Tomasz Cyz: What is music?
Krystian Lupa (laughs): Or perhaps better: What is truth? What is art…? They’re a kind of installation of the human mind that can be used in different ways. But, as I understand, we’re not interested in the encyclopaedic definition of music here, are we?
No. We’re not.
I’d rather be talking about what purpose music serves in man’s spiritual adventure. Or where it comes from. Music is a kind of space-time continuum thanks to which man feels more confident, stronger. It’s a better organization of the world because a world devoid of music is chaos.
Krystian Lupa, 2005, photo: Piotr Skiba
Music is also an inner song, which means that every emotional state has its rhythm and melody that wants to express itself in some way. That’s why in different situations people tend to make sounds, to fall into rhythm. Rhythm is also something that people often need. In ritual, for instance (another question: what is ritual?), rhythm is a kind of staircase that you use to climb onto a launch pad: for flight or levitation. Music is a striving towards, and a dream about, a better life. It’s a peculiar link between the inner and the outer, between the self and the non-self (that is, the world).
You mentioned the inner song. Do you remember your first one?
I always loved it when someone sang or played. I remember it very clearly and vividly. But those were also different times, in the evening, in different parts of towns and villages, people came out in front of their houses and played, made music and sang. It’s completely disappeared now, even in the countryside. Perhaps such a move away from music is natural and every generation experiences something similar. I’m reminded of a scene in the first act of Chekhov’s Seagull where Arkadina sits by the lake, it’s quiet, the silence almost sounds likes its singing over the lake. And she says, “There used to be so many manors here, you heard singing and music all evening.”
What I actually meant was the first, primal contact…
Hold on. I have one example. I was small, three years old perhaps, or two and a half, and was still carried in a stroller when we went to the bakery, etc. And when I was left in front of the shop, alone, I’d start my ritual while waiting. I would pound my feet on the bottom of the stroller, lying there and pounding. No, no, I didn’t do it to attract attention. It was a way of spending time, it was very important, mine, not to be ignored, and if I had stopped doing that, something would have gone bad, stunted, I’d have been unhappy… The pounding, drumming, helped me not to cry, helped me to be alone. So perhaps music is, has to be, connected with human solitude, it’s thanks to music that you feel a bond with your fellow human being, a space of communication and community opens when music is present.
I’m reminded of one more thing. When I was somewhat older, my mother studied mathematics extramurally in Gdańsk, I went there with her and she’d always take me to the opera. Today I rebel against this “opera kingdom” – it’s utterly anachronistic, out of tune with our imagination, our mimetic needs… But back then I was dazed. And when I came back home, to Jastrzębie, where there was no opera-house of course, for a long time I wouldn’t do anything but create it for myself. I walked around the garden, inventing all kinds of plots, characters who met each other for some reason, which gave rise to passions, conflicts, loves and deaths…
Did you sing?
Of course! I became lost in it, I howled to high heaven, as if I was being skinned alive. The kids from the neighborhood laughed at me, saying that Krysiek (which is what they called me in those days) has lost his mind and is running around the garden with a stick in his hand and singing (laughs)… There’s this saying: speak and you’ll know what you think. As well you might say: start singing and not only will you know what you think but also what you feel.
So music is also an emotion?
It sure is, though not in the sentimental, banal sense. Rather, it has to do with the deeper, more mysterious emotional levels – emotional states or energies… I prefer to think about music as Beethoven did when he said that music meant events between sounds. And in those events there are tensions, conflicts, clashes that build new structures. Or, as Bach showed in the fugue, most persuasively in Kunst der Fuge, music is a process that at some point, once it has been initiated, becomes a necessary process.
Do you need music?
It depends… You could say I need it off and on. I was addicted to music for a very long time. It was like an addiction. And at some point I felt that my contact with music had become pointless, passive, that I no longer creatively reacted and responded to music.
I also understand today that there are people who need music to hear themselves in it. For others, it’s quite the contrary, meaning that they listen to music to tone down something that is in themselves and can explode at any time and infect them with fear. For them, music is a kind of peculiar continuum, the constant rocking of an orphan. They listen to music in order to keep from, I don’t know, running off somewhere or smashing something. You listen to music in to keep from hearing the truth about yourself, that you’re actually worthless, or wasting away by the day, or that you’re haunted by a terrible fear of something you’ve failed to do.
