be composing music for films in the near future, I just want it to occur in a fruitful and productive way,” he concluded.