Interview: Othon and Tomasini

Othon and Tomasini: On Impermanence

Written for Exeunt

Impermanence, the title of composer Othon’s recently released album, is defined as the property of not existing for indefinitely long durations. This is certainly true of the tonal explorations and atmospheric tensions of Othon’s music and Tomasini’s singing – together they carve out a landscape that travels from the baroque to the minimal, from the eerily atmospheric to the sensual, creating a space of suspension. For the duo, aesthetic considerations and the way the music is performed are as important as the music itself, and the liveness that defines their work translates into a complex theatricality, also reflected in their identities as artists.

Resting at the meeting point between performance and experimental music, Othon and singer/performer Tomasini bring pop to classical, romanticism to cabaret and highly refined classical musicianship with experiments in theatricality in what they call ‘death baroque’.

Produced by Natasha Davis, the launch of Impermanence took place as part Chelsea Theatre’s Sacred Festival 2011 and featured Laura Moody and Marc Almond.

DD: Your journeys into music and performance are rather unconventional and packed with learning experiences, but also a constant search for an artistic community and cultural context that can accommodate your identities as performers and musicians. Can you tell us about how you got to where you are now?

Othon: My musical education started at a really young age and by the time I was five I gave my first concert in Athens. I was introduced to the general director of the Hellenic Conservatoire soon after, who took me on as his personal student and generously  gave me pocket-money after each lesson, while refusing to take any payment! Subsequently, I became the protégé of the great Greek pianist and teacher, Maria Kanatsouli, who was to remain my tutor until I left Greece. Together we developed a really strong relationship and I underwent rigorous training- each lesson extended to three-four hours and I would often spend three hours each day practicing. I won national competitions, appeared on major TV channels and performed in a variety of concerts. At the prime age of sixteen I graduated with honours.

All these achievements did not mean much to me. I was expected to become a concert pianist and I was working hard, often out of habit and because of external pressure to do so. At the same time, the conservatism of the classical music world became increasingly apparent to me. I felt suppressed and I found this environment mediocre and hypocritical. My appearance became increasingly more “erratic”- I was one of the first youngsters in Athens to be covered in facial piercings, even when piercing studios were non-existent in the city. Clothes and hair were equally extravagant. This affected my relationship with the establishment, including my piano teacher.

All this made an escape from Greece look enticing; I came to England to study piano at the Royal College of Music, followed by studies at Birkbeck University and Trinity College. At Trinity I studied composition with some fantastic teachers like Andrew Poppy and Stephen Montague and won a scholarship and awards. The environment at Trinity was hugely inspiring and these years were pivotal to my development as an artist.

Tomasini: : I started as a cabaret entertainer on what is often described as ‘the wrong side of the tracks (southern Italian cabaret is closer to vaudeville than the British idea of cabaret). Soon after, via a fortuitous series of events, whilst still in my teens and with no formal training, I entered legitimate theatre through the main gates, working with some of my country’s top thespians. I wrote and performed my own (political/satirical) material in smoky nightclubs, whilst appearing in classics alongside established names of stage and screen. I attacked a bawdy song with the same dose of passion and commitment I poured into a Shakespeare sonnet. This became my personal leitmotiv. When I started creating my own shows in the UK, I was determined to devise a distinctive style that would be theatre and cabaret in equal measure.

I never searched for an artistic community and cultural context that could accommodate my identity, though. There have been times when I only aimed at bombarding people’s dogmas. I do my own thing, some people seem to like it and ask me to come and do it for (or with) them. This has taken me to avant-garde circuits, the West End, music, Hollywood, radio, classical and experimental theatre, puppetry, brothels, you name it…

DD: How do you define your individual styles?

O: PAN muzik or simply PAN. Pan means all in the Greek language and so, by using this term, I am lawfully entitled to use whatever style I want for any of my songs or musical works. Pan transcends all styles and limitations. Pan is also the Greek God of the wilderness and of revolt, of sexual pleasures and of human nature. I can relate perfectly to him.

T: The voices of all the ingénues I would love to be, the shenanigans of all the comedians I must have been, the fur coats I worship. I bring on stage an extension of myself and then bump and grind it. Sometimes it is a more quiet version of the ‘real’ me that gets up there: my performances with Othon & Tomasini are surely the most subdued thing I have ever done but even there you get glimpses of my past as a subversive clown.

DD: Where did the idea for Impermanence come from, Othon, and how do you see it in the wider timeline of your artistic development? What are some of its underlying themes?

O: I was doing a series of Tantric meditations in the nature of impermanence and that’s how the idea of the project came about. I had so many mixed feelings during that period: on one hand I was experiencing all the pain that comes from losing the things I loved most dearly and on the other I experienced the serenity that comes with the acceptance that this is the nature of life and “everything withers and everything dies”. Impermanence is mainly about overcoming and transforming.

DD: Theatricality is an important component of your work – how do you negotiate? What kind of theatricality are we talking about – is it a return to baroque, or a set of values to do with artistic identity in the public space?

O: There are theatrical elements for sure, but these elements come out effortlessly and organically through our complex personalities. In a sense, when we are on stage, we are hyper-real and a touch more expressive than we are in our daily lives. Ernesto for example IS Ernesto Tomasini on and offstage. It’s just that on stage he may wear stronger make-up than when he comes for a rehearsal, or be more of an entertainer, though I can assure you, he is equally intense during decadent chill-outs! I believe in the importance of being a performer on stage and all that this entails, in an old-fashioned sense perhaps.

T: It’s what I’ve done all my life. From my part there is absolutely no thinking behind it. I do what I can do and often I try new stuff, always keeping in mind the nature of the act. This seems to be working with what Othon does but we have never sat down and planned a specific “theatricality”. I would say it’s idiosyncratic!

DD: Let’s look to the people you perceive to be the movers and shakers of the classical fields that you’ve crossed with such deliberate verticality. Who do you think these people are? How do you believe a field of artistic practice can develop?

O: In order for an artistic practice to develop, there should be people who shake its very foundation; its written and unwritten laws and its dogmas. It is easy for artists to be ‘polite’, to do what is expected of them. This is the case especially with musicians and composers. Innovators are often celebrated during their later years or after their deaths, while during their lifetimes they live in poverty. Many of history’s greatest composers have indeed been great Lucifers (or light-bearers): from Mozart to Schönberg and from Eric Satie to Janis Christou. we lived and continue to live in the presence of their light!

T:The most influential mover and shaker in Othon & Tomasini’s life is definitely London. When I arrived, all I wanted was a room in Bloomsbury, with a view of the rooftops (crowded with chimney sweeps, of course) where I could consider myself at home. That’s exactly what I got and a lot more. London, with its secret hideaways and dramatic lights, has had a huge influence on these two Mediterranean boys and this boy in particular . After almost 20 years in the capital, it feels as if everything I do is an expression of my southern European upbringing, warped by exuberant amounts of tea. Othon and I are very particular about tea!

Among the many movers and shakers that have crossed my path I will mention one. He left us only last year and I don’t think he got the recognition that his talent surely deserved: Jack Birkett, also known as the Incredible Orlando. He went beyond innovation because no one else could do what he did. He was a galvanising actor, a heart-breaking singer and the only blind dancer that ever existed. The most beautifully eccentric theatrical bird of paradise that ever graced a stage. It is unsung heroes such as Jack who, through their uniquely daring perception of the world, push the arts forward in ways that affect me even more than the very well-known greatness of Giuseppe Verdi, Carmelo Bene, Ken Russell and the other giants I so much admire.

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