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At the Moment: I'm Probably at the Happiest Phase of My Life An interview with cimbalom player and composer Daniel Skala.

The cimbalom is a percussive string instrument found chiefly in Central Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Greece. Few exponents are as passionate in its propagation and able to encompass such a wide range of music including early, contemporary, folk, and improvisation. We met with composer and cimbalom player Daniel Skala at his room at the Ostrava Conservatory to discuss playing, composing, teaching, and improvising.

Let's start traditionally, at the beginning: are you from a musical family?

Not at all. Neither of my parents had a deeper relationship with music. I was instinctively drawn to music, and when I was little, I started playing guitar. I couldn't press down the strings because of an injury to my finger, so I looked for an alternative instrument where this wouldn't be a problem. Of course, there aren't many of those. Following a series of coincidences, we arrived at the cimbalom, which wasn't an option many music schools in Ostrava offered back then--only a single school in Poruba, where I travelled across the city three times a week.

Of course, it has to do with the fact that my parents were folklore fans. I was born in Ostrava, where my mother's side of the family is from. My father came to Ostrava from Vyskov to work as a mine paramedic. They met in a folklore ensemble--they danced together and sparks flew.

With the cimbalom, though, it was quite an obvious affair--as they say, the instrument chooses you. When you have this good fortune and you listen to its voice, all is as it should be. If my brother hadn't cut the lip of my finger off, I'd be a guitarist today.

So you started playing cimbalom when you were seven. I assume you also played in a folk ensemble?

We had a cimbalom band (a traditional Moravian folk music ensemble usually consisting of cimbalom, two violins, viola, double buss, and clarinet--translator's note), but at the beginning, I didn't really get it. I only started playing in a real cimbalom band when I was about fifteen. Then I held on to folklore for quite some time, but it was always the second, third, or fourth thing... From the beginning, it was a natural part of the cimbalom--its background, its hinterland--and I learned a lot there, but it was never the main affair.

What was? Classical music?

Yes. Starting at music school, I'd perform, I'd attend competitions. And then at the conservatory, it became very much obvious. I went there back when you went to high school straight from eighth grade, so when I was fourteen. I went to study cimbalom at the conservatory in Kromeriz (conservatories in Central Eastern Europe are in fact institutions of secondary, rather than tertian, education--translator's note).

What was it about the classical tradition that drew you in more than folklore?

I don't know if "more" is the right word. At one point, I was playing in three cimbalom bands at once--that was a period when I enjoyed socialising... But I also enjoyed working hard on improving, discovering new things--that'll be it. Cimbalom bands arc a much more social affair, and also much more intuitive. I didn't realise it at the time--you know how it is, when you're eighteen, you do it because of drinking, girls, and so on. You don't need to practice five, six, or seven hours a day to play in a cimbalom band.

And you liked practicing.

Always. I had a dropout just before I started at the conservatory: that was probably the only period in my life when I spent six months without practicing. But after that, it clicked and everything was clear. Unshakeable. I realised--and I still remind myself today--that unlike my peers, my choice was always clear. High school, university, further universities... I never doubled what it is that I should search for. Rather, I tried to find how I could do it. At a certain point in your development with the cimbalom, you find yourself in a situation where whichever way you go, you find yourself in a field no one had ever visited before.

This pioneering nature is one of the most important things that keeps me at the cimbalom. It also has to do with composing, which, after all, is by its very essence about discovering new things. Pioneers arc very close to me. It used to be connected to a particular form of elitism. I went through a number of phases--at one point, I was very taken by the fact that I was doing something no one else had done before. This was great food for my ego. Today my approach is different--contrary, in some respects.

Can you elaborate?

It probably has to do with the fact that I noticed and continue realising fully what a small wheel I am in an enormous vehicle. And that helps lower the desire to be "important", "unique", and "indispensable". I appreciate more consciously what there is and how it is, what the people around me can do, and I can rejoice in it.

