The Magic Carpathians Project
Interviewed by Jeff Penczak
Marek Styczynski has been making beautiful, challenging, multi-ethnic, folk music for over twenty years as a member of the Polish collective known as ATMAN (interviewed by Phil McMullen for Ptolemaic Terrascope issue 25 in August 1998). Anna Nacher joined the band for their final album, “Tradition” in 1999. In the three years since ATMAN’s previous album, “Personal Forest” was released, Anna and Marek conceived of a new project, “to have as much creative space as possible to exchange ideas, inspiration and energy with other people. What we call a “Project” is the concept of open space, where anything can happen.”
The couple are as proud of their Polish heritage as they are of the opportunities the new undertaking presented – opportunities to promote their lifestyle, and political, personal and religious beliefs through music that demands the listener’s attention to lyrics, themes, and musical nuances as varied as the myriad instruments the couple seem to master with ease.
Over the last seven years or so, Projekt Karpaty Magiczne (The Magic Carpathians Project) has released nearly two-dozen recordings, with almost as many split CDs, EPs and compilation contributions. Their latest release, which we reviewed in May, “can be approached as a concept album about coming to terms with loss, loneliness, and insanity in an increasingly evil universe.”
In the following extensive interview, Anna (with assistance from Marek) takes us through the history of the project, revealing intensely personal moments from their lives which have brought them to their current status as one of the world’s formost practitioners of what they refer to as “ethnocore” music. Like their music itself, not everything you are about to read is pretty – in fact, some of it is downright evil. We want to thank Anna and Marek for their honesty and openness is sharing these intimate snapshots from ther lives.
JP: Can you elaborate on the concept of the Magic Carpathians Project, since it seems to be basically just just you and Marek?
Well, the latest album [‘Sonic Suicide’] we recorded as a duo and it is quite an exception – usually we invite other musicians. Since 1998 when the Project was initiated, quite a few folks have appeared on our releases and it’s been an international collaboration with musicians coming from Lithuania, UK, France and the U.S. This is the main difference between what we understand as a “Project” and what usually is called a “band.” While in a band you have more or less a stable line up, but within a “project” we have much more freedom and collaboration. One of the most important goals when we were establishing the Magic Carpathians Project was to have as much creative space as possible to exchange ideas, inspiration and energy with other people. What we call a “Project” is the concept of open space, where anything can happen. But we as a duo are the core of it – so the latest album is getting back to the core, sort of Magic Carpathians stripped down to basics (in many senses of the word).
Anna, you sang on the last ATMAN album, ‘Tradition’ and some of the musicians also appear on the first Magic Carpathians album, ‘Ethnocore.’ Tell us a little about the transition from ATMAN to Magic Carpathians Project.
At some point it was pretty obvious to everybody involved that ATMAN was over as a band. ‘Tradition’ was ATMAN’s last album, recorded in a very tense atmosphere, more than three years after ‘Personal Forest.’ There were some conflicts as well, both personal and esthetic. Seen from today’s perspective, it was more about esthetics than anything else. Marek and I were interested in improvisation and the whole spectrum of new sounds (e.g., weird electronics) which meant taking some risks and starting anew, while the others felt very comfortable with what ATMAN had become and didn’t want to change. Also financially it was difficult to get by – the members all have their family responsibilities so they had to combine some kind of professional jobs with music. Regular touring and recording was very difficult under such conditions. At some point it turned out to be impossible – especially playing concerts abroad. We were getting more and more invitations, the interest was really growing high, but we couldn’t live up to these expectations, for many reasons. Being a part-time professional musician means making some sacrifices in your personal life and some members apparently weren’t ready to do that. But the most important reason why we parted ways was the overall concept behind the music.
In addition, Marek has been musically active in other bands, as different as playing classical Indian ragas in Raga Sangit to his experimental punk/no wave band, Komitet (who even made it to the famous underground festival, Poza Kontrola – Out of Control). We have maintained some relationships (like the one with bassist, Tomasz Radziuk), but the others have naturally ended. When we were starting the Magic Carpathians Project we felt both afraid and happy – afraid because we knew that ATMAN had gained some fame and built an audience which might not like the new incarnation, and happy because there was a tremendous flow of creativity. During the first months we spent entire days just playing the music for which there was no place in ATMAN and which we carried in our heads for so long.
The time was very turbulent indeed – Marek divorced, and I moved to the town where we live together now [Nowy Sącz, in the Western Carpathian Mountain range of Beskid Sadecki, approximately 100km south of Krakow near the Slovakian border]. At one point we lived in a very small apartment in a huge post-communist, grey block of flats where our neighbours were mostly hobos and criminals (we won their respect one day when we played a Sepultura video at full volume on our TV!) But we were so full of inspirations, new music, and new ideas that we simply didn’t pay much attention to the hardships of life.
So, would you say Magic Carpathians was a fresh start or a continuation of ATMAN?
After some time it became obvious that Magic Carpathians Project IS also a continuation of ATMAN – especially on the series of releases we called “biomusic,” which is a combination of acoustic ambient and folk, with field recordings incorporated into the music. Another thing we have in common with ATMAN: when they started in the mid-seventies, the audience was as shocked during their first shows, as it was when we played our first concerts as Magic Carpathians. I remember during one of our very first shows, people insulted us about the way I sing or the way we play electric guitars. But this was the energy of transformation and change that we needed.
You mentioned you maintained a professional relationship with Tomasz Radziuk (from ATMAN). His basslines are integral parts of your releases, particularly as an anchor to your vocalizations in the upper registers (I’m thinking of much of ‘Vak,’ but particularly his soloing with cellist Alexandra Yaromova on that album’s ‘N’est-ce Pas?’) Recent releases, however, have just been the two of you. Was that Tomasz’s decision to make music elsewhere or your decision to move into a different musical direction that no longer required a bottom-heavy sound.
Playing with Tomasz is a real pleasure and I love his heavy bass lines in the background (apart from playing Kramer bass guitars, sometimes he uses a fretless acoustic which sounds very jazzy and smooth). Tomasz is the only musician who appeared on ‘Sonic Sucide,’ which was meant [to be recorded] as a duo. The only problem working with Tomasz is his regular job. These days, music has become more and more an extracurricular activity for him, especially since he became one of the CEOs in his company. Also he recently became a father, which is pretty time consuming. But we meet occasionally on stage – in August we’re going to play together at a festival in Slovenia.
Tomasz’ case is typical of most of the musicians we work with in our local scene: sooner or later you face up to the dilemma that either you play music or you start earning enough money to provide your family with a decent life. If they become professional musicians, very soon they are too busy to play with us since we’re not always able to pay them enough. Besides, we have a completely different attitude toward the music we play on stage: it is not about being rehearsed and exercised and polished earlier and then replayed in this pre-established way once we get on stage. In the first place, it is improvisation and exchange which comes out of communication through music. Not many musicians – even professional – can adapt to this philosophy. Because there is so much unpredictability on stage, you need to listen carefully and react to your OWN feelings, not just “remember” what was going on during rehearsal.
