Interview: The World Needs More Weirdos

Ruch Muzyczny, July 2021

Mateusz Ciupka: How did your interest in Ich bin der Welt abhanded gekommen by Gustav Mahler start?

Aleksandra Świgut: It goes back to my high school days when I was a student of the music school at Krasińskiego Street. I went to the cinema to see Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. I was drawn to its weird, heavy dialogues, as though combined of people’s awkwardness, communication failures resulting from an clash of different cultures. Mahler’s piece is used in the last scene. I heard it for the first time in this movie and since then every time I hear it, this particular dialogue comes to my mind. I did not understand it back then, though…

And now?

I have watched this movie again recently, especially the last scene featuring William “Bill” Rice and Taylor Mead. I see it as an encounter of two different personalities: Rice is a pragmatic, down-to-earth person, while Mead is a dreamer, spiritual artist who is detached from reality. He doesn’t accept the routine of average, everyday life. 

Which of these personalities seems closer to you?

I’m somewhere in between. I could never stand daily routine and had to look for more unusual experiences. Ordinary life did not seem interesting enough, I had an urge to add more colours to it. I felt best in my own imagination.

You used the past tense…

The more mature I become, the more I think about the pragmatic aspect of life, about getting organized, and about the reality of my work. Growing up means taking responsibility for oneself and others. I’m slowly growing out my addiction to art, which works just like any other addiction. The older I get, the greater perspective I gain. 

Work, career, pragmatic aspect of life – Aleksandra Świgut as a website logo? Only recently you have launched your personal website.

Defining my identity as a professional pianist was a long and difficult process for me. It’s about a dualism: “me as a human” and “me as a product, creation, image”. I couldn’t find my way, it seemed artificial and schizophrenic to me. I was at war with myself. This website is a result of a compromise which I made about self-promotion. While building it, I collaborated with Karol Tomoki Yamazaki who is very intuitive when it comes to creating a brand. I must say it was an inspiring experience – to watch someone translate me into the language of computer design, website structure. 

Self-promotion is one element but – speaking about pragmatic things – did you also have material goods in mind? A flat, a car maybe?

Material goods have never been crucial to me. I started working at a young age, I moved to a big city quite early and skipped some phases of my adolescence. I have been earning my living since I was 16. However, major engagement in artistic life was not beneficial in terms of reaching a balance while growing up. Hardly anyone realized how difficult it was for a teenager. The more exploited I was, the more detached from reality I became. Contact with art contributed to this detachment. 

Contact with art in its many forms. Which books influenced you the most? Which ones impressed you the most?

I used to read classic literature, everything I came across. Mostly high-calibre books by Bulgakov, Dostoevsky, Hesse, Witkacy, Gombrowicz. I was interested in theories of Jung and Fromm, poetry by Wojaczek, Leśmian, books by Kundera, Houellebecq and Pilch. I was fascinated with Giraud’s Pierrot lunaire so much I even created such Facebook account! Recently Szymon Nehring recommended Yerofeyev to me and I realized that I should have got rid of such books a long time ago.

Why so?

I’m not fascinated with evil anymore, I find it boring and predictable. It stems from emotional deficiency, emptiness, weariness, loneliness, stupidity, laziness, ignorance and hopelessness. I embrace the darkness within me only on stage. Chopin’s music upgrades evil to a form of art, and art can be transformative and change this inner chaos into something bigger than me. It might sound like a cliché but truth in art always comes from one’s inner suffering. Often times I don’t recognize myself on stage, I am not certain whether it’s still me or somebody else. These emotions might be dangerous and devastating if not controlled – the darkness manifests its artistic potential in art only, in life it is destructive and one needs to find strategies to escape it…

What is your strategy? What do you do in order to keep yourself from falling into dark path for good?

I don’t know any strategy, I’m constantly learning it. Art still makes me euphoric but I relieve this tension differently now. I walk a lot while listening to loud music. Sometimes it makes me leave the city without realizing it. Michel Houelebecq said that it were the walks he missed the most during lockdown. I can totally relate to that. Keeping this creative tension inside one’s body without releasing it through compulsive walking may end up in getting insane.   

Is art that powerful?

Art is a great tool which can be used to explore the most delicate corners of one’s soul. However, it is just the creation of a man, the tower of Babel. Its fruits might be either good or bad. Art is not a religion but it is open to religious experiences. It should never be recognized as an object of worship. I used to place such hopes in art. It is an expression of human passions that undergo changes all the time and constitute just one of many elements of a complex reality, or – if you like – the truth. The truth will always be elusive and remain a mystery. 

