On my relation to Jani Christou

(This is not an English version of my article on Christou in Swedish. This is just a part of the contents.)

In the first half of 1963 I was travelling in Southeast Europe on a Swedish State Travelling Grant for composers in order to meet colleagues and to get in touch with new music developments. At the end of March 1963 I spent a couple of weeks in Athens where I met John G. Papaioannou, an architect, pianist and internationally well-known promoter of new music. He said: “If you want to hear new Greek music you shouldn't go to Athens as all composers are leaving town. Xenakis is in Paris and Logothetis is in Vienna.” He thought for a second and then he said, with emphasis: “You should see Jani Christou!” He went to the phone, made a call and on the same evening I was in the Christou's flat in Kydathineon Street in Plaka, the old town of Athens just under the precipices of Acropolis. Well, this was in 1963, before Plaka was the cheap entertainment area that it became later.

Jani Christou turned out to be a very pleasing and charming, I would even say handsome, man somewhere between 35 and 40, and his wife Theresa was still lovelier. He had an almost aristocratic charisma and he spoke a perfect English. Later I learned that he had been studying in Cambridge with Ludwig Wittgenstein but also, for a short period, with C.G. Jung in Switzerland.

I had brought some tapes with new Swedish music, including some by myself, and those he wanted to hear immediately, repeatedly, and he had lots of questions. After some persuasion he played a couple of tapes with his own compositions for me. I remember a suite of songs with orchestra to texts by T.S. Eliot in a spirit that reminded me of Alban Berg. He also played his “Patterns and Permutations” for orchestra, composed three years before.

The early sixties was a time when Darmstadt serialism still had some impact on the souls and composing repetitive music was not really comme il faut. I remember feeling some sort of ambivalence towards those manically repeated (but varied) patterns in the beginning of “Patterns and Permutations”. Yet I realized that they were mirroring a very special and absolutely personal attitude, a yearning for a primordial force that would become quite obvious in Christou's later compositions.

The evening passed, the tape recorder was running and we were listening to each other's music. We were together that night only. It was my last evening in Athens. My diary notes from that occasion are carrying a spirit of enchantment. My travelling had finally brought me to someone I immediately liked and with whom I felt a direct relation. This was the beginning of a friendship, which lasted for most of the remaining 1960s with the assistance of postal services. We kept sending each other scores and tapes and now and then we were writing letters with comments to the music and information about our activities respectively. This was going on until the military forces in Greece carried out their coup d'etat in April 1967.

This was the first time I experienced something like this in my personal environment, even if it was on an indirect level. It may sound naïve but it made me paralyzed. What attitude could Jani possibly take to the coupe? Was there censorship of letters? Could I write to him discussing the situation or would that be compromising to him? Could he give me straight replies or would that damage his position? I was full of conspiratorial thoughts and became so blocked that I was unable to continue the correspondence. Now, decades later, I realize that I most likely was overreacting. And of course I could not know what was going to happen after a couple of years. Strange things began to occur from now on.

In Stockholm, a winter evening in early 1970, I was on my way to a dinner with a friend who was one of the leading literature critics in Sweden, a man who was very familiar with the situation in Greece. (He had even paid a secret visit to members of the cultural resistance movement.) In the subway, on my way there, I saw an evening paper left on the seat by someone. I picked it up and skimmed it through. Suddenly I read a news item telling that Mikis Theodorakis from his jail in Greece had written a song to the memory of the composer Jani Christou who recently had been killed in a car crash. I was stunned. Once again one of all these missed opportunities in life. That I had neglected my relation to him for such trivial reasons.

According to John G. Papaioannou, in an article published after Christou's death, Jani was fascinated by the occult. Some of his works, like e.g. Mysterion, have the death as the subject. Papaioannou also mentions that Christou had had presentiments about his imminent decease and that more or less mystical coincidences were frequent in the time around his accident.

When I am writing these words about my relation to Jani Christou I am opening the morning paper. It comes with the message that my friend, the literature critic, now aged, has just passed away…

Folke Rabe, 2002