Michael Adamis and the Journey from Byzantium to Athens

Ivan Moody


Michael Adamis has followed a highly original path through the multiple stylistic possibilities of the modern age. Born in Piraeus in 1929, he began singing when still a child in a church choir. He studied theology at Athens University, and at the Athens, Piraeus and Hellenic Conservatories, where he obtained diplomas in various musical disciplines including composition (his teacher was Yannis A. Papapioannou) and neo-Byzantine chant. In 1950, Adamis founded the Greek Royal Palace Boy's Choir, and in 1958 the Athens Chamber Choir, experiences which were to have an important influence on the way he approached the writing of choral music.

Adamis subsequently went to the USA, and studied composition,electronic music and Byzantine palaeography at Brandeis University between 1962 and 1965. During this time he also taught neo-Byzantine music at Holy Cross Theological Academy, Boston, Massachusetts. After his return to Greece, he founded the first electronic music studio in Athens (1965), and was appointed head of the music department and choral director at Pierce College in Athens.

Though he has also drawn on Greek demotic folk music, particularly in his music for the theatre, the greatest single influence on Adamis's music is without a doubt that of Greek Byzantine chant, which he has studied and performed throughout his career (it should be mentioned that he has published important musicological studies on the repertoire). His "polymelodic" method of composition and the whole philosophy behind his creative work derive from this experience.

Adamis's earliest works, for choir, dating from the early 1950s, betray these preoccupations with sacred music and specifically Byzantine chant. In 1955, however, he wrote an instrumental work, the Liturgical Concerto, scored for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and string quartet. Its melodic lines are audibly based on chant, and the modal structure in combination with rather neo-baroque instrumental writing and imitative procedures suggest Holst with a Greek accent, though its sprightly character brings to mind as well Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks. One may also detect a continuous line between this work and pieces by earlier Greek composers, such as Byzantine Melody for string orchestra by Evangelatos (1903-87) or the Chorale Variations 1 and 2 on Byzantine themes by Petridis (1892-1977). The concerto is already very clearly constructed on overlapping and parallel polyphonic lines, in spite of the relatively simple modal harmony.

Following further choral works, Adamis wrote a series of tape and instrumental works in the early 1960s (principally while he was studying in the USA) which vastly expanded his horizons.  By the time of Anikylesis (1964) for flute, oboe, celesta, viola and 'cello, we are in a totally different world. The melodic lines are fragmented, there is use of Klangfarbenmelodie, an intense concentration on instrumental colour and a sense of exploration of texture. The flutter-tonguing flutes, large melodic intervals and atonal harmony seem very distant from the Greek modal world of the music of the previous decade, but during this period Adamis's explorations would lay the basis for the "reconciliation" of these elements which became apparent in his mature style. There are, in any case, constant factors linking Anikylesis with the Liturgical Concerto of nine years earlier: though its writing is taught, tense, gestural (there is a somewhat declamatory feel to the work), it is also colourful, and t

he polyphonic layering is omnipresent. Of the works for tape, one of the most impressive is the clangorous, thundering Apokalypsis 6th Seal dating from three years later. It is of course an illustrative work, beginning with sounds recalling an underground train, metallic roarings. The vocal element appears later - a gradually increasing cluster, with much use of glissandi, singing the word "apokalypsis" in fragmented syllables. The work perhaps suggests the "textural" Penderecki, which is to say that it sounds very much of its time.

With Byzantine Passion we arrive at a very pure expression of Adamis's preoccupation with the Byzantine ethos, but it is significant that this work dates from the same year as Apokalypsis - 1967 - which would on the surface seem to be at the opposite extreme in style and intention. The texts for the Passion come from the Orthodox services of Holy Thursday, and the work is scored for two psaltes(1), two male choirs, two mixed choirs, bells, talandra and simandra(2). As Adamis has said, "morphologically at the opposite pole from Western Art, projecting the functional quality of the form of the Byzantine Office and its completion into an aesthetically consequent whole. Byzantine Passion is organized by the joint development of individual elements, which unfold and expand around themselves meeting one another in composing an integrated whole."(3) What this means in fact is that Adamis has written, in this Passion, a masterpiece of Byzantine art. Composed in the middle of the 1960s, at a time when man was engaged in every sort of superfical quest for enlightenment or oblivion, this work, rooted as it is in a tradition of intense spiritual values, speaks clearly and personally to us all. Its success in Greece has been notable, and one might safely predict a similar success elsewhere were some enterprising recording company to take it up.

