Sam Chianis

Obituary of Sam Chianis

Dr. Sotirios (Sam) Chianis, 96, of Endwell, New York passed away peacefully on March 21st, 2022. Sam was born on October 1st, 1926, in Santa Barbara, California to his father John Chianis, and mother Kalliope Dimas, both Greek immigrants who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900's. From any early age, until well into his late 80's, Sam has followed two major life paths: Music and Education. As a young, first-generation Greek boy growing up in southern California, in an all-Greek speaking home, Sam and his three siblings would look forward to Sunday afternoons where many of the local Greek immigrants would gather in their father's backyard to share stories of the homeland, enjoy ethnic food and drink, and dance to traditional Greek music being played on a 78 rpm Victrola. Little did he know then, as a small child that his entire, near one-hundred-year long life, would be dedicated to the discovery, education, public awareness, and preservation of traditional Greek folk music. At age nine, he lost his mother who died unexpectedly. This tragic event left an indelible mark on Sam as a person and would forever shape his adult life. At age ten, he was playing the cimbalom (a traditional hammer dulcimer type string instrument played with mallets) for money at various events and functions. His father, a World War I veteran chose to never remarry and raised Sam, his brother, and two sisters alone in a modest home in Long Beach, California. Following his graduation from high school in 1944, Sam enlisted in the United States Army and was sent to the Philippine Islands to help defend our country. While assigned to the Corps of Engineers on several south pacific islands, he was exposed to different people and cultures, far different than what he found in southern California. This exposure to alternate ways of life, different languages, ethnicities, and culture would become an integral part of his future teaching and would play a vital role in his upcoming career and educational journey. Upon his discharge and return to civilian life after the war in July of 1947, Sam continued to play the cimbalom, the santouri (a smaller lap sized cimbalom) and the clarinet on a professional level while living in Long Beach, California. It was there while attending Long Beach State College that he met Margaret Ann Woodford who would become his first wife, mother of his three children and the source of strength he required for his successful professional career that lay ahead. The two were married in 1953 just after the completion of his Bachelor of Science degree in Music at Long Beach State College. This was the first college degree earned by anyone in his family to date. Following his BS degree in Music, Sam continued his education and completed his Master of Arts Degree in Music in 1954 also from Long Beach State College. He has always given credit to his wife Margaret for encouraging the continuation of his education and giving him the support he needed to succeed. Following the birth of their first child, John W. Chianis in August of 1954, and after a few of years of public-school teaching, Sam applied for, and was accepted, into the doctoral program at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1957. His focused concentration of study was in a new field called Ethnomusicology, or study of music around the world, with an emphasis on Greek Folk Music. As part of his doctoral program, he was required to conduct specialized and focused fieldwork on location in Greece. After cashing in his life insurance policy and withdrawing all of the funds from his teacher's retirement system, Sam had gathered enough money to be able to go to Greece for a full year from 1958 to 1959. Leaving his young family at home was a big decision for him, but his passion and drive for his profession outweighed his domestic responsibilities. His wife Margaret, also a teacher, kept the home fires burning and served as mother to a young child, the family breadwinner, and head of household. In November of 1961, Sam and Margaret welcomed their second son, Greg A. Chianis into the world. While teaching music at various schools over the next several years in southern California, Sam completed the requirements for his doctorate degree in 1967 and began his full-time teaching career on the east coast at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut where he served as a visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology. After completing his first year at Wesleyan, he was recruited by a fellow professor who was starting a new program at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York. It is here at The State University of New York at Binghamton, now called Binghamton University, that he left his greatest impact on the music and education world. Sam spent the next twenty-six years as a full tenured professor working in the music department, with the last ten years of his stay as the Music Department Chairman. While at Binghamton, he was invited to teach several semesters at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and at Colgate University in Colgate, New York. These assignments were as visiting professorships and were in addition to his full-time teaching load at Binghamton University. In August of 1971, Sam and Margaret Chianis had their last child, a daughter, Alexia A. Chianis. In 1979, after twenty-six years of marriage, Sam and Margaret Chianis divorced. Soon after the divorce Sam married Olga A. Carris, who remained his wife until her death in 2021. Following his retirement from Binghamton University in 1994, he was appointed Professor of Ethnomusicology, Emeritus, a position which he proudly held until his recent death. Throughout his career Sam has made an impact on the thousands of students he had the honor of teaching. From elementary aged kids to middle school students to doctoral candidates, he has left a lasting impression on each and every one of them. