Michalis Kouloumis: One violin is not like the next
Tekst: Ton Maas
For as long as Michalis Kouloumis can recall, it was always going to be the violin. Indeed his father claims that by the age of three, Michalis was imitating the typical movements of a violinist using two sticks. Funnily enough, that is reminiscent of the way Roma children master their instrument of choice: not through sound but through the sense of movement. If that’s good, the sound will automatically follow – that’s the thinking.
Although there’s no gypsy blood flowing through their veins, the Kouloumis family is exceptionally musical. Michalis: ‘My father plays various instruments, and absolutely everybody in my family can sing. Despite her age, my grandmother still has a wonderful voice.’ The traditional music of Cyprus is what Michalis mostly heard in his younger years. But since he, just like his brother, was schooled in classical music, he’s at home in both worlds: classical and folk
Villages of the red earth
Kouloumis grew up in Kokkinochoria, an area known as ‘the villages of the red earth’. His native region is considered very fertile not only because of the volume of potatoes and grain harvested, but also because of the exceptionally high number of musicians, singers and poets from there. Michalis’s great-uncle Pieris Pieretis was one of the most famous Cypriot violinists ever and a celebrated poet as well. One of the cradles of that cultural richness was the port city of Famagusta, an ancient crossroads of trading routes until it was captured by the Turkish army in 1974 and the predominantly Greek elite relocated to Kokkinochoria.
After completing secondary school and two years of military service, Michalis studied both physics and traditional music in Athens. There he met all sorts of musicians who would help shape his further development, among them lyra player Ross Daly and violinist Yorgos Marinakis, under whom he studied. Moreover, he discovered the tradition of Ottoman music.
Turkish search for identity
Ironically, it’s easier to explore the ancient court music of Istanbul in Greece than in Turkey. According to Michalis, one reason for that is the fault line created in 1923 as a result of the politics of Atatürk. Michalis: ‘The transition from an ancient sultan state to the modern, democratic republic of Turkey occurred in just a few days. Suddenly everything was different, and a totally new situation arose within two to three years. Most Turks born after 1940 know hardly anything about their own history.
By then, almost nobody could read a text written twenty years earlier. That created a yawning generation gap. Not only did writing change, but the historical ties with Persian and Arabic culture and with the Sufi tradition were also cut. On the one hand there was a dire necessity to create a new Turkish identity to prevent the nation from quickly falling apart, but the price paid was the loss of their own tradition. Of course, Turks now play Ottoman music again in Turkey and regard it as “theirs”, but it is not really celebrated. That’s different for Greeks, because Ottoman influences were never erased in Greece. Ottoman culture is still regarded as belonging there simply because of its Byzantine roots.’
The violin and its versatility
By exploring the differences between the cultures that have influenced Cypriot music – not only Greek and Turkish but also Ladino and Armenian – Kouloumis discovered at an early age that one violin is not the same as the next. Michalis: ‘Turkish violinists tune their instruments in a different way to their Western counterparts, namely alla turca (DADG), and in the Arabic world you come across another way of tuning: DGDG. You can tune a guitar in different ways to your heart’s content, but the violin has such a fragile balance of forces that makers adapt their instruments to the style of tuning applied. So you could say that there isn’t one but three violins: the Western, the Turkish and the Arabic.
Kouloumis himself experiments with various forms of tuning and techniques. He prefers a frequency below 440 Hz because that creates more overtones. He learned about diplochordo (double chord), a technique that is characteristic of traditional music in Greece and Romania. And sometimes he likes to apply ‘open’ or ‘chord’ tuning such as DADGAD, which is popular among folk guitarists. Michalis: ‘But for experiments of that kind I use a less expensive instrument.’
The violin is actually an ‘intruder’ in the traditional music of the region. The viola-like instruments such as the Cretan lyra, the Bulgarian gadulka and the Turkish kemenche are traditionally played with bows. Michalis also tried his hand at the lyra, but that didn’t amount to anything. He grins as he recalls how he tried in vain to press down the strings with his left hand like a violin. ‘That’s almost impossible because of the much greater distance between the strings and the keys. I remember how astonished I was when somebody showed me how I had to play the lyra: with the finger on the key in such a way that the nail touches the next string. A very strange feeling, nothing for me as a violinist.
