“What do you mean in the volcano?” I asked. “All the musicians will be performing inside the crater for over ten hours!” a friend said while explaining to me an upcoming musical event taking place on Nisyros, one of Greece’s overlooked and most remote islands.
The concept: an ambitious event inside Nisyros’ active volcanic crater involving 15 musicians improvising together under the August full moon for over ten hours. Titled 634 Minutes Inside a Volcano (a name which is equally ambiguous as it is self-explanatory), it was organized by Onassis Cultural Centre and the multi-disciplinary project space six d.o.g.s in Athens.
An open invitation to set foot inside one the world’s largest active craters set to an experimental soundtrack was not to be missed. Free of charge, all that was required was getting there. But with limited thoroughfares to the island, it’s not as easy as it sounds. One of the only and easiest departure points to small and remote isle is via Kos, its neighboring mother island. Mandraki, the port and main village of Nisyros, is where you will find yourself once you reach the island via ferry. It is a likely Greek village scenario: pebbled narrow streets, tavernas, and a jumble of homes built on layers of 20,000 year old lava. It’s also where you can find some much needed transport, and it’s hard to beat a moped scooter as a better companion to traipse any Greek island.
Over the years getting around Nisyros has improved a great deal due to the increasing popularity of the island. This means there is now a road-worthy path down to Avlaki, a long disused port and lesser known swimming spot with crystal clear waters. Part of its appeal is the trip down, which is a lengthy, sloping ride along a rugged zig-zag path dotted with goats and caves. But first, you must make your way up through the mountains rugged mountainous terrain contrasted with surprisingly abundant green vegetation, due to the nutrient rich soil throughout the island. As you ascend higher and higher there are several clearings where you are greeted with a panoramic view of the crater. Here we stopped to slowly absorb the vastness of the setting and watch the musicians and organisers in the crater preparing for the musical marathon ahead.
However, don’t expect to be greeted by sunbeds and vendors offering cold beverages at the end. All that remains of the port is a very small harbor flanked by several large houses in ruin creating a cinematic castaway setting.
The event was due to start at sunset at precisely 7:58 p.m., and to conclude 634 minutes later at sunrise at 6:32 a.m. the morning after. With a day of exploring behind us, the sun began to slowly sink, giving way to the rising moon signalling the beginning of the performance.
Perched high above the crater’s edge sits Nikia, a quaint village with a small cluster of beautiful old homes, a couple of tavernas and an unbeatable view of the crater. It’s here we watched the opening proceedings that had already begun unfolding below. Sitting in relative stillness overlooking the performance, it was impossible not to be spellbound by the vast volcanic setting and the faint experimental sounds rising out of the crater. With the performance well underway and the population of the island seeping into the crater, we mounted our scooters to make our way to the closest you can get to the centre of the earth.
“The result sounding like an experimental jam session between Brian Eno, Sun Ra, and Nicolas Jaar.”
Roughly 2,000 people had assembled throughout the event, and as we approached the site, there was an expected buzz of excitement. Passing through the festive groups gathered drinking and eating, we made our way down the path that leads into the crater. Before trekking down, we were advised by staff not to stay down for more than an hour at a time due to the sulphuric fumes (which were unbelievably pungent at times). The same rule applied to the musicians, who were free to come and go throughout the performance depending on their stamina.
Touching down on the crater floor, we slowly approached the musicians who were assembled together in a wide circle; the 300 meter wide crater acting as a natural amphitheater and the moon as their conductor. Most of the 15 chosen musicians had only met one another for the first time during soundcheck, a day before the event. Despite this, throughout the performance they seamlessly melded drums, flute, synthesisers, sample loops, and echoing vocals amongst more obscure instruments such as the Oud and Kanun. The result sounding like an experimental jam session between Brian Eno, Sun Ra, and Nicolas Jaar.
“One of the only words to succinctly summarize the experience would be: otherworldly.”
The crowd added to the experience, each one respectful of the magical setting by talking in whispers and solemnly appreciating what was going on around them. In a dream-like state, some walked slowly around the crater in the stark moonlight, their shadows eerily draping behind them. Others moving from musician to musician curiously watching them composing unique sounds. And a number gathered in the very centre of the circle, lying on blankets and sitting in a musical trance in the midst of what looked like post-apocalyptic scenery.
One of the only words to succinctly summarize the experience would be, otherworldly. Once inside the very core of the island bathed in the cosmic-sounding experimental music, you couldn’t help but feel like you had left earth and arrived on an unknown planet. A planet where the moon acts as the sun and time is slowed to the pace of the music. The only hard part about the experience was returning back to earth.