'Energising minds and souls': A conversation with Aspasia Nasopoulou
Could you introduce yourself briefly to our readers?
I was born in Athens in 1972 and have been living and working in Amsterdam since 2002. I studied piano at the Piraeus Conservatoire and composition at the ‘Nikos Skalkottas’ Conservatoire in Athens with Michael Travlos. I also hold a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology from Athens University.
In 2005, I completed my master studies in Composition at the Amsterdam Conservatoire with Wim Henderickx, specialising in the combination of contemporary music and dance.
I could say that the strong foundation provided by my classical background gives my music a certain organic expressiveness which often comes out as gentle contemporary lyricism. I find it very interesting to research sound and I often try to evoke intimacy by using unusual combinations of instruments, for example in Three Love Haikus (2010) for percussion and cello and in Five single breaths (2013) for accordion and Japanese shô.
There have been two important milestones in my composition career. In 2012, I received an Incentive Prize from the Dutch Music Centre (Muziekcentrum Nederland) and Donemus for the piece Lelia Doura, based on a Galician cantiga d’amigo and written for recorder quintet Seldom Sene. In 2014, I received the Jury and the Audience awards of the ‘Tristan Keuris Componisten Concours’ with the piece Nanourisma for piano, flute and bassoon.
Besides my activities as a composer, I am an active piano teacher at the British School of Amsterdam. I also run the Composer’s Treat programme at the buitenwerkplaats in Amsterdam. Every year we invite a professional composer from abroad for a week residency and we bring them in contact with a local artist to collaborate.
I’m very happy to have met and worked with great musicians and ensembles from all over Europe, the USA and Japan, such as the DoelenKwartet, Seldom Sene, Anna Veismane, Concord Ensemble, Naomi Sato, Alma Mahler Symphonieta, Trygve Broske, Sava Stojanov, Konstantinos Raptis, Duo Macle and the Greek Modern Ensemble.
How would you describe your approach to composition? What drives you to write new music and what are your main sources of inspiration?
Having been trained as a pianist as well, I find that composing and working with musicians is a fascinating process which combines two extreme situations: a state of absolute isolation and concentration during the writing period and a very communicative and exciting exchange of energy and ideas when you work with the musicians.
The idea of creating something that energises the mind and soul of others intrigues me enormously and gives me motivation to continue making music. My sources of inspiration cannot be defined in a few sentences – they are all my surroundings; the things I see, hear and feel; the people I meet; the texts I’m reading…
When an ensemble asks me to compose a piece, I always get inspiration and ideas from the instruments and the musicians themselves. Besides, there is often a nice link to something I have read that brings me extra inspiration and which is suitable for the piece.
For example, in the piece Eternal light, commissioned by the Greek Modern Ensemble I had to quote Mozart…not such an easy task. I decided to use a fragment from Lux Æterna and came to an idea: if Dante would have been a contemporary of Mozart, they would have ‘collaborated’ for sure! So, I thought that the last part of Paradiso by Dante would fit perfectly as a libretto.
It can also work the other way around, when the text is so strong that it provides the flame for the initiation of a project. This happened with a series of Cantigas d’amigo - Galician poetry from the 13th century - that resulted in a series of studies for two and three recorders besides the quintet Lelia Doura which has been performed more than 35 times in the last four years.
Can you describe some of the creative processes by which you work with performers?
Every collaboration is different but the common procedure, especially when I have a new instrument ‘on board’ that I have to discover, is that we have some sessions with the musician(s) beforehand to check all technical possibilities and also to try out my first ideas with them.
Often, if the composition is for a very unconventional combination of instruments, I hold a second session later, when the piece is almost ready and I can see how it works. When I write solo music, the collaboration is even closer. A good example of a close collaboration to achieve the desired sounds and effects is Carousel of Fantasies (2016), written for the Italian saxophonist Roberto Genova. This is the last piece of a cycle for solo instruments inspired by Italo Calvino’s book Invisible cities.
Generally, I’m very precise during rehearsals. At the same time, if something doesn’t work I’m ready to find an alternative. I’m happy and lucky that in my 20 years working in composition I have had no need to make changes on a big scale.
Do you also collaborate with artists active in other fields - visual arts, poetry, theatre...?
In all my works, even those with no extra-musical elements, an internal theatricality is present. This is because in my compositional thought there is a hidden narrative logic, even in the most abstract pieces.
When I have used dance, décor, videos or costumes, all those elements were in my compositional plan already from the start. They influenced the music and got influenced by it. For example, the musicians from ÆroDynamic had to follow movement patterns in HemiAeroPartitura. These patterns were derived from the musical material and influenced the design of the costumes we had made.
