No rules, no expectations: An interview with Zbigniew Chojnacki
Zbigniew Chojnacki is an accordion/live electronics player and improviser whose music is striking and highly unconventional. The most important aspect of his work is dialogue and encounters with other people. He takes anything that emits a sound and uses it to make contact with people, being inspired by elements that are not often directly related to music. As he says, “an old washing machine, a blade of grass, the sound of the engine of a bus, or even a chair in the middle of a stage can be inspiring. Every concert is completely different. The only constant element is the instrument.’’
What does improvisation mean to you?
First of all, no rules and no expectations, and surprising myself. It can be a lovely pop song, unbelievably loud, dark noise stuff, a contemporary acoustic chamber composition, a folk song or whatever. For me, the important thing is not the what but the how. I think it’s more connected with quality of sound and having no plan for the performance. Permanent risk, an extreme sport like BASE jumping – if it’s your profession you know how to do that, basically, you know your tools, but you are not 100% sure that nothing will happen to you. You need to do it because you really want to but you’re not sure if you will survive. There’s nothing to analyse.
One of the most important aspects of your work is dialogue, having a rapport with people. This is interesting, as for some, the idea of the artiste, the sole creator who creates alone in their studio, is somewhat embedded. Some artists say they create for themselves, as an act of self-expression, some see creation as a communication with others. How is it for you?
I’m definitely not a composer, I’m not a patient guy. I don’t need to be in a studio or work room for a lot of hours. Actually, I don’t have a studio, so maybe that’s the problem. I really prefer to be on stage and play live, and if you play live, you need to meet people and need to talk with them. I always try to have fun when I play live. If I like the sounds that I play, sometimes very aggressively, rhythmically, then maybe some people in the audience will feel the same, so it can be a sort of non-verbal dialogue/communication/connection. I don’t think about this dialogue when I play… I can’t check if it’s real. Definitely, we have a common trip through sounds, but the trip can be extremely easy or very tough, you never know.
Your primary tool of communication is sound. How do you search for it, and where do you find it?
I started my creative work with my mate, the great violinist and fan of kit minimization Łukasz Czekała, in 2012 or 2013, when we realised that we wanted to play together. First, we practised a lot to get to know our sounds better and try to make them as if from one brain. Now, we don’t need rehearsals and I’ve learned from this work that simplicity is the key; sometimes it’s even better to just listen than play solo, and if you give a shitty signal to the PA, you can expect the same on the front 😀
As for how to look for it and where – hmm… Sometimes we tried to record one of our gigs to check if we liked it or not. Basically, I’m an accordion player and for a very long time I only played an acoustic instrument and had absolutely no idea about electronics. I chose each part of my set according to my own ears. If it worked with microphones and an acoustic accordion, then it was OK. These were intuitive choices. It’s still a great playground, but you know where the toys are. I don’t have much time now to practise with this kit at home every day, so most of the time I just do my normal daily activities and then somehow subconsciously these noises work.
Can you talk about your live sets? Besides electronics, you also play an accordion.
For me, it’s definitely one big instrument, and I don’t make a distinction between the accordion and the live electronics. Both are equally important. Setup is quite simple because I’m using Ableton live more like a effects processor. It’s easier to travel with a computer, not with all the hardware.
Actually, now my sets are very loud but, on the other hand, can be very minimalistic and peaceful at the same gig. It depends on many, many technical things, because I play concerts in very different spaces, using different types of PA. Every venue gives you possibilities for completely different creations. Last year, I played in a really lovely place. It was a cave with an awesome PA system, so I could play very loud and was able to hear how one note can make a gorgeous sound. I never save the Ableton session after the gig, so every time there will be a completely different story. I really like one sentence from a review of my performance at the Sharpe Festival in Bratislava because I realised that it could be true. hahaha. “It’s like seeing someone slowly build a tower made of drinking straws only to knock it down when bored’’.
In January, you released a new album called Shreds, inspired by Polish painter, assemblage and happenings artist, set designer and theatre director Tadeusz Kantor. Can you talk about the concept of this release?
It’s a long story with Kantor, but I really wanted to do something about it a few years ago. I wrote a note on an album release page, quoting an excerpt from this, ”According to Kantor, reality plays a role in art; in my case, it is improvisation, an attempt to get rid of the illusion about myself, because I do not think that something that I would be able to prepare in advance (even in the form of a sketch) would be good, or at least better than what would be created during the concert – spontaneously, so the audio album is in fact a record of audio fragments torn from memory, describing objects from the plays Wielopole Wielopole and Let the Artists Die…’’. So, basically, after a few years of being interested in his paintings and theatre work, texts about art etc.
I had the opportunity to do something within a scholarship and I thought it would be a good idea to try to record improvisations. There is an ocean of documentation about Kantor and it’s impossible to do something with it without making choices. First, I wanted to do something with his paintings, but that involved a huge problem with copyright, so I considered theatre. Painting and theatre are art for Kantor because he is knowledgeable about them. But they’re not connected with music. So I thought that could be inspiring. I could use a completely different medium and consider the connection between the objects and the actors, the theory about these two theatre plays. After six months with books, movies, sketches etc. I chose six objects and I went into the studio with some thoughts and just started playing. One take was one piece, and after that the album was ready.
What led you to create music in the first place? What is your background?
Well, I was born and I had no ideas about music ;). I think I was interested in farming before the accordion – I don’t remember much from that period. The accordion came into my family house by accident. I saw it and I chose it by myself. When I was 10, I think I started to learn to play the accordion, very classically, but I really enjoyed learning many songs by ear and practised a lot. Of course, I played a lot of shitty songs on the accordion at family parties and in other strange situations. Most of the time I was pissed off by that, but anyway. Now, I think that it isn’t very smart and good for living when you practise eight hours per day, you almost sleep with the instrument and you are a teenager, but those hours were helpful in developing many skills on the accordion. So be it.
I graduated from music school with a classical/accordion music profile. In music school, I had a kind of jazz band, so we basically played swing, bebop, etc. After music school, I stopped listening to any accordion players, and then I went to something like a jazz-themed post-secondary school – so actually, my education wasn’t really related to electro-acoustic music and experimentation at all. At the same time, I started working with Lukasz Czekała and I was sure that I didn’t want to play classical jazz/free jazz music or any specific genre. I just wanted to play and be interested in what would happen, without knowing what it would be. Thanks to this, I am where I am now, and then we’ll see. It’s an adventure. You just have to listen and not think about it too much.
Interview: Lucia Udvardyova