“Vulnerability is something that is inherently in my work, because of the way I write. I very often think about my own feelings and experiences. When I want to arrive to some kind of material, I think about how something felt, or an experience I had — to get something in my head that feels real to me.”Athanasia Kontou
Athanasia Kontou is a composer and pianist from Greece, currently based in Vienna, Austria. Athanasia’s work concerns autoethnography and personal emotional vulnerability in the compositional process. She is a 2023 Ivor Novello Award nominee for her monodrama ‘Antigone: pure in her crime’, and was the 2019 winner of the Rushworth Composition Prize with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; she was been commissioned by and worked with ensembles such as Psappha, Ensemble 10/10, ensemble recherche, Trio Estatico, BBC Singers, and Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, among others. Having studied at the Royal Northern College of Music with Adam Gorb, David Horne, and Laura Bowler, she is now pursuing her doctorate at Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien (mdw) in Vienna, supervised by Clara Iannotta and Johannes Krenz.
Ahead of this year’s Ivors Classical Awards, we spoke with Athanasia about her Ivors-nominated work ‘Antigone: pure in her crime’, Greek literature, channeling emotional vulnerability, autoethnographic composition, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Athanasia! Thanks so much for joining me today. Tell me a bit about your musical background — how did you first get involved with composition?
Athanasia Kontou: I started composing when I was 19. I took private lessons in my hometown [in Greece]. My composition teacher was someone who studied in the UK for many years — a really good pianist and composer — and I started having private lessons. I was learning piano since I was 8, and then this teacher of mine — who was initially teaching me [the] history of music, and who was a composer himself — said “have you ever considered writing music?” That’s how I started taking lessons from him, and it completely clicked immediately.
What spurred your move from Greece to the UK — was it an artistic decision, a personal one, a mixture of both?
I knew I wanted to leave Greece, and I wanted to study composition somewhere abroad. I was considering the Netherlands, Belgium, and the UK. My teacher was in RNCM [Royal Northern College of Music] years ago, for composition; so I applied there. I also applied [to] the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in Glasgow. I got places at both, but I chose Manchester. He was absolutely right; it was a really special place, and I had a really good time studying there.
My Bachelors is actually in Computer Science — I studied that in Greece, and at the same time, I was doing piano and composition privately. It was a bit manic… -laughs- I was basically doing two degrees at the same time — I was doing computer science and all of my music stuff in full swing. But I knew I didn’t want to do anything with computer science; I knew that from the get-go. I did a Masters straight away in composition [at the RNCM] — and then I did [a] postgraduate diploma [there]. For me, [it was great] to spend one more year in college, benefitting from everything that comes with that.
Tell me about the music scene in Manchester and at the RNCM — how have you felt it’s shaped your craft and your artistic practice?
It was a wonderful environment. It’s pretty open [and] diverse, in terms of aesthetics. Everyone in the department did something slightly different. There were people there that were doing traditional, tonal choral music, and there were people doing more experimental things, [or] towards media composition. And everything in between.
For me, especially in the beginning, it was a shock, because I didn’t have formal compositional education; I was taking private lessons from one person in my hometown, and the community was just me and my teacher. -laughs- There was no polyphony of aesthetics, of opinions, approaches to music. So in the beginning, it was shocking — maybe overwhelming — but very quickly, to a much more exciting, nourishing, and constructive sense.
RNCM is a very friendly place; very easy to meet people, and work with people. It was easy to find performers to play your music. The department itself gives you really good opportunities. We did a workshop with the BBC Singers, with Psappha; there was an orchestral opportunity called Brand New Orchestra, it’s got three concerts per year. For me, it was the perfect environment; it was the extreme opposite of the reclusive, lonely environment I was coming from. I had loads of different musicians and instrumentalists around me; I had lots of opportunities to hone my craft, get performances, and get professional experience. It was where I really feel I trained as a composer.
Some of your recent works have taken inspiration and influence from Greek literature; is that a conscious decision on your part?
I guess there [are] a couple of pieces, now that I think about it! I never thought that I consciously do it. I guess you mean ‘After Psappha’ — that was one of the [projects] that was through RNCM. We had the opportunity to write for Psappha Ensemble, and I thought “why are they called Psappha?” There’s a piece by Iannis Xenakis called ‘Psappha’; and then I thought maybe I’d do something with Psappha — or Sappho.
