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Grzegorz Tarwid: out of piano comfort zone

– Piano doesn’t have to be a beautiful instrument with a Steinway concert hall sound, but it can be a piano that sounds like it came out of an old movie. This happens when it imitates another instrument – not a keyboard instrument, but a percussion or guitar instrument. This is how piano music can be rediscovered – says Grzegorz Tarwid, pianist and composer.

Photo: Aleksandra Mleczko / Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska

Grzegorz Tarwid has quickly developed his own style and the quality that goes with it to such an extent that one should reach for his subsequent albums without a second thought. Diversified stylistically, played in numerous ensembles, they represent a unique musical language which places Tarwid next to the most interesting pianists and musicians of the young generation – whether he reaches for jazz, classical or electronic music.

Tarwid started learning from Polish pianists, Wojciech Kamiński and Andrzej Jagodziński, and later joined the wave of Polish musicians who studied at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. He played with Zbigniew Namysłowski and Maciej Obara, but the main vehicle of his inspirations are successive ensembles – Sundial, Diomede or Alfons Silk, as well as the Sprzedam project or Franciszek Pospieszalski Sextet.

At the beginning of 2020, he released his first solo album Plays, where he deftly implemented his ideas at the intersection of classical, avant-garde and improvisation, moving from rehearsals and repetitions to appealing suites played with verve and character. As a pianist, Tarwid changes styles as often as he changes his clothes, and it is no different on his new album Ay. His sophomore work is intriguing both in terms of the stylistic range of his compositions and in terms of sound, which was the task of Albert Karch. It’s a dizzying journey from a world inspired by popular music, through lyrically appealing, minimalism-inspired melodies and nods to classical music to colourful progressive and electrified forms. Tarwid paints a wide range – from complex, multi-layered pieces to simple, sparse suites, stripping the instrument down to a clean, polished sound, creating a neat and captivating whole from this mosaic of ideas.

At the same time, he plays with nerve, with a palpable pulse, with an irrepressible desire to seek new solutions, without settling into boredom and convention. On the occasion of the album’s premiere, we talk about his inspirations, his musical path, but also the need to stick together in difficult times.

JAKUB KNERA: Who is on the cover of your new solo album Ay?

GRZEGORZ TARWID: My mother. This album was created on the occasion of her upcoming big birthday. The album is a gift for her – I wanted to paste her photo to additionally emphasize it. My mother is a huge musical inspiration for me – it is thanks to her that I listened to such artists as Jean-Michel Jarre, I discovered The Beatles or Ewa Demarczyk performing the songs by Zygmunt Konieczny.

On the other hand, she’s my guinea pig – when I play something for her at home,  she sometimes tells me to turn it off, and at other times she likes it. I use her taste to test what aspects of my music can be more communicative, which are more and which are less accessible. This album is a tribute to her for who she is to me. I took an album of photos where she was the same age as me, and Macio Moretti did a project based on it.

Ay, your second solo album, is quite free and open genre-wise. Above all, it’s interesting in terms of sound – the grand piano doesn’t sound clean and polished, it sometimes sounds dirty or even distorted.

The idea was to leave the raw piano sound. But when the mixing and mastering was taken care of by Albert Karch, he said that I had set up the microphones wrong for recording and there wasn’t much room for improvement. So we started to create a different sound – Albert was experimenting with compressors and vintage sounds, while I went back to my old inspirations of Brian Eno’s records from the 70s, which sound warm but dark at the same time. I really liked that and wanted to bring that approach of warmth, something subtle but also dark to my music. We both got into it. At some point we ripped the whole album to an old tape and left some details, like minor distortion and noise.

Plays, your first solo album released a year ago, was based on repetition and rehearsal. Ay is a memo of different ideas – from a pop opening, classical themes to ground-up electronica on “Nyege”. What was the idea behind this?

Many of these songs originally sounded very different. I just wanted to record the album the way I do live, with two hands. “Nyege” is played straight and the melody was meant to repeat throughout the song with a complementary improvisation. When I started listening to it, I felt something was missing. I started doubling the parts – playing only the left hand part to enhance the bass and harmony, and then the right hand part to emphasize the melody. I added something in the background, at the beginning and at the end, I expanded the open and motoric part.

