Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Topologist

What is particularly interesting about Tom Kazas is the diversity of his art.

From the psychedelic Moffs to the ethnic groove of Xitzaz, from his ambient works to his film-making, Tom seems to enjoy interpreting things from all possible angles, then letting his ideas “breath” before come into shape.

Tom Kazas, born 1965, is a Greek /Australian composer, producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and recently a film maker.

The Moffs - Another Day in the Sun (from The Moffs, 1986)

As well as being the creative force behind the Moffs, the Australian psychedelic pop/rock group of the 80s, Tom has a rich discography as a solo artist, but also as a producer and arranger.

His collaborations range from psychedelic pop (Taj Orange EP, 1991), to the ethnic (with Richard Lawson of Lime Spiders on the 1994 Fig Tree Renaissance album, and with the Ducers, Shift the Teli album of 1996). From Greek jazz (with Xitzaz band and the album Turbulence of 1999) to Xmas songs (in Tiny Tim’s Christmas Album of 1996).

Taj Orange - Premonition (from In A Sea With..., 1991)

Unfortunately most of his records are really hard to find. Tom did surprise me and send me a couple of his rare and out of print recordings.

The album Turbulence by Xitzaz is a very special case. Kazas is a member, arranger and producer for Xitzaz, which is a band playing Greek jazz, as they claim on Tom’s web site.

I would describe this as a jazz/funk/traditional fusion featuring inspired covers of traditional and popular Greek songs but also original compositions from Kazas and the band.
Check their magnificent cover of master of rembetico Markos Vamvakaris' Frangosiriani.

Frangosiriani - Xitzaz (from Turbulence, 1999)

Tom’s latest album, Verdigris, was released earlier this year.
It is a full length piano album of four pieces.
A minimal work with an emphasis on the rhythmic, repetitive patterns which progress slowly in moving cycles.

Emerge - Tom Kazas (from Verdigris, 2011)

Cinema is another extension of Tom’s artistic endeavor. He has made several short films with The Topologist being the latest one. It’s a 16 minute “cinema poem on the examination of self”, as he explains.

The Topologist trailer

A discussion with Tom Kazas

G: Tom what is your Greek heritage?

My father was born in a village near Nafplion and came to Australia in 1959. My mother was born in Sydney, whose father came to Australia in 1933 from Castellorizo.

G: You have worked with many Greeks (writing music for their films, producing albums, composing etc). Is there an artistic Greek community in Australia?

I'm certain there is a community. I don't interact with it much now, so I don’t know what shape it takes. When I work with Greeks, I tend to see them as 'individuals with extras'. I have always enjoyed the freedom to be able to engage with Greeks, and then the freedom to ignore that identity. I think it's that circularity that helps to keep Hellenism alive for me, here in an anglophone country.
When I was younger I was much more involved with the Greek community in Sydney. I was the composer for a many Greek Theatre productions, and later with the Greek jazz band 'Xitzaz'. There was certainly a strong sense of community around those activities.

I suspect that as the Greek-Australian community matures and hybridizes, it becomes more about 'choosing' to be Greek. There is so much to choose from and be stunned by. I have always understood that it is at my core, personally and as a westerner, and know that it will continue to give me energy for the rest of my life.

G: You recently played a few gigs with the Moffs. How was it? Any plans for new music?

The recent Moffs gigs were a great experience for me, and I think for many people. Because we played a 1985 setlist with the original members, it was a rare opportunity to get into that distant headspace. Remember, I was twenty years old in 1985, so it was a way to experience part of that naiveté and joy again. After the gigs I was told there were a few tears in a few eyes. I was also told that 'Another Day in the Sun' had been played at weddings! Mostly, it was great to play that style of rock guitar and sing a few old songs. There are no plans for any further new music by the Moffs.

From the 2011 Moffs gigs. Photos by Kyleigh Pitcher

Surprised - The Moffs (from Labyrinth, 1988)

G: I think the uniqueness of the Moffs sound is somehow connected with your Greek heritage. In many cases you are following "eastern" routes when singing or playing the guitar. Same thing with your solo albums. For example in Garden of Fascination from Saint or Fool.

You are not only perceptive but essentially right in your listening. In fact, there has never been an album that I have released, Moffs or other, that has not had some rather strong Greek elements in it. I could easily make a list of songs for you like 'Garden of Fascination', that have a Greek heart; from the earliest Moffs to Verdigris, and in the Topologist.