You have occasionally worked with other artists, such as Cerberus Shoal. Tell us how that project came about.
We really appreciate working with other musicians – it is one of the most important aspects of what we do, something that stimulates and inspires us in a very unique way. We met Cerberus Shoal back in 2001, at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, where we shared the stage with them and Six Organs of Admittance. [Note: This March 27, 2001 performance was released as part of their World Flag CDR series.] We exchanged addresses and some time later they invited us to work on a split CD (‘The Life and Times of the Magic Carpathians and Cerberus Shoal’).
I noticed that you recorded ‘Continuum’ for both the ‘Water Dreams’ and Cerberus Shoal collaborations (retitling it ‘Contiuumed’ on the latter EP). Can you describe the difference between the tracks for us and explain how you worked out the logistics of collaborating with the Shoal folks.
The logistics weren’t easy, being located on two sides of Atlantic Ocean! Basically, we recorded the tracks and sent them over to be reworked and reassembled. But ‘Continuum’ only underwent minor changes in terms of mixing, which might be not audible [between the two versions]. Originally there was more material than what finally appeared on the split CD, but we were really pleased with the outcome. In fact, we played two shows in Poland with them during their recent European tour and afterwards we expressed a common interest in recording together again. But this time we would like to actually jam together. Nothing is more powerful and energetic than sharing one space musically. With the Shoalers we could feel this massive flow of energy exchange on stage which always promises a fruitful cooperation. Playing together was such a massive pleasure that we couldn’t resist to indulge in it again. There are some plans but we’ll keep quiet for now!
Anna, I have drawn comparisons between your vocal style and that of wonderfully eclectic singers like Yoko Ono, Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins), Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), Diamanda Galas and Nina Hagen. First, are these fair references for people who may be unfamiliar with your releases and second, could you share with us who your specific influences are?
Definitely Yoko Ono is a sort of icon to me – for different reasons. What she did with her Plastic Ono Band was so much ahead of their time that it stirred much irritation and mixed feelings from the audience, sometimes even aggression. I remember how she was laughed at once by the DJ on one of the Polish radio stations. This drew my curiosity – who is this brave woman who recorded something which didn’t resemble anything else in the world?
Out of the heroines and divas you have mentioned, I’ve been least inspired by Diamanda Galas – which is sort of funny since I’m compared to her all the time. In fact, I’ve never listened to her music much and I don’t quite like her vocal expression, although I appreciate her amazing techniques. But sometimes it sounds to me like it is only technique… I can’t hear her own voice in what she does.
As a young girl I was thrilled when I heard and saw Nina Hagen – and I really like her style, even the most weird Hindu-disco incarnations – there’s one album, ‘Revolution Ballroom’ (Activ, 1994) which is pretty surprising! Liz Fraser and Lisa Gerard were my very first inspirations… the voices that somehow gave me the power to work out my own distinct technique.
But the most important influences to me were the archaic vocal techniques of Asian shamans and Eastern European/Balkan vocalisations. I’m still totally immersed in it. Right now I’m thrilled by Nordic voices, joik, which is a very special technique of Saami people and voices of shepherdwomen from Northern Sweden, Norway and Finland. I’ve also picked up some interest in techniques of singing developed by women of Muslim culture in Northern Africa. Last year in France I discovered the CDs of Cheikha Remitti, an old woman who is an amazing character and sings in a very straightforward manner about many aspects of a woman’s life: her sexual encounters, lovers, hardships, etc. There are many other vocalists whom I appreciate (for different reasons): Catherine Janiaux, Iva Bittova, Meredith Monk, Patty Waters… And, of course, always Sarah Vaughan and Janis Joplin (how could anyone NOT mention these names?) Patti Smith will always be a singer from whom I can learn a lot.
I’m truly devoted to working with voice on a very deep level so anything can be inspiration, and I’m always searching for new ones. Part of my singing technique comes also from listening to animals’ voices in nature – it is a very unusual training for a singer. I also went to Corsica to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams to study some of the aspects of its polyphonic vocal tradition. But frankly speaking, these days I’m more and more interested in listening to my own innate voice and how it connects to the world.
Several of your earliest releases were part of the three-part “ethnocore” series. Can you describe to our readers what are the components of “ethnocore.”
We came up with this sorta “label” – which bears some auto-ironic components as well – because it’s been always difficult to classify the music we play. What we meant at first was “core” not as a musical genre but in its dictionary definition as something which is at the very centre… the very basic and very important part. For us it’s been a quest to find – or at least to pose some important questions about – our cultural identity beyond the idioms of “world music,” which seems to be another neocolonial strategy to keep those who are [outside the mainstream population] (and, thus, usually subjected to the power of others) neatly categorized and classified, even if it looks like “appreciation.” If you come from Eastern Europe, you are confined to playing “ethnic” music because this is how it “sounds” to those located in the world cultural metropolis. We wanted to play with this paradigm, to hybridize and bastardize it and to expose its artificiality. This game might be dangerous in terms of commercial success or even [getting our music heard] since what we do might not be at all intelligible, just because there are no patterns to be easily recognized as “rock” or “jazz.” But then again, if we played “jazz” or “rock,” it would be immediately labeled as “Eastern European rock.” Not that we’re against our own tradition, but we wouldn’t like to be confined to it and forced into neocolonial categorisations coming from “above.”
These releases are very “earthy” and explored many cultures, often including field recordings from your travels to India, Nepal, etc. Can you describe for us the traditional music of the Carpathians and how you incorporate that into your work.
We feel the affinity with Carpathian traditions of nomadic tribes of shepherds called Valachians who – coming from Balkans – swept through the whole region between the 12th and 17th centuries. They intensely marked the whole Carpathian culture. Travelling from Macedonia and Bulgaria through Romania, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic you can find almost the same melodies, instruments, words, habits and food. But we’ve never been much interested in just “preserving” tradition. Watching the Indian culture which is very ancient, very traditional but very open to the new phenomenons (now you can buy tampuras which are designed especially for flying on a plane or electronic tampuras or electronic tablas) was a great lesson. When you see all those Bollywood movies with their crazy soundtracks, when you hear all that Indian pop music blasted out of shop doors and windows you quickly notice that it doesn’t mean the traditional forms have disappeared. It is just this Western attitude which says that “traditional” culture should remain unchanged and stable. Well, what we see today as “traditional” cultures have been always susceptible to change and dialogue – this is exactly what makes certain phenomena “culture” in the first place. People have always been curious, adventurous, eager to travel, willing to incorporate things that make life (and playing music) easier.
