By pairing haiku by Greek Nobel Laureate George Seferis with the voices of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Cat Power, Mark Eitzel and Howe Gelb, Akis Boyatzis isn’t likely to strike sales gold. But Akis Boyatzis’ arcane project, titled Sixteen Haiku and Other Stories (which he recorded with a roving cast of Greek musicians under the moniker of Sigmatropic), is nonetheless one of the most fascinating and lovely creations of the year.
Well, actually last year. Sixteen Haiku was originally released in Boyatzis’ native Greece until he recently made the decision to record rework the music, translate the poetry from Greek to English and bring a cross-section of independent rockers to play on it. The new set will be released by Thirsty Ear records on January 20th.
Boyatzis says that idea for the project came to him thirteen years ago as he was reading through some books of Greek poetry. “Some poems by Seferis impressed me for their atmosphere and the musicality of their words,” he says. He eventually began to put music to a pair of poems, but pocketed the idea for nine years. It wasn’t until 2000 that Seferis happened upon Seferis’ Sixteen Haiku collection. “These short poems drew my attention from the first moment,” he says, “as they had the water, the wind and the sun as key elements and were sometimes dark, sometimes funny and at times subversive. The whole thing became so clear that it immediately sparked the engagement of this poetry with music.”
Boyatzis and his Greek label Hitch Hyke teamed with the London-based label Tongue Master Records, which helped assemble the list of guests who were given the original Greek album along with a set of translated lyrics. “Their interpretation of the music and the whole concept in general was really interesting,” he says, “emphasizing a unique point of view in each case. In all cases these were really brilliant and very engaging approaches, with excellent vocal qualities. They helped to suddenly see the relationship of this poetry with the music through a new window.”
Part of Boyatzis’ challenge was to fuse the disparate voices. “Cohesiveness of the result was one of the main things I was looking for,” he says. “The music was reworked, and this is the reason why the production of this material meant more than mixing an English-sung vocal layer on top of the instrumental layer that already existed.”
And in some cases, like Gelb’s haunting collaboration on “This Human Body,” Boyatzis incorporated new music from his counterparts. Gelb was approached to contribute to the album, but it took him a year to get around to doing it. “I just yanked around some wires on my sonic shed’s floor,” he says. “I managed to play some electric guitar in parts and some plonk piano, besides the mutter of the lyric.” The song features Gelb’s Leonard Cohen-esque vocal resting above his skronky guitar lines, which Boyatzis and his Sigmatropic fuse with strings and a shuffling drum beat.
Boyatzis says that several artists offered up variations on more than one track, which left him with a surplus of material that might see the light of day on various vinyl releases, suggesting that this line of music isn’t anywhere close to played out. “Besides,” he says, “there are still more poems by George Seferis that already met with the Sigmatropic music that are unused. I cannot rule out the possibility of eventually using some of these songs in one of our future releases.”
The track listing for Sixteen Haiku and Other Stories:
“Introduction (On Stage, 2),” with Robert Wyatt”Haiku One,” Laetitia Sadier”Haiku Two,” Martine Roberts”Haiku Three (In the Museum Garden),” Mark Mulcahey”Haiku Four,” Alejandro Escovedo”Haiku Five,” Carla Torgerson”Haiku Six,” Carla Torgerson and Akis Boyatzis”Haiku Seven””Haiku Eight,” Edith Frost”Haiku Nine,” Mark Eitzel”Haiku Ten,” Cat Power”Haiku Eleven,” Simon Joyner”Haiku Twelve (Unprofitable Boat Line),” Lee Ranaldo”Haiku Thirteen (Sick Fury),” Alex Gordon”Haiku Fourteen” (sung in Greek)”Haiku Fourteen,” John Grant (sung in English)”Haiku Fifteen,” James William Hindle”Haiku Sixteen,” Lee Ranaldo”Dead Sea (Logbook II),” James Sclavunos”Water Warm (Sketches for Summer),” Pinkie Maclure”This Human Body,” Howe Gelb”The Jasmine,” Steve Wynn