Thanks to reissues by labels like Dark Entries and Into The Light Records, this electronic pioneer is reaching new audiences. Sarah Souli tells her story.
"I like to see pink," she explains, "but I only wear black."
Platonos has been making music since she was a child, and has long been a household name in her native Greece. But in the past few years, her music has spread across Europe, Japan and North America, bolstered by re-releases of her pioneering '80s discography by the San Francisco label Dark Entries. In 2015, Dark Entries re-released Gallop (originally released in 1985), followed by Sun Masks in 2016 (originally released in 1984) and then 1986's Lepidoptera in May of 2018. Her dreamy lyrics layered over minimal analog synths struck a chord. Suddenly, a Greek artist barely known outside her home country was being played at Dior fashion shows and in Boiler Room sets.
"It's very funny," she says with a gentle laugh. "I don't know how famous I am abroad. People tell me, but I can't catch the reality of it. Because all this is happening 30 years later!"
In a sense, Platonos's musical history began before she was born. Her father, George Platonos, was an established composer and a pianist with the Greek National Orchestra. Born on the island of Crete, she started playing piano at the age of two, sitting on her father's knee and absorbing his musical knowledge at an astonishing clip. "He was an Aires with Sagittarius," she explains. "Very playful." She studied classical music at the Athens Conservatoire and was basically a child prodigy, composing her own music by age 12.
Platonos was a professional pianist at the age of 18, by which point a military junta had been ruling Greece for two years. Fascism wormed its way into the lives of everyone, even—or especially—artists. Like many Greek musicians, Platonos was preparing to study abroad. France was the dream, until someone closely connected to the junta stole her place at the conservatoire in Paris. Vienna was offered as a consolation prize; the disappointment cut her in half and sent her into a depression.
But Vienna turned out to be a pivotal point in Platonos's career. The Austrians were stereotypically rigid: "All day long I was listening to fingers, fingers, fingers!" she says, holding up the aforementioned fingers to her face. Technique aside, it was in Austria that Platonos was exposed to a range of Western rock, jazz and electronic music, and discovered artists like David Vorhaus and Delia Derbyshire. Vorhaus and Derbyshire's band, White Noise, would have a lasting impact on her music.
"It was another world," Platonos says with her eyes closed. "It was really something else for me. Deep inside I had a sense that the sound was going to be meaningful for me. Only the sound. Because computers at the time were only in NASA."
Austria also offered her a first love, Heinz, a young filmmaker who asked her to record a composition for a video he was making. "I was a flower child," Platonos says, which means, among other things, that she is still friends with all her former lovers. Heinz happens to call during one of our interviews, and Lena picks up the phone, delighted. "I was just talking about you!" she crows into the receiver. A kind of magical serendipity seems to follow Platonos. It's possible to trace her musical career along the waves of intuition and emotion. Love and desire are propelling forces, as are its darker twins.
By 1975, when Platonos returned to Greece, the junta had just ended. Another love: this time, Greek composer Dimitris Marangopoulos, whom Platonos would marry. She stopped composing as the couple traveled to Berlin to continue their studies. They returned to Athens in 1978, a decisive year for Platonos. The prolific Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis, who was running the National Radio (ERT) at the time, invited her to compose an original score for the children's TV show Here Lilipoupoli.
Limited to songs that would teach children about elementary things like colors and shapes, Platonos released delightfully titled songs like "O Horos Ton Bizelion I To Prasino Hroma" ("The Dance Of Peas Or The Green Color") and "I Magioneza I To Kitrino Hroma" ("Mayonnaise Or The Yellow Color"). Suddenly, Greek households, which were more accustomed to playing laïkó (urban folk music) or entechno (political folk music), were listening to trippy, surreal orchestrations that would provide the basis for Platonos's future electronic work and her collaborations with other Greek artists.
"The Hatzidakis programming is really what helped to make a scene back then," says Ilias Pitsios of Into The Light Records, jointly run with Tako Reyenga of Red Light Records, which puts out undiscovered Greek electronic music from the '80s and '90s.
Around this time, a tiny but dynamic electronic music scene started to emerge in Greece, but the conservative nature of the country made it difficult for artists to freely express themselves. The Greek Orthodox Church, which ran hand in hand with the government, was a dominating cultural force. Platonos was subjected to the blunt end of censorship for her take on "The Apostles' Creed." Spaces and venues were limited. But the early '80s also marked the return of several important artists, previously in real or self-imposed exile during the junta, which helped revitalise Greece's underground scene.
Perhaps the most fabled return was that of the legendary composer Iannis Xenakis, a Romanian-born Greek who fled to France in 1947. An architect and engineer who worked with Le Corbusier, he quickly became a pioneer in computer-assisted composition. In 1979, he invented the UPIC (Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu), a sort of giant digitizing tablet that can translate graphical images into music.