Also people from the Carpathians travelled very long distances, we’ve had all sorts of “trading routes” across Europe and connecting it with Asia. So this is what we’re really interested in: tradition as a sign of movement and exchange, not sticking to songs that ethnologists would consider “traditional” and “appropriate.” So we play traditional instruments but try to find them a new context. Employing, say Slovakian fujara, in an experimental, droney improvisation is also a sort of cultural critique since usually people think of such instruments only in terms of “ethnic” music or folk songs. This attitude makes traditional culture dead, confined only to museums. What we aim at is keeping all those instruments and melodies alive which means: open to change and willing to find a new territory, new audience, new musical context. We’re also fond of kitsch, plastic instruments, musical toys, etc. This is why we’re fans of Sun City Girls. They play with the whole concept of “world music” and they do it in a briliant way. In general, American attitude toward ethnic music is much more aware of such processes, it is more honest – it probably started with Lou Harrison and Harry Partch who not only incorporated this whole spectra into their music, but also showed that the Western muscial system is by no means the universal one.
Do you prefer to work with the music of other cultures as a means of exposing your listeners to civilizations that might otherwise be forgotten, or is it a unifying element that suggests we are all one international “voice of Earth” and you are sharing various flavours of that voice with your listeners?
As a matter of fact, whenever we hear of “unity” or that “we are always the one Earth” we become suspicious. Not that this slogan is inherently bad, but very often this way of thinking masks the old ghosts of Eurocentric universalism and has certain strategies of power embedded into it…. What we look for in the music of other cultures is neither exoticism nor orientalism – we simply look for different attitudes toward music (like the Indian philosophy of music where the sound is divine and has the power to create the worlds) and/or other tonal systems. In any event, we’re not alone in this belief – such great heroes of Western contemporary music as La Monte Young, John Cage, and Harry Partch were/are on this quest for a long time.
Is this music of the Carpathians in your blood – part of your upbringing, or did you just start to explore it as you became more involved with making music?
We were both born in the Carpathians and have been living here for most of our lifes, but neither of us has had any sort of musical family background. However, what we recognise as the most important link is a very particular relationship we have with the landscape, nature and energies we feel around in the mountains, old towns and villages, and rivers. It is like history and culture constantly mixes up with nature and this combination is a very poweful one. Some places are like haunted dwellings: when you come out to the main square in some Slovakian or Hungarian towns, you can still feel all the history of eight or nine hundreds years in the air, it is like people’s lives, stories, and emotions reverberate within your mind. It is enough to sit down for a coffee, start watching life around you – let images come to you and flow through your mind – and all of a sudden you feel that this is the best place in the world to be in. Well, it sounds like a crazy drug trip, but it is what we experience while driving on our bikes for weeks.
This is the immense sense of freedom, connectedness, richness (in terms of tastes of life). Always when we come back home from such a trip, we feel saturated with new music, some stories that need to be told, new languages. The many different languages you hear on your trip through the Carpathians and Balkans are powerful sources of inspirations for a vocalist. All of those languages have their particular taste which you can feel on your tongue and in your mouth. These are languages of very suggestive melodies. This background has also been a part of my upbringing – as a girl I was spending a lot of time out in the wild, alone. It was back then when I started singing, trying to invent my own language. My baby-sitter was a very old lady, a local village dweller, she used to tell me all sorts of weird stories about ghosts, monsters, how souls of the dead can capture us alive. She was illiterate but I got a very precious gift from her: all those stories which always were located within the village where I used to live with my parents. So for me this was much more than just a human dwelling, I knew we shared it with some out-of-this-world creatures. And it sort of stuck in my mind: I’m always aware that these are not only us, human beings, inhabiting our houses, forests and valleys. There’s much more life around – one only needs to have some experience to notice it.
Anna, you use your voice as another instrument – often crediting ‘voice” instead of “vocals.” Many examples appear throughout your work, particularly on ‘Ethnocore 2: Nytú,’ where you devote most of the album to singing in the style of nytú, particularly the title track. Describe your interest in these ancient ritual uses of the voice and do you prefer using your voice as a separate instrument rather than as a means to relate a story through lyrics?
Actually I quite like singing “songs” too, and one day the world will hear that as well [smile]. But for me, singing is such an immense and intense pleasure – in terms of almost orgasmic bodily energy – that I prefer using my voice as instrument rather than confining it to certain rules. Voice is a really powerful energy we store inside, often without knowing it at all. When I started singing – and it was quite a long time ago, when I was a teenager – I had a glimpse of this inside power, it was just a vague intuition but I devoted my whole life to follow it. All ancient rituals work with this power, these are tools to incite it. The word nytú comes from the book which sort of makes up the Slavs’ mythology. We don’t have much knowledge about the ancient culture of the Slavs, there are very few written sources. Whatever there was, has been either destroyed or misapprehended by Christian missionaries. It is very much similar to what happened to every indigenous culture in the world, including the Celts. What we have now had to be reconstructed and I’m very much interested in such reconstructions.
Actually my first musical memories come from a very early age, when I was five or six and was staying alone at home (I was ill or something, both my parents were working and nobody could stay with me at home, it had to be after my baby-sitter had died). I totally destroyed my parents’ entire LP collection, trying to play one after another on a very old turntable. I guess I was the real inventor of the technique of “scratching” [smile] only my parents didn’t really appreciate such a creative child! Ever since I can remember, I’ve been always asking my friends to play the guitar and sing. I had to be a real pain in the ass since everybody was tired after singing along for two hours except for me. So this is how I decided I had to play the guitar on my own to accompany myself – I got the first guitar when I was 14 and was spending entire days learning chords. The thing was, I learnt it upside down at first (I probably was confused with the instruction leaflet). It sounded strange but I liked it. Then of course I re-learnt it again, properly, but the fondness of weird sounds stayed with me and I’ve been inventing the chords ever since.
Is ‘Nytú’ intended to recreate the ritual via the unusual sounds, instrumentation, and non-linear music and woodwind and percussive instruments such as on ‘Radical Acoustic’ and ‘Atropa Belladonna Cries.’
Well, the simple answer is “yes.” We’ve always been pretty sure that so called “folk music” as we know it from books and ethnological studies doesn’t cover the full musical spectrum. What was lacking there was a music played for ritual and/or meditational purposes (most of Polish traditional folk music is entertaining, up-tempo melodies played by bands or orchestras). So we started searching for these forms and soon it became obvious that they exist within Slovakian culture. We read books, travelled intensively, talked to shepherds, ethnomusicologists, and instrument builders and what we came up with was pretty amazing. The shepherds in the Slovakian Carpathians played their instruments very similar (in sound) to the Japanese shakuhachi and the purpose was almost the same: meditative practice, since these were instruments to be played solo (or duo, but never alongside a double bass, violin or drums). When we were listening to shepherds describing their experiences of playing fujaras or koncovkas while looking for the sheeps or cows, we heard people who were expressing deep meditational practice, meditation with and through sound as is the case with the Japanese shakuhachi. The songs they sing along are very simple – almost like “Carpathian haikus:” the sun is shining, the grass is green – and often express their connectedness to mountains and meadows and often preach the simplicity of life on the pastures, high in the mountains. And it is no secret that the shepherds have a broad knowledge of “magic” plants like Atropa Belladona (which can cause apparent death through slowing down the heart beat) or Psylocibes that in the Carpathians and Balkans always grow on pastures [using] animal manure [as] fertilizer. So we wanted to bring all this space, tradition and lifestyle to life in our music. It is non-linear because the nomadic space of Carpathian shepherds is non-linear as well.
