Contemporary music is closer to us – an interview with Agata Zubel


We wear jeans, we use the latest mobile phones or laptops and so we should be interested in the latest achievements in painting, theatre or music – says Agata Zubel, a singer and composer from Wrocław.

Wojciech Sitarz: In April you performed in Bach’s “The Passion According to St. Matthew” and two days before you appeared in Athens with a contemporary composition by Georges Aperghis. Is it hard to switch yourself in such a short time?

Agata Zubel: Everything is music, so if you like singing, you feel joy regardless of the repertoire. Of course, the process of preparing oneself to perform in a concert is a different thing. Especially when it comes to contemporary music, it could be a long story. In classical music we have a model of voice known to us, which is easily imagined. However, when it comes to contemporary music, the situation is completely different. Practically each composition requires a different approach to voice. Composers invent it all over again – a way of notation, or recording of sound effects. Even if the change affects only the melodic line, the type of voice we rarely get if famous from opera singing.

Does this permanent change of repertoire adversely affect the voice?

Much depends on the compositions: sometimes it is actually extremely difficult to maintain one’s voice in appropriate predisposition. However, my experience shows that the more varied aesthetics applied, the more flexible the voice becomes. Then there is only one problem: to choose the right frequency on the right day.

Your involvement in “The Passion” might have come as a big surprise for many. You have been more associated with a contemporary repertoire.

Indeed, I sing mainly contemporary music because I like it. I am a composer and that world is closer to my interests. But it is regardless of the fact that I was very happy with the proposal to sing “The Passion” because it is a great composition. I am a singer and my voice is ready to perform various compositions. I feel much better in a contemporary repertoire, though. It seems to me that it is a completely natural feeling. Contrary to appearances, the music written today is actually closer to us, because it is generated in our times. We wear jeans, we use the latest mobile phones or laptops and so we should be interested in the latest achievements in painting, theatre or music. I believe that we are able to pick up contemporary trends better than “The Passion” which, though beautiful, is a work dating back many years.

Why then do the Philharmonics generally offer more of the older repertoire?

The question should be directed to someone else. However, it seems to me that in many European institutions the programme is really varied. It is completely normal that during one evening you can hear the work of early music, romantic music and new music. Our more recent interest in music is growing – if you have a look at festivals such as the Warsaw Autumn, you will see that concert tickets are often sold out very quickly. Young people come in swarms because they are interested in the current events in music. Very often they are the audience who would not voluntarily go to the Philharmonic to listen to Mozart. New music is rich in another kind of sound and that is what attracts young people.

At the Musica Electronica Nova festival, the opera “Martha’s Garden” will be Wrocław’s première with you in the main part. Although it is just another performance of the composition, do you still experience stage fright?

Stress accompanies every performance but of course this is a different kind than at the beginning. I am stressed out because I worry that not everything will go as planned during rehearsals.

The première took place two years ago at the Warsaw Autumn festival. This time you will be staging “Martha’s Garden” in your city.

The Wrocław audience is always very warm and friendly to me. Recently, Gazeta Wrocławska held a vote for a Musical Hit of the Decade in Lower Silesia; thanks to the votes of the audience I got third place. It was a surprise for me, which proves that the local audience is receptive and interested in new musical events.

The opera is another result of cooperation with Cezary Duchnowski. How did it start?

I have to admit that it has been ten years since our first joint concert. It started in the Music Academy in Wrocław. Cezary heard me at a concert and liked my singing. He decided to write a song for me, I performed it, and then the cooperation began to expand somehow and transform itself into new projects.

You are preparing a special composition for the Warsaw Autumn festival. What is it going to be?

The song is still being created, so I would not like to say too much. This will be a composition made to order for the Warsaw Autumn festival to be performed by a Polish-German orchestra. This year’s festival focuses on relationships with the current reality, so many politically engaged pieces will be played. In turn, I decided to write a piece irrelevant to a specific event, only to normal daily activities and sounds which inspired me.

In September we will hear the première of your composition at the Sacrum Profanum festival in Cracow.

There I will present a piece ordered by the city of Cracow to celebrate the Year of Miłosz. I decided to choose single phrases from Miłosz’s work that would create a cycle of short miniatures combined into one unit. I will perform the composition accompanied by the chamber orchestra Klangforum Wien.

It wont be your first adventure with Miłosz. Thirteen years ago you composed a piece for “Piosenka o końcu świata.” Did the poet have a chance to hear it?

Probably not to listen to it but there is a story connected with that composition and I have fond memories of it. I wrote that song as a student and, of course, as a student I did not worry about such problems as the copyright. I wrote as a form of exercise to deal with certain issues. That emerged in the form of a vocal part with instruments, which later won first prize in a competition for composers. There was a problem, though, because the piece was to be performed and I needed Miłosz’s consent which of course I didn’t have. I desperately called him on the phone, I wrote to him, I tried to contact Miłosz in all kinds of ways, but failed. His secretary told me there was absolutely no chance of obtaining his consent because the author does not agree for his work to be used. Then I read somewhere that Miłosz would be signing his book at the Palace of Culture and Science. I got on a train and immediately went to Warsaw to queue up for his autograph. Once I got closer to the master, I forgot all about the book and autograph. I was so thrilled that I could only say that I am the composer who has been haunting him about the composition and that I ask for his consent. Miłosz was so surprised that I wanted something else than all the other people in the queue, that he actually agreed for the composition to be performed.

The plans for this year also include the dramatic opera “The Oresteia”

This will be quite an interesting form, because it is a co-production. The National Theatre will send the actors, and the National Opera – the musicians and choir. For this reason, the composition must be balanced between an opera and theatre, and I need to have this constantly in mind to rely on the use of both genres. Such a search for a linkage was challenging but also extremely interesting. I do not know yet what will come out of this because it is scheduled for staging on June 8 and rehearsals have just begun.

When do you find the time to compose?

Finding the time is actually very difficult. Sometimes I compose on the plane, on my way to a concert. It would be wonderful to have a ritual, of course, a week off for writing, but it is not always possible. In practice, I try to use every spare moment for that purpose.

You started by playing the drums. How did the singing and composition start?

Actually, I really started from the drums, and this was because I loved that world of sounds. In a way, it has shaped my imagination in that sonoristic direction. It was very useful in composing; it was a very diverse world of sounds close to me. Ultimately, however, I chose composing and I was educated in it. Singing came a little later. I started with contemporary works and when it became apparent I was doing it right, I also decided to start my vocal studies.

Is todays Agata Zubel more of a singer or a composer?

Fortunately, these both directions go hand in hand. It is quite difficult, but it seems to me that it is important for any composer to have a chance to be a performer; to touch upon the problems which appear when you get on stage and try to unravel some musical notations. It would also be good for any performer to write a song, if only one, to understand what it is about.

Is this the end of your musical development or will you try to understand the work specifics of a conductor?

It would be useful, but for now composition and singing can satisfy me.

What would happen if music had not been invented?

You’d have to invent it as soon as possible!

Interview: Wojciech Sitarz

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