MuzikMan : Elektra is an interesting name, is it your given name?
Elektra:Yes, it's the name my father chose for me in honor of a Greek woman who gave her life in the fight for what she loved and believed in. She lived during the 2nd World War and died serving her country and countrymen in the fight against German occupation in Greece.
MuzikMan: When did listening to music and playing an instrument all begin for you? Did you always know what you wanted to do or was it a process that developed over time?
Elektra: Since I was born, I guess. My mother was a soloist in the Warsaw Grand Opera in Poland and I would hear her sing her mezzo-soprano arias at home. Later, we also had a lot of records that I listened to by the way of my older brother's choice, who was into jazz, avant-garde and rock (this was in the late 60s). His collection included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ornette Coleman, Sara Vaughn, Miles Davis and all the greats of that time. My records were mostly solo violin and classical chamber music, Greek folk with clarinets from the Epirus ( northern part of Greece), mostly Tassos Halkias and urban songs called rembetika ( the Greek equivalent of blues).
I knew quite early what I wanted to do and I am actually amazed at how closely my early visions match what I am doing now. I wanted to be a versatile musician, who can work in classical music as well as in other styles that I felt were close to me and that incorporate improvisation: jazz, free jazz, Greek folk, fusion, rock. I wanted to have challenging music to play, as well as to have freedom of expression. New York is a perfect place to have all this variety.
MuzikMan: Why did you choose the violin as your instrument?
Elektra: I started on piano at home and then I was given a mandolin to play in a Greek children band. I did not like the mandolin, because my thin fingers were hurting when I played, I hated the frets. Then one day I saw a boy taking a lesson on violin and the violin fingerboard looked so smooth and the sound made by the bow was so soothing and different from the mandolin. I felt it would be an instrument for me. I went home and told my parents I wanted to play violin. I was about 8 or 9 years old.
MuzikMan: I think the violin is fascinating and is a very versatile instrument, your thoughts?
Elektra: I agree. It's a fascinating instrument to look at and the more you know about it , there are more reasons to find it fascinating. From the details of how it is made and how a tiny adjustment of some part can totally change the way it sounds, to finding ways to play it, to creating new ways for the instrument to sound. When you play even simple scales, you have to feel it becoming a part of your body, it's like meditation.
MuzikMan: Who do you feel has been the most influential in changing the way the violin has been used in music?
Elektra: This makes me want to mention many violinists and composers throughout the whole history of music, but I guess, I'll just have to limit myself to some key people here. In 1700s, J.S. Bach first, for expanding the technique and the tone. In 1800s, Paganini in Italy and Wieniawsky in Poland, who both took violin technique to the top of virtuosity. In the end of 1800 and in the 1900s there was Debussy Bartok, Stravinsky, an era of composers-innovators. Each had a very individual way of writing for violin. New expressions, new sounds and new techniques to create them on the instrument . All of this was continued later by Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Cage, Xenakis and many more.
Also in the 20th century, among jazz players I must mention violinists Joe Venuti, who had a harmonic approach, used the bow to create a percussive sound and a new bowing technique to sustain chords. Stephane Grapelli, who was swinging with sweet and flowing melodic lines, and Stuff Smith, who expanded the violin expression with his unorthodox and aggressive attack, wide vibrato and expressiveness of tone. He was also ( in the 1930s ) one of the first ones to use electronic amplification on his instrument.
Our contemporaries Jean-Luc Ponty, Zbigniew Seifert, John Blake, Ornette Coleman, Leroy Jenkins, Billy Bang all have brought more violin expressions into jazz, that particularly shows the versatility of this instrument. The use of trill in place of vibrato ( by Zbigniew Seifert ) and the elimination of the vibrato (by Jean-Luc Ponty ) created an individual sound. Implementing non-Western tonal systems and extensive use of glissando (by John Blake) did that as well and added to John Blake's musical vocabulary.
The most notable free jazz violinists, Leroy Jenkins and Billy Bang brought contemporary ( 20th century art ) music techniques into jazz and Ornette Coleman, who plays the instrument left handed, and his intense, percussive sound creates color expressions rather then melodies. Now, in the 2000s, the way I see it, the big influence in music comes from ethnic music traditions. Violinists, like myself, have experienced playing different styles and want to reach into their cultural heritage more consciously then ever, to cross the different styles they like and know.
