Atanas Ourkouzounov Combines Traditional and Contemporary Elements in Fascinating Ways

Photo© Svend Withfelt

Rhythms tossing and springing to and fro. Melodies rapidly winding through flickering semitone-vegetation. Then, sudden shifts of perspective, showing views of floating harmonies and charged waiting. Again, movement, kaleidoscopic whirling, loss of gravity. When Atanas Ourkouzounov plays, things are cooking. As a listener, I notice my head’s automatic swaying to the sounds, as if moved by invisible hands. I soon give up the desire to understand what time-signature is present, and surrender and tag along on the journey.

Atanas Ourkouzounov’s latest solo record, Autoportrait II, is an excellent introduction to this unique guitarist and composer’s musical world, which can be described as a mixture of contemporary art music and a large dose of influences from Bulgarian folk music. If you have ever encountered the dance music of the Balkans, with its frequent use of uneven time-signatures, or the sometimes harsh and other-worldly beautiful harmonies of the singular Bulgarian female choruses whose singing has fascinated so many of us, you may feel partly at home with the tonal language and rhythms Ourkouzounov frequently employs. The compositions are firmly rooted in classical tradition and it’s easy to connect him with the works of idiosyncratic modernists such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, or Toru Takemitsu, to whom one of the tracks of the album has been dedicated. Among Ourkouzounov’s other works there are several using forms from classical heritage, including both sonatas and guitar concertos.

Ourkouzounov grew up in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. His guitar playing eventually took him to France, where he studied at the Paris Conservatory with teachers such as Olivier Chassain and Arnaud Dumond. He also studied theory, music ethnology, improvisation, and chamber music.
And during the last 25 years, he has composed an extensive body of musical works—mostly centered on the guitar—available as sheet music and/or on recordings featuring himself and numerous other renowned guitarists. Some artists who have recorded his pieces are David Härenstam, Zoran Dukic, Antigoni Goni, and the Austrian Miscelanea Guitar Quartet. Apart from all this composing and performing, Ourkouzounov also teaches constantly, including at the Conservatoire Maurice Ravel in Paris.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: You have composed so much, made several recordings, and also tour a lot. You seem to have a never-ending source of inspiration at hand! How do you get your ideas and how do you go about manifesting them?

ATANAS OURKOUZOUNOV: I cannot fully explain how I get my ideas. What I do know for certain is that I really want and need to write music often. So I pick up my guitar in order to try out something, or I go deeply into my own imagination to intensely figure out what a musical idea might sound like. I have no rules about how the work should go ahead. Sometimes it happens with the guitar, sometimes not; it might happen in front of a computer or with pen and paper. The process is hard to describe, but I feel this excitement and it is impossible to let go once I have started. It is like watching a movie where you are the one creating the storyline, and of course you want to know how it all ends!

I think that everything in existence is related to the creative process: food, nature, painting, emotions—whether positive or negative. Everything is connected to the music we create. I am very fond of Indian music and its underlying life philosophy that regards existence as a huge interconnected network; an approach that is most appealing to me.

CG: Are there any musicians or composers who have meant a lot to you?

OURKOUZOUNOV: There are several Bulgarian musicians who create an exciting fusion of traditional music and jazz, and that inspires me a lot. I would especially like to mention the clarinet-player Ivo Papazov, and Thedosii Spassov, who plays kaval [a traditional wooden flute]. Among composers in the classical tradition, I have drawn inspiration from Györgi Ligeti, Igor Stravinsky, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, Toru Takemitsu. When it comes to conductors, I often listen to the interpretations of Carlos Kleiber. Concerning jazz musicians we have Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Miles Davis. A couple of guitarists I appreciate are Pablo Marquez and Zoran Dukic.

CG: Folk music of Bulgaria is apparently of great importance to you. Did you grow up in a family of musicians, or how did you get to know this tradition?


OURKOUZOUNOV: There were no musicians in my family, but in Bulgaria the folk music is very much alive and present in everyday life. During my childhood I was fascinated by the folk musicians that used to gather in the square at night in the village where my grandparents lived in the Balkan mountains. My grandfather used to sing folk songs and he often invited musicians to come and play in his house. He offered them food and alcohol, so they went on playing for hours and hours.

CG: Is there a movement among today’s Bulgarian composers to incorporate elements of Bulgarian traditional music in the idioms of classical western music?

OURKOUZOUNOV: Yes, most Bulgarian composers are strongly influenced by the folk music. There existed no “classical music” in Bulgaria until the end of the 19th century, since the country was a part of the Ottoman Empire for more than 500 years. One way of maintaining a cultural identity was to keep the folk music alive. That is the reason for this influence still being so strong.

CG: What are the main challenges in transferring this music to the guitar? The rhythms and the uneven time-signatures? The use of microtones?

OURKOUZOUNOV: I see no specific problem with that. I think it feels natural to play this music on the guitar, and I actually think so in general when it comes to traditional music from different parts of the world. But I do use different kinds of alternative tunings. For example I wrote the piece Fantaisie d’apres Kapsberger and used a scordatura reminiscent of the theorbo: first-string D, second Bb, sixth-string D. I also often tune the third and sixth strings one half-tone down.

CG: The music of Eastern Europe and the Balkans is not rooted in the same fundamentals as Western musical practice, with its principles regarding harmony, harmonic progression, and counterpoint. What is the basis of your harmonic thinking and your use of polyphony?

OURKOUZOUNOV: The bases are the rhythms and the different modal scales that we use in this part of the world. There have been interesting blends of musical influences, such as Orthodox Slavic music, Turkish and Arabian maqam, the musical tradition of the Gypsies, Jewish, Armenian—all of these are being mixed and that is the main reason this music is so rich.

CG: As a guitarist you have a dazzling technique, making it possible for you to perform highly intricate and difficult passages while still maintaining the expressive content. Has your own music forced you to keep expanding your technical capacity?

OURKOUZOUNOV: Yes, my technique is grounded in the music I write. I remember what it was like when I started playing the guitar—pretty quickly I found it boring to practice all of those classical arpeggios, tremolos, and the like. So I started “transforming” certain pieces, looking for techniques that would feel more interesting and meaningful to me.

CG: I have had the pleasure of hearing some of your performances together with the flutist Mie Ogura, and the interplay between the two of you is really astonishing. And so is the variety—ranging from your own original compositions to arrangements of popular music. The two of you are creating something fresh, making a new piece of music, while the melody still remains.

OURKOUZOUNOV: Our arrangements of pop and jazz tunes are mostly made by Mie; I only work with the guitar parts. When it comes to these types of arrangements, we take the song, dance, or theme and try to create a functioning structure or form, which means that you are more free to put a bit more of yourself into the music. Eventually it resembles the process of composing. My own arrangements are mainly from the classical domain, with pieces from such composers as Bartok, Debussy, and Ligeti. This music is so well-written and perfect when it comes to structure and balance that nothing needs to be changed or added. What is important with our combination of instruments is to instead try to bring it as close to the composer’s original intention as possible.

CG: What plans do you have for the future?

OURKOUZOUNOV: Mie and I have several concerts coming up, and we also have a plan to make a new album of entirely Bulgarian music. It will feature our own arrangements and improvisations based on traditional folk tunes and pieces by contemporary musicians like Ivo Papazov and Petar Ralchev, who you might say are in the field of “folk-jazz-fusion.” I have also written some new music directly influenced by the tunes of these two musicians. So it will hopefully turn out as an interesting mixture of three different views: traditional folk music, the jazz-influenced new folk tunes, and then my music in a contemporary classical style.

Another project for next year is to record my guitar concertos in Denmark, together with my engineer Leif Hesselberg. Leif and I have already made several records together and it is a joy and privilege to work with him. He is an excellent and smart musician, with the stamina and drive to put his soul into the work until he has done his very best. It is highly inspiring to work with such people—it motivates me to perform on a higher level, as well.

And right now I am also working on my fifth sonata for guitar.

Ange Turell is a Swedish guitarist and composer. He also writes about music, focusing mainly on contemporary music for classical guitar. A version of this article originally appeared in the magazine Gitarr och Luta.