And yet we all seem to seek art. Was the project “Living in Inner Voices” an expression of the search for the truth? Its main theme was indeed Mahler’s song, a piece about detachment from reality, about being lost…

Project “Living in Inner Voices” was in the first place a search for a new form of expression and a way of spending free time creatively during the pandemic. Its coordination required self-discipline, organizational skills and a sense of responsibility for other people. If it hadn’t been for my sister Agnieszka’s hard work (who is the project’s initiator and co-author), I would have given up on it at post-production phase. The project made me realize how different the communication with the audience has recently become and how important the role of an artist standing behind the camera is. It is essential to find the appropriate method for operating a camera, atmosphere on the stage, proper musical timing. I find such image narrative fascinating as it is tailored to classical music. It’s a new form of art that develops during the pandemic. Thematically the project touched upon motives that are particularly close to me: existing in the world which partially I don’t belong to. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen means – as Jim Jarmusch delightfully puts it – “I divorced the world”. I’m here but there is nothing I could relate to. Our shared obsession with human mortality and looking for a genuine source of life in spirituality is reflected in this project. 

Your debut solo album is just about to be released. One would like to say – finally!

Why? Are there any rules that state at which point of a career a solo album should be released? I have not published anything so far because I had lost faith in CD as an artistic medium, I also didn’t have any particular idea in mind. In my opinion a sound recording is a record of a limited component of reality, sound interpreted by microphones which absorb one’s energy sometimes better, sometimes worse. Additionally, the recording process, digging into details, cutting the material in order to achieve the best result possible – it seemed unnatural to me. Until now I was convinced that I’m able to express myself fully only during live concerts.

Despite of this, you decided to record an album. 

The idea, sponsor, production – everything happened so fast and I was faced with the necessity of making an immediate decision whether I was in or not. Usually I need to come up with a concept, spend a long time on putting all its pieces in order, weigh pros and cons…In this case there was not enough time. It all had to be done in 3 weeks so I took a chance and engaged in the project without further thinking. It resulted in an album containing chamber version of Chopin’s Concerto in E minor, recorded with musicians from the Warsaw Philharmonic, and a personal touch at the end – improvisation on Prelude in E minor. The record embraces E minor and E major keys in turns, it was my creative contribution (laughter).

Why Chopin?

No particular reason. His music makes me feel more human and opens up intimacy in me. I often even stop following Chopin’s intentions if I find something equally interesting in myself…

Therefore recording CDs still makes sense…?

Absolutely! It really surprised me that the postproduction turned out to be so fascinating: choosing the right version, leaving aside dispensable material, editing – it’s like stone carving. I was lucky to work with experienced sound engineers, Małgorzata Polańska and Marcin Domżał, the latter of whom deserves special thanks for his commitment and patience during our late night conversations. We developed some kind of bond, Marcin literally heard through my ears, knew exactly what I had in mind. It struck me that sound engineers are artistically equal to performers, even though their role may seem secondary. In addition, other steps in this creative process are important to me: choosing the best graphic design, coming up with the album cover, original text in the booklet…It all forms a coherent whole that impacts the reception of the composition. If this is a moment for more thank-you notes, I would like to thank my manager Joasia Tomaszewska from the Ludwig van Beethoven Association who has been representing me for the last 15 years. Hardly anyone working in an office shares imagination and sensitivity similar to hers. 

Speaking of albums: “Great musical love of my stormy youth” – who are these words about?

Marcin Zdunik.

Was it the love that led to an album or the other way round?

We met by chance and after one rehearsal decided to play together. I was thrilled to bits with the sound of cello, Marcin’s talent, the way he mastered this instrument, as well as chamber music and music making, being with other person in music together. We still keep in touch,  cross fingers for one another and support each other. The CD was somehow the culmination of this stage in our lives. We recorded it just after I had started my studies, gave up on solo performance and became fascinated with early music and period instruments. I decided to take a break after having performed a lot, I almost quit being a professional pianist. I loved playing piano but at the same time I didn’t accept the reality of this profession. At one point I put a lot of effort to sabotage my career. During 5 years of my studies I didn’t play even a single note of Chopin…

Did the loneliness of a soloist bother you?

I was unable to cope with an isolated lifestyle imposed by this profession. I was alone in transit, hotels, rehearsals, before and after the concerts…I didn’t use words for weeks, I felt I wasn’t able to verbalize my thoughts anymore… Verbal communication became more accessible to me when I began teaching at the Chopin University in Warsaw. It turned out that I needed to translate all my instinctive emotions into words, inspire others. I’m an introvert, I find producing words painful. This job is in a way therapeutic for me. 

Let’s go back to this turning point in your life – escape from loneliness into the world of early music. 

