Waclaw Zimpel: ‘Where can we be free, if not in art?’

Waclaw Zimpel photo

Waclaw Zimpel is a classically educated Polish clarinetist. He studied classical clarinet at the Akademia Muzyczna w Poznaniu (Music Academy of Poznań) and at the Hochschule für Music und Theater, Hannover. He has collaborated with a wide range of musicians, including Ken Vandermark, Bobby Few, Perry Robinson and others. He has been active in several ensembles and projects, including Hera, which consisted of Polish musicians from Poznań and Warsaw: Paweł Szpura, Paweł Postaremczak, and Ksawery Wójciński. The ensemble aimed to research the roots of improvisation: liturgical music, Indian traditions, African trance. Saagara relies on a powerful rhythm crafted by the instruments of southern India such as ghatam, khanjira, or thavil (a drum hitherto used mostly during the Hindu rituals). Another project of his is LAM. In this trio – which also includes Krzysztof Dys on piano and Hubert Zemler on drums – the main inspiration is the work of American minimalists.

What have you been up to recently?

The biggest project right now is a film score for a Polish movie that I’m working on with my band LAM. Besides this, we started a duo with [2016 SHAPE artist] Kuba Ziolek of Stara Rzeka with whom I perform as Zimpel/Ziolek. We’re releasing our first album on Polish label Instant Classic. In autumn, we’ll be playing a lot of concerts with LAM, and I would like to change our music a little bit.

You frequently collaborate with other musicians.

Actually, less so than before because ever since I recorded my solo album I’ve started playing a lot of solo concerts. But, of course, playing with other musicians is still my main interest. I’m probably more focused than before when I couldn’t tell how many groups I’m involved in exactly. Right now my main collaborations are Saagara – my Indian group which South Indian musicians – and my Polish trio LAM. And there’s also the duo with Kuba Ziołek.

Can you talk about how you became interested in various non-European musical traditions?

I was studying Western classical music, which is a really restricted musical tradition. As it’s taught nowadays, there’s no room for improvisation. Especially in the 20th century classical music, there’s an emphasis on intellectual content in music. I was really tired by this. Emotionally, I felt much more connected to folk traditions which were more about the body and emotions. There’s dance and rhythm in every folk tradition. There’s a lot of amazing spiritual traditions – especially in the East – like for example the honkyoku tradition of the shakuhachi flute from Japan, which has been a big inspiration to me. All this was much closer to what I was interested in. I didn’t only want to focus on the theoretical, intellectual aspects of this music, but wanted to be much closer to the human perspective. That’s why I started to become interested in folk traditions and tried to adapt certain techniques to my musical vocabulary. Right now, I’m also searching within the vocabulary of electronic music.

In your biography, trance is mentioned as one of the elements that you’re interested in. There are perhaps some parallels between traditional and electronic music in terms of trance.

I think that electronic music – especially the club scene – is like contemporary urban ritual music. Trance is really interesting to me. On many different levels I’m searching for it in all my projects. The most magical thing which comes out of the longterm repetition of melodic and rhythm patterns is a certain suspension of time. While playing or listening, you lose the sense of time. You don’t know where it starts and when it ends.

How do you choose which traditions to adapt to your musical lexicon?

It has been my regular practice to search for different traditions and to try to adapt them. In the beginning I was taking everything I found along the way, whereas right now I’m more rational in my choices. I’m trying to understand what tool I could use to make my expression richer, depending on what suits my style and instruments. Sometimes, a new instrument can be very haunting. I buy it and learn its different logic and try to transpose it to the clarinet. But anyway, this is a kind of a lifestyle. And probably my main musical practice, which helps me to develop my language.

When I moved to Warsaw almost 9 years ago, I met people who were into Polish folk. This was very refreshing to me. When I was in elementary school, Polish folk music had a very bad reputation. ‘Folkish’ was used as an expression for when you played out of tune. Music teachers used to say ‘Oh, you sound like a folk musician’. It was very pejorative. I discovered this music for myself around a decade ago, and realised that there’s also a lot of trance in Polish traditions, for instance in mazurka and oberek, the traditional Polish dances. The dancers constantly rotate. It reminds me a little bit of the dances of the dervishes. One song can take up to twenty minutes or half an hour at weddings and other dance parties. In parallel to that, I also discovered Ukrainian folk music with their polyphonic singing, which was also a big inspiration, and I also started to listen to African music, especially Gnawa. Years later I had an opportunity to meet the great Mallem Mukhtar Gania, brother of Mahmud Gania, from a big family of Gnawa masters. We played quite a lot of concerts together. They call Gnawa the trance Sufi music with the emphasis on trance. This is also where blues came from. When I was learning classical music in elementary school aged 13, 14, I also began to play mouth harmonica. This was something from another world, revisiting the masters of blues such as Sony Boy Williamson II, Sonny Terry and John Lee Hooker. John Lee Hooker’s blues forms are very basic, and it’s also about trance. Blues was the first tradition which I could really relate to, much more than classical music. Later on, I discovered John Coltrane and the jazz tradition. I also listened to Hindustani music, trying to adapt some ideas from Indian music to mine, but it was very difficult from the theoretical point of view. I was adapting certain moods more than particular tools. We were trying to do this with my former band Hera. Later on I went to Bangalore to study Indian classical music, where I got introduced to a Carnatic system, which is much more restricted and rhythmic than Hindustani music. I started studying this amazing musical form. It’s totally different to what I had learned before and it’s very inspiring. There are different traditions – some are very intuitive, and some are very complex and difficult to understand, like Indian classical music.

