Rafal Tomaszczuk in conversation with Martin Hall, July 1, 2010. Written for the Polish site and magazine E-kultura
To me all sounds are like fingerprints – something very specific. The human voice is easily recognizable, just like a face is. Like criminals, artists leave their DNA on the crime scene, metaphorically speaking. You can’t escape yourself. Our nature defines us. I think it’s the same with music – both as a singer and as a composer. You cast a shadow, something that leaves its print on the music.
Who was your first music inspiration – and who is it now?
I actually can’t remember. I recall listening to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps as a very young man, which had a tremendous effect on me. But then again, Sex Pistols had an equally massive impact on me as a teenager. These days I mostly listen to discrete sources of sound, quiet music – no vocals, no drums, that kind of thing.
Which of your own compositions and albums are your favourite ones?
I wouldn’t really want to choose. I’ve released a lot of very different projects, so in a way they all become facets, various versions of the same musical search and endeavour – the expressions may be radically different, but the source remains the same. However, I cherish a record like Camille (2002) due to its calm and beauty, but albums such as Random Hold (1996), Facsimile (2006) and Hospital Cafeterias (2009) are also very close to my heart.
Are you self-taught or did you have a music education?
I started on The Piano and Music Academy of Copenhagen when I was ten years old, playing classical guitar, but then came punk and I quit the formal studies at the age of 16. Later on I learned to play most other instruments on my own – drums, piano, violin and so forth – so I guess I’m what you could call a bastard mix, being initially educated and then later on turning full-blown autodidact.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I’m very fond of Goldmund’s records. His piano works are wonderful. As I’ve already stated, I don’t listen to noisy material anymore – I guess I got enough of that during the 80’s. I mostly listen to soundtracks nowadays or artists such as Pan-American, Sylvain Chauveau, Hauschka, these kind of names. On the other hand, I really do love a singer like Ernesto Tomasini, the Italian born banshee falsetto of London, a castrato-style performer often performing with the pianist Othon Mataragas.
You write very beautiful and poetic lyrics. What was the inspiration for “Another Heart Laid Bare”?
The title “Another Heart Laid Bare” is a paraphrase of a section entitled My Heart Laid Bare in Charles Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals. In these writings he declares that great individuals never become great due to the circumstances, but on the contrary become so despite the circumstances. I think a lot of artists can relate to this statement. The song itself is about the alienation that succeeds a relationship that has come to an end, but as most of my songs are concerned, there are several themes at play in the text. I prefer not to over-analyze my work anymore. I used to try to explain things a lot early on, but the reason you put something into lyrics and music is that this is what you perceive to be the best form for that particular sentiment or understanding at the given time – so in that respect it seems futile to then afterwards go into a lot of explanation about the same thing. The song exists for that very reason, to explain that particular feeling or state of mind, and in the case of “Another Heart Laid Bare” I think this is all you need to know.
In my opinion “ Magnum Opus “ is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Please tell me something about its beginnings?
Thank you very much. I guess it’s a long story. I started playing music at a very early age, recorded my first record when I was sixteen years old, all in all a process that catapulted me into some kind of underground rock-star status in the beginning of the 80’s. Along with that came the kind of lifestyle you would expect from being in that position. Anyway, during the winter of 1984 and 1985 five people very close to me all died; my own mother committed suicide and four friends either killed themselves or died by a drug overdose. So in many ways it felt like the end of the road at that point in time – I couldn’t really go in the same way as before, and I decided to stop playing music for a period. I went into a kind of metaphysical exile and visited a lot of weird esoteric societies, basically lived at a distance to my former life for approximately two years. Then I decided to make music again and I recorded the album Presence in 1988 from which the track “Magnum Opus” comes. It’s a high-strung, Sturm und Drang-like record – a symphonic piece of work, Wagner-goes-pop so to speak. Both “Magnum Opus” as well as the title track “Presence” are statements, declarations, songs lasting respectively 10 and 12 minutes each. If you take the lyrics alone, they’re quite extensive pieces of writing, very dense in both content and imagery. These two songs were my way of addressing the past and saluting the present and the future. At the time it was my goodbye to the old world and my bidding a new world welcome.
How do you choose the musicians you work with?
They seem to arrive very naturally so along the way. I think the selection of musicians I played with at my concerts at the end of 2009 was probably the best live line-up I’ve ever played with. In September 2010 the concert from the St. Paul’s Church in Denmark will be released as a DVD, which I’m quite pleased with since I play very few concerts in general – in this way the material will be available to my European audience as well.
You are one of the last romantics? Who do you see as your successor in this domain?
I don’t know. I made my debut in the beginning of 80’s, so during the 90’s I was often referred to as some kind of 80’s icon, but whenever people used that expression, I was never quite sure which 80’s they were talking about – the 1880’s or the 1980’s? I think there’s a lot parallels between these two periods in time. Both were very dramatic periods, very nerve-orientated intervals in time, characterized by a hypersensitive zeitgeist. They enforced a new aesthetic standard and acted as breeding ground for the ideas and perceptions that would form the next century. The seriousness and the verve of the romantic tradition is something I relate to quite easily – its desires and sense of wanting all or nothing at all. In that respect I’ve always considered myself to be a romantic, yes.
Do you have any non-music hobby?
I wouldn’t really want to use the word “hobby”, it sort of suggests that you need to have a break from what you’re doing, which I don’t. I obviously know what you mean, sure, but I seem to suffer both the agony and the ecstasy of having found my “calling”, if you want to use that kind of phraseology. As you know, besides my musical work I write as well, so obviously literature is very important to me – it’s rather like breathing to me, something indispensable to my life. Reading and writing, that is, without the shadow of a doubt, the most important features in my life these days.
In which country except Denmark can you imagine your life?
Wherever I would perform a function, I guess – wherever there would be a purpose for me. I’m not really a travelling person anymore. I used to travel quite a lot earlier, but now I need a reason to do so. Otherwise I prefer the solitude, the isolation of the various processes I’m involved in. But if I needed to move somewhere for some reason, it would probably need to be to another European country – preferably one with a cold climate. I’m not particularly fond of summers.
Can you describe your creative process? What comes first, the music or the lyrics?
It varies. I don’t really have a formula. Earlier on I wrote most of my songs using a guitar, but during this century my instrument of choice has been the piano. Mostly a song begins with an image or a line of text, a state of mind.
Your book “The Last Romantic” was translated into Lithuanian. Is it possible that your last novel “Kinoplex” will appear in Poland?
It’s impossible to say. At the moment the manuscript is going out to a line of different European editors who have shown interest in the book, but it’s too early to say anything yet. The publishing business works – like the music business – in strange ways. There’s such an abundance of books on the market today, so obviously the competition is huge. But it would be very nice to get Kinoplex released in Poland. I’d like to visit Warszawa one day, and what better occasion than in relation to a book release? So let’s see.
Thank you very much. I wish you many inspirations for making another masterpiece!
Thank you for the attention.