Jozef Piaček, Elena Kmeťová – Open Realism

Open realism

Open realism – words that best describe the compositional principle permeating the works of Marek Piaček. In the heart of this artistic attitude lies an open participation in the present, in what is now. The openness should be understood in the sense that the composer makes no judgements about the reality and that he has no prejudices against it.

As a result, Marek Piaček’s works often juxtapose the serious with the banal, putting it into a bizarre, sometimes even absurd context. All genres and forms of music stand next to each other as equal manifestations of reality transformed into their new appearances, in which the origin and the value of material loses all relevance. It is this very open, non-judgemental attitude that clashes with our notion of contemporary music.

European art has for long time been dealing with the issues of removing the division between art and everyday life, of kitsch, and of liberating the work of art from the sterile environment of concert halls and galleries. Marek Piaček’s open realism seeks to respond to this development and to offer an individual solution. The composer shrugs off the burden of the past, eschews the question of originality and progress, and he relinquishes the stereotypes of evaluating art. Instead of focusing on the value of a particular type of music, he lets himself be inspired by it. When two elements or phenomena, however disparate, meet in a single moment of time, they immediately become a part of the surrounding world. This realism of the moment focuses on the happening both around and inside us. It is not just restricted to an impersonal documentation of the outside world, but it also points to the exceptional richness and multidimensional character of true reality awareness.

The works of Marek Piaček thus often embrace elements of serious music, pop, music for films, dance music, world music or urban folklore, which essentially serve as mere “material”. These elements – quotations, motifs or whole songs – are neither imposed on us, nor are they intended to mock music; instead, they become a legitimate part of a new work of art. This music is an event in the true sense of the word, an event that takes part, with no strings attached, in what is now and captivates the listener as an equal participant of the artistic process. We are thus dealing with an open work of art destined for the “common” listener who appreciates its spontaneity and richness, as well as for the learned listener who perceives the rational operations, elaborate design, and echoes of compositional techniques and masterworks of the past.

Kindermusikverein (2000) – the title is a pun evoking a relation to an association of church music – Kirchenmusikverein. Something “serious” becomes, by way of a small change, something light-hearted, playful (in the positive sense of the word), something that does not look up in humbleness to the works of the great master, but uses one of his most important compositions – “The Well-Tempered Clavier” – as mere material for a new work. The link between Kindermusikverein and Bach lies only in the fugue themes in their original keys. At the same time, Kindermusikverein transforms the common form of the suite of Bach’s era. The sequence and contrasting moods of the movements remind us of the Baroque suite, however, the dances and slow movements are contemporary and in them we hear almost everything – world music, pop, dance music… Obviously, it is hard to imagine the fusion of these “irreconcilable” elements into a whole, yet the result in this case is an elaborate and still spontaneous composition, in which the listener experiences the encounter of diverse elements on equal terms in each and every particular moment of time.

Hiking on a Trail along the Brook towards the Woods, I Have Always Loved You, Vivid Vixens (1999) – the emotion that unites these three characteristic pieces is obvious from their titles. All pieces have a rational design and they employ various minimalist techniques – from Glass and Kuryokhin to Eno and Bowie. We are again presented with the fusion of contemporary music material and techniques with “everyday” life situations. In this way, vivid expression of a single emotion, a feature, which is considered to be typical for kitsch, is transformed into a new art form.

As the title suggests, the first piece is a kind of vignette, a trip through the Moravian countryside. The music, inspired by an event from real life (and remotely by Schubert’s theme of the romantic wanderer), follows a storyline – carefree wandering with a touch of monumentality.

The second piece evokes “serious” and openly sentimental songs that we hear in the radio. The piece’s attractive melody expresses sorrow. However, the soft sentimental stereotype is constantly disturbed, e. g. by dissonant pitches that anticipate the harmonic development. Musically, this piece draws on Sergey Kuryokhin’s “large-scale” minimalism, in which a single motif is used in a constantly changing and unusual harmonic environment.

The third piece was inspired by the name of a Slovenian girl group Poskočne lisičke (Vivid Vixens), and it imitates techno music’s drive by employing a distinct monotonous rhythm. It expresses moods associated with dancing – never-ending light-heartedness, cheerfulness, or even bliss.

Suite in the Manner of Požoň (1997/1998), dedicated to Simon Jeffes, the founder of Penguin Cafe Orchestra, embodies the essential principles and the poetics of the Middle-Class Chamber Orchestra Požoň Sentimental. The composition, simple and pure in appearance, is characterised by a degree of sophistication and by rational treatment of the material. Several lines of inspiration can be followed here – motifs, which the composer wrote as a child (around 1978), performances of the Stoka Theatre, which served as inspiration for the titles of the movements (the titles themselves pose as “extremely simplified” musical analysis), and most of all, the music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which played an important role at the time of the foundation of Požoň Sentimental.