Ferenz Liszt Academy, Budapest

Where did this unshakeable path lead next? Straight to the Liszt Academy in Budapest?

Exactly. That was around the year 2000 and there was not yet any teaching in English at Liszt. I had to learn Hungarian and pay my fees--at the time, it was around eight and a half thousand Euros per year. Half of my tuition was paid by George Soros' Open Society Fund--I feel like crying when I see what's happening in Hungary today.

I paid the fees until my second year there. Then I conceded that it was impossible--we'd used up our family savings and the situation was becoming unbearable. So I intermitted my studies. But a year earlier, I had began studying choral conducting at Ostrava University. I thought I could get back to Budapest through the Erasmus scheme, only to later find out that you couldn't do an exchange inter-departmentally, but only within the same department.

So I studied both schools at once, but when I intermitted in Budapest, I also took on composition studies at the Janacek Conservatory in Ostrava. Compared to Liszt, though, both were a walk in the park. Thanks to the education provided by the Kodaly method, Hungarians are musically much further advanced than any other nation, particularly concerning ear training, intonation, and tonal sensibility. At the ear training test at the conservatory entrance exam, they play you eight bars of a three-voice Bach chorale, give you the first note--and you fill in the rest. For the Academy, it's four-voice chorales. And the kids do it like it's nothing! When I applied, I couldn't hear anything--deaf as bamboo.

You learned the Kodaly system from the beginning?

Yes, I had private tutoring. During those two years, I really worked hard on myself. Only there did I realise that I had known nothing and heard nothing before. Our education system is so one-sided --the intervallic method on its own achieves nothing. Kodaly's tonal method, which stands on listening and singing, on a profound understanding of musicality, is a much deeper and more universal preparation that all Hungarian musicians receive, from classical, jazz, and pop to improvised music.

Did you manage to catch up?

I definitely wasn't at the level of the best students, but I think I got quite close to absolute pitch. One fascinating thing is that hearing has to be practiced every day, otherwise it has a tendency to grow lazy.

How do you use the Kodaly method today?

It comes through a lot in my teaching, and especially in my hearing. It's integrated and I don't realise exactly how I hear what I hear--it's just inside me.

How did things develop in Budapest?

It had already been three years since my intermission and I had given up hope of going back to school. I prolonged my intermission for the third time, so that was my last chance, and then we joined the EU. I remember that I was pushing a shopping trolley along. I got a call from a lady working in admissions --I think her name was Takas.

I ran to the toilet to find a bit of silence, and there I heard Hungarian for the first time in over two years. She'd noticed that I was still hanging on in the system after our ingress into the European Union, and that I could finish my studies as part of an exchange programme.

At the time, I had just arranged the establishment of a cimbalom course at the conservatory--everything was going in a different direction. My professor from Kromeriz, Ruzena Decka, took over for that first year at the Janacek Conservatory so that the new course could survive. I confirmed with Mrs Takas, who sent me all the paperwork filled in--all I had to do was sign it and send it back.

Two months after I started, she went on maternity leave and I never saw her again. A wonderful coincidence. I got a further two years to finish my studies, and that was a great gift.

So you had a little more time on your hands?

Exactly, even though I was still studying the other two schools. I then finished three schools at once, which meant five graduation concerts, three theses, and other entertainment of that nature. Later, I also did a doctorate at Ostrava University.

I'll Write a Piece for Anyone Who Deserves One

Did you start composing while at the conservatory in Kromeriz or later?

I didn't really compose much at the conservatory--I was more into exploring the sheet music; discovering how the music functions. I only started writing while studying at Liszt: at first F thought I might write an etude here and there, but it developed very quickly.

Did you mostly keep your head down and study while in Budapest, or did you also play concerts?

One came with the other. When I intermitted my cimbalom studies, I felt like I had to find something else to whip me into shape, so I kept arranging concerts and building up a repertoire. That stayed with me. And when I started composing, I presented my own pieces.

