Sophia Serghi’s fingers hurdle from one piano key to the next, dashing to form sounds both strident and soothing. Her back is straight and her eyes are closed as she rips off one pitch-perfect note after another.
She gives an emphatic, almost violent, nod for violinist and friend Susan Via to join her. She jumps in, her own hands engaged in a sprint down the page of Serghi’s Toward the Flame.
It’s all blissfully athletic business for the two William & Mary Department of Music professors as they prepare to perform six of Serghi’s original compositions Sunday night at 6 p.m. on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage in Washington, D.C. Joining them will be double bassist Dan Via, soprano Michelle Trovato and the Flux string quartet.
The concert, entitled From Byzantium to Punk Rock, is sponsored by the College and the government of Cyprus.
“Most of the music that is going to be performed springs from my experience in the Byzantine church,” Serghi enthuses. “But embedded in there are all these wonderful rhythms that come out of my rock experience. It’s a very strange combination. But it works.”
Serghi’s music has been performed around the world – from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center to the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad five years ago in Athens; by the American Composers Orchestra, the Cyprus State Orchestra and the Haifa Symphony Orchestra. But the opportunity to appear at the Kennedy Center is obviously special.
“I’m really happy about Kennedy Center for two reasons,” she explained. “One, it’s so close to my home and a nationally renowned venue. Two, there’s a good chance for the Greek community to have access to music that for many reasons was inspired by my Greek heritage.”
Serghi, 36, grew up on Cyprus. The island had only one radio station that played top-40 music only once a week, so there were mad dashes to the record store whenever new “vinyl” arrived. In 1990, she began undergraduate studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, where “Grunge” had engulfed the music scene in the Pacific Northwest.
“In high school, I was definitely a heavy metal fan,” she said. “But I also was influenced by those wonderful bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam.”
Her aptly entitled composition Breathless Punk is a strength-sapping five-minute battle of wills that meshes Shostakovich and Punk rock.
“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” she explained. “The performers have to (start) drinking Gatorade 24 hours ahead of (performance) because it is non-stop, very difficult, very virtuostic music. I like translating the adrenaline that one gets from sports activity to music.”
For the most part, Serghi composes at breakneck speed. She finished two of Sunday’s selections, about 20 minutes of music, in two weeks. Breathless Punk, with its avalanche of notes and intense rhythms, consumed a month.
“I don’t wait for inspiration to come; if it’s there, it’ll come out, which it did with Toward the Flame,” she said. “There are many composers who write in systems, methods, and within theories. I’m very much a stream-of-conscience composer. I’m very aware of form and how things should fit, and I put them together in my own ways with my own tricks. But I’m very much a ‘left-to-right’ kind of composer, as though I were writing an English essay.”
All of Serghi’s work begins at the piano, with the simultaneous transference to the keyboard of a rhythm or melody that she generates by singing.
“The singing voice might end up being a melody for a string instrument, or it might end up being another instrument (added later),” she said. “But I write at the piano because I trust that my fingers will get it. “
Reflective of someone who successfully juggles her artistry with teaching, marriage, motherhood, sailing, hiking, painting, cooking, reading and friends, Serghi won’t allow herself to “over-compose” a piece. She knows when it’s done and when it’s done, it’s done.
“When you’re a student, you’re taught to go back and revise, revise and revise,” she said. “As I became a teacher, especially with my students, I just urge them to ‘Get it done, go on to the next thing.’
“It’s a thought, an idea. Move on. . . . I have no issues once I put down the double bar – unless one of the performers says in rehearsal that something doesn’t work. Then there’s a back and forth between the performer and the composer.”
The Kennedy Center concert is expected to draw an audience of several hundred, maybe more. Some will attend to see and hear her. Some will attend because they drop by the Kennedy Center regularly to check out whoever is performing.
“It’s music people don’t know,” Serghi says. “I’m hoping that when we’re done, the music will be accessible to a wider audience than it is now.”