Both of my parents have studied classics, and are classics teachers. So anything with Ancient and Modern Greek literature — that’s kind of what their library consists of. All these books are just lying around in their house. So I just got the Sappho book, that had her poetry; which is really, really gorgeous, but it only survives in fragments. That’s how that came about.
And on that same subject is your incredible monodrama ‘Antigone: pure in her crime’, which has just been nominated for an Ivor Novello…
Yes! That was part of the Christopher Brooks Composition Prize [ed. now the Rushworth Composition Prize] — I won that in 2019, [and] that came with a commission for Ensemble 10/10 of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Initially, the piece was going to be a companion to Britten’s Phaedra — one of his latest pieces. My piece ‘Antigone: pure in her crime’ and Phaedra have exactly the same instrumentation — mezzo and chamber orchestra. The RLPO wanted [the piece] to have something to do with ancient Greece. I immediately thought of Antigone by Sophocles. It’s a play that I know, because we studied it in school. I was always really drawn to Antigone; I can’t say this at all for other things I studied in school, [like] Homer, the Odyssey, the Iliad. I don’t think anything from Ancient Greek literature spoke to me quite as much as Antigone.
I’m really grateful to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for getting behind this — the bold decision [for me] was that the piece would be in Ancient Greek. The text is from the original Greek — snippets directly taken from the Sophocles original.
What is it about the Antigone story that stood out to you — and how did you approach adapting the story for the monodrama?
I was really drawn to Antigone because she’s a young woman who directly defies the king’s orders, in order to do what she thinks is morally right. She’s incredibly brave, incredibly courageous. Even for now, it’s bold, but imagine two and a half thousand years earlier — the main character being a young woman who goes over the king’s head, basically. It’s an extremely feminist character, but at the same time, she’s not in it for the “power”; she’s not doing it for the pursuit for [power]. She’s coming from a place of hurt; she has lost both of her brothers. She just does it because she loves her brother, she wants to honour him. Her character is this really beautiful combination of strength, vulnerability, and love.
If you try to empathise with this character: she’s a young woman [who] has lost most of her family at that point — and she still finds the strength to do something extremely bold, that she knows will cost her own life. There’s so much in there.
Tell me about the decision to set the original Ancient Greek text — how did you go about scoring the piece in Ancient Greek, and is setting in Greek something you’ve done much of before?
I really wanted to use the Ancient Greek because it’s such a well-written text! It’s some of the best of Ancient Greek literature. The words are so perfectly put together; with any translation, I think it would really use some of that power. I’m fortunate and privileged enough to be able to understand the original — so I don’t want to lose that for me, because then I could translate it into music that is hopefully equally [as] powerful.
The thing with Ancient Greek is, we don’t know exactly what it sounded like — we don’t know exactly what people back then would sound like. There is some speculation; there’s the so-called Erasmian accent of how they might have sounded. But I didn’t use this accent. So sound-wise, I guess I was setting in modern Greek — but the structure, the syntax, and the words are in Ancient Greek. I haven’t really done much of it; I did a song cycle when I was just starting to write that had some Greek text, but that’s all.
Both in ‘Antigone’ and in some of your other large-scale works, I’ve found a real intimacy and vulnerability within your timbral writing. Tell me a bit about your approach to timbre?
That’s a really nice compliment, that my timbre conveys that for you! Vulnerability is something that is inherently in my work, because of the way I write. I very often think about my own feelings and experiences. When I want to arrive to some kind of material, I think about how something felt, or an experience I had — to get something in my head that feels real to me. That’s something that I only recently realised that I do — I do it more consciously recently, but I think I’ve always been doing it. Perhaps that’s coming across in the timbres.
In the timbres, it’s really on an individual basis in each piece: what do I want to convey with that section, and therefore what texture do I need, what timbres do I need? It’s really not systematic. So I can’t say that I’m planning it or anything; it’s whatever each piece needs. My harmonic language is maybe a bit more systematised, or personal, I’d say.
Tell me more about your harmonic language — how do you feel it’s personal to yourself?
Something that makes a difference is [that] I’m a pianist; I’ve always been writing on the piano. I just try harmonies out on the instrument. I guess I’ve got some personal reactions to certain intervals; [which] I guess is very universal, it’s not something unique to me. I’m obsessed with the diminished octave, which is basically a major seventh — but I think of it as a diminished octave — [and] if you invert [it], it’s just a semitone. I like that interval when I want my harmony to be angular, or dissonant; something unsettling, something not resolved. Fifths are kind of the opposite in my head — the purest [intervals] other than the octave. I like the perfect fifth. I guess it’s the opposite, as a resolution.