In 1984, Xenakis started the Center For Contemporary Music Research (CCMR) in Athens. This was a place where artists could make music and listen to lectures. Outside of private studios, it was one of the few places electronic musicians could come and be understood. It's still the only place in Greece—and one of the few in the world—to have a UPIC. The center also boasts an EMS Synthi 100, which recently underwent a two-month refurbishment for Documenta, a German contemporary art exhibition which held an edition in Athens last year.
"You would always see the same people in the audience," says the composer Akis Daoutis, laughing at the memory. "And back in the day, there were no specific venues. It was up to us to convince some guy to let us play. We would mostly perform in galleries or theaters… Because of the nature of the music, there were always some people getting pissed because they couldn't dig it. They thought we were stealing their money. So I started introducing the music by saying 'Don't expect the normal chords or melodies or beats, because there might not even be beats!'"
"It was like being in a small group of people that had the same craziness for electronic music, but with different views," says the composer Dimitris Petsetakis at his home studio in the port city of Piraeus. He rattles off some of the names in the tight-knit group: Lena Platonos, Savina Yannatou, Vangelis Katsoulis, Akis Daoutis, Stavros Logaridis, Michalis Rakintzis, Nikos Mamangakis, Giorgos Theodorakis. Some of these artists collaborated—Platonos, for example, composed many songs with the ethereal voice of Yannatou in mind. Others were simply friends, but they all ran in a similar circle, each creating their own musical identity.
Popularity was not the driving force for these artists. In the bubblegum pop years of the '80s, it wasn't possible for electronic music to ingratiate itself into the mainstream. Instead, these Greek artists were quietly building layers of electronic music history, doing it out of a deep love of music, noise and sound. It took years for a wider audience to notice.
For Platonos, 1980 was the beginning of her real delve into electronic music, marked by a shift in equipment that made her one of the first Greek artists to use analog machines. She sold one of her two pianos to her friend and collaborator, Yannatou. With that money, she traveled to Philippos Nakas, the most essential music store in Athens. "I bought a Yamaha CS-60," she says. "I had it in my living room for eight months in a corner and I was looking at it, because I was afraid of it, of the unlimited possibilities of this instrument. When I listened to the possibilities of this machine, I went crazy. I would touch the instrument magically. How can I describe this... I wasn't reading the instructions. At first, I wrote some things down. Then I threw out the instructions. I learned it how I learned the piano, autodidactic."
And so a love affair with machines began. "After that I bought a Roland TR-808, a Yamaha E1005 analog delay," she says. "Then I realized the TR-808 would work with the MIDI connection, so I synchronized it. Then I got a Tascam M-08 mixer. It's fantastic, a very clear, warm sound. It's from my four-track that I made most of the songs."
Platonos's machines made a debut in 1981 with the record Sabotage, which she worked on with Yannatou and Marianina Kriezis of Here Lilipoupoli. "Sabotage was completely unique, a musical event without a precise provenance," writes Columbia University professor of comparative literature, Stathis Gourgouris, in the forthcoming anthology Made In Greece: Studies In Popular Music. "Sabotage brings with it an experience of European contemporary music, completely unknown to the majority of Greeks at the time... In retrospect, one discerns various elements of the synthesizer-laden soundscape of Krautrock rhythms, except in a thoroughly female sensibility."
However strange it might have been considered in the mainstream, Sabotage was well-received by both established Greek artists and members of the avant-garde. But it was her next album, Sun Masks, that really began to pave the way for Platonos. Released in 1984, Sun Masks was the first album to exclusively feature her voice, lyrics and instruments: it was a distillation of Platonos in her purest form. Layered over minimal synth sounds, the majority of the ethereal, dreamy lyrics are spoken, not sung ("That's my musicality," she explains), though her voice expands and contracts into shouts and whispers throughout the album.
"The poetry in Sun Masks introduces a mental landscape that persists in Platonos's musical world throughout," writes Gourgouris. "Human relations are fraught because of their intrinsic inadequacies but also because of the societal desert that envelops them."
"I think Lena became popular for her lyrics—[they're] very unique," says Pitsios, who included one of her songs on his compilation Into The Light: A Journey Into Greek Electronic Music, Classics & Rarities (1978 - 1991). Indeed, the Greek verses, even in their English translations, speak to the very basics of human nature, expressed in a surreal way that captures the tenderness of humanity. Platonos spends a lot of time walking around the deep grooves of her own mind, she explains, as understanding herself is the only way to understand the world.
"I'm interested when I make songs first of all in the lyrics," she explains. "First comes the word, as they say in scriptures. Though I believe that music is something else—something over everything. It's the most mysterious thing that exists. And the song follows the music of poetry. The speech becomes one, embodied in the sound of the music. It's very spontaneous."