Garden of Fascination - Tom Kazas (from Saint or Fool, 1997)

G: Another observation has to do with what we have already discussed as diversity in your music. I think these elements, that might be not so obvious or fully developed in the Moffs, were taken a step further on your solo albums. If the early years are about the big picture, then the mature years are about exploring the detail. For example, the Dolphin and I, Tapestry or the first half of Stealing Cake. I have the feeling that you took some not-fully-developed ideas and perfected them in your Telemetry or Fleeting Eternities albums. And then you took elements from Telemetry and Fleeting Eternities to stretch, improvise and further explore into Verdigris.

And again, you are right. The Moffs contained that combination of 'the song' and 'the instrumental' that I have mostly separated out, and continued to explore in my 'mature years'! It is mostly a conscious decision, for it has allowed me to bounce between the two poles, to use one to react against the other, a kind of escape valve.

It is true that on Verdigris I took a small group of seeds and sought to create whole worlds from them. Maybe it reflects my aging process, of seeking to distill and simplify, to explore what is easily missed, to try and have some power over time. Verdigris is this attempt at playing with time.

However, making the Topologist was such an important break in that musical bouncing process. It allowed me the freedom to really change the focus, and find a new way to question my place.

G: Is there a “wild” dream sitting in the back of your mind? Something that when it's done, it might surprise even its creator?

I don't really have an answer to that question, or, my answer doesn't seem to be that wild. Apart from:
-wanting to connect with an audience of millions,
-being heralded as a genius
-being talked about, and
-performing at Lycabettos...

If I have an answer, it is this:
To stay connected with art. As I age, the form this connection takes is less important to me. What is important is the making, the praxis, the necessity of it.
I hope to never lose my hunger for the thoughts and feelings of people, and the products of those thoughts and feelings. I would hate to lose that awareness, and then be content to live without it. That would be poverty. But I hear Kazantzakis' words resounding, for he told us how to attain freedom: by not fearing, not hoping.  Being an artist is one of the few activities that allows you to act in freedom, expensive though this sometimes is.

G: What’s next?

I am putting the finishing touches to my new four song ep, ‘Melbn Pyxis’ that I will release in 2012. It is refreshing for me because the lyrics have never been this direct, or personal. It felt like I needed to be more courageous, and the lyrical honesty on the ep was a way of achieving that. I hope to also be performing these songs with a new band.
Later next year I hope to release the dvd, 'the Topologist and other Cinema Poems'. This release will mean that the Topologist will finally be available. It is also a nice way to issue some of my video work, of which a few are on youtube .

Several years ago, film and video became an all-encompassing activity for me. At a time in my life when I needed to ‘see’ things differently, film making became obvious and necessary. I think the activity of being a film maker was always latent in me. An added inspiration is the work of Theo Angelopoulos.
Creating the Greek version of 'the Topologist’ was a wonderful exercise in exploring the poetry of the Greek language, and also the difficulties of translation. My dear friend Nonda Antonopoulos, from Xitzaz and the Ducers, did most of the translation work. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him. It was also an honour to have Kristi Stassinpoulou perform the voice over.

In his own words:

My first record:
I really can't remember. I had my sister's and uncle's records, and I was borrowing from the library and from friends. But at 10 years old I was given 'High Tide Green Grass' by the Rolling Stones.

I was also hearing the Greek music my father was playing in the house, Theodorakis and Xarhakos. He made little edited Super8 films of family things and would then project it with a variety of music from his reel to reel tape machine. These were early multi-media experiences for me.

My first concert:
There was a festival day with local bands like the Angels, Split Enz, Jimmy and the Boys.
But the first 'concert' for me was the Cure in 1981, I was 16.

The song I wish I had written:
At the moment, it's 'Atom and Cell' by Nine Horses (David Sylvian).

The artist I’d like to collaborate with:

My favorite Greek album:
That's hard. 'Mou Thimizeis ti Mana mou' by Christos Kyriazis, or 'Odes' by Vangelis.

Mou Thimizeis ti Mana mou (You remind me of my mother) - Christos Kyriazis

Dance of Fire - Vangelis

My favorite movie:
Something by Tarkovsky, maybe 'Stalker'.
However, I recently saw 'Turin Horse' by Bela Tarr, that was quite astounding.

What still surprises me:
 1. The sheer beauty and wonder of existence. The depth of sorrow it also contains.
 2. The scale of legal corruption.
 3. What my children say and do.

My moto:
Oh, I have several. Here are but a few, in no particular order:
'To be courageous, one must perform acts of courage'.
'Be attentive to the few moments that give meaning'.
'You only know yourself in the presence of others'.
'Creative work is serious play'.

Letter to the Dead - Tom Kazas (from The Wound, 1999)

End as Beginning - Tom Kazas (from Telemetry, 2003)

Discography and info about Tom Kazas on his site:
Hint: Tom has a few copies of the out-of-print Xitzaz album. You can contact him here!

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