AUSTRALIA: THE BEGINNINGS
Jan Topolski: So what’s the story with Poland and Australia? For a long time you were perceived as a composer-immigrant. Then it turned out that you were here in Poland, but hardly anyone knew about it.
Dominik Karski: Maybe I’ll start with my departure to Australia. We took part in an immigration programme; my parents applied also to Canada, but Australia answered first. After all the formalities, we left in 1991. I was 18 then, and I stayed in Australia until 2007. During that time, I went through my entire music education there, except for studies in Vienna with Chaya Czernowin in 2006-2007.
Ewa Szczecińska: Tell us about your life in Australia.
In the beginning it was quite difficult. On the one hand, this different reality was fascinating for me. Everything was colourful, happy, bright, and I came from a small, uninteresting and grey town of Jasło. On the other hand, I encountered a different mentality, society, and language. Things were easier for me, as I knew English language well. My mother is an English philologist and she was my teacher since I was a child. Still, the Australian accent and intonation are completely unlike the British English, so it took me a bit of time to get used to it. The first year was quite hard, and then I plunged into music studies.
ES: Did you learn music in Poland?
I graduated from a primary music school with the guitar as my instrument. I learnt the classical guitar with the intention to set up a heavy metal band one day. I wanted to develop a good technique, but the band never happened. In those days I had not been thinking about composing yet. I listened to a lot of music, mostly rock, but I also started to get into classical music. Typically, it was Bach, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, so the Baroque and Romanticism were my preferences then. When I came to Australia, I could access what then was important in music internationally. For example, the Perth Conservatorium Library had the recordings of Lutoslawski’s complete orchestral works.
JT: It is a city with quite an unusual location… how did you feel there?
As far as I know, Perth is the most isolated state capital in the world. As far as nature is concerned, Western Australia is a rather wild place. I went through various stages of getting used to the surroundings. In the beginning, it was very interesting, as I gained a sense of space, not only physically, but also mentally. I could concentrate on what I wanted to do and take it further, in the right direction. I had plenty of time to think and reflect: walking, cycling, sitting on the beach, just being close to wild nature – this sense of space was very positive for me. From this point of view, being in Australia played an important role in making a life decision. I enrolled in the Conservatorium as a guitar student, and then half-way through the four-year Bachelor studies I switched to composition as my major.
JT: How did you start composing? What were your first attempts like?
I think it was because of the music I always listened to. I started to dream that I could be not only a listener, but also a composer. I remember that I often sat down with a blank page of manuscript paper in front of me and tried to compose something. It was exhausting, as I had to think long and hard about each pitch and rhythm. When I started to take composition lessons at the Conservatorium, my teacher and great pedagogue Brian Howard opened my mind. First I had to imagine the whole piece, and then simply realized my vision. It turned out that not every pitch required a separate decision. Before that, I could not imagine how it is possible to write an entire opera (laughter).
JT: When did you feel that you were consciously creating something that was entirely your own?
The year 1999; and with the work called Les Éruptions du rêve. It was also a time when the collaboration with ELISION ensemble became an important impulse. However, before this happened, I was going in quite a different direction. The composers, with whom I studied, Brian Howard and Stephen Cronin, maintained a strict control over the material in their works; it was important to have a system in place. I also tried to compose this way, but I felt that there was always something missing… something fresh. Then I heard ELISION – that was it! The ensemble then comprised musicians from all over Australia: Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney. They came together for rehearsals and concerts wherever they performed. Usually they did not play as the full, over twenty-member ensemble, but in smaller combinations.
ES: How did you start to collaborate with them?
I listened to a lot of recordings and studied the works performed by them, especially by Liza Lim. I began to learn the ensemble’s approach to sound production and their thinking about composing. As it turned out, things could be still different to what I was taught during my studies. After developing a concept of the work, you design a system or a set of principles to generate the material, then you fix it all in the score, give it to an orchestra, and they simply realize what is written. Well, ELISION treats sound as a living substance. The notation in the score is like a manual containing instruction for the performer. It is the sound that makes up the work, not the information contained in the notation itself. Moreover, I became interested in the notion of process that takes place during the unfolding of a work: it does not have to be enclosed in a form with an introduction, culmination, and ending. There are countless other possibilities, but you have to approach the sound directly. Later, I was talking to Daryl [Buckley] about possible collaboration, and a proposition to commission two works appeared. This way, the first two works for ELISION emerged in 2003: open cluster M45 for amplified bass flute and motion+form for percussion, harp, and double bass.
INSTRUMENTS AND VOICE
ES: Why did you choose these instruments?