You might find in a lot of sections, when something is still in development, or unfolding, my harmonies are dominated by a lot of diminished octave intervals, or chromatic shapes — this sort of angular harmony. For resolution, for something more relaxed, it’s often more diatonic; it’s harmonies and chords I find on the piano, improvising, trying them out.
In terms of your compositional process — how integral of a role does the piano, and your pianistic practice, play? Do you tend to stay on the piano as you write?
I always feel safer if I’m around the piano. So I always try to have a piano, even if I don’t need it; even in the beginning stages, when [I’m working with] really rough sketches, and I don’t necessarily need pitches. There’s definitely stages where I don’t need the piano — [when] it’s more about deciding on the pacing of the ideas. I normally write on paper first, so then typesetting the piece doesn’t include the piano; after typesetting, I normally change things, so not all of the work happens on paper. But for the very beginning stages, I use the piano.
Of course — if you’re drawing from something so personal to yourself, it’s a way of finding the most convenient method to express it.
Yes, of course. I mean, it would be ideal if I had, and could play, all of the instruments [I write for] — that would be great. -laughs- But I know what you mean — the piano, as an instrument, is something that brings me a lot of comfort and safety. It makes sense to use it as a middle-tool.
Do you see your compositional process as having a narrative bent to it — do you find yourself drawn to dramatic or narrative arcs?
I think the word “narrative” really resonates. This is a kind of a common thread throughout all of my pieces, regardless of their structure. I feel like there’s always some kind of narrative to them. I am drawn to something [that’s] trying to tell a story — that, within itself, is quite wide, because you can tell a story in many different ways — but I do always want to convey some kind of narrative.
How do these ideas of narrative relate to your instrumental work? I’m reminded of how your piece ‘It has been a long year (time flies)’ magnifies ideas of personal temporality…
It’s a good example! Because it’s something vulnerable, personal, intimate; it was descriptive of my experience of lockdown. Time feels like it’s stretching, because it was this “giving up” that I felt myself doing; the idea that things will be boring, or difficult, for a little while, and what came with that. A bittersweet [feeling] that I was trying to convey in the music, as well — this kind of acceptance, but also, obviously, a not-so-pleasant thing. The time stretching came organically from the emotional impetus of the piece.
So, of course, time can be a storytelling tool. In my case — if you’re using [a] personal or emotional experience — we all know that feelings and emotions can primarily distort our perception of time. Having a great time, being at a party, you don’t even realise how three or four hours went by; but when you’re going through something difficult or challenging, you experience time in a completely different way. If I wanted to reflect or portray something that has this characteristic, time stretching is a tool for that.
I love that — like your lived experience becomes the compositional techniques in and of themselves. How else are you musically manifesting this emotion-driven approach in your work?
It’s something that I’m figuring out, because I’m really interested in it. I’m trying to expand the methods, and the tools I have for this. I guess this is what my research project is on, really. There are so many ways you can go about it — there’s the musical elements, like time management, the very sounds and timbres you choose — but now I’m also considering whether I’d like to expand my practice and use extramusical elements. The use of text, the use of performative elements.
This was also a huge part of the inspiration [for] my research project: I got into popular music more. I was always into pop music, but I started going to many more concerts. I discovered how vulnerability is something that is a lot more openly communicated with singer-songwriters — they will be quite open with the fact that they’re using emotional and personal experiences in their work. That is really facilitated, thanks to the fact that popular music always has lyrics. I’m really interested in exploring this, as well. [It] will be quite different to what I’ve been doing so far, [having] mainly been doing music for the concert hall, and for instruments, etc.
Have structures or melodies from pop music been something you’ve channeled in your work consciously so far?
I’ve done it a little bit at the very end of ‘It has been a long year (time flies)’. At the very end, there’s a pop-sounding cadence [that] gets repeated on the piano over and over again. For me, that sounded like a reference in a way, because the harmonic language is so completely different to the rest of the piece. It feels like, in a way, you’re breaking the fourth wall — if that makes sense — changing the harmonic language so suddenly. Like winking at the audience or something; speaking in a language that is more widely used.