You remixed several of the tracks on ‘Nytú’ and released it as ‘Soundscapes’ under the name Slovakia. Based on your other releases, I don’t picture you as real fans of techno or electronic glitch music. What prompted this remix project and do you think other releases of yours might benefit from a rethink?
Well, it’s another collaboration, this time with Andrzej Widota from the Polish avant pop outfit, The Band of Endless Noise, with whom we recorded their first album a few years ago (‘The Band of Endless Noise,’ Antena Krzyku, 2002. The two bands also issued the split EP ‘Aid To Bon Children’ in 2002.) Their guitarist was taking part in a workshop we organised and we stayed in touch with the band over the years. Indeed, we’re not fans of “glitch,” but we’ve been always interested in certain aspects of electronic music. We’re great fans of the deceased Muslimgauze [the project of Mancunian Bryn Jones, who died of a rare blood fungus in 1999 at the age of 37] whom we consider as one of the world’s most creative musical spirits. BTW: on September 11th and 12th we listened exlusively to ‘Gun Aramaic’ (1995, Soleilmoon) and in our memories this music merged into one with what happened to the world then and what’s been happening ever since. Anyway, ‘Slovakia’ was an attempt to render the experience audiosphere while you travel [aka, a soundtrack for travelling]. We always record while being on the road and we’re not ones to look at landscapes… we prefer to listen to the world around us. And it is a completely different world then, as David Dunn wrote in his book “Why Do Whales and Children Sing?: A Guide To Listening in Nature.” (EarthEar, 1999)
‘Ethnocore 3: Vak‘ and ‘Euscorpius Carpathicus’ both seem to delve into blues and jazz, with some of your most seductive vocals often reminding me of Patti Smith’s poetic rants in her heyday, as on the former’s ‘Hard Time’ and the latter’s ‘Pawpaw Girl.’ Can you recall anything special happening around the time you recorded those albums that lead to the different style – perhaps something you were listening to or a personal event in your lives that resulted in some of your most “song-oriented” releases?
As I already said, it is not that I don’t like songs. In fact, my very first release that I recorded with Atman back in 1996 were “songs.” And with every year the collection of songs I have written and composed is growing. Some time ago I got the idea of releasing a solo album which would be mostly (or exclusively) songs and I must say that I still find this idea very appealing. The songs on ‘Sonic Suicide’ (‘Hard Time,’ ‘The Place I Come From,’ ‘Asylum on the Moon’) come from this vast collection. I’ve been always a great fan of Patti Smith’s and if I ever considered doing a cover song, it would be either ‘Ain’t It Strange’ or ‘Poppies’ off ‘Radio Ethiopia.’
Songs have been for me more the opportunity to express myself than to tell a particular story – I think it also comes from the Eastern European tradition where through songs you express feelings rather than create a particular story, as is the case in singer-songwriting. I prefer non-narrative forms, which are more into trance, more into spoken words in tradition of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. On ‘Euscorpius Carpathicus’ I wanted to engage my fragile and delicate side, the one that rarely makes it into the music we play.
In my lyrics I’ve been concerned with my childhood and girlishness, which was inspired by the facts surrounding my grandmother’s death. She passed away a few years ago and I witnessed how she was dying. Before she lost consciousness she kept re-telling her lifestory again and again and I was the only one in the family who had enough patience to listened to it. I remember that the last time she started telling her stories was a very particular moment – I didn’t know why [at first] but it looked like she was in a trance, she seemed not to pay attention to the outer world, the words were just flowing out of her like she was bleeding. And then I understood why. She told me things she never did before. I’m probably the only one who heard it at all – deeply personal things. We always had a very strong relationship since she took care of me when I was a toddler (my mum was working) and ever since I was “her granddaughter.” Anyway, I felt a very precious and important heritage pass on to me… a very deep bonding that tightened the knot that still connects us, even if she is not in this world anymore. This experience changed my life, it was a [defining] moment. Everything changed when I was sitting by her bed, holding her hand and she was lying there, just passing away.
Can you tell us a little more about the mythology behind the Hindu goddess, Vak and what drew you to her to devote an album to it.
Vak is the particular form of Sarasvati, which itself is a form of female divine energy (called shakti), responsible for any creation. Sarasvati is a caretaker, she impersonates the creative force that artists and especially musicians take advantage of. And Vak is the divine power of Voice – so how could we resist to devote her the entire album? All those Hindu gods and goddesses can be understood in an entirely different way than we’re used to in the Christian tradition. They mostly represent the flow of energies, not just statues or characters. If you worship them, you worship these energies and powers [that are already] within your own soul. Now that I’ve been practising yoga for the last three years, I understand more fully this special attitude. Yoga and singing are not separate fields for me, so it’s natural to enter this territory.
Please elaborate a bit for us on this performance of ‘/dark/light’ which is excerpted from a 1½-hour improvisational vocal performance. At times, this seems like tonsil exercises, yet is always fascinating. Did you actually keep up this performance for 90 minutes?! Where did you get the stamina and what type of preparation was necessary?
This was a strange experience for me. I got the idea when I was running one of my workshops on vocal expression – usually I work with people to help them free their voice and rebuild it in a positive manner, so that it feels more natural, yet more powerful and down-to-earth at the same time. Over the years I’ve developed a method which usually takes from three to five days at a time, preferably up to five sessions. People learn how to use their diaphragm, which is crucial when you vocalise. I also teach some basic ideas about vocal improvisation (different from jazz improvisation) where people use the techniques they learned in the workshop to improvise anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. Some people have trancelike experiences, others are surprised how fast time passes by, but everyone says it is an unusual experience. And less than half of it is due to my work [smiles]. People can do it and feel immense pleasure, mostly because this is how singing together works. They may not be aware of the fact that there is a massive energy exchange… that soon they start breathing in the same rhythm and a community is being born through how their bodies react to each other. Voice is a very bodily phenomenon, it’s rooted deep down behind our conscious level. All of this is reactivated when you start singing with other people and when you use the profound technique of throat and/or gut singing. So ‘/dark/light/’ was an excerpt from one such event and its purpose was to show the voice as the process itself, the process that doesn’t mask its work.
One last question about the ‘Travnica’ tracks: ‘Golden’ and ‘Green:’ first, explain travnica please; and, second, this reminds me of the work of Ligeti that I loved so much in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Was he an influence in general – particularly in light of his compositions for voices – and in these pieces specifically. And, last, would you ever consider attempting to perform or record any of his vocal compositions? I think that would be a marvelous challenge to someone so interested in vocal pyrotechnics!