Well, the bass flute, for example, was a great discovery for me and I immediately felt that I just had to write a piece for it. Before open cluster M45, I had the chance to work with this instrument earlier at the Gaudeamus Music Week in Amsterdam, where my Glimmer (2002) was performed; it was then that I worked with a bass flute soloist (Michael Schmid) for the first time. I viewed this instrument as a wonderful machine, from which you can bring out a lot more than the standard articulations with air. All percussive sounds produced by the mechanism are richer in terms of colour and character here than on the normal flute. I became fascinated with its construction, sound, and the possibilities to manipulate the sound quality. There is much more expressivity when the sound is made more airy, e.g., flutter-tongue becomes more articulate then.
ES: How has your approach to instruments evolved in the successive works?
It is still evolving, that it gradually widens; the scope of possibilities becomes wider and richer. After completing e.g. a work for a low instrument, e.g. a bass flute or contrabass clarinet, the sounds always stay in my head as I continue to live with the piece and get ideas from it for the next one. I feel energies; I see images of timbres in my mind, like micro-explosions. From my point of view, you can speak about a sound object only when you combine on a flute, e.g. fingering, the energy of the air stream, and the mouthpiece positions. A kind of sound-seed is created then, an elementary object of sound. But it is also possible to use only some of the articulation elements, and then we are delving into the structure of the physicality of sound production and discover sonic pre-seeds.
JT: How do you avoid routine? Let’s assume that you are starting to write another work for a bass flute – an instrument which you know better than many other composers (even flautists). Is there anything new to say in this field?
When it comes to flutes, it is really not so easy after all those pieces… I have been very lucky to have come across many fantastic flautists, indeed. In the current work-in-progress for The Roentgen Connection there is also a flute (the other instruments being percussion and harpsichord), but I am not thinking about it yet as I focus on the other instruments for now. I have to find some new questions, unexplored depths. But first I have to see what the harpsichord part will be like. Next, I will work on the percussion part (for now, I only know that there will be crotales), and the flute part at the end. But I see this question in a broader context: is it possible to do anything completely new? There is always some kind of foundation. Often, it is our education, sometimes our tastes or habits, the music that we know and have listened to. It all creates a filter, through which we strain our ideas.
ES: First you imagine a sound, and then you search for it on an instrument – or the other way round?
Both at the same time, actually. I approach the essence of sound through the way it is produced. I think of performance techniques very precisely. The relationship between the player and the instrument, the physicality of instrumental operations constitute the other side of sound itself. There are two sides of the same coin: to get closer to sound, and to work with it directly. After completing a work, I often have an impression that there is still a whole universe of unused possibilities. For instance, the two bass flute pieces, streamforms and open cluster M45 (2003), were written one after the other. When I finished the former, I felt such an unquenched thirst for the bass flute that I started to write open cluster M45; it contains only three main pitches, but for each of them there are from 5 to 17 different fingerings. These were formed into various fast alterations of tremollando or bisbigliando types. Pitch is important, but it is not of overriding importance, as this is not where the total expressivity of the work is contained.
ES: So far, we have been talking about instruments only… the voice is something you don’t work a lot with, do you?
Well, it hasn’t been easy to find a suitably open vocalist. Personally, I prefer writing for male voices (but not exclusively, of course). I am very interested in writing for the voice, but only when I come across a singer I would like to write for. When it comes to working with a text, I would treat it more as a phonetic/sound material. However, I do not deliberately seek opportunities for collaborating with vocalists, or any musicians for that matter – my decisions and choices result from the circumstances to a large extent; things simply happen this way or that way. At one stage there was a possible project with Richard Craig and a highly experimental singer from Switzerland, but, unfortunately, an illness interrupted our plans… still, it’s an idea we can always revisit. Other performing resources I am interested in writing for is an orchestra, of course, and I even have a concrete plan for a piece… and the harp has been on my mind. I love the harp because I feel that it puts me in touch with antiquity and mythology. Also, the violoncello is an instrument I feel very naturally.
TO SEARCH AND TO FLOW
JT: Has it been your ambition to create your own musical language or system?
It is important for me to work out my own musical language, an original and recognisable one. I don’t know if I have arrived at that point, although I feel fairly sure when it comes to my compositional method – but it does not mean that I have been striving towards establishing some kind of system for myself. I compose intuitively; experiment is my method. I have to know that I am constantly searching for something, even if I have established a certain sonic and parameter vocabulary. For instance, I explore relations between rhythmic durations placed under various subdivisions, so that the impulses remain similar, but the pace of the musical matter speeds up or slows down. Perhaps it is a system, but it doesn’t work according to any preset mechanism; I don’t use any table or diagram that would determine the choices for me. Of course, I don’t start every single piece completely from nothing – I have my preferences when it comes to rhythm or articulation, etc. It is a natural process of developing an individual musical language, but it is very important that it does not become a cage.
ES: So what is it that sets the logic in your works?
It’s the searching, nothing else. I don’t have a vision of the complete piece before I start working on it. Even though I was educated in that way, I consequently distanced myself from that kind of thinking. I wanted to find out what can be discovered outside of that area. Gradually, from one step to another, the material I am working on is suggesting where I should go with it in the next moment. This way, when I enter a new territory, I explore new ground. For me, it’s very important to be able to open myself to unplanned possibilities.
JT: Is this connected with the fact that some of your works are integrated into larger ones, like Glimmer and Streams Within (2003)?
Well, yes, but recently I haven’t been so sure if it really works. For example, The Source Within (2006) is built from four self-contained works. At the core of a piece is a piano motif which runs throughout the 20-minute work, assuming the role of the “source” implied in the title. Then, there are three distinct quartets superimposed on this consecutively, i.e. RiverBed (flute, guitar, harp and violin), WaveLength (piccolo clarinet, contrabass clarinet, horn, and violoncello) and OverFlow (oboe, trumpet/piccolo trumpet, trombone and percussion). To be honest, I’m happier with all these pieces separately than together as The Source Within. For me, an instrument is like a character: when it starts to sound, I perceive a presence. The presence wants to develop and last. I concentrate on it and thus I have a musical layer. I know that soon there will be other characters appearing on the stage, and this actually makes it progressively easier to work on the next layers. However, I avoid hierarchical thinking; every instrument is equal.
JT: Characters, presence, stage. One could say, a theatre?
It is as if sound had a personality. Every instrument has it. When I think of an instrument, I picture in my imagination a range of possibilities to test. I need a certain quantity of material to investigate it all. That is why my instruments tend to be very talkative… it often happens that I have two or three minutes of material and suddenly I feel that I can’t go on. Then I start anew, but I don’t discard the generated material – I rework it. I have very fond memories of working on Certainty’s Flux (2013) for violin. It took me a year to write, because I kept coming back to the beginning. I had a portion of the material, and then I started to rework it and reshuffle various fragments. I finish a work when I know that I can’t arrive at a better final result. I never consider any piece to be perfect.
JT: The unfolding of your works is unpredictable and the endings happen to be even irrational. One has the impression that they meander about endlessly, flow on. How do you make the decision about the ending?
We could debate the notions of beginning and end: what do they actually mean? I often think about this, and it is important for me to create an impression that a piece begins somewhere half-way through, for instance. The end doesn’t have to be literally the end, but e.g. an allusion to something that was happening at the beginning. I’m definitely not interested in writing pieces in which the listener will know that there is a clear beginning and a clear end. Apart from this, there are works of mine that are in a more open form, allowing the performer to arrange a certain number of fragments in any order. These are (e)motion of forms (2005) for violin and Beginnings To No End (1999) for marimba and bongos.
ES: How does the idea of disintegration, which constantly resurfaces in your work, fit into this?
Yes, it is an ever-present tendency. Everything is going towards decomposition, dispersion. It is encoded in nature. But the question is whether music has to reflect its order. Let’s imagine that it rebels and searches for other ways. So we have two forces that counteract each other. In pre-seed (2009) for flute and ensemble, what I was interested in was the work’s constant striving to arise, to put itself together into a whole. It is about to fall into pieces, but somehow it tries to exist. It is a bit like walking on a tightrope, maintaining the balance on the threshold between disintegration and coherence. In short, stability versus turbulence.
ES: Your scores are very beautifully written out, even with calligraphy. It is as if the music had two qualities: the sounding and the visual. What is the importance of this to you?
For me, the calligraphy, the stage of preparing the final draft, is very important. I can’t imagine doing this on the computer. It is a vital and final phase of the creative process, and I have to feel it in my hand. I write out the whole material neatly and slowly. The first drafts I write with a pencil, just roughly, and then I use calligraphy pens for the final score. I believe that notation should reflect the character and personality of the music.
CHARACTERS AND SUPERIMPOSITIONS
JT: In the titles of your works, the word “certainty” appears quite often. What is your understanding of it?
The first piece to use this word in its title is the string quartet In Search of Certainty (2010). I was searching for the appropriate word, as it seemed to me that the process of the quartet was like cutting your way through a thick jungle, which, however, has its borders. The work actually reaches a kind of happy “end”, as if the way out of the jungle has been found. Later on, I thought that I could do something more with this word. I began to work with the French cellist Séverine Ballon and at that time I decided to focus more on the bowing techniques. As I see it, the bowing defines a territory of energy. One can move within the territory with greater or lesser certainty, just like in real life.
ES: Are there any theoretical issues that you are especially interested in at the moment?
I have been wondering about my ongoing writing for small chamber formations and whether it would be a good idea to go beyond that now. Recently, I have been thinking about an orchestral piece and imagining situations that could arise between various players (or groups thereof) in the orchestra. I have the idea to subdivide the orchestra into five distinct “characters” consisting of diverse but unchanging groups. This way, the classical hierarchy would be distorted, as I could have, for instance: flute, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, tuba and eight violins working as one permanent group. Also, each of the groups would be treated as a meta-instrument that would be built around distinct percussion set-ups, so there would be a metal, wood, and skin set-ups defining the character of each meta-instrument. In devising this idea, I was influenced by certain concepts of Liza Lim, who often uses combinations of many instruments as one source of sonority and sound energy.
Well, but for now these are just thoughts, as I have other projects on the agenda, and to write such a piece I would need at least a year. Also, I don’t know if it could be performed, because it is hard to find an orchestra willing to play new music (unless it is a commission). I suppose that I would have to write it in such a way that the orchestra musicians would be able to play it without practising it outside the rehearsal time. As you know, orchestra musicians don’t practise, they just put the music on the music stand at the rehearsal and read it. If the piece turns out too hard, it means that the composer didn’t do his job properly (laughter). Well, my plan for the orchestral piece involves a forty-member orchestra, so not very large… but everyone would have their individual part.
JT: You have already created meta-sounds. In Superb Imposition for Paetzold contrabass recorder (2010) you were superimposing various types of articulation.
Writing for the Paetzold was just fantastic. This instrument has an incredibly wide palette of possibilities, as all its articulations speak wonderfully. It has a perfect mechanism for the performance practice of new music. It would be interesting to transfer these ideas onto the orchestral resources. But I don’t know if I can realise these plans.
The notion of superimposing is generally very important in my work. In painting there is the glaze technique, where you place multiple layers of semi-transparent colours. In my work, it happens through combining various instruments in one piece, or merging several smaller self-contained pieces into a larger one. First, however, I need to concentrate on an individual part, so that it can constitute a material capable of being interwoven with another part, like a single thread that can be fused with other ones. If a sound event has a torn and angular quality, it has a better potential for interlocking with others. In other words, it has to have “cogs” in order to fall into place with the others – but spontaneously, even accidentally, not through pre-planned fitting, so that the objects don’t lend themselves to being distinguished so easily. So, I search for sound objects which are not fully formed and refined.
I remember that Chaya Czernowin came up with a very apt term for my concept of superimposing, calling it “blind layering”. Now that I mentioned it, my Gates of the Irrational (2007) comes to my mind, which is, incidentally, going to be performed at this year’s Musica Polonica Nova. Back then, I received a commission for a piece for baritone and piano, but I didn’t feel like working with any poetry at that stage. So I started to compile my own text consisting of titles of pieces which I have written or was going to write, and also Blind Layering found its way into the text.
A STREAM IN TIME
ES: Yes, the contact with Chaya Czernowin at the time of working on your PhD – how did it influence you?
We met at the Summer Academy in Stuttgart; Chaya responded very positively to my music and we had a very good contact from the start. Then, my working under her guidance involved meetings about once a month during one academic year. These meetings broadened my perspective on formal processes. My earlier music could be compared to a film with static shots, but very close-up and full of details, and Chaya helped me realise that there may be a need for varying perspectives. After the contact with her, a greater instability appeared in my writing, which I think you can hear in the works from the Certainty series. It is not a stream-like flow anymore, like in open cluster M45 or Streamforms (I for amplified bass flute from 2003 and II for amplified violoncello from 2004). In pre-seed I worked with elements that are foreign to one another, which creates dynamic relations between them – but nothing is as stark and vicious as in Chaya’s music.
JT: Yes, and the other key-words from your titles are: stream, flow.
In the years 2002-2005 I wrote quite a few pieces that were indeed flow-like, hence the stream metaphors in the titles (Streamforms, Stream Within). Then, The Source was supposed to be called Streamforms III, but I decided to give it the other title, because there were different issues that interested me besides organic flow and blurring the notions of beginning and end. In my opinion, this work actually begins somewhere in the middle (laughter). It is rather a long piece, and it doesn’t really work as one form, as there are disparate worlds co-existing there. One could compare it to a few rooms next to each other: they have separate or shared entrances, but they do not have overtly common features, and they do not overlap – if so, only very slightly, as if by accident.
JT: Time-wise, The Source is so vast that it’s difficult to refer to a “first room”.
I deliberately went over the top with the duration of this work. It just doesn’t seem to be able to reach an end. It always wants to grow, and it always wants to begin, even though it has already started. It seems to wish it had begun earlier; hence there is a sense of unfulfilment in it. When the material finally expends all its energy, then there must be an end – but before this happens, a kind of obsessiveness persists throughout. I often assign human traits to the material, as I see it as a sonic being or organism. Just like a stream is a liquid organism: it exists, it flows, and it has energy within itself.
ES: Have you thought about writing a work so long that it would throw the listener off from a sense of time?
No, I have never thought about a very long work. I guess I would have to use long notes, and I have an aversion to that. Repeating sounds is something unnatural to me, so I try to avoid repetition. I prefer to turn in the other direction: to create condensed music, so that in a shorter time you have a sensation of experiencing something vast and huge. Generally, the relationship between sound and time is of course fascinating. Time can have its dynamism, a varied flow, depending on how sound influences it. I often try to maximally speed up the succession of sound events; the issue is how fast the sound objects can occur one after another, and also how much they can differ from each other. Perhaps it is no surprise that, among the composers important to me, I would mention Lachenmann, Xenakis, Ferneyhough, also Finnissy and Barrett. I have always greatly admired Donatoni, as his works seem both highly structured and also very lively and dense. And he didn’t write long notes (laughter).
ENERGY, DYNAMISM, RHYTHM
JT: Another key-word that comes back all the time is “energy”. Do sound objects have innate energies, or is it possible to design it in any way?
Definitely the former. I only try to learn about the energies that are already there. I uncover them, not invent them. However, through exposing the energies and combining them in various ways, new relations between them appear and different musical situations are created. This is precisely what I’m very interested in: the musical context. I think this may be the most important issue in the searches of new music.
ES: In what way do you think about context?
Earlier, the issue of process had been very important in my work, but then it turned out to be intimately linked to context. As a sound organism flows in time, a context is created. My overall creative approach is very open; for instance, I don’t consider that certain intervalic structures, like octave, third, or major triad, are inadmissible. Why not use the tonic-dominant structure in a strange and unnatural way?… It happened sometimes that I arrived at such surprise-solutions in my composing. In the piano part of The Source Within there is a moment in which a modal/tonal chord is sounded, while the simultaneausly playing violin is detuned, completely out of tune. Another example of something atypical appearing out of nowhere is a harp glissando in motion+form, which brings to mind… Tchaikovsky, perhaps. It was not consciously pre-planned – it simply resulted from the unfolding of the material. It is all about projection of a trajectory, and my task as a composer is to uncover it, become aware of it, and follow it.
ES: You often speak about dynamism… what does it mean to you?
On the one hand, dynamism is interrelated with energy; on the other hand, as a musical parameter, it is an independent layer which can give a greater depth to the whole. There is a specified dynamic range which can be explored in-depth and merged with various instrumental operations. When I’m working out a sound object, I start with the technique of producing the sound, and then I search for the appropriate qualities for it. Usually I start with the rhythm and I work out just the durations for, say, a few dozen bars, and then I add pitches, dynamics, etc. A sound object is a whole made up of smaller parts. I perceive it as something that can be understood as various kinds of phenomena occurring on various scales, from a single key-click on a flute to a block of sound emitted by a full ensemble – although usually in my works there are rather short-lasting events.
JT: Why do you start with the rhythm?
For me, it is the basis. Rhythm is time, the spine of music. It is the impulses, pluses, vibrations. Everything is rhythm. It is in rhythm that the behaviour of sound in time is contained. For me, it is the fundamental musical alphabet, a primordial musical template onto which I drape or overlay the sound substance.
ES: What kinds of rhythms are most interesting to you?
Organic ones, oscillating between repetitiveness and unpredictability. If a period of regular pulsation occurs, it’s usually a very special moment. It’s possible to distort periodicity to the extent that it becomes completely unpredictable. For instance, I can use periodic subdivisions, but in a kind of warped version. It is not necessary to use extreme irrational rhythms right away, as in the so-called new complexity. To me, it’s interesting how one can present e.g. a group of four identical durations in various distortions and subdivisions, a bit like in a distorting mirror. It is enough to use the subdivisions into 7, 9, 10, 11, for instance.
ES: Do you ever want to go beyond sound, into space? In Certainty’s Flux, violinist Karin Hellqvist merged sound with gesture. Did you plan this yourself, or did it emerge out of her own personality?
Both, I think, but to a different degree. The performers for whom I write are always a great inspiration to me. Perhaps in some pieces there is something of the performer’s musical personality and their way of interpreting. Sometimes, more or less consciously, I use sound objects that carry gestures with them, i.e. spatial aspects. It’s important that it should happen naturally and that it should result from the character of the music. During one of the rehearsals with Karin, she said that she would like to perform the work with specific gestural elements, and I thought that it would be very suitable. Usually, issues like these appear after finishing the score, during the stage of working with the performer. It is still a part of the process of working on the new composition; as we work with real sound, we focus on exactly the sounds that we want to find. The first performance is the final stage, and only then the work is completed (laughter).
JT: Your works are considered difficult to perform, and yet, during our conversation, you seem to distance yourself from new complexity and I guess that you wouldn’t like to place any extreme demands on performers.
I think that with new complexity it’s a bit like in the old saying: the devil is not so black as he is painted. Often these works are notated in such a way that it seems impossible to perform, but in reality it turns out to be not so impossible. It’s like with the character of writing: if your handwriting is really messy, it’s hard to read. When it comes to my own work, I’ve never thought of myself as a new complexity composer. I’ve never felt the need to compose something that would be truly impossible to perform. Everything I write is completely performable, but it takes a little bit of practice (laughter).
POLAND: THE RETURN
JT: Just like in your works, we are starting this interview anew, half-way through it. Poland – Australia – Austria – Poland again… why this choice?
Well, I simply couldn’t afford to live in Vienna, so I decided to try Poland, and Wrocław seemed a good choice, as it’s relatively close to Vienna. But after some time my PhD scholarship started to run out, while Wrocław turned out to be not as cheap as I had thought. I tried to make ends meet, looking for more affordable places like Toruń, then I got involved in translation work for the Music Academy in Gdańsk. In Bydgoszcz I noticed that property prices were low, so I decided to buy a flat with my savings and with the help from my family. By that time I had realised that Polish music academies were closing their doors for me and I might end up never getting any teaching work, so it doesn’t really matter where I live.
ES: So you tried to find work at music academies?
I did, when I still believed that it makes sense to apply for the advertised vacancies. The main difficulty lies in the fact that I’m not a graduate of a Polish music academy and my activities as a composer spread out to many places outside Poland, so I’m perceived as a stranger here.
ES: How did your attempts to connect with the Wrocław circle look?
Well, the way it looked was that I didn’t manage to make any connections. Shortly after my arrival I was trying to make contacts in a very Australian style of communicating, directly and in an informal way. Well, that’s not how you do it in Poland. It’s not even about the formal style of communication… the thing is that here everyone is very much over-protective about their position and their professional territory. At the beginning, I just wanted to get to know the scene; I didn’t have any specific plans. I tried to meet someone just to chat over a coffee or something…
At last I became a member of the Polish Composers’ Union, I received the union ID, and I turned up at a meeting of the Wrocław branch. But the whole meeting consisted of a quarrel between two fractions, with the Chairman trying to moderate the discussion in between. My presence was irrelevant; I was just a “fly on the wall”. But on the other hand, why would anyone have to want to talk to me? There are so many composers in the world. Someone came in and is sitting and listening – fine, but what of it?
ES: Did you try to find performance opportunities for your music?
Yes, but things just weren’t working out. One time, there was a concert organised and I received an email asking for some scores. I sent a piece and straightaway I got a reply that nobody will play this kind of music… I remember that it was entangled for trombone and violoncello (2007), which is indeed a very demanding work, but it remains to be one of those pieces I’m most happy with. So then I started the next stage: sending applications for all “open” vacancies at academies everywhere in Poland. Cracow, Poznań, Gdańsk, Bydgoszcz, and elsewhere… I think everywhere except for Katowice.
JT and ES: You didn’t know that these vacancies are in fact closed?
No, it was something I would have never imagined. Usually I didn’t even receive any answer. Sometimes a letter came with one sentence written in a very dry tone, informing me that I was “rejected”. In one academy, where I had worked as a translator for three years, I was invited to do a presentation and composition workshops. Many times I offered to teach there, but each time I was just being given all possible reasons why they couldn’t accept me. Either it wasn’t clear how to qualify my Australian doctorate within the Polish regulations, or a habilitation was required, because the academy has no need for more composers with PhDs… and then they opened a vacancy for an assistant in composition and out of two applications, they chose their recent Master’s graduate.
JT: But things have changed since then, right?
When it comes to my activities as a composer, yes, I receive commissions in Poland. Recently I completed Veiled Words for the duo Flute O’clock, whom I regard very highly. I received the the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage fellowships twice and my works find their way into the Polish festivals. Nevertheless, sometimes I write works simply out of my own need, as in the case of In Search of Certainty. However, when it comes to teaching work at an academy, nothing has changed.
ES: How important is the financial side of being a composer for you? Have you taken into consideration any other work besides composition?
I went through quite a few stages. In the beginning I didn’t worry about this at all, it will work out somehow and that’s it. In Australia things were going well, I didn’t have to seek an alternative employment; in any case, I don’t have huge materialistic needs. Then, in Poland, when my PhD scholarship finished, I went through a stressful time. Fortunately my knowledge of the English language and musical terminology turned out to be a big advantage. That’s how I got into this project of preparing the English version of a musical encyclopaedia; it was three years of relatively well-paid work, and on top of that I was receiving commissions and fellowships. Currently I teach English at a language school, so I’m managing somehow. When it comes to a plan B, I really have no idea what else I could do, as I’m not good at anything else (laughter).
INSPIRATIONS: PAINTING, MYTHOLOGIES, THE WORLD
JT: Opening a new theme: inspirations. There were things like nature, entropy, energy, and dynamism. However, in the titles and your programme notes I was surprised to notice references to mythology… be it Mnemosyne, or the Pleiades.
The Greek mythology has fascinated me for a long time, as it is a wonderful and richly inspiring world – although recently I haven’t been thinking that much about it, because I feel more drawn towards exploring biological and quasi-psychological phenomena (the above-mentioned certainty/uncertainty). In Greek mythology, the rational world intertwines with the irrational. They co-exist like two sides of the same coin, without any divisions, and it’s irresistible… at least I can’t resist it, as it stirs my imagination, since I find it very natural and very human.
JT: Are you interested in any other mythologies?
Of course I am, it’s just that I don’t have enough time to get into it all (laughter). For sure, the meetings with Liza Lim gave me a lot, some years ago back in Australia, as she is often inspired by cultural phenomena that are extinct or on the verge of extinction. Dead languages, or ancient customs and rituals together with the objects connected with them are the things that often reappear in her works. So, yes, I’m very interested in mythologies in general. Ancient beliefs from the times before systemised and rigid religious institutions emerged; before the distortion of natural faith, which reflected human needs and desires, constituting a way of filtering the sensations, or overcoming some fears.
ES: Of death, for example.
Exactly. You travel somewhere underground and you have to watch out for this dog Cerberus. Then you sail in a boat across the river Lethe and you should drink a lot of water from the river to forget your former life. Finally you end up somewhere, where you receive a new life, and the cycle begins again. Such nice stories (laughter). It was a very long time ago when I became fascinated with these stories; I think I was still in primary school. When I was sixteen, I said at home that I didn’t want to go to church anymore, because I saw no point in it. My parents were reasonable enough to just accept my decision.
JT: And other inspirations?
It comes to me more naturally to draw inspiration from visual arts than literature.
Dobromiła Jaskot: Exactly and you haven’t mentioned all your schools yet.
At one point I thought I would paint, so after primary school I went to a fine arts secondary school.
ES: That’s incredible!
Calligraphy – it’s all connected.
JT: What calligraphy?!
Well, yes, I was half-way through a fine arts secondary school at the time of leaving for Australia. But really, this isn’t important.
ES: It is!
I’m just interested in visuals arts very much, especially painting. But it’s hard for me to pick anything out of the contemporary painting, as it often involves some kind of commentary on a social situation, or some political-feminist-vegetarian-gender issues, so it all becomes too literal and enclosed in terms of context and content. I can’t draw anything from there, as everything is spelled out for you. When it comes to my favourite painters, I would mention Magritte, de Chirico and other surrealists, also Klee, Miró, but especially the symbolist painter Redon, after whom I came up with the title Les Éruptions du rêve… these irrational metaphors which one cannot explain and one doesn’t need to explain.
ES: And in music it is also like that?
Yes, I think that we invent a world artificially through explanations, but in reality it’s just a fraction of a greater whole, where explaining doesn’t make any sense. There is no need to define or to pinpoint this or that content or meaning. If you can express something honestly and genuinely, it will find its way to the receiver without any explanations. It’s enough if you do what you truly feel and know that you want to do it. Then there is no need to assign a context, attach a meaning – you are simply opening a space of associations, visions, impressions… well, here I’m again trying to explain what you are opening, but it’s not known what it is. Somehow, we just know that it exists and that we are reaching that space.
ES: Is there anything in today’s world that particularly moves or interests you?
In today’s world I’m mostly irritated by the kind of artificiality and commercialism of our times. Also by the fact that everything is relative, everything can be valuable or worthless. Everything can be somehow packaged and sold. Only the surface matters. If you want to see and identify what lies under the surface, you have to be really attentive. For example, I do my work very slowly, and that already puts me in the opposition, because today everything has to be done fast and right now, the deadline is yesterday. I work on a composition for about a year and I write by hand, without using the computer. I don’t use electronics in my work, as I believe it slackens the imagination. But nowadays, you have to do something with technology, there have to be laptops and loudspeakers, because then it looks like a good show and it attracts big marketing. So, if I don’t do that, again it puts me at the opposite end.
JT: Maybe you are simply creating a niche for yourself, just like all of us, who are sitting here?
Or I should say that I don’t know anything about electronics, so that’s why I don’t use it (laughter).
But you actually have a tape piece and you managed with it just fine.
What? I do?
It’s probably not on the list of works! [Winter Light – ed.]
IN A COMPOSITIONAL DUO
ES: So how do you find the common ground with your partner?
(laughter) Actually, my partner has been pigeonholed as a multi-media composer, but the truth is that she also prefers to write scores. But wait, I have to clarify something. It’s not that I’m against electronics, it simply doesn’t give me ideas. I’m not an expert in it and I don’t feel the necessity to work with this particular instrument. Even when one can come up with the most amazing sounds, the formal shape often seems quite predictable and banal, so these kinds of concerts do not leave me with lasting impressions.
ES and JT: We are coming to the key subject, which is the relationship between two composers and its influence on creativity. It seems it’s the first time we’re conducting an interview in such a situation. What is it like?
I like to listen to music with Miłka, as she often surprises me with her comments, which are very important for me and later on I recall some of them in my thoughts during composing or thinking about a new piece. We listen to something and then talk about it. It often happens that the conversation drifts in various directions, e.g. to issues connected with circumstances or the scene. We also talk about each other’s pieces, we tell each other about our compositional ideas…
…sometimes, during composing, there is no need to say anything. Recently I was testing whether my vocal part was performable, and Dominik was just giggling. Although we have a common night-time schedule (laughter), we have different methods. I need to have a general idea at the start and later if I reach a point of doubt or stagnation, a conversation with Dominik turns out to be very constructive.
