ZOFIA MARIA CIELĄTKOWSKA: My first impression after listening to No More Stories (2015) was that it is an absence, which is actually a presence. Let me explain. I think No More Stories is very much connected – in a kind of reverse way – to your last major piece September (the next reading) (2014). September was written for voice, whispers, sounds. It was about grief, anxiety, absence and at the same time longing and wanting someone to be here. There was a strong emotional tension in it. It was completely dark, completely sad. In No more stories, presented in TR Warszawa and inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Cascando, you start with a kind of absence. We can hear the sound, but actually it is hard to guess the source of it. What you see is an empty stage. This absence is actually a presence.
WOJTEK BLECHARZ: This is a really great observation, I am glad you see No More Stories as a consequence of September (the next reading). I composed September last year in 2014 for Installactions Festival at Nowy Teatr in Warsaw. I call that piece ‘the mother’. It was the ‘mother’ of the entire cycle of five other pieces, which I created last year. I couldn’t add more to what you have just said. It is the most personal and the most emotional piece I have ever made, I think. The piece, which is composed for voice, two pianists and two percussions, for Barbara Kinga Majewska and Kwadrofonik Ensemble, is balancing on the edge of something too personal. It’s some sort of subtle exhibitionism, but this is what I had to do at that time, that was my instinct. In general, I compose very personal music and I am not afraid to admit it. I think that new art is obsessively afraid of that, it is more desirable to be political but not personal. I like a sentence from Felix Gonzales-Torres: “meaning is created once, something can be related to a personal experience”. In terms of the 21-page text, which I wrote for September (the next reading), there was no artistic manipulation, no editing. Last year I was going through a lot of difficult personal stuff. I understood that the only way to cope with my emotions was to write down what was inside my head, word for word, it was a sort of ritual of writing down my inner voice every night. Next, I decided to compose music for that text. I may have removed two or three fragments, which were complete bullshit, but nothing else. In a way, it was also my response to pop-music: when somebody breaks your heart, you take a guitar and make an album about it – I composed September (the next reading). Last year I was struggling with severe depression and insomnia; it was very tough and not fun at all…. Music and the process of composing for me was a way to vent out, to deal with all those returning emotions. Spiral motion is crucial in the structure of the piece: for almost 10 minutes musicians crumple in circular motion sheets of (tracing) paper: perhaps a letter/palimpsest, which was never sent, ’the next reading’ is a continuous, endless process and happens right now, the voice in my head cannot stop, the never-ending stream of the text has to ‘be witnessed’. September (the next reading) was the first piece in my ’dark cycle’ [laughter].
ZMC: Tell me more about other pieces.
WB: Next piece I composed after September was blacksnowfalls (2014), for timpano solo: premiered at Summer Courses of New Music in Darmstadt. To me it is an echo, a commentary or rather a mute commentary, which I had to write after September (the next reading). In September I have said everything. I have had no more words to say; but the need to ‘tell’ and to share has remained. The only thing, I could do, was to create a mute illustration of a non-existing voice in my head. A percussionist performs a series of hand gestures on the membrane of the timpano, which amplifies the gestures and turns them into sound. The drum becomes a ‘body’ and the musician performs a hopeless hand-monologue made of different kinds of gestures representing aggression, tenderness, hopelessness, touch, panic, sensitivity etc. blacksnowfalls is also inspired by the last two pages of Psychosis 4.48 by Sarah Kane. The next piece completed after blacksnowfalls was (one)[year](later) (2014) for Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra from Beijing, a result of almost 2-year residency with Chinese musicians who play traditional instruments. (one)[year](later) refers to one of the works by Ai Wei Wei, a photo – where he breaks an ancient Chinese vase.
