In 1988 Calliope Tsoupaki (1963) came from Greece to the Netherlands to study composition with Louis Andriessen. Exactly 30 years later she was appointed ‘Componist des Vaderlands’ (Composer Laureate). In this capacity she has already composed a number of highly topical pieces. When Notre Dame de Paris went up in flames on 15 April, Tsoupaki immediately took to her composer’s desk. Five days later Jan Hage played the world premiere of Pour Notre Dame on the organ of the Dom in Utrecht. This year she is festival composer at November Music. She will compose its traditional Bosch Requiem, which will be premiered on All Souls’ Day.
Over the past three decades Tsoupaki has become one of the most important composers in the Netherlands. Unlike other students of Louis Andriessen, she did not embrace his percussive style, based on contrasting blocks of music, which became known as the ‘Haagse School’. Instead of moulding her compositions from an amalgam of minimalism, jazz, popular music and modern-classical. Tsoupaki seeks inspiration from her personal background, weaving her own style out of the musical traditions of Greece and the Middle East, as well as early and new European music. Her work has an almost archaic, timeless beauty.
Death as a threshold
Nor does Tsoupaki deny her Greek roots in the choice of het subject matter. Already in 1993 she composed the successful Orphic Fields, later followed by successful oratorios such as St. Luke Passion, Maria and Oedípus. Last October Salto di Saffo for pan flute, recorder and orchestra was premiered in the NTRZaterdagMatinee. This double concerto was directly inspired by her own life. When she came to the Netherlands in 1988, her boat sailed past the place where the famous poet allegedly jumped off the rocks. – Just as Tsoupaki plunged into deep waters by exchanging her fatherland for an unknown environment.
For the Bosch Requiem she again drew on her Greek background. ‘I did not want to make a lament in the tradition of the Latin Requiem Mass’ she explains. ‘That presents death as something irrevocable, but for me it is more like a threshold, a transition into the unknown. That’s why I chose the title Liknon, which means something like “cradle”. It’s a beautiful symbol of the elusive position between life and death.’
Two icons were leading when composing, says Tsoupaki enthusiastically. ‘Last summer I visited the Greek island of Kythira. There I saw the icon Panagia Myrtidiotissa, where the face of Mary has completely faded into a black spot. According to myth, this image was found in burning myrtle bushes, hence its name, Madonna of the Myrtle. I find it very moving, as if hundreds of years of veneration for Mary have been concentrated in that black face. It has fathomless depth, you can suspect so much behind it and project your own thoughts, hopes and fears on it. For me, it symbolizes beauty in the darkness.’
She was also inspired by an icon of Theofanis from 1392 about the Ascension of Mary. ‘Maria is lying on her deathbed, surrounded by the 12 apostles and her son Jesus. He towers high above her, cradling his mother as a baby on his hand. This completes the circle: life and death are actually one, a comforting thought.’
Tsoupaki is perhaps moved even stronger by the icon of El Greco from the sixteenth century. ‘This has a gripping expression of feeling, which actually runs counter to the tradition of icons as neutral objects of faith. But it fits wonderfully well with the Marian songs of the Cretan monk Agapios Landos (1580-1656), from which I have used verses. In my composition I also veer between objectivity and passion. It is a musical prayer to Mother Mary in times of doubt and need.’
She wrote Liknon for the tenor Marcel Beekman, the countertenor Maarten Engeltjes and his baroque ensemble PRJCT Amsterdam. I deliberately chose two high voices, because of their angelic appearance. What’s more, a countertenor is elusiveness incarnate: a rarefied voice that transports you to higher spheres; it balances on a threshold. That fits in exactly with what I want to express with my piece. In the instrumental accompaniment I have tried to capture that hesitation as well, this continuous moving back and forth.
Liknon is not the only piece of Tsoupaki’s to be performed in November Music. On November 3 a new version of Narcissus will be performed. She composed it in 2013, fulfilling a commission from the festival. ‘It’s about the youngster who falls in love with his own reflection in the water and eventually dies from it. A flower with an intoxicating scent sprang up on the spot. I designed the five-tone Narcissus-chord that is counterpointed by a five-layer scent chord by Tania Deurloo. Together they carry the whole composition.’ In the original version violin and piano – the two ‘lovers’ – were accompanied by alter egos, now they operate purely as a duo.
Still waiting completion are new solo pieces for trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and recorder player Erik Bosgraaf. And, last but not least, Tsoupaki composes a new ritual choral work that will ‘launch’ her Bosch Requiem. This will be sung in the open air by choirs from Den Bosch, visitors of the festival and everyone present on the square in front of Concert Hall Parade.
Tsoupaki: ‘I hope we will all glide into another world together. – And, of course, return.’
November Music, 1-10 November, Den Bosch
More information: https://novembermusic.net/