Humans and Machines: An Interview with Composer Marios Joannou Elia at the Royal Festival Hall in London

Casting a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud from 1956. Photo by m:con Agentur Mannheim

By Paul Michael Coleman

Paul Michael Coleman: I am delighted to have Marios Joannou Elia with me here at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Marios, an internationally acclaimed composer for his pioneering and visionary works, composes not only for concert halls and opera houses, but also for large-scale multimedia events. Marios, I read in the press that your guitar music has been recently performed in two festivals in Poland, in Nysa and Wroclaw, in fully booked concert halls ending with standing ovations. Last Monday you had a piano piece performed by Michael Finnissy during the “New Works Festival” in Southampton. You are now here in London working in the studio for a new composition that is going to be premiered beginning of January. Afterwards, end of January, follows a premiere of your work “Cicadas” in New York City, at the Steinway Hall. And of course, you have being continuously working on the huge spectacle “autosymphonic” for 250 musicians. For this 2-Million-Euro event, you are the general music manager as well. This is just an example of what you are currently doing – how do you manage all this?

Marios Joannou Elia: It is a matter of self-organization and endless working process. The projects I am especially interested in, like “autosymphonic”, have a high-qualitative musical character that is eminently motivating. Moreover, I am interested in bringing music, in an unconventional and contemporary way, towards a responsive audience. In the case of “autosymphonic”, 16.000 spectators are expected, which is a huge responsibility for my team and myself. This requires an active engagement, both in creating the music but also during its realisation.

Paul Michael Coleman: Your signature is that you use vehicles in your music in a highly extensive manner. Is it difficult to work with such ‘instruments’ and how did all begin?

Marios Joannou Elia: I employ vehicles in a very systematic and musically complex manner. The machinery alone does not provide me with a particularly artistic per-spective. It has to be extensively investigated before being applied in the music. Be-sides, this is how the works are composed – in juxtaposition with, for example, a symphony orchestra and a choir. In 2003 I was working on a composition specifically written for the space of the Volkswagen Transparent Factory in Dresden. I wanted to use the entire main hall of the factory in the music, thus providing a number of practical difficulties, such as the coordination of the musicians that were placed everywhere in the space and in dif-ferent heights. Then, I thought that the VW Phaeton car that is manufactured there was the perfect machine to achieve this. So it was primarily applied as an assisting component for the conductor, but also for a variety of musical applications. Furthermore I make use of bicycles, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, shipping and aviation elements. In 2008, in the opera “The Hunt”, I have employed six cars such as an Aston Martin, a Jaguar and a Ford Mustang as part of the plot as well as part of the musical instrumentarium.

Paul Michael Coleman: Tell us about your music that you are now developing here in London.

Marios Joannou Elia: These days I have been working in the studio with audio pro-ducer Nick Elia creating a trio for cars: a Mercedes-Benz SLS-AMG from 2010, an old-time Aero 6218R from 1934, and for the first car ever built, the patented tricycle by Carl Benz from 1886. This is the most complex musical piece I have to date com-posed, in which the interactivity between the automobiles and their performers is highly coalesced. The three automobiles will be performed by an ensemble of 14 percussionists. The car trio is an integral part of “autosymphonic”. It will be premiered on January 6th 2011, celebrating the New Year in the city of Mannheim in Germany, in Rosengarten Concert Hall.

Paul Michael Coleman: Tell us bit more about “autosymphonic” and the employment of the automobiles…

Marios Joannou Elia: It is a one-hour symphony, consisting of a large orchestra, choir, two vocal ensembles, percussion ensemble and electronics. In addition to this, I am employing a car orchestra of 80 automobiles, including old-timers, super sport cars, limousines, tracks, busses, tractors etc. Since May I began casting numerous types of automobiles all over Germany. To date I have cast circa 120 cars of all types and ages, including Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Maserati and Cadillac. The music will involve a scenery construction of laser, lights, videos, urban screening, LED projections, etc. The symphony is especially commissioned for the 125th anniversary celebration of the car in Mannheim, Germany and is going to be the highlight event of the so-called “Automobile Summer” in Baden-Württemberg.

Paul Michael Coleman: So Marios, when and where will “autosymphonic” be pre-miered?

Marios Joannou Elia: On the 10th of September 2011, in the central square of Mannheim. It will be an open-air production in which the latest technological devel-opments will be applied, but also new ones have to be specifically developed, in order to enable a three-dimensional acoustical irradiation. For example, the 360-degree spatialization system will produce a holographic effect of the music projection. Hence, the square will be transformed in an ‘arena’ of musico-visual events.

Paul Michael Coleman: Is it a central feature in your work to reflect the technological development within music in respect to the evolution of the car as a burgeoning multimedial functional apparatus?

Marios Joannou Elia: I do follow the developments of the automobile culture in the conceptual sense, however I reflect it in an idiosyncratic artistic expression. The issue of interaction between humans and machines is of central meaning in my work and it also finds multifarious application in “autosymphonic”. Current and future-oriented technological developments show the high degree of amalgamation between the two elements. On the one hand, the automobile behaves autonomously with human mannerisms. On the other hand, humans adopt machine-like features. In both situations a form of hybridism occurs. In this context, the aspect of hybridism is essential in my music.

Paul Michael Coleman: Thank you very much, Marios, for a highly enlightening dis-cussion.


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