These days, there’s an increasing interest in global music. Your approach seems to be a more respectful one, not an orientalising one though.

I don’t want to judge anybody, but for sure there are these situations where collaborations between cultures take place only because those two cultures are in one studio or on one stage, and there’s no real understanding of each other. To me, it’s definitely very interesting to go deep and understand what it really is about. Especially with these huge traditions, like the Carnatic which is more than 5,000 years old and has particular, very complex musical codes you need to spend a lot of time studying them. When a certain culture is that old it’s necessary to dedicate a lot if time trying to understand what was invented by hundreds of musical generations.

Can you talk about your project Hera?

It was probably one of my most important bands in the past. We started playing shortly after I moved to Warsaw. It was more or less at the same time when I started my collaboration with Ken Vandermark, from whom I learned a lot, especially how to compose in improvisation. Hera was about transgressing our own limitations as improvisers and also about trance. All of us were big fans of Coltrane. This kind of energy was close to us. Our first album was very much in the free jazz tradition with many influences. Actually, I was adding some melodies from Gregorian chants, for example, and some kind of Slavic folk melodies. After the first album, we became more interested in rhythm. We were meeting and practising different rhythms. We found some kind of trance patterns which we developed together. We also recorded with Hamid Drake, the Chicago jazz drummer, who as a musician and person was very important to all of us. We had a lot of fantastic musical experiences. I think we had the best time as a group in 2011 when we recorded our second album Where My Complete Beloved Is.

Were you also inspired by the rich Polish jazz history?

For sure I was. The music of Komeda, Stanko or Seifert was very important to me. I’ve always been a big fan of very personal music which was not trying to be something else than it is. These kind of qualities you can find in music of artists which I’ve mentioned. However, as much as I admire certain musicians, I’ve always had a problem with jazz education. Right now it started to change, but when I was in high school it was very orthodox in a bad way. Many musicians started treating music theory as something like a religious cult. They would go crazy if you improvised without using the old techniques. For them to be able to play free jazz, first you would have to prove that you can play Charlie Parker’s licks. To me this is totally absurd. I have a huge respect for old traditions as long as you treat them as a source of vocabulary to express yourself and not as religion. I think there is not one way of doing things in art. Of course, it is very important to have the knowledge, because it might give you a wider perspective, but after all, free expression is the most important thing to me, beyond styles and limitations. Where can we be free, if not in the arts?

Is it hard to find your own way since you have a vast knowledge of all these traditions?

Learning traditions other than Western classical music was a way to find my own language. I think it is very much about how you treat other traditions. When you look at them as a source of possibilities, it can be very inspiring and thought-provoking. But if you want to realize those traditions exactly how they are it might be crippling. But after my classical music experience, I knew I didn’t want to become a classical performer of other cultures. As you probably cannot find a sitarist playing Mozart, being European and trying to become a Carnatic player might be impossible. I grew up in the Western classical music environment. One the one hand, it was great and it developed my musicianship. But when you have ambitions and you go to schools, teachers automatically send you to competitions, you have to play all the exams etc. It is a very competitive circle. The most difficult was to relax and get rid of certain ideas which I had been taught and later on I understood that it is not how music should be. Competitive atmosphere is not for the arts. Artist shouldn’t have to prove how great they are.

You also received state awards. How did this state recognition feel?

It’s a great feeling when somebody recognizes your music. One of my goals is to be in touch with audience, maybe because of this folk music experience, which is very much for people. I want to feel like a folk musician who is playing for the people and these awards give you more opportunities to play.

Culture politics is changing right now all over the world, marked with cuts in arts funding, rightwing politics, etc. This has been the case in Poland as well, I presume. 

It influences culture right now. It’s really sad what politicians are doing to the arts. A lot of great, interesting contemporary activities were stopped due to funding cuts because they weren’t aligned with the new rightwing Ministry of Culture. Lots of great theatres are experiencing hard times. Not only because of finances, but also the replacing of directors with more or less anonymous people without experience. These people are dealing with culture in Poland right now, and it’s very sad on many different levels. It’s also about changing the jurisdiction of many institutions. Thankfully, there are still some organizations with the previous staff who are experienced in working with international cultural circles, but it’s getting more and more difficult. Right now, if you want to be honest to yourself, very often you have to be completely independent financially.

How do you see the future?

It’s a difficult question. I want to see the future positively, but to be honest I see it rather in dark colours. I definitely want to do what I do no matter what is around me in terms of politics. Changes are happening so fast right now that I don’t know where they will stop, or whether they’ll stop. In general, not only in Poland, but the mood in the whole world is dark, as everybody knows. I think the world is running towards a massive destruction.

By Lucia Udvardyova

Photo: Justyna Jaworska