03/20/2015, DROM , New York, NY

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Petros Sakelliou of Visual Music Circus grew up in Athens, Greece. After graduating from Architecture school (2003), and with a classical piano diploma (1998), he moved to Los Angeles where he got his Master’s Degree in Music Composition from California Institute of the Arts (2005). The following 4 years he ...

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Ron Kadish

A Joyful Mess: Composer Petros Sakelliou’s Colorful Exuberance and Perfect Balance Leap to Life on Visual Music Circus

“I always feel that my music begs for choreography, that there’s some other, very colorful story it projects in the air,” muses the Athens-born composer and pianist Petros Sakelliou. “It feels as if we’re playing for dancers, for something that’s almost visible, almost there.”

Sakelliou’s pieces suggest polychrome motion: A swoop of accordion, a shimmer of vibraphone, and a fugue morphs into a Brazilian choro (“My Choro”). A madcap tango lurches into a graceful, if wry dance (“Ironic Dance #1”). Jazz complexity builds and fades in a flash of chords (“Stucks”), in a chorus of instrumental voices vying to catch the melody. In this wonderful whirl, Petros stands at the center, though always shares the limelight.

He’s the ringmaster for Visual Music Circus (release: March 20, 2015; release celebration at NYC’s Drom March 20, 2015), Sakelliou’s lush and spirited compositions performed with classical rigor and worldly wildness. An architect as well as a musician, when he has had a break from a recent three-year gig with Cirque de Soleil, he’s been conducting his own carnivalesque exploration of Afro-Latin, Brazilian, Western classical, and jazz elements.

“The compositions on the album have a circus feel to them. It’s multilayered, multicolored music, and very visual,” says Petros. “When you’re playing in a crazy orchestra, the music creates colors, creates a more visual side to the experience of listening. The circus is a great metaphor to describe how this music is composed.”

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Sakelliou’s work has garnered awards (“Swingalong” won the 2007 Thelonious Monk Prize for composition), yet he didn’t set out to be a composer. He began playing classical piano at 4, and never stopped picking up instruments or jamming with friends growing up in Greece. His first professional training, however, was as an architect.

It’s had a quiet but noticeable impact on his pieces. “There is a sense of structure and symmetry, the rules and values that translate from one art to another,” reflects Petros. “Architecture really inspired my orchestration. I have a certain love and inclination toward textures, toward combining certain elements that complement each other, the different ranges, instruments, or idioms you can use in music. Function and form have to follow each other in architecture, and you have to feel it in music as well.”

The musical elements run the gamut. He plays vertical chord stacks off of the horizontal rush of melody. He spent years learning about the clave and its role in Afro-Latin music, and then invented his own clave part, a very unusual 3-beat unit. He composes in a standard form—the fugue, the tango—then zag in a different direction, but one that feels right, that flows from the beginning point. He took a hint from a piano teacher that he should compose some etude-like pieces for her students, and turned them into large-scale orchestral works, the Ironic Dance Suite.

Though the techniques may be complex and the structures intellectually engaging, Sakelliou’s music is often an exercise in sonic humor. “Humor in music is like with humor in life,” smiles Petros. “It’s about timing and expectation and about playing with these things.”

Playful shifts, twists, and turns serve to paint pictures and set scenes, yet it’s Sakelliou’s troupe of musical friends—some old friends from Greece like Magda Giannikou, some newfound collaborators, like his ensemble’s Japanese rhythm section—that inspires the voicings and even the structure of the pieces. From his years at CalArts to a PhD stint in Boston, to his more recent move to New York, Petros has gathered a group of devoted musical friends from across the globe. A typical rehearsal unites musicians from Italy, Turkey, Greece, Japan, Switzerland, and the US.

“They really inspire and drive my writing,” he enthuses. “I craft parts with particular musicians in mind.” “Love for Magda and Maximos” was written to give Giannikou liberty to vamp like mad over an odd meter, and to pay affectionate tribute to two long-time friends who shaped Sakelliou as a musician.

“I love a joyful mess,” laughs Sakelliou. “There’s real freedom in it, going from influence to another influence. It’s about being free to just express music in different idioms without feeling you have to stay within one style. We’re incorporating and embracing styles, not sticking to them.”

Dispatch Details

Doors Open:
6:30 PM
Concert Start Time:
7:15 PM
Venue St. Address:
85 Avenue A
Venue City, State:
New York, N
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Ticket Price(s):
$10.00 - $30.00
Ticket Phone:
(646) 791-4244
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