Travnica are traditional songs from Slovakia. They are said to have healing power and they’re mostly sung by women farming in the wild. I think of it as a female support strategy – like wearing a sign saying “I can hear you” or “We’re here to help if needed.” It is polyphonic so I had to overdub my voices. It is also another cooperation, where the basic tracks were recorded at our Gallery and then remixed by Umpaalas of the Rh Band in San Francisco. We really like their meditatvie vibe.
As to Ligeti – yes, he’s one of my favourite composers (along with Mortin Feldman, Steve Reich, Arnold Dreyblatt, La Monte Young and Pauline Oliveiros) so who knows, maybe one day…. It’s an interesting idea indeed but I’d need some time and some more experience before setting up for such a project, I guess.
Do you plan on releasing any more albums in the Ethnocore series or have you moved on to concentrate future releases in the Ethnoise series?
The Ethnocore series – in its initial shape, as I’ve described above – is complete for now. But we wouldn’t want to lose the feeling of something new coming, the fresh energy that accompanied us while we were recording our first album, ‘Ethnocore’ (which in a sense we consider our best one). If we ever lose the willingness to take risks and search for something new, we’ll stop playing. It just doesn’t make sense to us to keep playing the same melodies again and again.
‘Vak’’s ‘A/T/M’ is almost painful to listen to, and is as emotionally stirring as something like Siouxsie’s ‘Voodoo Dolly.’ Was that done in one take and do you try as often as possible to record all your vocals live in as few takes as possible to capture the emotional exhaustion that we hear on the finished product?
I prefer recording vocals in two takes at maximum… most often the very first capture is the best one. It is not that I don’t care about the final result – quite the opposite. My experience (and Marek’s too) is that if you can’t get what you want by the third take, it is better to have some rest and start anew later. We’re able to record something that we feel is good enough only when our energies are fresh. It means that you need to practice a lot before you enter the studio and have a certain vision – which can change while recording (and very often does) but we can neither afford (nor do we want) to take too much time in the studio. Actually, working in the studio is the most stressful, energy-consuming and exhausting work I know, but at the same time the most satisfying one. The emotional exhaustion often comes from the pressure we have at the studio – it’s not only financial pressure (scarcity of finances helps us to be very consistent and determined about what we really want, so we actually consider that more of a help than an obstacle), but even more the pressure coming from within… pressure of such an intensive, creative process that keeps you awake for very long hours. I can’t compare this kind of work to anything else. Sometimes I get sick after our recordings are finished, it looks like my organism has been totally emptied, hollowed out, used to its limits and beyond.
Your latest release, ‘Sonic Suicide’ appears to be the first in a series of what you call “ethnoise.” How does this differ from your previous “ethnocore” releases? Is it a logical musical advancement or are you approaching music from a different angle?
I think we’ve gotten a new perspective and we’re approaching music from a different angle, since it’s difficult for us to play music while thinking about “logical advancements.” We recorded this album mostly by improvising at the studio, but the music has been developing and growing with us for almost two years. We felt the need to immerse ourselves in a very basic energy which – in this case – also meant the energy of electric power. When I took up the electric guitar, I wasn’t interesting in playing solos or chords – I was interested in density, power, movement, vibrations and drones. The electronic instrument that Mirek Badoora specially built for us for this session, [the badoog, presumably a combination of Badoora and Moog] is a modulator of sinusoidal waves, and is a perfect tool to discover all the undercurrents of pure electricity. At the same time I wanted to let my real, bodily voice come out – with all those screechings, irregularities, breaks….
I’ve had a hard time personally (well, the world has been having a hard time since 2001) and this album is also a way to come to terms with myself, it’s about growing and developing through crises. So at times it sounds dirty, tired and tough and that is how it is meant to be. But the last piece [‘Om Ah Sarasvati Namaha’ is a mantra of Sarasvati – the Hindu goddess who personifies the creative power and takes care of artists and musicians. One of the forms of this divine power is called Vak that we discussed earlier and which was a title of one of our previous albums. What we have learnt is that when you lose connections with this power of creativity, you simply lose your soul, you start drying out and finally you can’t feel like your alive anymore. So this mantra (which is far from the traditional form) is to remind us that creativity and music is what really counts in life. The rest is mirage.
Is that the idea behind the mask you’re wearing on the cover? Is this protection against the outside world or are you commenting on the faceless “masks” that people hide behind?
Well, I think it’s a bit of everything. Also something of a willingness to [put on] a new face. We played several concerts in those masks and the basic idea was to have people reflect on how quickly they get used to the images they see… how quickly they accept certain conventions that disguise “real” life, which is always more than just an image…. That’s not to say that we subscribe to Baudrillard and his theory, we’re not cultural pessimist, far from it. [Cf. Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulacra and Simulation,’ University of Michigan Press, 1994; translation by Sheila Faria Glaser.] If one says that image and reality have imploded and now we live in a form of glossy hyperreality, well, maybe he/she should leave his/her desk behind and get out and [experience life in the real world]. It’s true that the mediascape around has massively changed, but we perceive it as something very familiar – just another nomadic space.
‘Sonic Suicide’ seems very much infused with the current state of international affairs. Songs like ‘The Prison of Your Mind,’ ‘Asylum on the Moon,’ and ‘2003’ all seem to concern themselves with loneliness, alienation, frustration, and anger in an increasingly evil universe. I don’t recall your work being so politically motivated in the past. Is this a new side of Magic Carpathians or the result of pent-up emotions that you both had to express via your music?
We’ve been always politically minded people, you can’t hide your head in the sand anymore, politics will find you anyway. It just very rarely made it to the music, at least verbally. A long time ago we recorded a piece called “Kosovo” [on ATMAN’s ‘Tradition’] just weeks before the world heard about the genocide there. Watching what happened in the Balkans was a very painful experience, mostly because all of Western Europe and the UN just sat and watched what was happening there and did nothing. Gandhi said once that being a pacifist doesn’t mean being a coward and in this case we have the impressions that the powerful governements of Western Europe can’t recognize this difference.
On the ‘Ethnocore’ album we recorded a song where we used an excerpt from ‘Crna Gora,’ a Serbian love song. This was at a time when the Serbs were pictured only as bloody monsters. In general we are afraid of one-sided truths, no matter who says them, either military governments or alterglobalists. Reality is much more complex and whenever we forget about it, we become prey to all sorts of fascisms. These last few years indeed have been very difficult and we’ve also been affected by world politics on a personal level: last year, we couldn’t get American visas; these days, one can’t go to Nepal anymore because it hovers on the brink of domestic war; and one can also feel some disturbances throughout Europe where, ever since the EU was enlarged, there is a massive wave of resentiment directed against people from Central and Eastern Europe. It’s a very broad and painful issue but we could tell quite a story about how we experienced some discrimination in German and Austria over the last couple of years. So if anybody compares Europe to the United States and says that the former is less discriminatory toward citizens of different cultures, well, maybe. Except for people from Central and Eastern Europe who usually are seen as “cheap workforce.” Even if true, it is not fair after several years of reforms which were motivated by the European Union in order to create “more free markets” in our countries. One gets the feeling that we’re good enough to get all those chainstore and shopping malls to open new outlets all over Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary so we can spend our money there, but we’re not “blessed” to earn money in the countries where they come from. We’ve all been caught in a vicious circle by neo-liberal policies, but any easy witch-hunting won’t help. So you can’t get away from politics anymore.
