Name: Konstantia Gourzi
Occupation: Composer, conductor
Current release: Konstantia Gourzi's Anájikon is available from ECM.
Recommendations: The ancient Greek sculpture “Nike of Samothrace” in the Louvre in Paris, and the “Cologne Concert” by Keith Jarrett.
If you enjoyed this interview with Konstantia Gourzi, visit her personal website for further information, up to date news and more music.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started piano lessons at the age of 7. A few months later, I wrote songs for my mother. I didn't know what composing was, I just thought it was part of making music … so, I did it.
A few years later, when I started studying at the Athens Conservatory, one thing led to another. In Greece, we study music in a specific order: firstly theory, then harmony, then counterpoint, then composition. I had an inner need to compose.
I heard old and new traditional songs, and I started to listen to the sea and all the sounds produced by silence. This became a great passion for me. I still love these moments very strongly today. With the passage of time, I felt the energy and the plasticity of the music more and more. Music is like a sculpture for me, which I can shape in different forms. This process fascinates me every day.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist, and the emergence of your own voice?
During my studies in Athens and Berlin, I tried to follow everything my teachers told me, even if my own impression was different. I also suppressed my Greek cultural roots. But I became increasingly dissatisfied with following the musical rules set by my teachers.
During my studies in Berlin for example, writing melodies was effectively forbidden! I whistled melodies a lot, but I was not allowed to write them down. At some point, I started to keep them in a notebook as a kind of diary, and only much later did I use them in my compositions. This was a rather compulsive process for me. Later, I also began incorporating Byzantine elements into my compositions, and felt like I was blossoming again inside. I became more and more curious about bringing together my musical roots with what I was learning technically.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
The first step was a conscious recognition of my musical and cultural roots. Ever since, I have seen how important it is to accept your identity to express yourself authentically.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning, and how have they changed over time?
My first challenge as a conductor was to learn a score in such detail, and also to study the composer and the context of the piece. I always seek an overall picture of the composer. I believe that a piece of music is the expression of many impressions, not just one. Up until now, this attitude to a new composition by another composer remains unchanged.
Time is rarely discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time, and what role it plays in your work?
I believe that the duration of a piece is a very important dramaturgical aspect - also in contemporary music. There are pieces that are very interesting at their start, but because of their duration, the listener starts to lose concentration and get bored. There are also pieces that are not so interesting at the start but, being short, nonetheless make a positive impression.
Spending exactly the right amount of time expressing anything, also in music, is generally a difficult and challenging process.
What is your view of the relationship between the sonic aspects of music and its compositional aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to evoke particular ideas, and in which way can certain sounds take on compositional qualities?
Composing also means combining to me. The tones are not the only ingredients of a composition. The question is how much of all the possible choices you use to create the character of a composition.
I am open and very curious when it comes to combining different musical elements and directions. I feel it is important and a good challenge to follow my own initial idea, but to always remain open to modifying it if I recognise that it is necessary.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach, and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
All artists have a similar basis: the necessity for their inner expression. That is why I do not see the visual arts as being separate from music or poetry or architecture. I am often influenced by these other arts. I find this exchange and connection very important.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have to have a fixed work schedule, but it varies depending on the work I have to do. Sometimes I need to be alone for a longer period to compose or to learn a score, but generally I don't separate my personal life from my profession. Music influences and inspires me throughout my daily life.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Every composition - or a concert - is very special and means a lot to me. How the public or the media judge a piece is a different story and is not very closely related to the significance of the piece for me.
The question also is: what does “breakthrough” really mean? It sounds a bit like a category from the past, or a cliché. I cannot say that something like a ‘breakthrough’ happened to me in relation to a single work of mine or one specific concert/performance. As with my work in general, I see it rather as a process of a lot intense moments …
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
There is an individually ideal state of mind, but it is fluid and you cannot hold it permanently. You can only practise, so that you can retrieve it. Meditation, prayer, silence and a disciplined daily routine helps to achieve this state of concentration again and again.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music is on the one hand audible through the ears but it is also a physical experience for other senses, and the body as a whole. The cells of the body receive the vibrations of the music. If one is sensitive to it, one can often feel the music more intensely and clearly.
To listen to music which you don’t like is not healthy. Nowadays, when I hear music that does not do me any good, I turn it off or leave the concert.
Music can open us by helping us to come closer to ourselves and to listen to our inner voices. This process could heal us.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
If someone is not aware of his own roots and needs of expression, there is a danger of losing himself. It leads to searching for a new costume to wear, for reassurance. I find it tragic that we human beings increasingly copy others, as if seeking a replacement identity for ourselves.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
To perceive different senses at the same time needs continuous practise. Normally the senses are perceived individually. In a conscious and relaxed state of now, we can feel multiple senses and explore the conjunctions of the brain a little more.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I observe social and historical aspects more and more. When I become more aware of what is going on in society at the moment, I let myself and my work be influenced by it. I also teach social sensitivity to my students, and show them that the interpretation of a composition is a personal matter. Contemporary music is a mirror of now. Music in general is a mirror of its time.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Through music I can feel the timeless, the infinite, the continuity of the universe. Life is the continuation of death, and death is the continuation of life. Every detail fits into the whole. Music can express this.