Interview with composer Marek Piaček (2002)

Jozef Dado Nagy,

12th November 2002

You don’t have to be a regular at chamber music concerts to meet him. You don’t even need to know what’s happening on the so-called “new music” scene. To meet Marek Piaček all you have to do is go to Bratislava, where you will often find him playing in venues such as the Prašná bašta or the Theatre Stoka with his music group Požoň Sentimental.

Composer and flutist Marek Piaček (b. 1972), is cofounder of the bands Tulen, the VENI ensemble, Vapori del Cuore and Požoň Sentimental, as well as being the co-organizer of the music festival “Vecery novej hudby” (Evenings with New Music). December 2001 saw the premiere of his chamber opera Posledny let – 12 pohladov na M. R. Stefanika (Last Flight – 12 regards on M. R. Stefanik) for which Piacek composed the music to a libretto by Elena Kmetova and Egon Bondy. The premiere was held at the Stoka Theatre and was performed by ZPSO /Zdruzenie pre sucasnu operu (Assosiation of Contemporary Opera). Mr. Piacek’s debut CD, Urban Songs, recorded with Požoň Sentimental, was released in March 2002. He lives and works in Bratislava.

Following interview is excerpted from a talk with Marek Piacek about the sounds of old and new Bratislava, the influence of anti-globalization theory on the work of new music composer, Egon Bondy, the emergence of new Slovak operas, the risks of crossing genres, and of course, Požoň Sentimental.

T: How did you as a flutist and composer become a part of Požoň Sentimental?

MP: There’s only a small group of people in Bratislava involved in classical music who, apart from playing in the orchestra, opera or philharmonic orchestra are also interested in trying something new with the genre. In total, we number about 12 people. Initially we were all a part of the VENI Ensemble until as time went on, each of us began wanting to express ourselves in different ways and so the other groups began to take shape. That’s how Požoň Sentimental was founded.

T: What type of music does the VENI Ensemble specialize in? When and why was it founded?

MP: VENI was the Slovak version of the AGON Orchestra which was founded in Prague in 1983. The Agon Orchestra specialized in new music, which was very unusual in Czechoslovakia at that time. The Agon Orchestra introduced concepts of minimalism and the avant-garde to our country, as well as introducing composers like Feldman who are sometimes difficult to pigeon-hole into genres. The AGON Orchestra was also popular in Bratislava and so Daniel Matej, Petr Michoněk, Peter Zagar, Juraj Beneš, Ronald Šebesta and others launched the VENI ensemble in 1987. They put the word out to composers of new music requesting compositions and as they received more and more new pieces, the idea for the Evenings with New Music arose. These were the two impulses that instigated future projects, e.g. Opera Aperta, VAPORI del COURE, Požoň Sentimental, etc.

T: What do you see as the similarities and differences among these emsembles?

MP: First of all, the same general group of people is involved in all the ensembles. For example Vapori and Požoň are almost identical in their membership, while the music for each ensemble is totally different. Opera Aperta is a group of leading classical musicians who happen to specialize in contemporary music. VAPORI del COURE plays extemporized music without notation that is electrically amplified using the most recent avant-garde and experimental technologies. Požoň Sentimental is strictly acoustic and its style is clearly defined. It is cafe, avant-garde music for people who don’t necessarily have to be “in” with the contemporary art or New Music scene. It’s perhaps a bit more accessible to the general public.

T: Where did the idea for Požoň Sentimental come from? From where does it draw its sound?

MP: It was the result of long discussions among several composers – Peter Zagar, Martin Burlas, Danial Matej and myself. We thought it would be great to revive the genius loci of old Bratislava and to explore the question “What does it mean to be Bratislavian?”. Until now there was no music that could be directly connected with this city or region. Our first concert back in 1994 was a performance of two ensembles – VAPORI and Požoň. Požoň focuses on revising the genius loci of our region while VAPORI goes a more cosmopolitan way by experimenting with the new styles of American and British experimental music. We asked composers from around Central and Eastern Europe – Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Austrians – to compose music for Požoň Sentimental. The response was not overwhelming so we ended up with mostly Slovak and Czech compositions. Ironically, Požoň’s music has gotten its strongest feedback from the English – probably because of their multiethnic and multinational awareness. Our Central European musical language and feeling comes from the overlapping of what was here before – Austrian folk music with Vienna waltzes with Hungarian folk music with gypsy songs with urban songs, as well as with music by composers from the Soviet Block such as Gija Kančeli, Alfred Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. We also use Western music and we can go further when we want, to Italian or Balkan music and even further, the sources are infinite. This is because Bratislava is located on a historical and geographical crossroads, from North to South and East to West.

T: So Požoň Sentimental plays urban cafe music that connects all the musical sources of your region. Do you see anything else that may distinguish Požoň?

MP: Yes. The Czech musicologist, Jaroslav Šťastný, defined us as “an ensemble that is bound to its region and traditional music as seen through the prism of New Music composers.” He meant that the ensemble consists of educated composers who know how to write contemporary music, serial, dodecaphonic, and avant-garde music, how the music of the 20th century is divided and how pop music is created. We write and play the music inspired and influenced by pop music, but you can sense a certain knowledge and cunning behind what we play although it may not be clear after just a single listening.

T: How has Slovak folklore influenced your music?

MP: The influences on Požoň Sentimental are infinite and while Slovak folklore is one of them, it is not essential. We play a song called “Hopak” which is a typical eastern Slovak “venček”, or dancing song. Ľubo Burgr discovered the notation for the song in the Presov Theatre and wrote a new arrangement for it. But all in all, there is not much of the folkloric in our music and we don’t feel the influence of any particular region’s folklore. We are bound more to the city because the city recycles influences that come in from the outside. We have discovered elements of folklore in Bratislava, but we were more attracted to the songs of contemporary local composers who are inspired by folklore, making the influence of folklore somewhat more removed. We reworked one song by Dezider Lauko, who composed folklore-inspired songs in the 1930s. This approach is more characteristic of our work. Our composer heard the song, reworked it a bit, put something new in it, made it dirtier, (orthodox folklorists protest against this) and the song was played in cafes right away.

T: We can find “remakes” of well-known hits in your repertoire too. Why?

MP: These pieces were made in cooperation with the STOKA theatre where we used to play songs like Vyznanie, Holky z nasi skolky, Don’t Cry for me Argentina, etc. We arranged these songs for particular occasions and they have remained in our repertoire ever since. References to popular tunes bring an interesting tension into our music since when you connect the lexicon of classical music with the lexicon of pop music, an interesting shift in meaning occurs. For example, we arranged a Michael Jackson song in a Schubert time signature. If you behave like this to Schubert, the shock of the orthodox musicologist is going to be the same as that of a Michael Jackson fan. Right there, interesting tensions and fresh meanings arise in the music and the resulting piece of music is much more open than the original versions of the compositions.

T: These tensions bring a lot of humor to the music and now I can see why you think of music as “arrangeable” for Požoň Sentimental or not. How do you see humor in the music of Požoň Sentimental?

MP: We never intended to bring humor into our music nor did we intend to amuse anybody. Of course there are always funny moments but those are more questions of context, ie. where we are performing and the musical content of what we are playing. For example, if we are playing dodecaphonic Schonberg in Prasna Basta (a cafe in Bratislava) or if we are playing Jackson at a significant festival of contemporary classical music. This game of contexts and shifts in meaning provokes “conservative” people. However, the person who is open to new ideas accepts what we are doing and tries to find something interesting in it. We don’t do programs for entertainment. We play acoustic instruments only; we even ask for an out-of-tune piano, rather than an electric piano. Požoň’s sound is tiny. It is intimate music for only a few dozen people and for small venues without amplification. We’ve played in cafes, at festivals and in theatres. People in the cafes don’t really pay attention, at a festival the audience is more concentrated than they should be and one half always condemns your music right away so that you then play only for the other half. We’ve had our best experiences with theatre. At a theatre it is more about creating an atmosphere than about perfect technical and sound implementation.

T: You have just recorded your first CD “Urban Songs” with Požoň Sentimental, where Egon Bondy contributes as a singer. How do you comprehend expression urban song and urban folklore? (Huh? I don’t really understand what this is asking.)

MP: This album is the result of performances of Urban Songs at the Stoka theatre with the contribution of Egon Bondy. Bondy remembered the urban songs of Prague that he used to sing with his mates in bars. As an educated, literary man Bondy was looking into the lyrics of these songs for other meanings. For instance, he analyzed the song “Na Pankraci” [“At Pankrac” – the infamous prison in Prague] and he found an interesting melodic resemblance to the well -known German war song, “Die Fahne hoch”. He was very happy to discover this little piece of knowledge and he wanted to preserve it. According to Bondy, one of the ways against succumbing entirely to globalization is to support and aid the self-realization of regions. It is fine to be part of a united Europe, but first we have to be culturally strong as region. Otherwise, globalization will swallow everything. Bondy is obsessed with the preservation of the cultures of small nations. The world is more colorful and more interesting when a greater degree of cultural interaction and information exchange occurs. It’s not only one huge monopoly of culture, but a variegated cauldron full of different cultures, nations, regions and towns and every town has its architecture and its own music – its own unique sound! Bondy’s anti-globalization theory for an independent way of living was a main inspiration for Urban Songs. Similar inspiration was the music of Požoň Sentimantal and the music of composers in our surrounding regions. Everything points to reviving the spirit of Bratislava. How? Using philosophy? Using politics? We are not philosophers or politicians. But one thing we can do is compose music – music that we like. We can’t do anything else. What’s more, Bondy approaches the issues from an academic distance so we didn’t end up being too nationalistic.

T: Where do you take inspiration from musically? What genres and themes do you combine?

MP: Once again, I tried to combine New Music from the end of the 20th Century with old music and the city’s folklore. We could learn and record older recordings and do it the “old way”, but we prefer to create music composed “now”, in the midst of the new century and all the wars that are surrounding us. Originally, the Urban Songs sung by Egon Bondy were a reaction to the 1st and 2nd World Wars. The Berliner song, “In den Teichen”, is about the 2nd World War and “Vem kosilku mezi zuby”, originally sung by Czech soldiers, is about WWI. The tragedies of those times are written into those songs, but we also wanted to be able to react to the more recent wars and what’s sad is that there are a lot of them.

The first part of the CD contains a series of suites written for specific occasions. For example, the 250th Anniversary of the death of J.S.Bach in 2000. Events in honor of Bach were happening all over the world and our festival, Evenings of New Music, that year featured compositions inspired by Bach. We also asked composers from all around the world to transcribe Bach’s compositions into Požoň Sentimental’s style and the results were very interesting. For that occasion I, myself, composed a suite entitled “Kindermusikverein” for which I borrowed themes from a well-known collection of Bach’s preludes and fugues, “Dobre temperovany kalvir” (“Well tempered piano”). I recomposed Bach’s theme into 20th Century dances. In my suite, you can find Bach’s themes in the form of a tango, Tom Waits’s march, samba, waltz, and techno. There is another suite, which recalls the English ensemble, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. In their music you can find influences of Irish and Latino-American music. Our music is distinctly Central European, but the Penguin Cafe Orchestra has always been our ideal.

T: The musicians involved in Požoň Sentimental also founded the “Zdruzenie pre sucasnu operu” (ZPSO /Association of Contemporary Opera), and 2001 saw the premieres of four operas – your own Posledny Let (Last Flight), John King by Daniel Matej, Udel by Martin Burlas and Smrt v kuchyni (Death in the Kitchen) by Ľubo Burgr. Why did you set about reviving opera as a genre?

MP: First of all, the members of Požoň Sentimental and the VENI ensemble were not the only ones who helped found ZPSO. People from the Stoka Theatre, and bands like Ali ibn Rachid and Dogma, among others also contributed a great deal.

However, the idea of reviving opera as a genre was first approached by Ľubo Burgr who is interested in opera on a theoretical level, so he and Martin Burlas founded ZPSO. Their aim is to create a new tradition of Slovak opera, similar to the way the same thing happened in Florence at the end of the 16th century. Since that time, opera, worldwide, has been in crisis every 100 years. Orthodox musicologists argue that opera lives while we say that opera is not dead, but that it’s hidden behind the glass. Each year, Germany sees the premieres of several new operas, but it’s always the same kind of mainstream opera being performed. Only every now and then is there something written that is interesting, new, and that has never heard before. Something special happened in 70’s when Philip Glass introduced his opera, Einstein on the Beach. That opera is four hours and sounds extraordinary. In addition, the minimalist composer, John Adams, has composed musically significant operas outside of the opera mainstream with works such as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghofer, whose themes are strictly contemporary. Theatre directors such as Marthaler and Peter Sellars are also successful at doing this.

These artists were our ideal and in December 2001 our four original operas had their premieres at our Evenings of New Music. It is very interesting that we have a Slovak National Theatre but that Slovaks visit it only rarely and that it has no Slovak opera in its repertoire at all. More or less it is an institution for Vienna pensioners looking at 200 years old operas. But we didn’t only want to criticize, but to create something new. That was one of the reasons why Ľubo Burgr and Martin Burlas founded ZPSO and why they premiered their first two operas, and why after one year we did two more. We can evaluate and analyze these operas, and really, musicologists say that these are not real operas. OK, but at least we’ve tried! Has the SND (Slovak National Theatre) ever presented four new Slovak operas? They have not done a single one! They have not initiated the creation of one new opera when that is what their sovereign role should be. ZPSO is a reaction to this. We have four first operas. Think whatever you want about them, but they exist to be rerun and living.

T: Why did you choose the life of Milan Rastislav Štefánik as a theme of your opera Posledný Let (Last Flight)?

MP: The opera was composed based on the fundamentals of Požoň’s music and sounds. It’s a serious opera, but that may in part be due to the place itself, the Stoka Theatre, where the opera is performed. When Štefánik sings about the future of Slovakia, audience is laughing. We couldn’t avoid that, but why? He’s naive and maybe a bit pathetic too, but why? We didn’t want him to look like God, but we also didn’t want him to look like a fool. We wanted to portray Štefánik as a normal man, born in this region, who worked a lot, was seriously ill, invented things, traveled the world, and by the end of his 40’s had done more things than 10 others wouldn’t have gotten done in twice the lifetime. He was a very interesting, yet also a very unhappy and lonely man. He had no close friends or family; he had quarrels with his father and had many women, but no real partner. He wrote poetry, was a scientist, worked for French secret service, and since the age of 20 he knew he was fatally ill, and so he had nothing to lose. This explains the tensions in his work, as well as his pension for risk-taking, and flying which, at that time, was quite dangerous. It’s also the reason why he strongly supported the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia and yet he changed his mind about its future system – he often mentioned that Czechoslovakia should be a monarchy ruled by the king of a Slavic dynasty. It may sound funny, but he anticipated the development of war conflicts in Europe at the end of 20th century. He predicted the 2nd World War as well as recent conflicts at the Balkans. Most of all we were interested in the inner, human conflicts of M. R. Štefánik. The theme of his death and of aircraft tragedy we have rather omitted, since versions of this tragedy exist elsewhere.

T: What was Egon Bondy’s reaction as a libretto author at its final shape?

MP: Working with Egon Bondy was wonderful when we collaborated on Urban Songs, and then we continued together on Štefánik. Bondy did a lot of research and brought a lot of background resources to the opera. He studied every possible piece of literature involving Štefánik and he probably wanted to participate in the creation of the libretto. However, there was a time conflict. Bondy needs time for reflection. We rely more on intuition and we risked things he didn’t want to risk with a topic like Štefánik. A tight time frame for finishing and introducing the opera was why Elena Kmeťová took over and finished the libretto. Bondy made comments on the final draft and wanted us to make some changes to the libretto and score, but our vision of the world is somewhat different from Bondy’s and so we left it as it was. We had seen a video and heard recordings of the music and so we were satisfied. But it is a very sensitive topic – the Czechs don’t have a person like Štefánik. We are really grateful to Bondy – his scientific and philosophical experience is very useful in putting together an opera. It would not have happened without him, but if we hadn’t taken over the libretto when we did, it still would not be finished today.

T: Štefánik is simultaneously a very public and also intimate topic. Have you considered other possible topics suitable for opera “treatment”?

MP: This question is more for Ľubo Burgr, but I think we wanted to express the everyday problems of an ordinary man in his everyday life. Our operas are straight, realistic and perhaps too “raw” for opera, but at the same time they are poetic and intimate. Burgr’s opera is about a man in his kitchen cooking cabbage. Classic opera would dismiss this as a topic. You always hear how opera should be about “great” things, making Stefanik probably the most acceptable of our operas in terms of subject matter. Udel, by Martin Burlas, is a black, tragic, depressive, dead-end situation opera about the dark sides of the man. Dan Matej’s opera, John King, is about the relationship between a woman and a man and about the everyday despair that surrounds the woman. It also features surrealistic references and the music is built on well-known opera cliches.

T: Are you planning any other operas for the future?

MP: Right now we are mostly concentrating on the reruns of our first four operas. It’s a pity to spend so much energy to then lie fallow after the first show, but we want to make sure that our operas “live”. However, Ľubo Burgr has been offered a commission from Luxembourg to compose a new opera and he is working on it with Martin Burlas, Zuzana Piussi and the singer Stano Benacka. This will be our 5th opera and our “grandiose” plan is eventually to organize an international festival of chamber operas in Bratislava.

Translation: Marek Culen & Eleanor Boeschenstein