I was more successful with the Pontic lyre because you play that more or less like a violin, but in the end I stuck with my instrument.’ In developing his own style, however, Kouloumis has absorbed inspiration from lyra players like Daly and Psarantonis, for example by using a continuous tone or bourdon. Michalis: ‘There’s something strange about that. If you study music you’re told that the tonic is the keynote of the melody, but with all those lyra-type instruments, the bourdon is never the tonic but the dominant note. That lends the music a totally different character.’
From crisis to opportunity
After his studies in Athens, Kouloumis enjoyed a number of years of success. He had enough work, played regularly with interesting musicians from all sorts of traditions and earned a comfortable living. Then came the financial crisis of 2008, which hit Greece severely. Michalis: ‘It wasn’t such a problem artistically, but the atmosphere in Athens changed radically. As soon as you left the house you could smell tear gas, every single day. People started to blame one another for everything. Suddenly I no longer felt quite at home and decided to return to Cyprus.’
But soon he heard about a friend who was doing a masters in the Netherlands and was studying Ottoman music there with Kudsi Ergüner. Michalis: ‘What?! In the Netherlands?! I was flabbergasted. Then I realised what an amazing opportunity it was. So I immediately decided to find out more.’ Once all the paperwork had been arranged, Kouloumis registered in 2011, did an audition and was accepted at Codarts in Rotterdam.
Forging new connections
Kouloumis immediately had a connection with Michalis Cholevas, who taught there and was a member of the selection committee. ‘We got talking straight away and didn’t stop. About music of course, but funnily enough also about physics. (Cholevas studied theoretical physics and specialized in quantum optics, ed.) It felt like we were brothers. What’s more, he became my mentor. In Rotterdam it was fantastic to be able to study with a group of amazing musicians with similar interests. We stimulated and helped one another to progress.
It was also something special for Kudsi, because at Codarts he found people with whom he really could share knowledge. In Turkey he was regarded as something of an outsider because he didn’t respect the accepted rules of style, and because he had turned his back on Turkey to make his career in France. I think that with us he found the connection he always wanted to have with students.’
Launch of Lingua Franca
Even during his master’s course, Michalis and Cholevas performed regularly as a duo. Kouloumis once organized a trip to Cyprus, where he introduced Cholevas to Giannis Koutis. Michalis: ‘That encounter was like a fusion of particles with a bang. We decided to form an ensemble almost there and then. It took a while to find the right percussionist, but we eventually found him in Ruven Ruppik, and that’s how Lingua Franca was born.’ After an impressive performance during Womex, the international showcase festival for world music, the group embarked on a successful tour of various countries.
Role models to be jealous of
Few musicians have made a greater impression on Kouloumis than the French maestro violinist Stéphane Grapelli. Michalis: ‘I never saw him play live unfortunately, but even looking at videos of him makes me happy. The virtuosity and freedom with which he improvises is absolutely breathtaking! And the ease with which he did it... really enviable. Moreover, he continued to play until he was physically unable to do so.’ Another one to make a deep impression was Nedim Nalbantoglu, a Turkish violinist from Thracië. Michalis: ‘I’ve seen a lot of fantastic soloists, including David Oistrakh, but I was literally speechless the first time I heard Nalbantoglu. Never before had I seen someone who had mastered both the classical and traditional repertoires so completely. Even since, he’s become a shining example of the personality you need to have as a soloist. Because it’s a role where you have to be careful not to become too egotistical.’
Between soul stirrings and structure
According to Kouloumis, playing a long solo concert is about finding a balance between the excitement of sharing your musical feelings and creating a structure. Michalis: ‘I formed the basis for my solo work while studying with Kudsi Ergüner by immersing myself in the taksim, which is part of classical Ottoman court music. It was an exercise practice in which I learned to “build” increasingly longer taksims, sometimes fifteen to twenty minutes long. Improvising for a short time is not so difficult, but for a longer solo you have to weave all sorts of elements into your music. That calls for a totally different view of the music, another philosophy even. Somebody who has always been a model for me in that regard is the Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor. I’ve made a real study of his solo concerts.’
For his performance during Music Meeting, Kouloumis chose a recent composition of his own: Traces of Civilization. Michalis: ‘That usually happens quite spontaneously with me. Usually I don’t have any preconceived plan. While warming up for the recording, I happened to play a phrase from that piece and then just decided to start with it. Then I just see where I go from there.’