ZMC: There is some kind of spiral motion…
WB: Spiral motion returns in this piece, but for me this is a motion of circulating particles or dust of something already broken and annihilated. Ai Wei Wei says in one of his articles “how can we protect something if we don’t know how we lost it”. That quote became the motto for the piece. (one)[year](later) was also very challenging in terms of building my own sound-identity in regards to the use of traditional Chinese instruments completely alien to me. Then there was Liminal Studies commissioned by Royal String Quartet (2014) for Kwartesencja Festival in Warsaw. The concept of liminality was involved in many layers of the ‘string quartet’; a line as a representation of the main theme returns in many ways throughout the course of the piece, a line which intersects something and gives a sense of being on both sides – you draw a line and you are neither here nor there, we are on both sides of the line, musicians cut black ribbon, a ‘sonic line’ divides the audience in two halves. You are exactly in between, in this liminal state. You feel that something is about to end but not yet. The concept of liminality influenced also the way, how musicians play the instruments and the way that the instruments are placed on stage (i.e. two opposite table-top cellos): musicians bow the strings on both sides of a finger, which stops the string-line, the sound itself is “neither here nor there”. The final piece in the cycle was ocean is not enough for 13 musicians, composed for Klangforum Wien for IMPULS Academy in Graz 2015. The piece is about expecting or waiting for somebody who is never going to come. I decided to place the conductor on stage at a table, facing the audience, performing different gestures and actions which we already know from the previously mentioned pieces: writing a letter, dropping dried soybeans, performing circular motion and different hand gestures, tearing tracing paper into stripes-lines, and others. Four of the musicians are situated around the audience, in each corner of the concert hall; they are ‘wrapping’ the audience with sound. There are also another 8 musicians ‘hidden’ in the audience. The piece is played in almost total darkness. After the first section of ocean is not enough, which is pretty audible, people start to hear little noises among them: hidden musicians located in different spots among the audience crumple dried leaves, hit stones, light matches, rub hands, spray fragrance etc. What you hear really depends on where you sit and that is great, I call it ‘local hearing’. To me it is important to change the way we listen to the sounds. I disagree with that one-dimensional model in which we are limited simply to a pair of ears.
ZMC: Limited to sitting in a fixed chair only with a pair of ears…
WB: Yes, exactly. Pair of ears located in a perfectly acoustic environment. Our ears are fed with sounds and we shouldn’t move, we shouldn’t breathe. We should behave like in a temple. For me it doesn’t work like that. Sound is such a dynamic material! I like when we can barely hear something or when we are immersed in sound, when the sound is audible only on the right side or below us. How we embody sound is really important to me. Ocean is not enough is about waiting for someone, who is never going to come. I wanted to recreate that atmosphere of expectation, waiting; like when you sit in the evening at your desk, the window is open, and you can hear all the evening noises coming from the outside. Each noise triggers a hope that someone is coming. You can almost hear somebody’s steps in your yard, but once again you realise that this person is never going to show up. You know that, but you are still waiting. It is also included in the narrative of music. When eight musicians hidden in the audience start to play, people think that this is random, those barely audible noises coming from different spots of the hall sound as a disturbance, as if someone was unwrapping candy. But after a while listeners realise that this is actually music. The moment they realise that, the music ends. They start to wait for the sound, in silence and darkness, each sound triggers hope.
ZMC: When I listen to that music I can definitely feel it was dark…
WB: Well… it is what it is, I think that I am finally getting some distance from that period of my life. Although, In March this year, I performed September (the next reading) in San Diego and I thought that, I don’t want to participate in any live performance of that piece anymore. Anyway, all these pieces, which I told you about, are connected with each other in terms of materials, recurring themes and gestures. You can find similar symbolic elements in all of them and they all have very strong personal meaning to me. This cycle is a kind of a story or a documentary. Composing five such pieces in a one year was definitely too much, but, as I said, it was also a way to deal with myself.
ZMC: In No more stories you finish this dark period. I must say there is an interesting transformation from words into music. September was written for the text, we can hear the words, the voice there. No more stories based on Cascando is a dialogue between three characters (or four if we take Woburn into consideration): Opener, Voice and Music. You eliminated the voice almost completely. There is only music left.
WB:. When a composer is to write a piece with a text there is always a question of the approach, how to set text to music. I don’t compose music to correspond with existing texts.
ZMC: You use your texts only.
WB: In general, yes. Beckett was a genius and I don’t see too much sense in messing around with his texts by adding music. It is like superimposing dimensions, which cancel each other. What I also do when I work with a text – although September was an exception – is that I work with deconstruction of the text. A part of my doctoral research was focused on linguistics, on how we create a sort of ‘meta language’. Sometimes when I use a text, I pick on specific syllables, because I like the way they sound, the way those syllables interact with an instrument or articulation. In case of Beckett’s Cascando, I didn’t feel like deconstructing his text was a good idea. I knew it was not a way to compose that piece.
ZMC: So you decided to focus on form.