About the time you started recording as Magic Carpathians, you also opened the Stary Dom Gallery as part of your Stary Dom Association for Education and Culture. The gallery houses your collection of ethnic instruments, many of which appear throughout your releases. What is the main focus of the gallery – is it a separate part of your music, or an integral part of what you create and share with the world through your CDs?
The Gallery was established to share – our instruments, our ideas, and our attitudes toward music and life. A group of people meet here regularly for yoga practice, and we hold some of our workshops here. We also wanted to have a space where our friends from all over the world could present their projects. Partly it has succeed, although certain ideas proved to be impossible at the moment. But we hosted some great musicians over the last couple of years – in fact, just a week ago we hosted Eric and Vanessa Arn of Primordial Undermind who are based in Vienna now.
Last year you started another project, Photo::Drone with another photographer, Bogdan Kiwak. Could you tell us a little more about that. It seems part experimental multi-media entertainment, part science project and partially a political statement about the dehumanization of mankind?
The project is still evolving, changing, very much alive. Almost every new edition brings experiences that makes us reflect on the ideas that were at the creation of it. Just recently we ran it in a small town in northeast Poland, close to the Belarussian border. The city architecture and the whole socio-cultural landscape there is the most amazing hybrid we have ever seen. There is one square where you can find the old wooden peasant houses, secessionist manor houses, the post-communist grey blocs and the postmodern glass-and-steel architecture, a sign of the current wave of modernisation in this part of the world. There was also a squat community in a former industrial buidling, just a few steps from the huge post-communist-turned-underclass settlement. Such environment makes you ask very important questions about how to “read” the city, what histories are hidden in the walls, streets and squares. So we tried to decipher it through pinhole photography. The project was born out of our fascination for hybrid cultures and paradoxical thinking. Pinhole photography is a technique where it’s difficult to tell who is the author of the photograph since there are so many factors taking part in the whole process: light, chemical substances, the human mind…. All of them merge into one “author” and we think it’s very significant these days, when the whole “copyright discourse” has exploded through digital data processing. What’s more, it turned out that this whole discourse was founded on violent premises that exercised certain powers over people’s mind and deeds. And these days, when a city is saturated with cameras and screens, where a city becomes one huge “visual orgy,” a pinhole camera helps you gain control over these processes by creating a paradox – by making a hole in a box you give up total control (since the final product is always unpredictable), but nevertheless you are aware of the fact that “things are watching me.”
I also see you have an acoustic project, Project VIRYA. Please tell us more and have you released any recordings from this project?
We just started it this year and there are no releases yet; we’re working on it and I think it’ll be recorded this fall (October/November). Since recently we employed mostly heavy electric sound (and we like it!), it was obvious that sooner or later we’d miss the more acoustic sound. So VIRYA is our opportunity to fulfill this desire. I play 12-string guitar, shruti box and Jew’s harp and of course sing and Marek plays his woodwinds. Of course we use all sorts of gongs, too, but most often we play a totally acoustic, un-plugged set. The name comes from Sanskrit and translates as “energy.”
In addition to your work in the gallery and in music, you also authored several books about your travels across Asia, India, Europe and the USA (‘Ucho Jaka. Muzyczne podróże od Katmandu do Santa Fe.’ – ‘Yak's Ear. Musical Journey from Katmandu to Santa Fe’) as well as your visits to Solvakia. Tell us briefly about these books and are there any plans to perhaps publish an English language version?
We’d love to have the English versions but currently don’t have any time left to start working on this. We think these books might be interesting for English-speaking readers so there’s hope that maybe one day it will be possible. In the books we described mostly what we have experienced while travelling. Also we refelected upon the phenomenon of Central Europe where there are so many different cultures always in contact, always mixed up – sometimes we may stir up conflicts, but sometimes (nonviolent) conflicts are more healthy than segregation, silence and sweeping the hot issues under a rug. Such strategy brought about the violence in former Yugoslavia.
Over the last five years, you have created a series of environmental field recordings you call Biomusic. Three releases have been issued so far (‘Baltyckie Szepty’ [‘Baltic Whisperings’], ‘Project C,’ and ‘Barycz.’) These sound fascinating. Tell us about this project and will you continue with more releases?
Well, in fact, it is one of our oldest projects, going back to several cassettes we released between 1995 and 1997. One of them was ‘Nepal’ which consisted of field recordings that Marek made in 1994, during his Himalayan journey. Another one was ‘Gadajaca Laka’ (‘Talking Meadow’) recorded and released in 1995 or 1996, with the improvised jam session we did with the participants of one of our workshops. We held these every summer in the mid-‘90s, usually in primal forests in central Poland or the Carpathian Mountains. People were coming and getting involved with our projects – they could learn through taking part in any musical, theatrical or visual art activities that were going on at the time. The experience was really amazing and very powerful. Some of the participants have stayed in touch ever since, and have even started their own bands or projects.
We’ve always been interested in some aspect of acoustic ecology, in one way or another. It is not only that we incorporate the “sounds of nature” into our music, it’s much more than that: for us, “listening” is an entirely different way of being in the world; it involves building different kinds of affinities with the environment. You can find some quotations from David Dunn on our website because he expressed it much better than I can, but that is exactly how we feel about the differences between visual and aural. [The curious are also referred to Dunn’s book mentioned above.]
In 1999, we were invited to compose the soundtrack for a documentary about the Baltic Sea, which we did in just two weeks; we actually finished the session just two days before we left for the Himalayas. Upon our return, we were invited to compose an entire album that would be sort of an “aural postcard” of the Polish Baltic seashore. The CD (‘Baltyckie Szepty’ [‘Baltic Whisperings’]) was a benefit for one of the environmental programmes run at the Hel Marine Station of University of Gdańsk. Since the programme was to restore the population of seals, the main idea was to incorporate their vocalisations into music. It was a wonderful experience: we were staying at the Center for some time working with the seals in the field! We managed to record some beautiful vocalisations that they shared with us while staying above the water level. They were particularly responsive toward the didgeridoo that Marek was playing. Unfortunately, some people at the sponsoring institution later said those voices were way too awkward and odd to be incorporated, so we really had to work very hard to convince them they were beautiful and necessary.
The CD gained a lot of interest and appreciation, so soon we got more invitations. After we recorded and released ‘Project C’ for ASCOBANS (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas, part of the United Nations Environmental Programme) which was devoted to dolphins, orcas and porpoises of the North and Baltic Seas, we went to Bulgaria where we saw dolphins hunting in the sea. We took this as a sort of blessing – that maybe it means we did a good job and the dolphins were satisfied with the results!
Since there are so many aspects to your career, how do you decide whether the music you are recording is for Magic Carpathians, the Biomusic series or some other project?
