Greek pianist Tania Giannouli discovered the music of Rob Thorne (one of New Zealand’s leading exponent of the traditional Māori instruments, ngā taonga pūoro (flutes, trumpets, and mouth harps made of conch shells, wood, and stones), while listening to his album Whāia te Māramatanga (Rattle Records, 2013).
In May 2017, less than a day after Giannouli met Thorne for the first time, they spent two days in an Athens studio recording what would become Giannouli’s third collaboration with the New Zealand art-music label Rattle Records, REWA. Steve Garden (a recording engineer, music producer, and owner of Rattle) later added some subtle treatments to this spontaneous improvised meeting.
Rewa is much more than a meeting between two skilled and enthusiastic improvisers. It is also a meeting of distinct musical worlds and cultures – the Western Greek tradition, and the indigenous tradition of Aotearoa (New Zealand). The classically trained Giannouli has a Western perspective to composing and improvisation, while Thorne is immersed in the ancient sounds and practices of his Māori heritage. But on this recording neither is bound by these histories or legacies. Their approach is open – without a safety net – and the improvised spirit of this meeting allowed them to be “led by the free flow of unforced musical events as they happen in the moment” (as Giannouli says in the liner notes). This approach challenged them to find new, exciting means to connect and re-contextualize their musical worlds, ideas, and sounds.
Rewa is imbued with the deep-listening approach of Giannouli and Thorne. Most of the pieces are concise, radiating a strong sense of curious exploration and patient investigation, producing haiku-like pieces that seem to come from mysterious, uncharted territories and cultures, with the piano (sometimes prepared) finding a common, resonant vocabulary within the ethereal, cosmic sounds of ngā taonga pūoro.
Often, as on the eerie, almost industrial “Dark Star”, the mode of investigation employed by the musicians asks more questions than it provides answers, each forcing the other to rethink their musical vocabularies, syntax, and strategies. Other pieces like the minimalist “Yfasma” have a surprising meditative power, bringing to mind compositions for the Japanese shakuhachi flute and associations with Zen Buddhism. The epic, 15-minutes “Te Tangi A Mutu” distils both approaches in the most arresting and beautiful manner possible, effective in its expression of this albums timeless, essential wisdom: leaving the old Self behind; seeing the world through a different prism; entering a new life fuelled by yesterday’s pain and tangles; acceptance, release, and setting off anew.