WB: Yes, I think pop music does a really good job in terms of setting text to music or the other way. In general, composing music to poetry or a libretto is not relevant any more to me. I’m a visual person. As you said, Cascando has tree characters: Opener, Voice and Music. I decided to transcribe the form of the text, the order of appearance of all characters in colours or rather coloured squares: teal square for Opener, pink for Voice and navy-blue for Music. When I saw the text of Cascado written in this coloured way, I noticed some interesting formal structures. The way the characters appear is not random; it is not determined by the natural flow of a dialogue between them. Instead, there are interesting symmetries and repetitions. I also found out that Beckett wrote Cascando in a particular way: he started with complete Opener’s part, then he added Voice’s part, and finally, finished with Music’s. I decided that in my piece Opener will be the first flute, Voice the second flute, and Music’s part will be replaced by visual elements: light and mapped video projections created by Michał Jankowski. Another important thing is that Cascando was a radio play – a very popular genre in the 60s. Radio play was supposed to take our perception to another level: as you can’t see things, you have to imagine everything in your mind.
ZMC: The atmosphere made by light is also really important.
WB: Yes, recently I started to work more with darkness, with visual and purely acoustic stimuli. The way how we perceive sound, is related to whether we can see a musician or not. In No More Stories I decided that I would combine music with visual elements by collaborating with Michał Jankowski. The viewer is given a sort of ‘theatre of images’, but we didn’t want to tell any stories with the visuals – it is more sensual, abstract – we called it ‘extended darkness’ – like some blurry shapes, we see when we close our eyes. I always need to have some sort of personal drive when I compose music, otherwise I just can’t. The more I read Samuel Beckett’s text, the more personal approach I found. In case of No More Stories the personal element was radically different than in September (the next reading). I must say, it was refreshing not to dig in myself anymore and to work on something as abstract as Cascando. Samuel Beckett in Cascando repeats many times: “I open”, “I close”, “finish this one”, “go on”, “to begin” etc. I have realised that this text helps me a lot. This is actually about what I’m doing right now. I’m trying to finish “this one” and open something new.
ZMC: You did mention visual properties in your music. I think that these properties are especially important in such pieces as The Map of Tenderness (2013) for cello and gestures or K’an for steel drum and ca. 130 sticks (2012). Obviously, if you put headphones on you will hear something, but then again, would you hear this tenderness? The way the cello player is touching the instrument is a part of the composition. Would you feel the sound of the sticks without seeing them? You compose sounds, but you compose it equally for the body, space and sight. Visual properties are ingrained in your music – they are an essential part of it.
WB: This is even a bit problematic… I can’t record my music any more – I need videos! I must say, I have neglected this part of my work in the past and I need more video documentation of my music, because my music is purely visual. There are pieces, which don’t even sound. I work a lot with physicality and corporality of the performer. The gesture, the way we touch an instrument, the way we hit it, rub it or the way we perform gestures – that all influences the nature of sound. In No More Stories there is a fragment, which I call my version of Single Ladies (laugh), as the flute player performs a series of left hand gestures while she plays the flute. For me the sound is not enough. In the middle of my doctoral research I have realised that a very important part of my background is actually dance theatre. In the past, for quite a while, I was collaborating with Silesian Dance Theatre. I used to go every year to Bytom for Contemporary Dance Conference and I would always hear that the we should not separate the mind and the body. I realised that instead of focusing on creating abstract sound processes my music could grow from physical contact with an instrument. In general, the experience with dance theaters shaped my concept of the theatre and moved me away from drama and theatre of words. For me, the body and the way how we move was always very important. When I realised that this is a crucial part of my identity, I decided to include it in my music. As you said, there is no point in just listening to music – we have to watch it, too. The Map of Tenderness for a female cellist is about object of mourning and grieving. Julia Kristeva in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia writes about object of mourning. If we miss somebody who died we live with his/her ‘virtual’ attached body, we identify with the missing one. We are trying to perform everyday activities, but there is ‘that’ thing, or a memory attached to our body, like the cello between a performer’s legs. From there comes the concept to treat the instrument as a map, as a territory. The way the cellist moves her hands on the instrument, going from point A to B, is very important. There is no point in just listening.
ZMC: In your music I find something which Amelia Jones described as “Pollockian performative”. Since Jackson Pollok, an artist is no longer hiding behind the painting – he/she is present with his/her body, physicality, gender etc. In case of your music musicians are no longer invisible, they are no longer ‘tools’ for the instrument. They are present as a very particular body, the body of a man or woman. They are performers and that requires some kind of openness, consciousness of the self and ability to show yourself. I think it is a very intimate experience to play music in this non-philharmonic way.
WB: It is very interesting that you brought it up – the method of work – Pollock’s method of work, which is based on gestural, physical activity. This is how I compose. I don’t compose sounds in my head in some abstract processes. I need to have an instrument for which I compose. Sometimes I don’t know how to play an instrument, but I’m searching for sounds on my own. I usually take the instrument and explore it: inch-by-inch, with my hands, breath, tongue etc. That is also the way I’m trying to identify my sense of hearing, address my concept of sound with the instrument. Through the process of experimentation, direct physical contact, I find sounds, which I like, not the sounds I was thought at school. Obviously, I’m aware of those sounds, but will only use them if I want them I compose in a very physical way.
ZMC: It is not a traditional way of work.
WB: It kind of is. I could refer to Helmut Lachenmann, a German composer and his methods of work started in the 70s.
ZMC: And what do you think about Philharmonics?
WB: Philharmonics and contemporary music are like two separate worlds. It took me some time to understand that. When I was younger, I read books about great 20th century composers and most of them eventually ended up composing music for orchestras as a continuation of post-19th century work-model. I thought it would also happen to me, but I was wrong. There are musicians who specialise in playing contemporary music, and those who play Mozart. These are two different dimensions and also often completely different listeners. My model of work is quite specific; I collaborate with musicians, exchange experiences; for example, in case of the flutes in No More Stories Ewa Liebchen from Flute o’clock would show me what I can do with her instruments, or the other way: I would teach her how to play my sounds. I don’t work with traditional musicians as they have completely different model of work. I had two pieces for orchestra performed, but that is it. It is also a matter of practicality. At TR Warszawa, with Flute o’clock I spent hours rehearsing just one piece. With orchestra it would not be possible at all. Orchestras work from Monday to Friday within a very specific timeframe; they have 4 days to prepare a full concert. I wouldn’t even have enough time to explain how to play my music for the flutes and oboes in the orchestra [laughs]. It doesn’t make any sense. Also, classically trained musicians are not always able to play contemporary music; the fact that you studied at a music academy doesn’t mean that you will play well all types of music. There are different concepts of sounds, and we can see that some musicians specialise in baroque music playing period instruments, while others play punk rock.
ZMC: It is even hard to say that you are a composer. The way you work is closer to the role of a theatre director. You have to think about the whole set of things: music, light, choreography, visuals, performing body etc.
WB: I believe that I’m doing music theater. Sometimes I call myself a director and by that I mean projecting sound and space on many levels. Preparing the premiere of No More Stories at TR Warszawa as a part of 4 for Beckett series took hours of rehearsing and also adding new elements to the piece. We spent hours testing video projections and microphones. We started with 2, then with 6, then 10, then went back to 6…
ZMC: That is the process. You can’t predict everything while you compose.
WB: Yes, and I’m happy to work this way because I see that making music is a live process. Especially in academia we are supposed to finish a masterpiece, a complete score. It is all about score. I’m giving you my score and you play it! I don’t work like this. I add lots of new material during rehearsals, sometimes even completely new fragments of music. This is also my plan for the next year. I composed enough pieces and now I want to focus on curating and making concerts, but in full theatrical setting – the way this music should be played.
ZMC: Maybe I’m wrong but I can’t imagine your music being played in the same way twice. Of course, each performance of musical composition is somehow different, but I think that in your case it is particularly noticeable.
WB: You never play Chopin the same way twice; there are different interpretations, moods etc. We live in the 21st century, so my scores go along with videos explaining how to play my music. I don’t even try to explain certain techniques in writing. For example blacksnowfalls for timpano solo goes along with 80 video clips; the performer has to learn about 80 different hand gestures… How can I explain that? But tradition of the performance is also important; for example in K’an for 130 sticks I showed how the piece should be played to the first musician, then he showed it to his professor and then the professor showed it to his students. Last year, when I had a premiere of blacksnowfalls in Darmstadt – a famous place for the history of new music and avant-garde – I was passing by a music school and heard some sounds. Suddenly I realised that I made those sounds! Someone was practicing my piece. It was so nice, so heartwarming. It was a very specific type of sound. It could be made only with 130 sticks on a steel drum. That is the tradition of the performance. I mean, I’m going to die one day. If my music is meant to survive into the future, someone has to know how to play it. So I will keep explaining…
interviewed by Zofia Maria Cielątkowska
edited by Contemporary Lynx