There are few things as exciting to me in the world of art and music as watching someone realize their potential. Piotr Kurek has always been loaded with talent and ideas. I first got to know him when I originally released his breakthrough album, Heat, in 2011, and on that stellar album, the roots of his compositional approach were taking hold. From there, Kurek has gone from strength to strength culminating with the masterful World Speaks earlier this year on Edições CN. As soon as I heard that album, I needed to know more. This interview was done in early 2022.
What are some of your earliest and most lasting memories of music and of sound from when you were a kid?
This actually might be a song by Mireille Mathieu – I had to check it years later but it’s titled “Une Femme Amoureuse,” also known in the English version as “A Woman In Love.” Maybe not a common choice for a 3-year-old but my parents got a tape player when I was a kid and Mireille Mahtiue’s cassette came together with it. It still gets me back to my childhood instantly whenever I hear it.
How did you first become interested in playing music and writing your own songs?
I was attending music school playing piano but I actually got more interested in making my own music when I was a teenager – first as a drummer in an amateur garage rock band, then making gabber and hardcore techno on my PC while learning to play cornamuse (a Renaissance double-reed instrument) at the same time and listening to Pierre Vidal and Josquin des Prez. I could never really place myself in any particular genre or type of music so I was all over the place being a part of every subculture and music I was interested in or could get my hands on.
What are some of your favorite sounds in the world?
It actually took me a while to figure it out but for writing music, anything that I can use for constructing chords is my favorite. I have an electric Wurlitzer piano at home and I’m really happy just sitting and doodling on it while sipping hot Yogi tea. But if you ask about nature or everyday sounds I don’t really have anything I prefer– maybe a sound of a distant sea, wind or cracking snow – I have this strong fascination for extremely cold places and I love reading about XIX century North expeditions by John Franklin, Amundsen, and Vitus Bering.
You’ve always had a unique approach to composition and sound. I have always thought there’s this wonderful, organic undercurrent to everything in the way you combine electronic instruments and acoustic instruments (or even thinking about using vocal samples/MIDI as with the new album, songs on Edena, Polygome, etc). What is it that draws you to these kinds of sonic combinations when you’re writing and playing music?
Really happy to hear that! I guess it’s just that I like writing music for various instruments that have their own distinct tone, musical range, and tension when set together. I usually think about those combinations before I start recording but then I just let it go – there is always one instrument that takes over the direction and character of a track. And this is the most ideal situation because then I know where it’s going and how to finish it. But definitely, I have to say I love albums with music for solo instruments – I just have never yet succeeded in recording one.
I’d like to dig a little deeper into your use of voices because I think it’s such a unique aspect of your work and that deeper focus on World Speaks is so fantastic. What is it about working with voices that you are drawn to? And what is your approach with this kind of thing – I assume it’s generally samples that you use through MIDI or synths – but do you get a sound or idea in your head and then work out how to make it happen from there?
Oh, but I’m keen to talk about it! Lately, I have been mainly working with actors during theatre rehearsals, but in the past, I’ve also worked with classically trained vocalists and improvisers. Sometimes I record voice and, as you say, replay it on a MIDI keyboard or use vocoder or some sort of DSP, at other times I don’t change a thing… it all depends on the context but what’s most fascinating for me about working with voice is that we know it so well that even the slightest change is recognizable and usually a bit confusing. Although I don’t really do it for the sake of experiment – I don’t even like this word in a musical context – it’s just that sometimes I try different approaches of working with sound to make it fit to some sort of general idea I’m heading towards.
I’ll stop asking about vocal stuff, I promise, but I was blown away by A Sacrifice Shall Be Made when it came out. It felt like this really singular, beautiful new realization of a lot of things you’d been working with up to this point. How did the collaboration with Tian Gebing and Grzegorz Jarzyna come about and what are some of the things that stuck with you the most from this project?
Really glad you like it, as this is also a very special release for me. That album combines music from different theatre performances made in China or featuring Chinese actors and performers. I was working with TR Warszawa theatre and some of the artists recommended my work to Tian Gebing, a director from Beijing when he was staging a new performance in Poland’s Old Theatre in Kraków. We got along well and since then worked together on a few performances – most recently in Münchner Kammerspiele on a piece titled Heart Chamber Fragments which premiered in October 2021. Also, with Grzegorz Jarzyna who is one of the most established theatre directors in Poland I’ve been lucky to work in Poland and abroad. From all those projects I think what is most amazing for me is simply meeting people and working together in a group – a nice change from my usual solitary way of making music. But I have to say working with theatre also changed my way of thinking about my music performances which have always been shy and minimal.
The new album, World Speaks, has this wonderful warmth to it and an almost whimsical feeling, too, especially with the way the voices and the organ move together. When you set out to write this album, what ideas were inspiring you and pushing you in this direction?
With World Speaks I was really interested in the anatomy of the voice emission – work of the muscles, tissues, and structures that actually generate sound. I’ve tried to translate it into a pre-recorded and synthesized voice, not really as any kind of a scientific research project but rather an imagined fantasy. Making a sound that moves, bends, and modulates along with the music, slightly overcoming the physical possibilities of the human voice.
How did you come to work with Lieven Martens’ wonderful Edições CN on this album? It seems like such a natural and fantastic fit.
I met Lieven in Belgium where I performed on a tour with David Erden and then briefly during Meakusma Festival in Eupen. I was always a big fan of Edições CN and Lieven’s music since his early Dolphins Into The Future releases. I’ve contacted him later to talk about some different projects of mine and that led to releasing World Speaks. I’m truly grateful to Lieven for working together on this album and for all his support during the process.
You also recently released the first Pietnastka album in a decade in the summer of 2021. Can you tell me a little bit about the project and why there was such a gap between the two albums? Any future music in the works from you guys? Kambium is great, by the way. It’s interesting to hear you playing in such a different context.
Piętnastka started as my solo project but quickly it became a duo when Hubert Zemler joined on drums and percussion for the live performances. We played a lot of shows after releasing the debut album Dalia in 2011 and just with time we got busier with our own separate projects and Piętnastka went on hold. That’s actually slightly shocking to think it took 10 years to come back with a new release and pandemic didn’t help us with promoting the album as far as performances go but hopefully, we can present it more often now.
What are you most hopeful for in 2022? And what’s next for you?
I’ve just started working on a score for an experimental film and there is always new music I’m working on on my own or in collaborations so hopefully it will see the light of day in the near future. And as with Piętnastka I also wish to play live more often in the coming year – miss traveling too, so hopefully, 2022 will be much better than the last few.