So at first you mostly performed your own music for solo cimbalom?

Yes. or I wrote for the cimbalom students at the Janacek Conservatory. I always said I'd write a piece for everyone who deserves it.

That hasn't been true for a long time--today, you write pieces for various ensembles, musical theatre, choirs, and other contexts. When did that change?

Not that long ago. You know yourself how crucial the Ostrava Days festival can be (a biennial festival of not and experimental music with a concurrent institute for Composers from around the world--translator's note)--thanks to the repeated shocks I experienced there, I had to find myself again each time. It took me a long time to rid myself of everything acquired and learned. I went through a lot of schooling, which I am grateful for--I could compare a great deal of approaches and knowledge. But I devoted a lot of my energy to being the best performer I could be. And then there was this other leg which had to be filled in from the start. It was a long struggle inside me: who am I really and how can I use this. I felt very strongly that being purely a performer, being a little monkey who gets the sheet music and turns it into sound is not enough for me (of course, I say this without wanting to denigrate many fantastic performers whose artistic qualities are undoubtable). At the top level, performance demands hours every day. But the demands of composition are the same.

And furthermore, I'm a born cantor--a teacher. I love the work. I started full time at the conservatory, later switching to two-thirds, but even that is so much--it's a full-time job in its essence. Two or three lessons in a day tire you out.

And if you spend four hours composing and five practicing, you're at the end of the day and you haven't made any money yet.

Exactly. For a long time, I was dependent on income from teaching. But then something changed--this was about five years ago. Students started opting for other conservatories. My explanation is that they felt that I was overcome by teaching. Then it started balancing out and at the moment, I'm probably at the happiest phase of my life. I no longer worry about whether I'm going to compose or play--I just do it. I react to the situation such as it is.

That's also true of repertoire: I decided that I want to apply myself primarily to contemporary music, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to play Janacek. My aim is to introduce the cimbalom as a concert instrument, and if I were only to play contemporary music, I'd net into a minute and closed circle. I don't see a contradiction in this combination--quite the opposite, I'm happy when various styles complement each other. That is also why I attended the early music courses in Valtice and elsewhere, even though it was not my main interest.

The Cimbalom As You've Never Heard It Before

So what are your concert programmes like?

One of them I call "The Cimbalom as You've Never Heard it Before". When an institution like the Tisnov Cultural Centre invites me to play, I can't expect an audience with an in-depth knowledge of contemporary music--or, Cod forbid, the cimbalom. So I play a cross-section; I show the audience that you can play early music on the cimbalom at a very high level. I'll play some Janacek or Debussy--both are very colourful composers whose work suits the instrument very well. And towards the end, I get to contemporary music or my own works. I sometimes also insert short improvised interludes. I see this as a didactic path for an audience who has had no encounters with the cimbalom or more demanding music.

And these concerts usually take place in smaller regional towns and cities?

Precisely. The second type of programme contains mostly contemporary music. When you get invited to play at a contemporary music festival, they invite you to play contemporary music. I'd like to do more of this--I often find something in contemporary music that I haven't come across in thirty years of playing the instrument. This is also why I like to collaborate with the people who write for me, but I try to be more selective--it takes up a lot of energy. I realise all the more now my responsibility for how a new piece will (or won't) work. I want to understand it in depth, and that takes a long time.

And the third path consists of projects connected to free improvisation. Especially in recent years, I have come to consider improvisation a universal cure--in leaching too. It's a brilliant diagnostic method. A six-year-old child comes into their lesson and you can see something's wrong--pressure at school, arguing parents, her friend told her she has fat legs, whatever--and all you need to do is sit her down at the instrument and start playing. Allow her to be free. Give her a narrative or a few notes she can use, anything, and after a few minutes, you know what's up.