Platonos has often said that she doesn't know where her lyrics come from, that they just sort of arrive into her body through some otherworldly transfusion. "Those things, coming from nowhere, happen frequently to me. It's like magic," she tries to explain.
Her next album, Gallop, was composed after a painful break-up ("Not death, but like it," she says). Gallop was immensely successful when it first came out, and points to a sort of shrewdness on Lena's part. At the time, strong beats and rhythms were necessary to sell more albums. "For the first time in my life I thought about the effect of my music on other people—not a lot, but a little bit. I said, 'I'm going to do songs with a strong rhythm, with a beat.'"
Gallop might be recognized by its heavier beats and poppier sound, but the lyrics and musicality are quintessential Platonos. There are songs about machines and dogs and the future ("I like the future. Write that down," she says with an authoritative nod of the head). She has an uncanny knack for writing about issues that are even more relevant today. In a song called "Rumanian Émigrés," she sings about a Romanian family who has moved into a building across from the fortress-like American Embassy. It is decidedly political, and as the song has matured in Greece at a forefront of the so-called migration crisis, it has taken on a new meaning:
"One afternoon the son of the Rumanian / Lost his chick / He knocked on all the doors / His eyes huge / As he sought it in vain / They looked to me like funnels / Where from within / Anyone could / Declare human rights / How I like / To hear the people / Climbing with the elevator / Speak Rumanian," she breathed in a sing-song voice back in 1985.
"It is impossible to listen to this song nowadays," Gourgouris writes, "without invoking it in the midst of Greece's fraught relationship with an immigrant culture and not contemplating the shift from the use of 'émigré'—a foreign word, as in Sabotage, that alienates the familiar signification by pervading it with its distance—to the colloquial regularity of the Greek word metanastis, which accentuates the by now all-too-familiar 'immigrant' whose foreignness produces no epiphany, no transformation."
Platonos doesn't shy away from the political, either in her lyrics or in the very composition of her music, which is marked by controlled restraint. "We are lost in the quantity," she says. "I'm a comrade of limitation. I believe that limiting is inventiveness. On the contrary, complete freedom kills you and absorbs you. What's important for me is the self-limitation, the absolute of control. That's not to be confused with restrictions imposed by the government!"
In 1986, Platonos released Lepidoptera, the final piece in her personal electronic trilogy. Considered one of her more delicate works, Gourgouris calls it "a sumptuous work about love." It's a sound that exudes feminism and sensuality, and yet, it doesn't permit the listener to view Platonos sexually. It's akin to watching a nude dancer on stage: this is art, not porn, and the emotional and physical response is completely different.
Throughout the late '80s, Platonos continued to perform, but she took a personal hiatus during the 1990s. In 1993, her father passed away, and she sold all her machines. She stayed out of public view until 1997, when she returned to the scene, performing love songs with her old friend Yannatou. In the 2000s, her style was marked by a jazz sound, until 2008, when she returned to electronic music with the release of Diaries. It's a rather ironic title—Platonos has kept diaries her whole life, but literally throws them into the trash when she's finished filling up the notebook.
"My stories—my lyrics—are all stories of my life," she explains.
While Platonos and other Greek artists have continued to make music, it's difficult to overstate the impact on the Greek electronic scene of repressings and compilations by Dark Entries and Into The Light Records. While Dark Entries reissued Platonos's 1980s trilogy and two remix packages featuring the likes of Avalon Emerson and Lena Willikens, Into The Light has focused on archival compilations from other Greek artists. The label has released music from George Theodorakis and Vangelis Katsoulis, with Katsoulis then releasing an album of new material on Utopia Records in 2017. Into The Light also issued a 17-track record of previously unheard work by Akis Daoutis—dreamy, minimal songs composed on a UPIC. Daoutis' original records now go for up to $400 on Discogs. The same goes for Dimitris Petsetakis, whose esoteric, concrete-influenced Endless LP was released in 2015.
"It was really weird that no one knew these artists... It's very interesting to me, to discover this stuff," explains Pitsios, who works full-time as an architect. "I have the feeling that if I don't do this, no one else will." New venues like Bios, Romantso and Six D.O.G.S, which all promote contemporary electronic artists while paying homage to the pioneers, have helped to lay the groundwork for a scene in Greece.
It's paying off. Platonos, Daoutis, Petsetakis and other Greek artists are slowly gaining the global recognition they deserve. For the past decade or so, Platonos has been regularly performing with artists like Stergios Tsirliagos, Ioannis Palamidas and Savinna. During a recent concert in Athens, she slowly climbed on stage with her band, to the loud applause of a packed venue. "Lena!" screamed a woman in the front row, wearing a tank top and waving an electronic cigarette. "We love you, Lena!" She looked too young to have even been born when "What's New Pussycat?"—the first song of the night—was released.
Platonos smiled and slowly scanned the audience with her blue eyes.
"Yasas, paidia," she said. Hello, kids.