A biographical essay

Longing for sonic co-existence

Konstantia Gourzi builds bridges between cultures and epochs, across time and space. This may be as a composer, where she finds her voice in bringing things together that seem to have nothing in common. It may be as a conductor and teacher, where she constructs a new world of equal opportunities, between male and female, the strange and the familiar.

A Greek now living in Germany, Konstantia Gourzi was born in Athens in 1962. She knows that finding artistic authenticity is no easier today than it was in earlier times. We certainly live in an age that offers composers unlimited research possibilities, and the most diverse geographical and temporal influences. The more different stimuli affecting a person and the more they have to process, the greater the challenge in finding a clear, individual artistic voice.

Of course, in Konstantia Gourzi’s case, her specific cultural constellation plays a major role. On the one hand she has her Greek roots, which are inseparable from the early Christian Byzantine traditions, and the influence of oriental musical cultures on Southern Europe. On the other hand, she is also immersed in the western world, with its polyphonic canon, and the international avant-garde – based on modern instrumental development, and research into sound, noise and structure. Konstantia Gourzi’s creativity stems from here.

Experiences on the way up

It was a lucky stroke of fate that at thirteen, Konstantia Gourzi became a student of Michael Travlos in Athens. He was a former student of Isang Yun. Throughout his life, Yun had tried to realise the ancient traditions of his Korean homeland with contemporary impulses. Archaic roots interacted with a revolutionary search for and exploration of new stylistic methods – this could also be a motto for Konstantia Gourzi’s own work, and it was a driving force behind her own search for her creative identity.

In 1987 she moved to Berlin, and “learnt how I did not want to compose, in Franz Martin Olbrich’s composition class”. She had to fall back on her own resources. Darmstadt’s rich musical life had much more to offer. A course there, with Diether de la Motte, gave her room to breathe and fresh hope. Immersing herself in György Kurtág’s vibrant miniature cosmos opened up new perspectives.

At the same time, she studied conducting in Berlin. Her conservatoire course (with Hans Martin Rabenstein) was also a sobering experience. For four years, she attended almost every rehearsal of the Berlin Philharmonic, and amassed formative experiences about music-making of the highest level. Above all Claudio Abbado, whom she assisted, showed her “how new music can breathe”. Günter Wand was also a powerful inspiration, as much in the experience of Anton Bruckner’s symphonic writing, as in the maxim “that conducting contemporary music is a victory for the understanding of traditional music.” Her ideal was Carlos Kleiber, conducting opera.

Conductor and teacher

Konstantia Gourzi embodies what is today a rather unusual combination of composer, conductor and teacher. Teaching requires all her rational capabilities: as a forward-thinking and judicious organiser, a results-orientated worker and an empathetic communicator. She understands what it is to continually follow many paths, to carry out and develop creative ideas step by step, to give her ensembles a clear identity, and through the quality of her work to earn the respect of her students, colleagues, the general public, cultural sponsors, concert organisers and press.
While she was still in Berlin, she founded the “attacca berlin” ensemble, and the “Zeitzonen” international concert series. She also led the “Echo” ensemble from 1999 – 2007. In 2002, Konstantia Gourzi was appointed professor at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich. Ever since, she has worked in all her diversity, with her characteristically energetic suppleness. She soon became one of the central pillars of the new music scene in the Bavarian capital. Her first big project in Munich was the founding of the “ensemble oktopus” for modern music. It is made up of students, and she continues to direct it. It is not possible to imagine cultural life in Munich without this ensemble any more, with its stylistic flexibility and her interpretative standards. Those who have heard it – as in the masterful performance of Claude Viviers chamber opera “Copernicus” – will confirm it.
In connection with this continuous work, she also gives the conducting students a feel for contemporary music in all its facets. She helps them to develop an authentic relationship with the new and the unexpected, and she is a consistent mentor to all young musicians who prove themselves to be genuinely interested. In 2007 she founded the “Network and Ensemble opus21musikplus”, in which contemporary music enters into a symbiotic relationship with other art forms and musical directions. As a conductor, who is not afraid of any challenge and who, with her long experience, has the precise and brilliant technical capacity for exceptional performances, Konstantia Gourzi has long been as internationally present as she is as a composer. This manifested itself symbolically in her double appearance at the Lucerne Festival, when she conducted a new commission with the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra.

Konstantia Gourzi, the composer

As a composer, Konstantia Gourzi explores musical and sonic phenomena in her inexhaustible and constantly expanding range. Above all, she is interested in the intuitive, irrational parts of the human psyche. Her music is never purely intellectual or conceptual; her experiments are always based on a musically-experienced core. That means that feeling always plays a vital role in her creative processes. In her music, she seeks to go beyond the limits of the rational, the definable, to let the music take its own shape from the forces within herself – where the distinction between fixed contours and improvisatory freedom is transcended.

This can give the impression that the new – which comes first – has simultaneously always been there; that the current and the timeless melt into each other. Pieces like “Vibrato 2” for string quartet and piano conjure up dreamy, magical arenas, with other-worldly rituals. This other world appears like an undercurrent to our familiar world, which exists at the same time. It helps reality to appear to us in a different light, and subtly helps us out of our conditioned preconceptions.

Konstantia Gourzi describes her compositional motivation as coming from “a power, which is stronger than my consciousness and which pushes me again and again to combine my Greek roots with Western influences. It is like a secret, something kept protected, that wants to be expressed. This also ‘forces’ me to look for a connective line between yesterday and today. Our roots – also our musical ones – are part of ourselves. And when we become conscious of some of them, then we can discover more and more of them. It is like becoming something that consists of many parts together, without asking anything to change. I make my contribution in that I bring sounds and ideas from different religions and cultures, and longingly let one of the previous-seeming opposites take shape in a transcendent, sonic co-existence.”

At the same time, Konstantia Gourzi sees it as the task of today’s composers “to win and project authenticity and freedom, to discover their inner voice, to unfold and follow their true selves, and to make musical connections that have not been realised before.” For people, music should be “a richness of feelings, hope, an expansion of thought, an awakening of the consciousness, fantasy, relief, life and love”. How that concretely manifests itself is always impossible to predict, for “always, when I begin a new composition, I question everything and put all my experience to one side. The dramaturgy of each new composition comes during this process. It comes by itself, and I am lucky to be present at the birth.”

Christoph Schlüren, December 2016