I teach a course now at Ostrava University called Creative Improvisation. The students are singers and instrumentalists. They're over twenty years old and they've never encountered improvisation. The system is so blind, so one-sided--they practice playing from sheet music, but when I tell them to play any tone, anything they want, they're capable of sitting still for five minutes and playing nothing. That's how blocked they are.

I've worked out in quite a bit of detail a method aiming to use improvisation as a tool of liberating ourselves from what the system forces us into. It works on six-year-old children, on students at conservatories and universities. At the conservatory, I try not to be a cimbalom teacher, but a music teacher, and improvisation is at the centre of this. Just yesterday, I had a student here. Life has not been easy on her at all. She was wiped out, and she asked for it herself: instead of playing Bach or some other compulsory works, let's improvise. We spent over half an hour improvising, she relaxed, freed herself, and then we could go on.

When you play in concerts--I usually play from memory--you spend an hour and a quarter playing, and I'd say up to eighty percent of your attention is taken up by memory, just so you can play what's in the music. And with improvisation, there's this wonderful possibility of freedom, which is what people often can't deal with: they have an incomparably greater amount of energy to deal with what is happening right now. The aim of improvisation is completely different to composed music: to experience freedom and to define one's limits here and now.

Let's talk about the cimbalom department at the Janacek Conservatory in Ostrava, which you helped establish.

There was a department here until the late '60s, when it was closed down. I then reopened it in 2006. I led the effort, but of course a number of people helped me.

You mentioned your cimbalom teacher who took over when you went to Hungary.

Yes, Ruzena Decka--she had taught me at the conservatory in Kromeriz. After two years, I came back and I've been teaching here ever since. It's not quite a department--I'm part of the strings, guitar, and cimbalom department, and officially, I fall under the guitarists. But it's great--I have quite a lot of freedom and I can do things my way. As long as you follow some basic rules, it's alright.

Are there any other cimbalom teachers here?

No, just me.

Where can you study cimbalom at a conservatory in the Czech Republic?

Here, Kromeriz, and Brno. There are around ten conservatories in Slovakia where you can study the instrument, but they are almost exclusively focused on folklore. And at university level it's only Budapest and Banska Bystrica.

Ostrava, the Steel-Hearted City

How do you see Ostrava, the city where you grew up, where you live, teach, and perform?

A lot of people think being in Ostrava is a disadvantage. I think if you like living in Prague, you live in Prague. If you like living in Brno, you live in Brno. I like living in Ostrava, so I live here. Of course, from a Prague-centric point of view, it's relatively out of the way and it seems like nothing happens here. On the other hand, the tracks arc not as deep here as elsewhere--there's a lot of space to do things your way.

Is that positive or negative?

Well, Prague and Brno might offer more possibilities, of course, but there are certain expectations determined by tradition. You just don't have that here. It's much, much freer. This is one of the reasons why I think I feel so good here.

Furthermore, the air here--in addition to dust and pollution--was always lull of a hard-working spirit. Miners came here to work hard--we can barely imagine how hard their work was. Of course, they then went to the pub and got terribly drunk. The alcohol is the flip side of all this. But this industriousness, this hard-working spirit, it's really in the air here. People like working hard. They don't mind. There is less money here--the money stops either in Prague or in Brno, occasionally getting all the way to Ostrava. But everything feels fresh.

And what about the Ostrava Days festival?

I think the first time I performed at the festival was in 2005. We played Louis Andriessen--I got a good whiff of contemporary music. Then I was away, focusing on other things, and it got back to me around 2009: the first time I was a resident composer at the companion institute which the festival organises.

Of course, Petr Kotik (founder and artistic director of the festival--translator's note) is so exceptional that a lot of people talk ill of him. By his nature, he doesn't care one bit. He's a bulldozer. Totally uncompromising. He brought his aesthetic here, his own idea of professional contemporary art, and turned this city inside out--it definitely changed my life.

So you were a performer first, but almost a decade later, you came to the festival as a resident composer and your works were performed.

As a resident, you always have one piece performed. The first time was, of course, demanding. Once you're already somewhat established in one field, it's tough to start anew in another. I mean, you played that first piece of mine, so you know what it was like! (laughter) That's not to say that I'm ashamed of it, not at all--that's where I was back then. And of course, fate had its own plans--the guitar amplifier dropped out, as I'm sure you remember, the piece failed in other respects, and most importantly, there was a Ligeti piece right before or after it. And two years later, it happened again. Hearing your own piece immediately compared with something as fantastic as Ligeti's music, you have this very straightforward realisation--this just won't do.

It look me many years to find a basic self-confidence in composing--it has only really happened in the last year or two: I really feel like I'm doing something one particular way because that's how I want to do it. It's also about being informed, about knowing; that other people do it differently--and why. And it's on this deep knowledge that you start finding your own means and methods.

My life has recently changed considerably thanks to regular meditation. It led me to a realisation: ninety-five percent of what we do is sub- or unconscious. The other five is consciousness. And we try to resolve everything through these five percent. The compositional process--like everything else in life--is a process of creative decision-making. Just like when I walk down the street barefoot and I have to decide where I place my feet. And if I do it consciously--not intellectually, not rationally, but consciously--it is I who has power over the thoughts, and not the other way around.

It's tragic when we rationally close our creative paths. This is what schools should teach you. My thirteen-year-old student was telling me about the dozens of Latin names for the components of a tree trunk she has to learn for a test. But who teaches us to deal with anger? How to work with subjectivity?

I think that as a society, we greatly overvalue authorship. When someone creates something and insists on their signature, on their version of the truth, it is fatal for the author themselves. Learning to send things on is how everything starts coming back to you: instead of stopping the process at your own part of it, you let it go on, transform, and come back.

I'd like to go back to your third degree, the one we've talked about the least: choirmaster.

Choral conducting, or, by extension, conducting in general, is absolutely crucial to composers. You can't compose without knowing how to conduct. As a cimbalom player, my hands are destined to be good for conducting. And leading choirs, I learned that I have a gift for working with people, with groups --that I don't have to learn how to do it, but I can easily lead them by just using my two upper limbs.

At the moment, I'm not active in this field at all. I can't imagine leading a choir of my own. Ninety percent of being a choirmaster consists of sending text messages to singers asking whether they're free. I just don't have the time for that. But choirs were a huge influence on me. That's also how I met Jurij Galatenko--the leader of the Canticum Ostrava choir--who does most of my works now. And writing for choirs is my favourite thing in the world--I mean, to be honest, so many things are my favourite thing in the world, but I feel an immense closeness to this discipline. It is a paramount spiritual experience, the human voice--and not only that, more human voices together...

What are three pieces that were important for you as a performer and as a composer?

As a performer, I'd start with Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903). This was the first large piece I really had to struggle with. Then Dadak's Cimbalom Sonata; a twelve-minute solo sonata, one of the truly excellent pieces of the repertoire. These were both important pieces for me at the conservatory. And third... probably some pieces by Kurtag. I was very influenced by him at the time (throughout the conservatory and the Liszt Academy).

As for my own pieces, I'd definitely mention a cantata I wrote, Vsechen ten cas (All That Time), an evening-length piece I wrote a short while after my lather passed away. So though I realise I was still stuck in loops and traditional methods, it was big task for me, one that opened a number of paths.

Then a series of compulsory pieces I wrote for a cimbalom competition; I call them Neopaganiniani. They're about playing with form when focusing on a particular playing technique. I like discovering new techniques and I plan to write many more of these. I enjoy that these are performed by a number of students at conservatory level and higher, so I get a lot of excellent feedback.

And perhaps I should have started with this one, because it's an early piece, Manon. Essentially an amateur dance workshop for which I wrote the music; about twenty-five minutes of it. But it was the first time I experienced writing music for someone else, for someone who then takes the music further. That was also a really important experience.

by Ian Mikyska
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Author:Mikyska, Ian
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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