Well, Biomusic respects – more or less – the philosophy of acoustic ecology, so we are very careful not to overload it with our artistic egos (which otherwise are at full swing as Magic Carpathians). Also, within Biomusic we usually compose and record according to the guidelines and suggestions provided by our sponsors. For us it is a great opportunity to learn. So far we were lucky enough to cooperate with people who – apart from being professionals of a different kind – have very sophisiticated musical tastes, so what we got were very general requirements as to the mood or character of the music, or requests that Anna should be singing a lot since they liked her voice. But in general, while recording under the Biomusic banner, what we have in mind is creating a “balance” between us as humans and the organic world, which we often tend to misunderstand due to our inability to listen. So the priority is to let other voices speak (and sing) through our music.
You use a lot of field recordings from your travels on ‘Sonic Suicide,’ particularly Bulgarian monks and Nepalese fakirs on the title track. This adds an almost religious quality to the music. Are you both religious and, if so, are your beliefs an integral part of your music?.
We’d say we’re more into spirituality than any specific religion. The energies of nature and non-violence are very important to us – in this we’re very close to Buddhism and yoga and also to shamanism and other primal beliefs that can be found in every vernacular culture in the world. Anna has been practising yoga for 4 years; also, we’re vegetarians, but neither one of us likes meat anyway and we also don’t want to harm living creatures without a very important reason. On the other hand, we aren’t dogmatic – we don’t think a vegetarian diet is the universal solution for all the bad in the world.
This is also what one yoga teacher said: if you are pain in the ass to others and yourself because of your diet, change the diet. Dalaj Lama said something very important about religions in today’s world: that maybe what we need in these troubled days is spirituality instead of religions, which often (as history has proven) fell prey to greed and power games. So in a sense our beliefs ARE an integral part of our music because they are an integral part of how we live and music is an integral part of our lifestyle. We also have at our home a shrine devoted to Vak, which is the flow of creative energy that we discussed earlier. Without this flow we would be nothing.
Your music is very much based in nature – I think much of it is even derived from our environmental surroundings. You use many ethnic instruments created from nature, you often include field recordings in your albums and, Anna, you often seem to be singing in various languages (English, French, Polish, German?) or perhaps not even language at all, but merely vocal sounds. What would you say is your biggest inspiration when you decide to begin a new recording?
Our inspiration comes from different sources. Sometimes it is a particular feeling or memory you’d like to keep for as long as possible, even if you know very well that it is not possible (I think this is what people usually call nostalgia). I’m a very nostalgic person – I have my personal museum where I store the memories [of] people who passed away or vanished from my life, wonderful moments I’ve experienced, tastes and smells. Particularly tastes and smells are important to me, sometimes I think my memory codifies things through smells. There is this wonderful novel by German writer, Patrick Suskind, ‘Perfume: Story of the Murderer’ where you can read how smell can be an obsession. That is how my memory works (except for the “murder” thing, of course!) Sometimes (most often, I’d say) the inspiration can be a particular sound that sticks in your brain – you can almost hear it so you do your best to get it out, to bring it to material life.
The way I use my voice is an entirely different and separate thread. Speaking in many languages (and also listening to many languages, including those I can’t understand, like Hungarian) is a sensual, physical pleasure for me. The languages also have their own particular tastes that you can’t feel unless you start speaking. When I sing in no-language, this is actually the language of my memory. When I was a child, I was working on having my own language; I even sang in this made up tongue of mine. I sort of destilled the sounds which I liked from every language I was listening to for some time. I wish I had more time to learn as many languages as I want to. Apart from this, while singing, I always keep in mind Jimi Hendrix playing his cosmic guitar so it’s like I try to sing like he played.
Tell us about your choice of instrumentation on your recordings. Anna, your main instrument seems to be the guitar, but with all the other instruments you and Marek use, your considerable skills on the six-string sometimes get overlooked. I was particularly fond of your swampy, surf-styled work on ‘Fat Moon’ from ‘Euscorpius Carpathicus.’
I love my guitars! ‘Fat Moon’ – apart from being born out of the above-mentioned nostalgia – sort of documents a very special relationship I have with my electro-acoustic Ephiphone guitar. It’s the guitar I fell in love with at first sight and it proved to be an everlasting love. This track was also inspired (which might be felt, I guess) by the [greatest] piece of guitar work of all time, which for me is Neil Young’s soundtrack to ‘Dead Man’ by Jim Jarmusch. I was mesmerised when I heard it for the first time at the cinema. Neil Young is one of my favourite guitarists anyway, but this soundtrack made me unable to listen to anything else for weeks.
I think our latest CD pays due to my lust for the more juicy, tough guitar work I’ve always admired. This is what rock music is all about to me: juicy guitars, where you can hear the whole dirty part of it, not just another Pat-Metheny-style medley. Not that I don’t like Pat Metheny (his early albums are really nice), but I’ve never been good at playing those 20 minute-long, up-and-down-the-neck solos with cosmic speed. I mean, John McLaughlin is a great musician and all that, but it’s just not what I really like. Some of my greatest inspirations are Marc Ribot, John Fahey, and Stephen Basho-Junghans, but also Patti Smith (with her band), Sonic Youth, and Bardo Pond (just to name a few). We were also lucky enough to play concerts with Jack Rose or Keenan Lawler, who are also amazing inspirations. For the last four years I’ve been paying a lot of attention to guitars and string instruments, I just feel I need to focus on these insetead of trying everything.
Are you self-taught on all the instruments you play or did you have help?
I’m basically self-taught (both as a guitarist and a singer); Marek had a few piano lessons when he was young which he remembers now as a horror!
Where do you find all the instruments you use – do friends or fellow musicians recommend items or are you constantly looking to add to your arsenal?
We’re on a constant search, although these days we devote much more energy to exploring the possibilities offered by the instruments we already have. There are just a few we’d still like to have – this year for the first time ever we picked up the idea of getting one of the instruments that was used in the Middle Ages (called tromba marina), but this needs to be ordered and built, so maybe in the late fall it will be ready. I think we might also bring something back from Bulgaria next month. In general, wherever we go, we look for the local craftsmen who still build instruments, since hand-made instruments are becoming more and more difficult to find and are valuable (not in the economic sense of the word) [in their own right]. Even if we don’t play them, they add a wonderful atmoshpere to the place where we live and thus keep the creative energy flowing.
Do you typically compose music based on the instrumentation you want to use or do you compose your pieces first and then decide the best instruments to capture the sound in your heads while you were composing?
It can be done both ways. I prefer composing either using my guitar or voice. But sometimes – having a very particular sound in mind – we know from the very first moment what instruments we will employ. Sometimes they speak for themselves. For example, Slovakian fujara can’t really be combined with other instruments (except for some shepherd’s flutes and mini-harmonium). In general it is a great adventure because it requires some level of attention and imagination – you need to listen to those instruments carefully to let them speak, not to overlook their stories. The instruments are our partners, not merely the tools.
Do you listen to any current music?
