Purple Magazine
— The Brain Issue #33 S/S 2020

teodor currentzis


interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM

a true anarchist in the conservative world
of classical music, and now
one of its most in-demand names,
the russia-based greek maestro
is reinventing the role of the conductor

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, Teodor, you were saying that sometimes you can feel disappointed in your performance after a concert?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes, it’s not the physical element of making music — it’s something that has to do with other powers that come into play while making it. It’s kind of a game of seduction, attracting different dimensions to the main plot of the physical dimension, which you’re never able to control 100%. You prepare all the text, you rehearse, you do everything, but it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to fly in the dimensions that open up this space — the angelic space, let’s say, where the angels are singing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean by “angelic space”? Is it your definition of a successful performance?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes! Angelic. Transcendental, let’s
say. So, after the concerts, we usually say to our musicians, “Do you think that the angels were singing today, or not?” And of course, if they don’t sing, we’re very disappointed. You invite the angels, but it’s not a given that they…

TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Sometimes they escape.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s the power of the mind. How would you describe this transcendental dimension? Is it also erotic… Is it a certain sort of magic?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — It goes beyond the erotic. It’s the Dionysian spirit. It’s a moment when you’re talking about a concrete thing that has meaning in our lives, like “love.” It’s a moment where you get such an exaggerated rush of energy that you are transformed, and you burn, you get burnt. And then, after you get burnt, a new life starts.

TEODOR CURRENTZIS — It’s like the phoenix, the ancient bird that burns and…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is reborn.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — And is constantly reborn. This set of dichotomies has been present in art since the beginning: Apollonian light and the Dionysian spirit — the spirit of ecstasy. And ecstasy is a word that everybody knows. Only, for most people, it’s the pill you take when you go to the disco. [Laughs] But ecstasy is something…

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s more than a pill.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — But we have forgotten these powers — that they really existed.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Of death and rebirth?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes, burned and reborn.

TEODOR CURRENTZIS — It’s a moment when you think that you’re not talking, but somebody else is talking for you. You’re not moving, but somebody else is moving for you. There’s no effort anymore — you’re kind of flying. You pass through the surface of the mirror, and you jump in the mirror. In the dream, when you’re flying, and then you realize that it’s a dream, and you start falling apart — in this moment, you continue flying.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But this is also the cerebral, or spiritual, force of music, right? Music is a good medium for this flight.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe more than painting or poetry. Or more than sex, even.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — You know why? Because it’s a universal language. It’s the true human language, music. Through it, everybody can be connected, and everybody can talk with this language. I can talk about important things with a person with whom I don’t share a common language — a Chinese person who doesn’t speak any Greek, for example, and I don’t speak any Chinese — but we can sit and play a piece together, and we can talk about the most important things.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain the power of music?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — It’s the language of the dream. Art in general is the language of the dream. Languages have only 100,000 to 200,000 words. So, we use these words, to build communication. But there are many, many interesting situations and feelings and dimensions that are yet to be discovered and expressed through words. And these are the dimensions of the dream. In the dream, you see that you are you, but you are somebody else. And some­body else is coming, but it’s somebody else. You have many faces in one face, and this is normal.

TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Another type of gravitation…

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like quantum theory. It can be there and not there, at the same time.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes. And you have many versions. And this is all normal in dreams! And then you wake up, and you try to explain the dream. And it’s impossible because there is no language for that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And music can modulate all this in the brain.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes, music can bring this sense of déjà vu, you know, all these weird…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Sensations…
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Halftones, halftones of… Language is very brutal and concrete. It’s “this” and “that” [gesturing]. The beauty of the dream is all of these halftones. Between one tone and another, there are universes — canyons, there are great canyons!