This influence is manifested in the Suite by the usage of ethnic elements and by an easily distinguishable type of minimalism, in which the melodic line (often doubled in unison or fifth) is supported by a drone, by simple repetitive rhythmic models. Each movement is dominated by an element from a different music genre – minimal music (Introduction), folk music (Lively), salon music (Silently), music of Romanticism (Storm – including the famous motif “Muss es sein?”), and Latin-American dance music (Peacefully). Like Kindermusikverein and Urban Songs, the Suite ends on a soft and quiet note with a lullaby (Quietly).

The evocative power that plays itself out so dramatically throughout the cycle Urban Songs (2000) grows out of the sharp contrast between two independent layers; what Marek Piaček achieved here is a balanced unity of two disparate musical worlds. It is a symbolic meeting of contemporary music and urban folklore: one is represented by instrumental interludes, the other, avoided both by musicologists and composers, is represented by Egon Bondy, who actively supports the preservation of the genre. The inclusion of urban folklore into the composition is Marek Piaček’s answer to the gravity of the human condition today. Urbanites turned to these songs at critical times as a refuge – they exaggerated, used black humour, and indulged in obscene language. Most of the songs that are presented here appeared during a time of crisis, either economic or military; they helped people survive and overcome the misery.

The cycle is centred on the instrumental layer. Musically, it grows out of the European tradition with references to the “Neue Einfachkeit”, the techniques of minimal music, and to ethnic music. Traditional urban songs are deliberately left untouched, the idea is to situate them in a new and unusual space. In the new context, they lose the anachronistic touch, the “historical” association. At a closer look, the material of urban songs displays features that are shared by all regions of Central Europe, e. g. identical melodic and harmonic progressions; in Urban Songs, we find the most extreme case of melodic similarity between the Czech song Na Pankráci and the German Third Reich song Die Fahne hoch.

Marek Piaček is revealed here as a composer with a strong sense of architecture, proportions, and balance. Urban Songs are an example of such a balanced, meticulously proportionate fusion of two musical worlds. The cycle is neither a revival of urban folklore with added instrumental interludes, nor is it a piece of contemporary music with some odd urban songs, which only goes to show that the work is not just an empty stunt on the part of the composer.

The composer was also attracted by the authentic interpretation of the poet, philosopher, and in this case the singer as well, Zbyněk Fišer. As protest against the holocaust and the ongoing anti-Semitic sentiments after the war, Fišer decided to change his name to Egon Bondy. As a philosopher, Bondy focuses on Marxism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and these influences are present in his art. Having spent most of his life in Prague, since the 1990s he has been contributing as an exile to the revival of Bratislava’s genius loci. The interpretation of such a personality lends Urban Songs a new and unusual dimension.

Urban Songs – Synopses of songs: People at the Trajců’s are always in good spirits. From time to time, the patrolling policeman comes for a check (A Sunday at the Trajců’s). Danda the rivet maker was a good chap; nobody suspected what was awaiting him. One night, two villains, Címr and Jurenský, stabbed him to death and they escaped leaving no trace (Danda the Rivet Maker). Czech soldiers serving in the Austrian army sing about the senselessness of the ending war and about the joys of life (Grab the Shirt with Your Teeth). Whether a Czech urban song, or a German song of the Third Reich – one Central-European region, one melody, different nation, different times, different ideology, and different perspective: a distressed young man sings about his unfaithful girl, marching German soldiers remember their dead comrades, a lonely harlot longs for true love, while a cynical young man celebrates free love (In Pankrác). Two girls are fighting together at the pub in Na mlynářce; their lovers are having a good laugh over it (When I Arrived). An old lady remembers her youth, when the pub at Vonasků’s was frequented only by “the elite”, and an incident, when two “hunks” had a fight over her. She has been living with one of them ever since, and they sometimes come to Vonasků’s for a trip down the memory lane (The Elite Used to Go to Vonasků’s). There was a big brawl in the dancehall, faces were slapped, and people were thrown out of the windows. After the fight, the bandleader played a solo (A Slap in the Face). An existentialist and surrealistic image of the apocalypse in the city destroyed by the war (In the Pond). Woe! He had nothing, he was deprived even of that, and he is lonely and miserable (I Had Three Fingers). A self-taught philosopher contemplates the final things of life and suggests a solution (The Graveyard).

English by Peter Zagar