ES: Has your thinking about composing changed since you are together?
Generally? I’m sure it has influenced me in some way. I feel more certain in what I do. The writing goes more naturally and more quickly. Earlier I was thinking mainly about technical issues, but now I sense certain kinds of energies more clearly.
I think that more has changed in my music under the influence of yours: for sure, the sense of time, because in this aspect I had needed a change and to discover new paths. Before we met, I listened to your music a lot and it has opened my mind a great deal, e.g. in the direction of detail and away from stretching.
JT: How does the composers’ first date look? It surely must be very exotic. I think it might a perfect subject for some black-and-white New York comedy.
(laughter) A material for a new Woody Allen film.
We didn’t arrange dates, we had a matchmaker.
A certain pianist from Gdańsk played the matchmaker’s part…
JT: What is your typical day like?
First we get up and take our dog for a walk in the forest. Breakfast is usually later, then it’s already afternoon. It is Miłka who inspired me to such a nightly mode. So, after the walk and the breakfast we turn our phones on and start to attend to some matters. Pretty soon it turns out that the office hours are gone and then I wonder what I didn’t manage to do and what I have to postpone. Next, I run to the language school, and after that to a shop. Around 10 p.m. we cook and sit down to dinner, and finally around midnight, the time to compose begins. It is the best and most peaceful time.
ES: Do you think about a joint undertaking in the future?
We’d like to do something, we think about one project.
To combine Dominik’s instrumental powers and mine in electronics.
COLLABORATION AND RECEPTION
ES: What does collaboration with different artists look like?
It varies. As it often happens in inter-human collaboration, there are ups and downs, because everyone has a different mode of working, everyone has their own concepts, their own point of view, an individual work schedule with an individually planned deadline. It all varies. But this is exactly what makes it interesting, because in reality nobody has any idea what the result of merging differing personalities will be and I think that this is where the motivation to keep entering such collaborative projects lies.
JT: Was the project with Michał Libera and Paweł Krzaczkowski, Opera // Remix: Italo Calvino (2013) for two flutes, narrator and tape your debut of this kind?
Yes. Actually, I was thrown into this collaboration. There were a few hiccups along the way. The greatest surprise for me was the fact that, for a long time, I had to work by myself; this was the main difficulty in this project. At the very beginning, some conceptual points of departure were set out, about which everyone seemed to know, but I had imagined it all a bit differently. There were thoughts like “hang on, I have absolutely no idea what I got myself into”. However, I accepted everything and, after all, I think that it was a success; the reception at the premiere was certainly favourable. Even if I’d like to change a few things, I have to respect the others’ visions, as they are the authors of the remaining layers.
JT: Was this your first encounter with the writing of Calvino?
Yes, somehow I hadn’t come across it before. I’m usually a slow reader, it took about a year for me to get through this book also, and now I’m gradually turning towards Beckett, which is connected with the next project. If I become interested in an author, I try to read as much as possible and I limit myself to that author for some time. Kundera, Borges, Calvino.
JT: And what about the question of evoking emotions through music? Is it essential to you?
Yes, of course. Creativity comes out of the human being, his/her life and emotions, and then other human beings receive it, who also have feelings. I don’t approach this issue in a rational way, although I’m very much aware that every sound or sonic object carries an innate emotional charge. Similarly to the previously-mentioned energy, they are synchronised, like two aspects of the same thing. I try to sense these emotions and energies, but I definitely don’t try to invoke specific emotions in the listener. If someone creates with the intention to obtain a specific emotional reaction, then this to me is manipulation… or film music… sometimes musical opportunism. It is tied too closely to the kind of pompous and neo-romantic approach to creating music, which is completely foreign to me.
JT: So how do you imagine the listener? What do you expect from him/her?
I don’t have any expectations, I invite them to the listening, to openness and attentiveness. Everyone can perceive my music as they want; this is completely beyond my area of influence. When I’m composing, the last thing I’m thinking about is how my music will be received. But later, at the time of performance, I’m very curious of the reception. Sometimes I get surprised by certain reactions, for instance, after the premiere of Certainty’s Flux there were comments that a lyrical or poetic element appeared there. I found this interesting, as I completely didn’t think about it, just as I didn’t think that I was incorporating sounds belonging to the “noise” category into the piece. When I write, I focus directly on technical matters, while emotions are almost like a side-effect resulting from the subconsciousness. If I start to analyse them, then I’ll get stuck in some kind of psycho-analysis, and in composing this is not what I’m after.
The interview took place in Bydgoszcz, 29 March 2014; Edition: Ada Borowska, Dominika Micał; Chief Editor: Jan Topolski; authorised text.