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] You’re describing so well the power of poetry inside language.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — And that’s the mystery — the mystery is that the poet uses words, the poor words that we use in our own lives.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To create music in language.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — But the words inside the poem are different — they have this illumination that they are missing in life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — By describing conducting and a concert the way you describe them, you’re in the position of an artist. Do you consider yourself an artist?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — I see myself mostly as…

OLIVIER ZAHM — A medium?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — [Hesitates] With my orchestra, I’m a little bit like a hegumen in a Greek monastery.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s a hegumen?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — The hegumen is the first of the monks who organizes all the rituals. It’s very ritualistic, what we do, in a way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Conducting is a ritual for you?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — It’s something to do with the intense energy produced through these special moments, and each time with a different quality to it. But I believe that art is a mission.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is conducting more than just reproducing the composition from a score with the whole orchestra?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — It’s reproducing sounds for a certain reason — with a credo, with a special belief.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And is this credo rooted in your anarchist past?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — [Pauses] I think I’m still an anarchist.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You remind me of — do you know Léo Ferré from France? He was a singer, but also a conductor.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He was always wearing this black hat and always dressed in black, like Johnny Cash.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Johnny Cash, yes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You would never see him wearing bright colors.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — You know why we wear black? It’s said that we mourn the death of colors. Black is very colorful, you know? Monks wear black. You know, combining different blacks is much more intimate and complex than combining different colors. Colors make easy, obvious contrasts. Here, you have to play with different tones of black.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it absorbs the light.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — And you need to be a very special person to be able to wear black — not everybody can wear black.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Anarchy, anarchy. Do you feel like you introduced anarchy — and we haven’t defined what we mean by that, by the way — into the world of classical music? A sort of freedom, an antagonism to power? Let’s put it this way: you don’t use a baton, right? Is it about letting go of control?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — No, no. It’s more because I’m not really a great fan of the academy. I am an academic musician in a way, but I really despise the…

OLIVIER ZAHM — The rules?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — The kind of artificial rules of the academic bourgeoisie. They don’t speak the truth. People who go to concerts in their tails — they never wear these costumes in real life. I wear tails! I can go to the café in the morning in tails. But you have to wear something real on stage, not something artificial. It’s not a bal masqué — it’s a real treatment of life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The world of classical music is very conservative…
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Of course, the musical system kills desire.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you create such a uniquely vital experience for each concert? People say you are a revolutionary conductor.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — It’s like if you schedule sex every day with the same person — after two months, you won’t want to have sex anymore. You destroy this protogenetic desire. So, my theory is that I have to be closer to the composer, Schubert, Mozart, whoever…These people gave their life and blood… And I start from there. It’s not about being the central man with a baton and a long tie. It’s about reconnecting with the state of mind of the composer.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Connecting to the original composition.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — To the music, to the transcendental experience of music. To pass between the false dawn and the true, as Ezra Pound says. To pass from the safe place to the other side of the mirror. This is what they were dying for and giving their lives for. It’s not this stiff musicianship of people who believe that classical music is a bunch of good technical maneuvers, you know? It’s something more than that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, in the beginning, it’s only you and the music? Only you and the score?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Me and the composer, with their needs. And we’re trying to bring this energy out. We’re trying to open these composer spaces.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But how do you read this in the score? Because you’re alone with the notes, you’re alone with the music, right?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — There are many different ways to read something.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t listen to other interpretations?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — No, no. Of course, there are many good interpretations. But I must explain, there are two things: first of all, you’re like a theater director — you have indications from the author of the text, but you can present it in different ways. You can interpret the same piece in an ironic way or a very serious way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the second element?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — The other thing is finding the right energy of the moment. Interpretation always depends on the moment in which you are playing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So your inter­pretation of a score can vary from one performance to another.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Absolutely, you have to. Otherwise, if you don’t do that, you simply reproduce music, and this is the enemy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Reproduction is the enemy?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Of course. Can you imagine living the same day that repeats itself all the time? Without flavor or special flavor.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s the world of digitalization. Technology is based on reproduction, repetition — that’s the way it works.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes, but the spiritual world doesn’t work like that. Repetition is a nice exercise, like a mantra, because it gives off a vibration. But if it’s helpless repetition, or routine, then forget it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You live in the world of music, but do you make any distinction between contemporary music and classical, or even pop music and hip-hop? You’re famous for breaking the rules in the classical world…
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — First of all, I don’t break the rules. I’m the one who keeps the idea of the rules — that’s a big difference. I’m the composer’s best friend.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Please expand.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — First of all, I do what the composer wants. You know what happened in the 20th century with classical music? They started moderating everything, bringing all of these ideas in line with the good, bright enlightenment of the academy. That means…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Everything is polished.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Polished. Have you listened to how Antonin Artaud would read his poems?