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he continued to make yearly trips to Greece conducting field recordings at various locations amassing an impressive collection of thousands of original reel-to-reel tapes. These unique and personal recordings of farmers, sheep herders, café and bar owners, patrons, and even housewives are priceless treasures that represent traditional Greek culture in its most raw and unfiltered form. Throughout his life, his mission was one of educating those around him about these treasures and making people aware of the diverse cultures that exist in our world. It was all about sharing his knowledge, and teaching people about how music played a critical role in their lives. No conversation with Sam about music, culture, or people of any land was simple, for him it was his life. His passion shined through in each and every conversation. For his efforts over the years, he has had several honors bestowed upon him by the Greek government, schools and universities, various Towns, Villages, and Islands in Greece where he had recorded, as well as multiple Greek and Greek American organizations. His musical education and awareness extended beyond the Greek borders and over the years he was personally responsible for the planning and execution of several major musical productions and performances here at home. For the American bi-centennial celebration of 1976, he was appointed by the Smithsonian Institution to be the United States representative to Greece. He personally recruited twenty-five Greek artists to come to America to perform in Washington, DC and in several major cities across America. In 1999 he was appointed by the president of Binghamton University to lead a program entitled Homage to Greece, a Celebration of Hellenic Culture which showcased Greek cultural riches from both ancient and contemporary Greece. He has held a variety of different offices in multiple scholastic organizations, committees, and professional societies over the duration of his career. As part of his determination for educating people, he has authored countless articles for nationally recognized magazines, journals and scholastic publications. He has been characterized by his peers as a world-renowned expert in the field of Traditional Greek Folk Music. In 1980 he was asked to author an entry entitled Neohellenic Folk Music for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the most prestigious music publication in the world. Perhaps his greatest and most personally meaningful literary achievement has been the publication of a series of books he began soon after his retirement. Each of these five published volumes are focused on a specific Town, Village, or Island in Greece that he had recorded in years before. Over a period of several years, he painstakingly transcribed the music and lyrics, note by note, and word by word, for hundreds of folk songs and complied them into each massive volume, forever preserving these magnificent jewels of Greek musical history. He also presented a summary of the cultural history of each location and the meaning behind each and every song. In addition to the musical notation, a compact disc (CD) was included in the book which provides the reader with an original digital audio copy of all of the songs. The release of these unique, one of a kind cultural resources is truly priceless. On several occasions, in the 1990's and into the early 2000's he traveled back to those same villages, towns and islands for the purpose of sharing this music with the sons and daughters or even grandchildren of those he had recorded years before. Many of these people had since passed away, but the gesture of sharing these recordings with a younger generation gave Sam immense pleasure as some of these people had never met their relatives, let alone heard their voices. Sam was also a prolific and exceptionally talented photographer who on many occasions, while on a field recording expedition, was able to capture his subjects on 35mm film, further preserving the cultural history. In addition to his teaching, field recording, literary work, lecturing and organizational participation, Sam never lost the desire to perform musically in front of people. Over the years, he formed several local Greek musical groups that would perform at Greek dances, church events, weddings, and various public venues. Many of these late-night events were compensated by way of food and drink. He and his band mates simply loved what they did, it wasn't about the money. His professional skills as a world-renowned cimbalom musician gave him a unique, and marketable sound unlike that of any other instrument. The deep resonating bass and fine tonal range of the cimbalom was sought after by various orchestras around the world. His concert and solo performances include repeat engagements with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Composers Forum Orchestra just to name a few. Musical directors in Hollywood also realized his uniqueness and called upon Sam to perform in over twelve full length feature film soundtracks including the distinctive soundtrack from the original Mission Impossible movie. He was featured on-screen in a few movies where he can be seen playing his instrument with a Greek band. He worked under all the major Hollywood movie studios including Universal, MGM, Columbia, Disney, and Paramount. In addition to his musical passion, Sam had great ability and skill with his hands and the talent to create things. He enjoyed woodworking, household construction projects and making his own musical instruments. Sam is survived by his three children; John W. Chianis of Vero Beach, Florida, Greg A. Chianis of Newark Valley, New York, and Alexia A. Chianis of Beaufort, North Carolina and grandchildren Christina, John, Madelyn, Adelai, and Trudy along with several great grandchildren. He is predeceased by his parents John Chianis and Kalliope (Dimas) Chianis, and by his first wife Margaret Ann Chianis and second wife Olga A. Chianis, his brother Andrew Chianis, and his two sisters Dena Chianis and Athena Traub. Sam remained healthy and active until very recently. His Greek stubbornness and desire for independence was in part what kept him alive. Eventually he gave in and welcomed the help that was offered by others. The Chianis family would like to formally thank Ms. Diane Miner, a neighbor and close family friend who over the last several years tirelessly assisted with his care and helped with daily chores, meal preparation, friendly conversation and companionship. Most recently and equally as important, is the professionalism, respect, and caring given to Sam by The United Methodist Homes Hilltop Campus staff and administration. Their diligent efforts during a major pandemic, as well as their constant communication, compassionate care, and love throughout his residency was second to none. Perhaps Sam's legacy and impact on those who knew him can be best summarized by a quotation from the ancient Greek leader Pericles … "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but is woven into the lives of others." In lieu of flowers or other donations the Chianis family has created a memorial fund to help support a deserving Ethnomusicology student at Binghamton University. Gifts in memory of Sam Chianis may be made directly to the Binghamton University Foundation Memorial Fund. Donations are accepted online at Please indicate "in memory of Sam Chianis, account number 10351," in the Special Instructions/Comments box. Checks should be made payable to the Binghamton University Foundation and mailed to: Binghamton University Foundation Post Office Box 6005 Binghamton, New York 13902-6005 Please indicate "in memory of Sam Chianis, account number 10351" in the memo section of the check.
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