The same applies to collaborations with writers, poets or theatre directors. I try to create a good basis and enough parameters so that everybody can contribute with their expertise in order to create a complete ‘image’ together, rather than an unbalanced collage.
In short: I love to collaborate with other artists to create a performance with unity. I never use something extra just for decoration. The most recent example is Ten Dipoles, written for Seldom Sene and Ten Free Aerophones – a moving garden of unstable instruments modeled by Horst Rickels and Ernst Dullemond.
Poetry is intimately linked to your music - could you tell us a bit more about the way you connect music and words?
My fascination for poetry was present from the beginning of my involvement with composition. Very often I ‘discover’ the rhythmical and melodic elements of my pieces by researching the form and meaning of texts. This method characterises most of my pieces from the last years.
I have used text in various ways. Sometimes I write ‘songs’ with a combination of singing, speaking and narrating, for instance in Ballad I on poetry by Christine de Pizan, Spirits of the dead on texts by Edgar Allan Poe or Rodia=SO4H2 on a poem by Nikos Egonopoulos.
Another possibility is reflecting the meaning of the text in the musical texture and colours. The text, as words, is not there anymore. I did this in The cloths of heaven on Yeat’s poetry, Deseo on poems by Federico García Lorca and New kite on a Japanese haiku.
Other times I do experiments with musicians who are also the actors/narrators themselves. For example Why?, based on Shakespeare sonnet no. 76, is written for a solo harpist who sings and speaks too. Sophia is a composition for organ, soprano and violin – the latter is also the narrator.
Often the meaning of the text is translated into music in combination with an image, like in Three Love Haikus and HemiAeroPartitura. In my recent works, I have been focusing on the use of form and content of various texts as a result for the structure of my music. Representative of this technique are Nachtwerk for string quartet and narrator on seven poems by Micha Hamel and the studies for recorder consort Inamorata, Vigo, If you love me and Lelia Doura.
Some of your works are based on texts by female poets, from Sappho to Comtessa de Dia or Christine de Pizan. What do they mean to you?
By reaching into the past - not only within poetry by female poets - I somehow discover more and more meanings and connections with the present. However, all female poets whose poetry I have worked on so far seem to be connected by a common future. Their poetry is clear and strong. If you consider the times in which they were trying to make art and to be taken seriously, the artistic value is even greater. Although the position of women in our society is changing, the voices of female artists are still not heard enough. Therefore, I find it important to create pieces in which female artists are involved. This does not mean excluding men or competing with them - rather giving women space to be themselves and to unfold their qualities.
Which musicians - composers or performers - have influenced you the most?
I have received great inspiration from the life and work of Nikos Skalkottas and equally from Iannis Xenakis’s thoughts and archetypal musical power. I have a great affinity with much of Isang Yun’s work and delving deep into Bach’s work for several years has certainly helped to structure my compositional mind.
You have written many works for or including recorder - do you have a special relationship with this instrument?
My teacher Wim Henderickx once told me: ‘Aspasia, I think you have found a connection with your “ancient” roots in the sound of the recorder’, and I am inclined to agree with this! Recorders and their various combinations can be very unexpected if you are daring. After a long collaboration with recorder players such as María Martínez Ayerza, Stephanie Brandt and Hester Groenleer, I can tell that we have gained trust and space to go very far in experimentation. I have to thank them for their dedication and hard work; a fugue with harmonics on five voice flutes (baroque tenor recorders in D) is not something that many will dare to perform!
Could you tell us a bit about your future projects?
We are currently preparing the opening of the 48th Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, where we will present my cycle of ten songs Ven Salta, based on modern poetry written by female poets from Mediterranean countries. We are also touring with Seldom Sene presenting Ten Dipoles at various Dutch museums and concert halls.
Regarding new compositions, I’m working on a series of six miniatures for historical keyboard instruments - fortepiano, clavichord and square piano - inspired by six Rubaiyat poems by Omar Khayyam for Michael Tsalka. Later this year I will write three pieces for solo piano for Ralph van Raat. In the meantime, I am working on a music theatre piece about Trojan women together with theatre director Christiaan Mooij, which is planned for 2019.
Do you feel there are equal opportunities for female composers nowadays?
We certainly are in a better position than years ago. A nice example is that at this moment the National Composer of the Netherlands (Componist des Vaderlands) is a female composer, Mayke Nas. There are many active women composers and many platforms like the aforementioned Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam which trust and provide a stage for female artists at all levels. Still, if you look at the numbers, the composition scene is dominated by men. This means that in the first steps and layers of the music world, women and men are quite equal, but when we go to the higher levels it seems that men are getting more attention and opportunities… But we go on!