TEODOR CURRENTZIS — We know how the poets of the 19th century read their poems: it’s screaming, it’s written with blood. Les Fleurs du Mal [Charles Baudelaire] or Les Chants de Maldoror [Isidore Ducasse] were written with blood. It’s not a position. It’s not for academic people, you know? That was the approach of the author to this piece. Then in the 20th century, also in music, what did they do? They wanted to make recordings so I can read this book, or I can listen to this music in a Jacuzzi.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Classical music for easy listening?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes, it’s lounge music — classical music is for relaxing. People will say, “Wow, Teodor is crazy — he makes big contrasts, with too much pianissimo, too much fortissimo, fast tempo, and all this.” No, this is exactly how it was written. It was changed to fit the aesthetic of the time — of the 20th century — so that there’s a sense of familiarity. But I’m not into making people feel comfortable. I need people to dream with me, not have vacations. So, that’s the difference. But I don’t break any rules.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not breaking the rules. It’s looking for the truth.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes. And when I do contemporary music, and the composer is with me, they ask for exactly the same things that I’m looking for in the compositions of dead composers: to break the limits. They’ll say, “Go to the limits of my piece.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re pushing possibility…
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Of the piece to its limit. Usually, that’s considered too wild, too extreme. Music is meant to be “calming.” That was the aesthetic of the 20th century — comfortable. Only the composer, when he was composing the music, wasn’t thinking of the salon or a five-star hotel. He was thinking of the desert — of the Sahara. He was thinking of the Arctic, the odor of the mausoleum. You cannot bring wrong colors and wrong smells to the

OLIVIER ZAHM — But how do you feel that? How do you know that the composer wanted this or that energy?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — For this, you need to be the medium. I’m sure that if I sit at a table and invite the spirit of the composer, the composer will come to me. I work twice as much as other musicians working with the material — rehearsing, doing research in libraries, exploring the score — so I know everything concerning the score. It’s hard for me to find somebody who knows this music better than me. I work for years and years to get to this level of understanding.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you work with any composer, or do you have specific tastes?


OLIVIER ZAHM — You have to have a connection somewhere? Rameau is very conventional, in a way.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — But you know, there are many composers who already have a great interpreter. If somebody interprets the composer’s work in a way that I agree with, and they’re doing a great job of it, I don’t need to. There are many good conductors who are doing fantastic work in a certain repertoire. I do things where I believe that I see it in a different way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And that hasn’t already been done.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes. I don’t have the heart to reproduce.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s a re-creation, like giving birth to the music once again?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Exactly. The conductor has to be the reincarnation of the composer.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s fabulous. In a way, you have to lead multiple lives.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes. And I’m so happy to have my own orchestra.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you select all of the musicians?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — I think that’s the one good thing I’ve done in my life, creating this orchestra. To be honest, it’s not my dream to be a conductor. I do that because I want to give this point of view and share it with people. It’s out of a big love for people. That’s why I decided to destroy anything that was reminiscent of a conductor. When
I started out, I was looking more like a conductor, like a good boy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — With a baton…
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — And then I destroyed everything. You know, when somebody starts out and wants to become a conductor, the first thing he does is to buy a stick and start making photos. And then, when he becomes a famous conductor, he has to do a campaign for an expensive Swiss watch. Because it’s the time — you have the stick, and you are the time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it true that these are your own shoes that you had made in homage to Malevich?

OLIVIER ZAHM — To Mayakovsky, beautiful.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — These were the shoes of Mayakovsky, Shostakovich… These were the shoes of the beginning of the 20th century.

OLIVIER ZAHM — They’re beautiful.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Very beautiful. I want to make a brand now…

OLIVIER ZAHM — With those shoes, they’re amazing!
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes. And they’re like sports shoes but look like soldier’s shoes.
I’ll send you some.