MuzikMan: Was it difficult to get together such an eclectic group of musicians like you have for your current CD? Can you explain the chain of events that lead to the fruition of the project?
Elektra: It took me a long time to meet the right people. When I came to New York I knew some people like Leroy Jenkins, Billy Bang, Henry Threadgill, so I had a connection with that world. It was a long process, though of developing the music along with finding the right musicians with the right spirit, who would be open to and have the skill to play unconventional rhythms, modes and melodies. I started from a trio and the group kept growing. It is even now in constant process of growth and transition. It's now basically a sextet.
MuzikMan: Are there plans to tour Worldwide with the lineup on the CD?
Elektra: Yes, I am in the process of organizing a tour in the States and later this year in Europe.
MuzikMan: What are the immediate and future plans for Elektra Kurtis?
Elektra: Immediate plans; writing new material, playing some gigs and building audience for Ensemble Elektra. In the future I am planning to travel more in addition to writing and playing. In 2001 we should be coming up with a new album.
MuzikMan: What are your thoughts on women in music? Do you feel that women are given ample opportunity to express themselves and become marketable in an industry that seems to be dominated by men?
Elektra: We all get our turn when it comes to getting some attention at some point, so in that sense, yes I think that women are given ample opportunity to express themselves and become marketable in an industry that seems to be dominated by men. The external image, though, seems to be playing a more important role for women then men, in becoming marketable, but as we know , in the final result, music speaks louder than the looks, especially when it's coming from a CD. If you have an honest and strong musical concept, with hard work and determination, you should be able to come to the surface, man or woman.
MuzikMan: Has the Internet given you more flexibility and exposure than had before you linked to cyberspace? If so, how and why?
Elektra: Yes, it gave me access to more information about what is possibly out there for my kind of music. My web site is serving as my business card and the e-mail is a very helpful tool in communicating and doing business with people all over the world.
MuzikMan: What turns you on in life? What inspires you to create?
Elektra: Life experiences turn my creativity on. Both negative and positive feelings give me ideas for a new piece or lyrics. I get inspired mainly by feelings (like pain or happiness ) but I also get ideas out of nowhere. Listening to music and working with creative artists inspires me. Having a dream and working towards it turns my energy up. Teaming up with people who are positive and appreciative is a big pick me up.
MuzikMan: Do you feel a women's sexuality and sensitivity gives the music a entirely different scope and breadth or is this a misconception?
Elektra: It is a misconception. There are individuals of both sexes who are very intense, temperamental and expressive and others, who are mild tempered, quiet, and more introverted. In music it's all about expression, the need and the skill to create impressions, show and evoke emotions through playing a musical instrument. That to me is unisex.
MuzikMan: What kind of music can be found in your personal collection? Are you into vinyl or collectibles?
Elektra: I'm not a collector. I buy what I know I will listen to. I have quite a few records from many years ago, but now I mainly buy CDs. Ethnic music from Greece, Egypt and Arabic countries, Africa, Cuba. My Western Classical music favorites are Bach Sonatas and Partitas for violin, Bartok 2nd violin concerto, Ysaye Solo Sonatas for violin, any recordings by violinist David Oistrach. I have a huge selection of jazz CDs both standard and contemporary and quite a bit of funk, blues, hip hop and pop. Most recently I was listening to Prince Rave un2 the Joy, Ibrahim Ferrer from the Buena Vista Social Club, Iva Bitova, a Chech violinist and Oum Kalthoum, the legendary Egyptian singer, diva and one of my role models.
MuzikMan: Finally is there anything you would like to say in closing? Here is your chance for an open forum to speak to your audience.
Elektra: Follow your dreams . Have a great new millennium! Enjoy my CD !
Visit Elektra's Website
2000 MuzikMan Productions, All rights reserved.
Elektra Kurtis was interviewed
by MuzikMan for MuzikMan's Sound Script online Zine
January 20, 2000. Reproduced with permission of the artist.