I escaped from loneliness, indeed, but also from piano playing as such since at that point there was nothing in it for me. I became bored and tired with some sort of slavery that was imposed on pianists, terror of practicing and endless measuring whether one achieved the level of Zimerman or not. Copying someone else was not an option, I blindly kept looking for my own place in music. I quit studies in Warsaw and moved to Katowice where I met people belonging to the group of classical “outsiders”, today the stars of the Polish early music scene: Martyna Pastuszka, Marcin Świątkiewicz, Kasia Drogosz, Marek Toporowski. They were uncompromised people, devoted entirely to art, whose views on music radically differed from the academic mainstream. It was fascinating, it reawakened my sensitivity to timbre, timing, articulation, playing style. Music regained freshness, while I regained my passion and a sense of meaning in what I do. I owe a great deal to lessons with harpsichordist Małgorzata Sarbak, accidental meetings with Marek Moś, conversations with Wojciech Świtała, as well as coffees and cigarettes with Maria Szwajgier-Kułakowska, our iconic “Maryla” whom everyone adored because she genuinely loved art and that love was infectious. These were the personalities that formed me, made me rise from the ashes…

And what a great job they did! You won the 2nd prize at the Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. It appears that now you stay in between – you play both contemporary and period piano, solo and chamber music, do projects like “Living in Inner Voices” and, recently, with Silesian Quartet at the Beethoven Festival. I watched the latter and noticed the smile on your face the entire time.

I appreciate every concert, I appreciate the audience, and maybe that’s why you felt my joy. Each concert is equally significant to me, regardless of its status, and very often regardless of the condition of the instrument I am given to play. While listening to Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley or Ivo Pogorelić do you think about their insanity and that they have gone nuts a long time ago? You simply want to be with them, blend together and contemplate their spirit. This phenomenon was pointed out by Marina Abramović during her performance The Artist is Present. In her gallery she stared at people’s eyes for hours. We need more weirdos of this kind within classical piano scene. We need more people who are not afraid to step beyond this carefully built brick wall and risk everything to genuinely experience art, experience it together with other people. 

Let me go back for a minute to this state of being in between period and contemporary piano playing. Is this a temporary freeze or a conscious choice?

I’m somewhere in between for various reasons. First, I’m unable to fully identify with anything – any musical genre, ideology, political idea. There is no vision or mission I could say I’m following. I smell a rat the whole time, look for manipulation everywhere therefore I usually function beyond the system and the world in general. I wouldn’t call myself a “historically informed pianist” as I’m not into historical truth as such, I use it as a tool and material for my imagination. I wouldn’t call myself a “contemporary pianist” either as I don’t agree with the competitive approach to this profession which became dominant among pianist. 

During an interview with Anna Ignatowicz, Paweł Mykietyn said: “I have been observing this disturbing phenomenon for a long time – musicians tend to lock themselves in ghettos. Moreover, it’s not one ghetto – there is a separate one for trombone players, another one for pianists, a different one for composers”. The same impressions were discussed by his instrumentation professor and composer Romuald Twardowski. What is the cause of this situation?

Nowadays everyone lock themselves in their ghettos because that’s how the musical market works – if there is no specific, distinctive field one specializes in, it is impossible to label and put this person into the right box, and therefore sell. Everything is regulated by market requirements, connections between people became almost entirely commercial. Either one is a “soloist”, or “chamber player”, “historically informed pianist” or “contemporary pianist” – it’s the market that defines everyone. Being “in between” does not work. We lock ourselves in these ghettos because while developing the specializations, there is no time nor energy left to interact with others. 

Musicians specializing in early music educate their listeners, go far beyond their artistic activity. The times we live in keep on surprising us. Never before in the history music of past centuries had been performed as often as nowadays. 

We live in a world of paradoxes which becomes more and more difficult to live in. We turn various ideas upside down. The old becomes new, the new becomes old. Classical scene barely catches a breath in this commercial insanity. Early music mobilized the audience, it offers something unknown and modern that cannot be found on old Karajan’s albums. Historically informed performances made an extraordinary shift in artists’ and listeners’ stylistic perception in a short time, however period piano somewhat stayed outside of this revolution. This transplant has not been very successful. 

Why not?

The aesthetics of playing on Steinway and other similar pianos is deeply rooted in the tradition of listening to many generations and changing those habits is not easy. Over the years we have absorbed the expression of contemporary concert instruments and the culture based on even stronger emotional content contributed to it. The sound subtleties of period pianos are foreign to us. These instruments do not make strong, coherent, extreme sound, but in turn offer incomparably more diverse and delicate quality, an uncountable possibilities of applying piano dynamic. They are a small fraction of a different world, a time machine. It doesn’t really fit our large spaces which we use for experiencing art. I’m not under the impression that historically informed piano performance will permanently change our traditions, it’s actually not necessary – there will always be opponents and defenders and that’s how it works. Playing period instruments also undermined the cult of perfectionism which crushes the young generation of pianists and keeps them locked in rehearsal rooms…

Would you call yourself a perfectionist?