There’s also [a] piece that has been recorded, and will come out soon — which I did for an incredible ensemble called Trio Estatico. They are three violas, basically three of the best string players in the world: there’s Megumi Kasakawa, who is the viola player from Ensemble Modern; John Stulz, the violist from Ensemble Intercontemporain; and Paul Beckett, who is now in Klangforum Wien. They put this trio together, and I wrote this piece for them. At the end, I come in with my voice — it’s not sung, but there is a track with me speaking — and the music also changes to [something] quite pop-like. That’s pretty close to singer-songwriters, in a sense (not that it’s singing!) — but I haven’t excluded that as a possibility as well, incorporating singing from myself. It’s all quite fresh, so I don’t know exactly how it will materialise.
Of course — literally having something “from” yourself on stage, even if it’s not traditionally singing. What do you feel that’s opened up for you?
I feel very vulnerable. -laughs- It’s quite terrifying, hearing your voice — especially if you’re not a singer, you’re not really used to this kind of exposure. But I guess that’s exactly the point — that I want to [show] this vulnerability. It just opens up so much, extending my practice to more than making “conventional” contemporary music. Using more extramusical elements. I’m really excited to explore all of these things.
On that subject: you’re currently exploring these facets of your practice through your PhD in Vienna, with Clara Iannotta and Johannes Krenz. What’s been your experience of studying with them, and how have they informed your practice?
It’s really at the early stages. But they’re both great inputs for this research, because they’re both coming at it from very different angles. Johannes Krenz is a composer himself, but he also does a lot of artistic research; he’s really experienced in artistic research. He’s very knowledgeable on that. What he brings into this is know-how in how to turn these artistic ideas into more tangible art projects. I feel like he’ll be super useful for that.
Then Clara Iannotta, whose music I think is really beautiful… Something I didn’t know — [before] I got to know her better — is that she also thinks of her music as very personal. She thinks of her music as a way to reflect on things that have happened to her. So it’s interesting, because you wouldn’t necessarily know from the kind of music that she makes that that’s the case; but she does think in this way. When I talked to her about my projects, she knew immediately what I was talking about. With my research, I want to make this connection with the personal opaque — I want to make it a visible (or audible) element, I want to bring it into the foreground. I feel like she gets it a lot.
She’s [Clara] very well-versed in everything that is happening in the music world, because she’s also a curator. She can immediately give me references. But I think this has been super interesting to me: maybe there’s practitioners who don’t openly talk about it, but their music is very personal.
It’s very fascinating you speak about this — I’ve found a lot of old-school teachers tend to talk analytically and objectively about their work. I think it’s wonderful that you’re taking steps to break down the stigma of being personal, and talking about our lived experiences in our work.
Absolutely. -laughs- I guess this is what I realised, as well in my pre-research, [during] the writing of the proposal — how it feels like this is a thing that almost comes in circles in music history. Obviously, in the Romantic era, it was all about emotions, and it was all about expressivity; and then we had this century of formalism, and this moving away from feelings [and] the personal — everything was scientific-oriented, and objective. Now, as you say, I think there’s a return to this [expressivity]. It’s interesting; like many things in art movements, it comes back in another fashion. I don’t want to say too much about this, because I know I’m not completely well-read on it, but there has to be some kind of overlap there with gender, and status… The political context in which musics were made.
In terms of what you’ve got coming up: you’re currently working on a film opera with Katie Byford…
Yes — The Styx! The Styx is a project we really love — which is why it has been taking so long to finish. We really want to do right by it, we’re taking our time with it. Right now, we’ve recorded the score — I’ve written the [music], we’ve produced and mixed and mastered it. That will be the track for a film that will be directed by Katie Byford; like [a] music video type of thing.
This has been happening for so long that it’s been threaded into everything we’ve been talking about. It’s a very vulnerable piece; it’s based on the personal experiences of Katie. I guess I really wanted to do this vulnerability justice in my music, as well. The collaboration process has been really open; there was a lot of back-and-forth with her when she was writing the text, and when I was writing the music there was a lot of back-and-forth [as well]. We were making all of the decisions together. But yes, it’ll slowly come together and we’re very excited to share it — stay tuned!
Learn more about Athanasia’s Ivors nomination for ‘Antigone: pure in her crime’ at the following link:
Learn more about Athanasia and her practice at: