Classical, Almost Popular
Robert Piotrowicz in Karol Szymanowski’s tuxedo, photo: I. Krenz

Classical, Almost Popular

Talk with Robert Piotrowicz

I recently had a rather arduous conversation with a certain musician about the concept of ‘sexiness’ in music. The term ‘sexy’ provoked such consternation that you would think I was talking about the paranormal or was using marketing lingo

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PIOTR TKACZ: You’ve spent much of your musical career focusing on the possibilities offered by synthesizers. Why the sudden shift towards other instruments?

ROBERT PIOTROWICZ: That depends on what period of my work you look at. In the late 80s and early 90s, I composed music for rock bands (mainly STUCKONCEILING), and that was mostly guitar, drums and electronics. Towards the late 90s I became interested in the techniques and acoustic qualities associated with prepared guitar, and I began creating electronic sounds myself. That was a time when I focused exclusively on building structure. Electronic sounds remain a crucial part of my work, and are perhaps even more important than composing with traditional instruments. But I felt a great need to include as wide a variety of instruments as possible in my new project. Not just for the sake of statistics, but for the possibilities they offer in terms of sound.

The material that lay the groundwork for the album When Snakeboy is Dying was actually created for a literary project. Tell us something about that.

In 2009 I was asked to compose music for an original audiobook featuring Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito in its entirety. All together, the two CDs contain about two hours of music that serves purely as a background or add-on. By the time I was done with that project, I knew I would have to start on another one using the same music.

Robert Piotrowicz

Robert Piotrowicz, born 1973, is a composer, improvisational musician, and co-founder of the Musica Genera Festival and the Musica Genera label. He has released several solo albums as well as collaborations with Xavier Charles, Keven Drumm, Jérôme Noetinger, Burkhard Stangl and Anna Zaradny. Piotrowicz has co-authored radio dramas, installations, and music for theatre productions, and collaborates regularly with other artists on audio-visual and theatrical performances. His concerts feature saturated, detailed musical forms created with analogue synthesizers and computers. His music has as much in common with contemporary electro-acoustic compositions as it does with sound art.
His upcoming album When Snakeboy is Dying will be released on PAN Act records.

One of the pieces on Mr. Cogito was later slightly rearranged for a release by Bocian Records titled Rurokura and Eastern European Folk Music Research vol. 2, where it is listed as a fictional song by a nonexistent girl orchestra from the village Gromovaya Balka in Ukraine (which happened to be the location of an extraordinarily bloody clash between the Wallonische Legion and the Red Army). The group supposedly performed the composition on the 10th anniversary of the death of Cioran. The anniversary and the location were both historically accurate. Then the music label PAN Act expressed interest in publishing the material from the audiobook. It took me a long time to rearrange those compositions: the earlier ones were much more subtle and relied heavily on consonance. The audiobook was geared towards the average consumer, who wasn’t supposed to die of a heart attack two poems into the book. The narration of the pieces changed as well. Even though you can pick out similar elements in both recordings, most of the compositions are completely different.

The reason I mentioned analogue synthesizers earlier was because I was surprised that you had used them on this album. It sounds like the synths are hidden in the music. Some of the sounds could easily be mistaken for strings, while the main themes are performed on piano and vibraphone. Yet the record is on the whole very consistent.

Most of the electronic material was created on a synthesizer, with parts done on a computer, which I mainly used as a tool to build pseudo-generative harmonic narratives that flowed freely from specific algorithms. I devoted a lot of space to the instruments you mentioned as well as the guitar. I was drawn to the idea of changing the centre of gravity, shifting it to instruments that I haven’t used much, or at least not for many years. I also wanted the album to be an ostensibly classical and relatively tonal one.

I achieved this instrumental intimacy largely by working with the timbre and nature of particular sounds (or should I say sound events). This engaged the individual elements of the composition in an internal, horizontal relationship. But the design of each piece as a whole isn’t that straightforward; much of it goes on at the architectural level, subtly constructed under the surface of the most obvious elements. You can listen to these tracks without noticing a thing. The compositions were intended to be clear and relatively undemanding at first listen. I was convinced for a long time that it was a pop album.

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So you started out with the idea that you would base the compositions on the juxtaposition of obvious, catchy themes and a complex background that, in reality, was actually much more than that.

Not exactly. Keep in mind that the project was initially intended to be part of an audiobook, hence the abundance of elements (let’s call them tonal elements) built around consonance. This was my first composition to feature such a clear melodic element, although it’s still rooted in a rather raw sort of minimalism. I wanted to retain that formal facade in the rearrangement while adding ambiguity: the foreground isn’t everything.

I made that particularly clear on the track Pneuma. You can analyse that composition by following the mutual inspiration that goes on between its elements as they rise, fall, or remain suspended in space. It might not always seem intentional on the part of the composer, but that’s not the case at all.

Does it matter that you recorded all the instruments yourself? Would you be open to working with other musicians and have them play the instruments according to your instructions?

I’ve never used samples or recordings made by other musicians. If I want to use a vibraphone, I have to perform and record the vibraphone track myself. This has its limits, of course. For instance, I can’t put down a trombone track. This makes the recording of When Snakeboy is Dying seem like a daunting task. But this method determines, to some extent, my composition techniques, which address the question of timbre from the very first notes. For example, when I was recording the piano parts to previously composed electronic structures, I had a very precise idea of the preparations I was going to use. My playing technique, timbre, and modulation are all integral parts of the composition.