OLIVIER ZAHM — With these nice red laces.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you discover them? In pictures?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — No, I actually had the original Mayakovsky shoes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Oh, really?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — But they were not like this. So, I made a modification, and I called them “Mayakovsky.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, from Greece you’ve embraced Russian culture. This is pretty beautiful because, as a French person and as a European, let’s put it this way: we have a fear of Russia, we are disconnected from the Russian culture.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — I think Europe should reconnect with Russia and Russia has to be more open. It’s such a rich country and culture. And an amazing place to be. It’s a kind of wonderland for musicians.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Russian culture is isolated, in a way. Is this a source of freedom for you?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Absolutely. That’s why I decided to go to Russia. Because I couldn’t stand the European…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Pretension.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — I couldn’t stand the high tech. I hated all the minimalistic high tech.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] I see what you mean.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — The new technological discoveries of the ’90s. When all these beautiful, romantic people of the ’80s said, “No, we don’t dress in black anymore, there’s a new kind of…” It was very disappointing, the ’90s. I said: “Okay, it’s time to leave Europe. Where is the dream now? Where is the dream?” I mean, I would have lived in France in the ’20s. When the Surrealists were here, at the beginning of the century, in Paris, of course. Then, at the end of the ’80s, Berlin was the best place to live. When the wall fell, you had a kind of emergence in the city — you had Kreuzberg, you had interesting people gathering in the poor parts of Berlin.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you go to Russia?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — It was a form of punk resistance. I started going to the Eastern Bloc because the resistance was there. I’ve been in dangerous places when there were shootings and things like that. Different kinds of difficult places. Russia was one of the most difficult places at that time. It was super-difficult to go. You would have to have been a kind of lunatic to try to find happiness there. But I went to find happiness there, and I found it. Because absolute romanticism — when you have nothing to give, nothing to do, but you are at all the best parties, and you have the best connections, and it’s about art, it’s about poetry, it’s about dreams, and every day of your life is a performance. It was that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now you moved to St. Petersburg. Is it like an old Paris?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — It is, yes. Now it’s our wonderland. It’s a place where we’re trying to create this new utopia with this new project we have — a big radio station in an amazing building in the middle of the city.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A radio station?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes. It’s the new home of the old but interesting arts of St. Petersburg that have a kind of marginal life. We’re making an anthology of the greatest things we believe are happening in the arts, and to give a sanctuary to that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In the form of a radio station?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes. For us, radio is still the most revolutionary medium. We want to create a new radio station and make radio shows, radio performances with directors and actors, new music commissions, live transmissions of new pieces done for the radio. And now we’re trying to create a special new radio machine that you put on your wall, and it opens when it wants to inform you about things. Nothing to do with politics — it’s only about art. Like a very, very advanced university radio station, let’s say.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s exciting because radio is like an instrument, like an orchestra, and you conduct it.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — I think, in the 20th century, we skipped the radio too easily to go to other media. But radio, it’s an invisible soul, you know, to have in your life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s what you explore in a performance. You used the word “utopian.” Do you still believe in the possibility of an alternative, even positive future?

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not pessimistic? You’re not dystopian?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — I believe in the personal revolution of every human being. But now, what’s happening with humanity is something terrible. A big tsunami of total terrorism is moving through humanity. Total terrorism is not only fascism, it’s also the virus that lives inside humanity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To the point that it’s become difficult to identify the enemy of freedom?
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes. Total terrorism is something that constantly disguises itself. So, I believe the only way out of this, and where optimism lies, is if we try to make our personal revolution for freedom. And freedom is about finding our own way to reestablish communication with the people we love. We cannot imagine another world if we can’t build this world with our girlfriends or boyfriends. If you cannot find the harmony in that, and you cannot break through and create this communication, then it’s silly to dream of another world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Of something else.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Yes. Personal revolution, reconsideration, and reconciliation with the people we love.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this something you can create with radio or with music — this communication beyond language.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — This positive energy that connects people, that brings people together.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Whatever language they speak.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a very abstract revolution, but not easy to explain.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — A revolution is never resolved. It’s a process.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s why you’re still an anarchist — because you believe in a permanent revolution.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Permanent revolution, as in a turbulence that makes the water clean.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And flows.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — When water stops flowing, it becomes dirty. So, you need to keep on researching. You need to be a good — very good — surfer of dreams. That means, when one dream comes true, you need to jump to another dream, and then another.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Always cleaning the water.
TEODOR CURRENTZIS — Because it’s not about the result. It’s about the dream. The dream is the dream.




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The Brain Issue #33 S/S 2020

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