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The annual Adagio Cycle combines religious and lay works, in search of the Divine and the Human Passion.

In the Understage area of the Alexandra Trianti Hall, the musical saw in the hands of Nikos Giousef, and accompanied by piano, samplers and analog synthesizers, is transformed into a voice. ‘An otherworldly child’s voice’, ‘a Siren’s voice’ or ‘a castrato voice’, as it has been described, it easily climbs to tonic heights that the human voice can only reach with great effort.

An evocative, adagio evening, with Barber’s and Albinoni’s Adagios, arias from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the Zakynthian Easter psalm Ίνα τι εφρύαξαν έθνη [Why do the nations rage] set to music by Ioannis Planiteros, Schubert’s Ave Maria, the adagio from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa, Mozart’s Lacrimosa, but also such pieces as Τράτα [The Trawl] by Nikos Skalkottas.

Nikos Giousef soprano and baritone musical saw
Irene Tiniakou piano
George Katsanos analog synthesizer


19 April 2019


The term “adagio” (which in Italian means “at ease” and designates a relaxed and relatively slow piece of music) gives the tone of the program of this concert. The musical saw, an instrument with a very distinctive sound, creates a ritual mood and a captivating atmosphere. In the hands of Nikos Giousef, and with the company of a piano, samplers and analog synthesizers, it turns into a human voice and interprets works from Bach and Albinoni to Karerr and Skalkotas.


The musical saw belongs to the category of idiophones. It is played with a violin bow and its blade is made by expert craftsmen who optimised its material and shape in order to obtain as much as bright notes as possible. It is an instrument hard to master, as it requires a perfect synchronisation of the leg, the hand, the ear and the curve of the blade in order to obtain the desired sound.


It sounds like a female voice, and its range is similar to the ones of the contraltos and the sopranos. Yet, the human voice has to struggle in order to access high pitches, whereas the musical saw can do so much more easily and softly, without manifest effort. Its sound has been called the “dream-voice” of the opera, “the voice of the Sirens”, or an “eerie child voice”, and compared with the singing voice of the castrati.

The history of the saw as a tool goes back to antiquity – in the greek mythology Perdix, the son of Daedalus, is reported to be its inventor and one can find murals which confirm its existence and use in ancient Egypt, as well as a Biblical reference in the Book of Isaiah.


We do not know exactly when the saw started to be used as a musical instrument, nevertheless it is certain that it has been very popular in the beginning of the 20th century in musical theatre. In World War II Marlene Dietrich played musical saw for the GI's. In 1936, in his Concerto for piano and orchestra, Aram Khachaturian devoted to it a solo part. Since, it has been used by composers such as George Crumb, in “Ancient Voices of Children” (1970), but also in movie soundtracks and films such as “Swing Your Lady” (1938) and “Delicatessen” (1992).


One of the few real musical saw virtuosos was Elly Deliou, the only one in Greece, and maybe in the world, who has been systematically taught the instrument by Anton Stain in Alexandria (Egypt), where she was born. Stain himself has been the pupil of Nagar and Elly Deliou in her turn taught Nikos Giousef. Willing to confront works with higher technical demands and to expand the capacities of the instrument, Nikos Giousef, with the help of Kostas Valatsos, created a series of exclusive musical saws.


The similarity of the instrument to human voice makes vocal repertoire, but also pieces written for violin or cello, ideal for musical saw. The pieces chosen for the program reflect this criterion, with works such as the aria “Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott” from the oratorio of J. S. Bach's “St Matthew Passion”, “Ave Maria” from Franz Schubert's “Ellens Gesang III”, H. Purcell's “Music for a while” as well as choral works like “Lacrimosa” from W. A. Mozart's Requiem and the First part (Grave) from G. B. Pergolesi's “Stabat Mater”.

The album also includes two works by greek composers, Ioannis Planiteros's “Ina ti”, written in the 17th century and still performed nowadays by local choirs in Zakynthos, and “ Trata” from Nikos Skalkotas's popular ballet “The Sea”, as a tribute to the great composer on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of his death. S. Rachmaninov's “Vocalise” is also a very interesting choice for musical saw, a song without lyrics as it is. In its vocal version it is performed with only one vowel

and it has been interpreted by many other wind and string instruments, as well as by electronic ones like the theremin.


The use of electricity for making sound and musical instruments goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. The pioneers in this domain were T. Cahill with his Telharmonium (1897), Leon Theremin with his Aetherophone (1928), later known as Thereminvox or Theremin, F. Trautwein with his Trautonium (1929), and M. Martenot with his Ondes Martenot (also in 1928), used by Olivier Messiaen in “Oraison” (1937). The technological progress of transistors in the middle of the 20th century opened the road for the conception and fabrication of new electronic devices and musical instruments. Before the middle-1960s, when Robert Moog created several analog synthesizers and commercialised more broadly the theremin, synthesizers were voluminous and hard to manipulate, and they were used mostly for scientific purposes. Although Moog himself was not a musician, the instruments he created had an enormous expressive potential and gave the interpreter a great deal of freedom in the design of the sound, and this is why they are still very appreciated by musicians who deal with keyboard electronic instruments. The outstanding development of technology contributed to the creation of various user-friendly electronic instruments, as well as to the development of sampling, which has its roots in the tape recording technique (musical composition using magnetic tape and recorded musical material), the pioneers of which have been E. Varèse, P. Schaeffer, J. Cage and H. Eimert. Instruments like the Chamberlin and the Mellotron (1963) are the direct predecessors of contemporary samplers, which entered the digital era in 1979 with the Fairlight CMI.


The combination of acoustic and electronic instruments is a common practice already in the last century, and since the 1960s the contribution of composers like K. Stockhausen, Ι. Xenakis, or S. Reich in the field of electroacoustic music has been mostly significant. Nowadays, digital technology has pushed music into new pathways, but many musicians still persist to use analog electronic instruments and techniques, bypassing computers. The Moog-D, used in this concert, is such an instrument. This monophonic triple oscillator analog synthesizer does not store sounds and preferences, like digital instruments do, but it provides the interpreter a range of possibilities that, once combined, result to a very singular sound. Moreover, combining the Moog with samplers which also enable to manipulate the sound parameters in real time, George Katsanos creates textured sound scapes through which emerge all-time classic musical pieces. The Moog is also used in some cases just like the musical saw, playing monophonic melodic lines. The matching up of these two so distinctive instruments with the piano constitutes a real challenge and an experiment which would have pleased Monteverdi, who, on the score of his “Orpheus”, and following the usage of his time, gives the musicians the liberty to improvise, even about which instrument they will use.



Translation in English : Vangelis Athanassopoulos

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