I would like to start working with other musicians, of course, particularly ones who play ancient and keyboard instruments. I think collaborations of this type will be inevitable in the long run. One of the new project I’ll be working on later this year will feature new instruments as well as voice, or I should say singing. It’ll be a composition with a libretto based on the work of William Blake.

You’ve been working more and more on projects that involve lyrics and words. Does your approach to working with sounds change when they have to coexist with words?

For a long time, I considered literature to be a creative form superior to music. Perhaps it was because my work at the time was more conventional in form and was based on deconstructed popular music. I felt that words were free of those post-popular discourses, and I believed that language itself could be used to produce statements that are radically individualist and self-contained in their logic and aesthetic, while at the same time being incredibly dynamic.

Robert Piotrowicz at the Lausanne Film and Music
Festival 2010, photo: furibond, flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 license
I’ve been working on radio projects for the past few years. Lukáš Jiřička selects the plays and oversees the dramaturgy, then we direct the performance together and I compose the music. I’m currently working on new music to a spoken word piece by Helmut Kajzar titled Samoobrona (Selfdefence). In this project, I focus on the words — not just their meaning and interpretation, but also on isolated words that are often ambiguous when you take them by themselves. Sometimes what matters is the différance, where a particular word has a specific meaning and yet evokes some warped, atavistic associations or no associations at all. Lacking any meaning in its basic unit, sounds make perfect building blocks for structures in which the text is expressed in completely novel ways.

Do you consider yourself beholden to a particular musical tradition?

I often ask myself that same question, and the answer is that I still don’t know. There’s no particular tradition that influenced me as an artist that I could now point out as my own, even symbolically. I’ve had some really interesting experiences, and have only afterwards discovered that something or someone could have been “my tradition”. Whenever I would reach a clearly-defined image of what I wanted my art to be, I would discover just how much I owe to the likes of Lucier or Feldman, to name but two examples.

Radulescu is the artist I feel closest to right now. While I’m not familiar with all his work, I believe he is the greatest composer of all time, a completely radical, ultra-intelligent and endlessly sensual artist. There’s little more about music and sound that interests me; in fact, there might not be anything else. Going back to your question, I find that not having a tradition to call my own has kept me from stalling ever since I started making music. I’ve always learned to play whatever was in my head.

What does sensuality in music mean to you?

Sound is something that can be physically quantified; it’s the vibration of air, matter and the body. The vibration of the air, the diaphragm of the speaker, our eardrums — all of these are a sensual manifestation of that experience. The codes of music and its traditions have mostly focused on the melody and rhythm of sound rather than on its physical image. Much of the musical tradition can exist without a high level of vibrations because you can still hear and sing your favorite songs even at low volume. You can even do it in your head, although then the stimulus goes from your mind (not the sound) to your body.

If you combine those values — that is, the sensuality of the sonic construct and the narrative and expression of a certain intellectual element that is not a manifestation of erudition, but rather a product of creativity — you can achieve a certain state of completeness, a state that I see as a brightly shining goal. A blinding one, I would even say. Designing sound in complex physical forms allows us to achieve sensuality, the end result of which is parasexual in nature, particularly at live performances. I recently had a rather arduous conversation with a certain musician about the concept of “sexiness” in music. The term “sexy” provoked such consternation that you would think I was talking about the paranormal or was using marketing lingo. But when an artist creates an intense and dense sonic construct, he often achieves a very high degree of domination over space. The listener experiences the music throughout that space, including the physicality of the performer himself. The artist’s gestures release sounds, but the power of the sounds comes back and affects him. To a large degree, this partial feedback loop illustrates the physicality that is also part of the concert experience, and is inextricably linked with the event as a whole. It has nothing to do with the artist’s idiotic erotic posturing on stage, although that can have its benefits in other contexts, too.

There’s a certain drama to the composition on the album, one that may correspond to some abstract narrative. Is the titular Snakeboy its main character? If not, how does he fit in with the music?

The album is divided into two parts. The first side is an expression of processes that occur in nature. This may be somewhat of an overinterpretation, but this part is very carnal and warm, and limited in a more welcoming way. This quasi-story talks about a shapeless mass, about the condition that exists before creation, before a shape is achieved, and about a period of naïveté and the natural domain. Perhaps the titular character experiences a series of revelations, perceiving processes and phenomena, and something starts to churn inside him.

When thought enters that shapeless mass, destruction occurs, and the “after” state is liminal. I don’t identify that with death, but rather with the past. That construct covers the subject, the main character of the album, in the glory of consciousness.

But I want to point out that the story is completely open in nature, perhaps even completely dispensable. I wanted to build an almost epic narrative using abstract language. Its clarity and precision makes this language a very attractive form of communication. By conveying non-verbal information, the work becomes more essential; the content doesn’t obscure the essence and it doesn’t occupy the listener’s time. Everything happens at once (or doesn’t). This album isn’t as orthodox as the others. As I said before, the music on When Snakeboy is Dying is largely classical, almost popular, in fact.

translated by Arthur Barys