I remember the words of Ewa Bieńkowska who once told me that she didn’t listen to music in moments of depression…
Right, right… I’m also sometimes afraid of music in moments of depression. I feel that even very good music can break some thin membrane beyond which there’s howling, madness, total disintegration, a bunch of demons eager to get inside me. Yes. And not only in moments of depression but also during illness, don’t you think? In moments of physical anxiety, physical stuntedness…
You feel that you’re unable to face up to music, that it won’t fill you because the tunnel through which it flows into you is stopped up at the moment, like a congested nose, if you’ll pardon the expression. Or like a vein plugged with a hematoma. And that it’ll flow down some other, false channel, down peripheral corridors not meant for that, causing them to burst. And it’s not that music will corrupt us as much as we who will corrupt music.
I remember – I was in quite a serious depression once – I can’t remember now exactly whether I forced myself or was forced by the circumstances to listen to one of my most beloved Schubert quintets. And for a long time afterwards I couldn’t listen to that quintet because I’d corrupted it in myself with that depression. I’d compromised it, smeared, tainted it with myself.
Schubert, Mahler, Bach, and today it’s Szymański … Do you have a closed music list?
I was once asked this question, perhaps it’s not the wisest of questions, but I’m constantly reminded of it: what music would I take with me to a deserted island? And the answer’s been the same: Kunst der Fuge by Jordi Savall. That’s right. Every time I listen to it differently, I hear it differently, follow a different path. That’s the philosophy of this fugue, after all. It can’t be “contemplated” fully. It doesn’t have this single melody that you hear once, twice, thrice and then you can sing it and then you start masturbating with it ad nauseam.
What’s most beautiful in this fugue is the infinite combinatorial potential present precisely in what happens between the motifs, the voices. Actively listening to a fugue sometimes means identifying with a single melodic line. Then you can say: my “self” is there, it’s that line, and the other melodic lines touch it. And that’s precisely what happens in Savall’s interpretation. When I listen to Kunst der Fuge played on a piano, I can never understand, comprehend it fully.
Of course, my musical disability is that I only listen and don’t create, I don’t even know how to read sheet music. And it makes my hair curl when I read about how Beethoven receives the manuscript of some Schubert quarter and sheds tears “reading” it, following the score. I say to myself, Jesus Christ, how is this possible? How can he hear it in this deaf head of his…? I simply don’t know how it’s possible for emotion to appear under – or before – the sensual quality that is offered only by the sound, the actual materialization of music.
Listening to Kunst der Fuge, I play in various ways. I’m able, for instance, to stick my moods to this piece. And if you let music touch your sadness, it’s like the touch of the surgeon’s fingers or that of a blind person reading a mysterious text written in Braille.
You’ve touched upon an extremely important aspect of music. You said: Beethoven reads a Schubert manuscript. So a sheet of paper filled with musical notes is, in a way, deaf, mute. The composer writes down something that doesn’t exist yet. The question is: what is it?
No, it does exist. The composer, the musician, is of course able to materialize, to embody this kind of invisibility, non-existence. I can’t do it. But if I created operas as a child, perhaps I could be a musician… There’s this sentence in Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction, terribly funny, which goes more or less like this: “she was very musical and it’s a pity she didn’t play any instrument because she could have been a great pianist” (laughs).
Malicious and beautiful.
I could say the same about myself. Of course, there’s still the chance of me learning this, developing this ability to see…
I love talking to composers. I have an overwhelming sense that they are mysterious beings, a completely unique human condition. I keep asking them: how do you do it? Exactly how? How does it sound to you, how does it arise, shape itself, transform? These are naïve questions like those between the genders when a man asks a woman: How do you experience orgasm? Because I’ll never know it myself. And vice-versa.
I’m fascinated by sub-musical structures, I like ambient, the concreteness of reality that can become music. I also often ask: where is it that music begins? Can we define its exact boundaries? Music is a condition of feeling the world. After all, even what’s happening here at this point is music – provided that you enter the condition of the structuralization of this moment.
But I feel that composers like talking to me, too. It used to be, for example, Stanisław Radwan, Jacek Ostaszewski, today it’s Paweł Szymański. I tell them my theories about music, which they find very bizarre. I listen a lot, hear a lot, in my own way of course. So I belong to the category of listeners who notice for sure whether they’re still playing or not (laughs).
I asked you at the beginning what music is. And now I have the feeling that we’re talking about music that springs from everywhere. Music that is everywhere.
Music had to come into being. My understanding of Beethoven’s famous statement: “Musik ist höhere Offenbarung als alle Weisheit und Philosophie” [music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy – ed.] is that music is the human spirit’s path towards illumination. And if there exist other civilizations, other planets or worlds, they surely have their music. I’m not sure whether they have theatre, film, poetry or literature. But they surely have music. I only don’t know whether it’s similar to ours.
translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak