Name: Kaja Draksler
Occupations: Composer, pianist
Current release: Kaja Draksler's In Otherness Oneself is out via Unsounds. For this release, Draksler worked on "developing specific musical languages for each piece."
If you enjoyed this interview with Kaja Draksler and would like to know more about her work and music, head over to her official website. She is also on Soundcloud.
In the press release, you've hinted at the relationship between your personality and language. How does speaking different languages concretely affect your identity?
On one hand it brings more layers to my identity, because with a language comes the logic of the language, which is intricately linked with the culture and the history of the language and the people speaking it.
The places the three languages took within my identity are connected to the context I learned them in. Slovenian is linked with my dialect, with being from a certain mountain area of the country and with my growing up close to nature, among physically hard working people. English I use in music, it is connected to my creative and professional life, to a city life, let’s say. I learned Polish mainly with the help of my partner’s family, and I feel I “inherited” their ways of being and thinking, especially at the very start of the process. It is the language I speak at home now, and compared to Slovenian it is a softer, sweeter language. I feel I find softness within myself when I speak it as well.
On the other hand the situation of multiple languages creates certain confusion. At times, this is directly expressed through my speaking (especially in case of Polish and Slovenian, which are closer to each other), involuntary inventing new words that are a mix of the two. It also raises a question of belonging and of home. Not once have I heard during my education in Slovenia that our identity is our language. The Slovenian territory has been split in many different ways, even in recent history, so the language is what kept the identity of the nation together. Losing my Slovenian means losing a part of my identity, really.
You've mentioned having to lose something of your current identity to slip into a new language. Can you describe this process?
This has to do with the different logics of the languages.
For example, English has a vast vocabulary and a number of tenses, Slovenian only has three tenses, but it has dual, it has cases, etc., the logic of forming sentences, of expressing oneself is completely different. When I started to learn English, the fact that I can’t express the dual (as in singular, dual, plural) was very troublesome. How to really say there was only the two of us, how can I possibly say WE love each other, when this may imply many of us and not just me and my beloved? I had to find a way to express the intimacy and I had to find it reading other people’s words; writers’, poets’. I obviously learned Slovenian from other people too, but those people were my parents, so the language came with a sense of “ownership”.
Now, with my brain capacity, I am not able to excel in all of the three languages. I have to accept at this point, that my mother tongue is worsening, because I have very little contact with it, my English is far from perfect and my Polish has a lot of Slovenian influences. Nevertheless, those three languages are “my” languages, interchanging in my speaking and in my thinking as well.
Does that mean I can’t think into detail, into depths of things, because none of the three tongues is solid enough? If I had time to spend on languages this might have been different, but with my day to day use, this is the situation. Either I speak one language well, or I sacrifice that one language and with it that one identity to speak more languages, to be multifaceted in a way.
In how far do you see music as a language in its own right? What can be expressed through it compared to word-based concepts?
There is a danger, the way I see it, when framing a question this way to start talking about program music, which is something I am definitely not a big fan of.
As an improviser and composer, I like to work with elements in music, I like to think about form a lot and about the material I choose. This can definitely be compared to writing a novel or a poem. There are parallels we can draw: the formal rules, the rhythm, the melody, etc. But music will always stay more abstract and in some ways more direct, with less “filter” between the listener and the performer.
It is my impression that, very often, music is a powerful, but not a very precise language. Reactions to performances and albums often tend to be wildly different – how do you explain that?
The strength of music is its abstractness and its ephemeralness. I am not sure preciseness of any kind helps music necessarily. I think it is good to have a clear direction to start with, and to then stay open to what that directive brought, and shape the music further accordingly, be flexible.
Do you think that your mother tongue, or any important language in your repertoire, influences the way you play music? Is there a direct link between our everyday language and the language of music?
On some level all our experiences, our environment, the sounds we are surrounded with (which include language) influence our choices.
I am not sure if there is a distinct direct connection between the language and my music. I remember Ada, the Argentinian saxophonist that plays in my Octet, commenting “I can hear those mountains in your music” when she first came to visit my home village. So there’s that.