I must say there is a contradiction here. Before I present any repertoire, I go through wearisome process of learning the material, technical stabilization, selecting ideas, working on timbre and mental attitude. Professionalism is important to me. Being on stage changes everything. I reach a completely different mental state in which a chance or errors get their part and as a consequence a new opportunities and paths become available. Imperfection creates new quality, I discover new variants of interpretation. Listeners who are used to the recordings’ quality accuse such performances of a lack of professionalism, while my approach differs considerably – for me imperfection encompasses a creative potential. I basically insist on imperfection! It’s an artist’s fingerprint. I love seeing someone’s courage to break the mould, take a risk. Being an artist is like tightrope walking. Not being able to maintain a balance between risk-taking and control might have catastrophic effect. Both on stage and in life…

Would you say you resemble Thelonious Monk who, as the anecdote says, entered the stage without his pants on if his wife hadn’t reminded him about it?

I’m not surprised at all! Talking about existential problems while at the same time potatoes are burning in your kitchen, there are bills to be paid and your phone has just been cut off, is unfortunately a frequent picture from my life. I constantly come across a stereotypical image of a helpless artist…

Is it only a stereotype, though?

Artists choose not to take responsibility for living in a material world, a world which is definitely more difficult for them to navigate and makes them feel lost. I have lived this way for a long time. I must say that now I find it a bit pathetic. I put a lot of effort to get it out of my system. 

You bring up the topic of living under pressure of perfection. You indicate that competitions are, among others, to blame for it and yet you participated in many of them. How would you explain it?

Don’t get me wrong – it is not my ambition to win competitions, although such outcome would surely be nice. It’s not my goal, though. Participating in competitions offers opportunities, it’s a sort of job market that allows people to make connections, and it also provides a space for improvement at the highest level of capacity. A sporting aspect brings a certain flavour, it is a spectacle that is intended to awaken the audience’s sensitivity though competing. Some people loathe it, others consider it valuable. Marcin Masecki once said that it is important to let people do their own things in their own way. Participating in a competition provokes extreme emotions, there is nothing else like it – as much as one might love it, these feelings are almost unbearable. If managed properly, this tension might help examine one’s own unconsciousness, which makes art more authentic. Being careful is required as it resembles dancing over the edge. 

On top of that, music performed, let’s say, at the Chopin Competition is also extreme. Both its technique and interpretation. 

Chopin’s music is narcotic, indeed. For instance, the fourth movement of Sonata in B flat minor – it’s like a philosophical treatise, a symbolic fall into one’s own mental hell, emptiness, nothingness. You won’t find any tonal rest there, this music is almost atonal.

What about Sonata in B minor? How did you perceive melancholic “unanswered questions”?

I interpret Sonata in B minor in a slightly different way. The first movement was at the beginning completely foreign to me. It seems as if Chopin composed it in different moments of his life and then merged into one movement so that the structure remained. But it wasn’t its natural flow. On the other hand, it takes one breath to perform other movements. The third one that you mentioned allowed me at the Chopin Competition on Period Instruments to reach my inner borders. I was peaceful, my mind was set free, the motion integrated with me and I became one with this piece. I didn’t speculate whether my interpretation was a proper one, whether anyone liked it. I didn’t ask any questions because I received the answers. That’s how heaven must feel like. 

What if I told you that this performance was not as impressive as your interpretation of Sonata in B flat minor

I would say it’s a long-standing gap between a performer and a critic. Have you seen Birdman by Alejandro Iñárritu? In this movie the protagonist fires a real gun at himself in the last scene of the play in order to reach authenticity and genuine emotions, please the critics who intended to destroy his career. There is no guarantee that one can be convincing to each and every person. People differ and resonate with one another on different levels. Meeting the expectations of everyone is undoable. Besides, thinking it is even possible would reveal one’s arrogance. There is no point in complaining that showing your true colours causes nothing but criticism or indifference. 

How do you deal with it?

I try to look at myself from a distance. I do not put faith in the world but in God. That’s my solid ground. I’m also supported by my loved ones – my mother Maria and sister Agnieszka. They are the strongest and the most gentle women I’ve ever known. I would have failed to move forward if it hadn’t been for them. I think being able to count on the support of the closest women is beautiful. Besides, I believe there is nothing more appealing than a wise, mature and distanced woman.