Sometimes we don’t listen to any music at all, sometimes the whole house is full of it and I can’t really tell where it comes from. It’s just that sometimes we are just tired of the sounds coming from the technical equipment. Usually it doesn’t apply to music played live, that’s different. Anyway, there is a lot of current music that we’re fond of. We try to be in touch with what’s going on “out there,” especially now that there is so much interesting music within the so-called psychedelic/folk and improv scene which has always been our favourite. Thanks to many friends, we also get some albums directly from the musicians, which is the most wonderful thing that can happen and is always celebrated at our home.
Are there any current artists that you would welcome the opportunity to possibly record and/or tour with?
Do you think we’ll be able to mention all of them? We’ve been lucky to play with quite a few interesting bands and musicians and it would be really great to meet them once again. The concert with Bardo Pond and Jack Rose in Philadelphia back in 2001 was an amazing event and we hope that one day we’ll be on stage together again. The same about that evening in San Francisco with Six Organs of Admittance and Cerberus Shoal that we talked of earlier. Also, playing with Black Forest/Black Sea in February, 2004 was a remarkable pleasure. We have also shared the stage with Eric and Vanessa Arn of Primordial Undermind recently and it’s been so inspiring that I think we’ll meet again, maybe even at the recording studio. We met them back in 2001 when they threw a wonderful party at their bungalow in Austin where we jammed for a couple of hours. On May 7, we played in at the HamnMagasinet in Umeå [Sweden] at the seventh Moonshake Festival with Avarus and Jan Anderzen of Kemialliset Ystavat (this time appearing as Tomuttonnu) and it was a highlight of the year so far, a wonderful evening with our Swedish friends (a GREAT crew of Moonshake organisers and two Swedish bands: the ever mindblowing The Spacious Mind and a very, very interesting Kungahuset [“Royal Family”] with a wonderful singer Tove Sandell).
There are also musicians whom we’ve never met but we’d really like to: Cristina Carter and Heather Murray (and the whole Charalambides), Kawabato Makoto of Acid Mother Temple, and Vibracathedral Orchestra. We’ve been on compilations with many bands and what we really like about this scene is the sense of belonging, something which I’d call a “Terrascopic Family” which spreads all over the world. At the moment, it has proven to be one of the most interesting musical movevements, even if nicknaming it the “New American Primitive” (or something like this) might not be that favourable!
You have released nearly two dozen recordings (live CD-Rs, studio recordings, singles, field recordings, Biomusic, collaborations and compilation appearances) all in less than 10 years. Yet you also find time to write books, travel, and curate the gallery. How do you do it all so successfully without letting any of these projects suffer from your busy schedule?
I have to admit that it’s becoming more and more difficult. Especially since over the last three years I’ve also been working on my PhD thesis, and teaching students in both the Post-Graduate Gender Studies Programme and my own department, the Institute for Audiovisual Arts. All of this makes our lives very, very, VERY busy. Sometimes I spend less than seven days a month at home, it’s unbelievable. But on the other hand, this is my choice. A long time ago [Marek and I] made a choice: we want to make our own music. Doing it without compromising too much costs a lot of energy – I think everybody who plays this kind of music knows this cost very well. Since it’s pretty difficult to get by doing what you do (once you make this choice), you have to be very flexible and work your ass off most of the time.
But we don’t want to sound like martyrs or people who sacrifice their life because of the “Very Important Mission.” I don’t feel like sacrificing and/or giving up anything. Also, we engaged in all the abovementioned activities because these are the things that really interest us. I can’t say this enough: we consider ourselves to be really happy people because of the way we live. Being able to survive (and in fact, live almost comfortably) doing mostly the things that you’re interested in – this is what we call a happy life. Of course, there are some hardships and difficulties but ... show me anybody who doesn’t experience it. We do our best so that this project doesn’t suffer from our hectic lifestyle, be don’t always succeed. But life is an ongoing project [smiles], so even if we fail at times, there’s always the possibility to learn, improve, be more patient, more committed to what you do.
Some projects had to be given up – we don’t release proper albums anymore and this year we switched to the CD-R series available at our website, but this is the project that still needs to be improved. So there is a lot of room for other people to join – if anybody is interested in helping us manage the CD-R series or work on the English version of our website, we’d be more than happy to hear from you. [Serious enquiries can be posted to Anna and Marek at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
And on top of all this, you have an upcoming seminar on voice instruction, the healing power of plants, meditation, Chinese cooking philosophy and yoga, "Mind and Body Healing in Polish Carpathian Mountains," Sopatowiec near Kraków, 10th - 15th of August, 2005. Please do tell us more about this.
Usually once a year we organise a summer meeting for our fans and/or people who are interested in working with us. This time the main topic is energy (since we ourselves feel we need to refill [our energy] resources, too), and we will be working on this issue on different levels: through voice (the main idea is using your whole body as a resonator so that you can feel how energy circulates and how singing is strongly connected with this ciculation), through ethnobotanics (it’s Marek’s favourite subject recently – people will learn how to recognize some plants that have healing and/or psychoactive features), and through food (some lessons on cooking according to the traditional Chinese philosophy of the Five Elements will be provided). We will be practising yoga in the morning because I practice yoga whenever I can (which is difficult when we are on a tour). Throughout the year I run up to 20 voice trainings – either for actors and people who are interested in singing or for anybody who is interested in how to use your voice as a tool of efficient interpersonal communication. Over the last three years it became my main activity, apart from playing concerts.
We recently traded some music and you expressed interest in Appalachian singing. Tell us about this and are you interested in different vocal forms or merely this one?
I think this is a beautiful tradition. Of course I’m interested in every vocal tradition in the world but this Appalachian style is particularly interesting because I think it was a very efficient way of building the community. There are more traditions of polyphonic singing in the world but this one really gets me – I haven’t heard too many recordings but I remember at the beginning of one of Cerberus Shoal’s shows, when they opened with this great a capella song which immediately reminded me of Appalachian singing. It is just mind blowing, you can almost physically feel the power that stems from the fact that people can be together. Many people don’t realise this, but if you sing together with a group of people you always unite; also on a very basic level – usually members of the group synchronize their breathing so the rythm gets into the body, too.
What about your fans who want to see you perform your wonderful music…can you tell us of any upcoming tours?
We just played at a festival in Slovenia (a small country bordering Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia with a very interesting musical scene) with Joseph Suchy and Sunroof! to name just those who might be the best known to Terrascope readers. We really like the Sunroof! album (‘Cloudz’) on VHF, so it’s a great opportunity to hear them live. Then we have some dates in Poland in the autumn (when I’m running several workshops) and quite a plan for next year (when I’m supposed to finish my PhD), but it’s far too early to give more details on it. Definitely we’d like to play more shows in Europe – now it is easier because we can fly quite cheap, but setting up the tour all by myself is very, very difficult, I can’t devote this much time to Magic Carpathians management at the moment. But the right time is gonna come anyway….
© Jeff Penczak, 2005.
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