Perhaps with some musicians the connection between their character, language, country of origin and their music is stronger than with others.
If music is a language, what role do elements like sound, dynamics and timbre play in this language – do they merely add deeper dimensions for expression or are they perhaps languages themselves?
I would say the parameters you mentioned add deeper dimensions.
For your new release, you set out to developing specific musical languages for each piece. Is there a feeling that the current, existing musical languages have been used up in terms of their potential?
Solo piano is a challenging format. More than in any other setting, I need to decide on a clear direction and logic. Partly this has to do with being on my own, without external input to enrich my ideas. The way I worked in In Otherness Oneself was to create a short and specific idea, motive, sometimes a few bars, other times a melodic motive, a counterpoint or a fragment of a sort, which would define the core of the piece, the “world” in which I navigate. I would then build within the logic of this world, in the language of this world.
To define the language and the logic, I would work out different ways to navigate around the core, staying very close to it, and see in which micro-direction I want to develop it and with what tools. I would alternate between working analytically and conceptually, and intuitively, to see which of the options to take, how to build each particular piece.
I don’t think the existing musical languages have been used up, and I don’t feel I invented any new language, speaking widely. It was more of an internal, personal process, which helped me to build contrasting pieces and gave me concrete areas in which to improvise.
How did the process of creating musical languages work? What defines these new languages?
Perhaps I can elaborate on the previous answer. There is a piece called Tenis Stołowy, which consists of two voices: the piano and the recording of Witold Gombrowicz reading his Diaries. Before knowing I would use the recording, I had a short intervallic motive, rather odd, angular and far from my usual vocabulary. I decided to work around it, find ways to continue these odd shapes, develop them but only momentarily, not in a long span. The phrases became like spoken sentences, and this is why I decided to couple them with the recording, to have two voices speaking simultaneously.
In developing the piano motives further, I tried to combine the rhythmic logic of the composed material and the rhythm of Gombrowicz’s reading to create a type of an interconnected bond. It was almost as if I wanted to imitate the voice but within the rules of the piano motive (in terms of rhythms and intervalic jumps). Sometimes I would try to shadow the voice, other times I would comment on the words, go “against” him.
So what defines this particular “language” is specific intervalic jumps as a core material, rhythm (composed rhythmic shapes + influence of the spoken word) and on the level the form, the recording of the Polish writer.
The basis of language is typically a shared vocabulary and common grammar. How does this work for a piece of music – how can you make sure that it's both unique and coherent and still understandable for listeners?
I am not very interested in the language being understandable, as the whole language idea is just a pretext for me to have direction, as I said. As for coherence, I am not worried either, as the very format of the solo - one person performing in limited time frame - inevitably brings coherence.
Unique, on the other hand, is a heavy word in this context. I suppose I try to be fresh for myself first, I try to find places that are interesting for me, and hopefully the listener will share my experience.
Two pieces on the album make use of poems written in English and Polish. Why did you decide to include these and what do they add to the music?
I really like to use words in my music in general. I have always led groups with singers to have this option.
In this album I worked with transducer speakers, which are placed inside the piano. So when I play a recording, it is the piano that amplifies it, the voices therefore come out of the piano body. I wanted piano to speak, I suppose.
Away! is a piece I originally wrote for my Octet and later decided to make a version for solo piano. In the original, I use Robert Frost’s voice reciting the poem at the very end of the piece, here I start with it, it is in fact the very first thing you hear on the album, to link it with the end of the Octet’s album.
The second text is in fact an excerpt from a book, as I mentioned before, it is Gombrowicz’s Diaries. I absolutely love his language, his rhythm and his neologisms. In this text he is debating the very writing of the Diaries. What sense does it make to write a diary that will be published - is he writing to himself, is he writing to the readers, what is his own opinion on him writing such a text? It is written with a lot of wit and sharpness, and it has to do with writing about yourself, which is a little bit like playing solo.
Are there some of these languages you created for In Otherness Oneself that you would like to pursue in more depth in the future?
I couldn’t really say. It was an interesting experiment and I might pursue it in the future if I still find this way of working exciting, if it gives me pleasure.