Kratima (1971) takes as its material the colour and timbre of a Greek psaltis and turns it into absolute music. It leads us back into the electronic swirl, out of which come instrumental noises and an almost "howling" tenor, his glissando-laden line over a textural background subsequently distorted and modified electronically. There are cadenzas for oboe and tuba which offer some relief from the work's harmonic density (in this it resembles Apokalypsis 6th Seal). The voice of the psaltis is also heard in the oratorio Tetelestai ("It is finished", dating from the same year), which also continues the line initiated with Byzantine Passion. The original scoring was for psaltis, choir and tape. An orchestral version was produced in 1987, and has a different, more Byzantine, ecclesiastical atmosphere, and one feels at once in the presence of a substantial statement, a work of epic grandeur. Byzantine-based material unfolds, clothed in opulent orchestral colours and dramatic choral writing, though the rich choral textures are offset by poly-melodic instrumental strands. Much of the work is constructed from massive modal harmonic blocks, but the harmony is spare in character (with much use of bare 5ths and 4ths), and not at all lush.

The strikingly beautiful Photonymon (1973), for psaltis, choir and percussion (talandra, simandra, small bells and chimes) stands a little apart from this pictorial genre, in that it pushes Byzantine material towards something more abstract: one could perhaps say that it is more of a meditation than an illustrative work. As Adamis has observed, here "tradition is fragmented and its elements differentiated, while the form tends towards abstraction and the projection of the ideal of the absolute."(4) The orchestral Evolutiones (1980), which Adamis considers to be in the same line as Photonymon(5), is even more abstract.

Melisma (1981) may be described as a stylization of a stylization. The tenor and flute (or violin, in a later version) engage in a melodic dialogue built from Byzantine material: it is a reinvention of the Byzantine genre of kratemata (from kratein - "to hold"), which are monophonic vocalizations on nonsense syllables, such as "ter-re-rem" and "a-na-ne". Adamis expands this genre (as he has observed, it is the only kind of abstract music permitted in the Orthodox Church) in the form of a duet, and builds from it a jubilant, ecstatic climax.

Rodanon (1983), for psaltis, Byzantine chorus and instrumental ensemble, is a further continuation of the line of Byzantine Passion and Tetelestai, though its generation of an overall structure through the accumulation of smaller events is new. This is taken further still in Epallelon (1985), which makes use of "one large-scale, unified synthetic line" (6) and in Kalophonikon for saxophone quartet (1988), which is the epitome of the polymelodic style of writing, exploring the similarity of colours of the four instruments to blend and separate the rhythmically highly active lines within relatively restricted modal ranges. The result is a work extrovert in character and breath-taking in its energy.

Throughout his work, and especially from the composition of Byzantine Passion onwards, Adamis has conceived of music in a fundamentally non-western way. There is no development in the western classical sense. I have quoted elsewhere the observation of the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe that "development" as understood in the western classical tradition is in fact very restricted both geographically and chronologically, and has no part in a great many of the world's musical traditions, including much western pre-classical music.(7) This links Adamis's music not only with Sculthorpe's, but with many other contemporary composers (Tavener, Messiaen, Pärt, Reich, to name but three, entirely different from each other) who, if seen in terms of the "great tradition" of western music, must be considered peripheral indeed.

And yet, these links notwithstanding, there is nothing quite like Adamis's recent music. It has a power and grandeur of its own, which come from years of following with dedication that path from Byzantium where this magnificent tradition of chant began, and which leads to modern-day Athens, in whose churches the descendants of that chant may still be heard. Adamis has paralled this path in his own terms as a creative artist, and his unique vision has ensured that he has something valuable and uplifting to offer the world.



1. A psaltis is the chanter in the tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church.

2. Talandra and simandra are bars made of wood and metal respectively, rhythmically beaten to summon the faithful to church.

3. Michael Adamis: "Within and beyond Symbolism: An Insight and a Perspective of Musical Creation", Contemporary Music Review Vol. 12, Part 2, p.13. See also Ivan Moody: "The mind and the heart: Mysticism and Music in the Experience of Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Composers", Contemporary Music Review Vol. 14, Parts 3-4, pp.65-80.

4. Adamis, op. cit., p.14

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ivan Moody: "John Tavener and the Music of Paradise" in John Tavener & Mother Thekla, Ikons, London, 1994, p.85.


© Ivan Moody 1998, 2001

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