It also helped that I built myself a studio at home – I have a sound card, microphones, software so I can produce my sound. The result was a spontaneous music laboratory.

So not only the process of playing was important, but also the production and polishing of the sound?

Definitely. It was the most important part.

Ay means “Lunar” in the Azeri language. Where did it come from and why did you encrypt it?

I first thought of the name Plays 2, which would be a follow-up to my previous work, but I wanted to go deeper into the vibe of that album. The idea of naming it after one of the song titles was the simplest, but it also captures the vibe of the whole thing. In Polish it would sound like a throwback to Polish pop from the 90s, hence the name in Azeri.

When I listened to Plays, but also to your earlier recordings, your approach reminded me of Marcin Masecki and his genre-defying and performing acrobatics.

For sure, Marcin Masecki’s approach to sound has influenced the way I play – he made me see that a grand piano doesn’t have to be a beautiful instrument with a Steinway concert hall sound, but it can be a piano that sounds like it came out of an old movie. This happens when it imitates another instrument – not a keyboard instrument, but a percussion or guitar instrument.

I would put Masecki in a completely different place than the likes of Chopin, Komeda or Możdżer, who are so popular in Poland.

Those people you mentioned are indeed associated with such a holy picture. Who could I add? Certainly Andrzej Jagodziński and Marcin Wasilewski. But times are changing, there are more and more interesting musicians, I would definitely add Piotr Orzechowski from the younger generation, apart from Masecki – for me, these are pianists who set new directions and I still like listening to them.

Do they disenchant the image of the holy picture with the piano?

Definitely, they show that this kind of playing is ambiguous and multidimensional, and they demonstrate what new sounds can be achieved. This is crucial for me – to go beyond the comfort zone in terms of sound, both of the musician and the audience. This is how piano music can be rediscovered.

And what influenced you to rediscover it?

A lot of things. Musically, I got a lot of food for thought from the Hunger Pangs trio, Tomek Dąbrowski, Marek Kądziela and Kasper Tom Christiansen, on the Meet Meat album – it was a great compositional discovery of how to build pieces as suites. I had a passion for classical music and was fascinated by exploring its form, stretching and creating extended sonatas or symphonies. I was interested in how to relate that to jazz music.

But a significant turning point came with the professors in Copenhagen – above all Jakob Anderskov and Søren Kjaergaard, outstanding pianists, teachers and personalities. They bring many beautiful things to the music: compositionally, but also in terms of their approach to the role of the piano in the ensemble. Jakob’s ensembles with the string quartet and percussion or trios without the double bass are important things for me to listen and explore. They showed me that a jazz trio doesn’t have to rely on the double bass and drums, and that the piano can do everything. I also like the music of Simon Toldam, an outstanding Danish pianist, my first professor in Copenhagen.

A few years ago, many musicians took up studies in Denmark. Today you are all releasing albums, you have all been playing for some time after graduation, so it is possible to look at this centre of education from a distance. What is it about the school in Copenhagen that attracts so many people and what has it given you?

First of all, there is a difference in the approach to the student. Poland is dominated by the Eastern approach, the teacher-student model. This is motivating on the one hand, but on the other hand, there is a continuous block in the form of hierarchy, there is no full dialogue.

In Copenhagen, everything is the other way round, it is based on total partnership. The tutor asks the student what he or she has come with, it’s a friendly discussion with a mutual exchange of inspirations. You play together, and then you can learn a lot – the tutor suggests what to change, add or abandon. In Poland, you are explicitly told what is good or bad, and this is treated as the objective truth. In Denmark, there are suggestions, the student is right and not the professor – he/she can help or suggest something.

The second difference is that there is no division into genres – in Poland there are jazz, classical, electronic and vocal faculties. In Copenhagen there is a separate classical conservatory, but in popular music everything is together. I was at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory, which had all kinds of genres going on. In my year I had students playing electronica and rock, producers, and songwriters, and it was very inspiring.

What were the results?

A bit strange at first – after studying in Poland I thought we’d have separate classes, we’d be sitting at our desks and studying jazz scales on the blackboard (laughs). I had to get out of my comfort zone. We’re all together, and we’re all inspiring each other. In the first year, we were given the task of forming a band and organising a tour for ourselves. I had a group with two guitarists – a jazz one and a rock one – and a drummer. It really made me grow as a musician and changed my approach.

The final difference is that there is no school curriculum and no strict description of what a student should learn in a given semester. You make up your own project and decide what you want to learn. Our main “lesson” were meetings with our tutor, whom we told at what stage our project was, what we were aiming for and what we were learning. In addition, students from other music worlds were listening to this, each adding their feedback.

After coming back from Copenhagen, did you look at the Polish scene and music differently?

First of all, I started going to different concerts. I didn’t care who played at the Warsaw Summer Jazz Days – and as a kid, it was my dream to go to concerts in the Congress Hall. I started going to hip-hop gigs or seeing rock bands in Ladomek, for instance. I completely abandoned any genre divisions.

And what about playing?

During my studies at school I tried to transfer the classical form into the jazz form, and at some point I also started playing improvised sessions on the drums. It was easier for me to soak in the sound of it because I started my education playing drums. I did a lot with around the subject of my Master’s thesis: technical problems expressed in my artistic expression.

This was related to the album Plays – composing etudes for myself meant to serve as technical exercises. They may be difficult, but their sound is connected with the sound of synthesisers – all passages or repetitive arrangements are connected with samples or synthesisers, and this was very close to me. I still work like that – I sit down at the piano, take a technical exercise or a fragment from a classical piece, copy a phrase and transfer it to different keys and contexts. This is where improvisation comes from – something I can develop technically and compositionally.

You wrote on Bandcamp that you are inspired by classical music and footwork. How important is electronic music for you?

Getting to know it more was a turning point for me in terms of playing solo. It all started with discovering the Lado ABC scene in Poland and especially Janek Młynarski’s approach to rhythmic drum playing. I became so infected with it that I began to parrot it almost childishly, transferring that density to the piano.

Then I listened a lot to Tim Hecker’s solo recordings – I was intrigued by his approach to ambient and long forms. Thanks to Albert Karch, I also became interested in the Japanese scene – I discovered Daisuke Tanabe or Ryuichi Sakamoto, and more recently Meitei, who goes in the direction of old sounds.

I also like Dakim, a DJ from Los Angeles, who is interesting in terms of rhythmicity and researching irregular structures. He keeps my feet moving.

On the face of it, compared to classical and jazz music, electronic music may seem much simpler. What has it given you?

It showed me the meaning of repetition in music – not developing motifs, but staying within some minimalistic atmosphere. Thanks to this kind of music, I understood that repetition doesn’t necessarily have to mean clinging to one motif unconsciously for lack of an idea, in order to make the audience or yourself interested – I used to think about it like that, to an extent.

Thanks to the music of Hecker and Eno, who I was listening to at the same time, I understood that this repetition can be a beautiful idea if you pour a lot of intention and heart into it, and especially if it can be treated in an interesting way. The Necks are a good example here – I’m really into what they’re doing. It’s repetition, but also a very slow development of ideas and form.

Minimalism or developed repetition?

I rather associate it with development rather than staying within a minimalist idea, where you play the same thing over and over again. The important thing is what you build and the architecture that has some sort of a climax. Plus the emotionality that creates the music.

Has listening to electronic music encouraged you to reach for the synthesiser?

The synthesiser offers a different sound. I treat music created on the grand piano and keyboards like an orchestra. As a child, my teacher told me to treat the grand piano like this when I improvise: like an orchestra. That’s why at some point I intuitively started using Casio or Nord keyboards with the sound of a string orchestra, for example.

I want to transfer the way I play the piano to synthesizer sounds. The most important thing for me is to keep it spontaneous, natural and free. And to be proficient in improvisation.

And what about musical tradition? A year ago you released Przyśpiewki with Diomede, which refers to this to some extent.

The title was coined by Tomek Markanicz. I’m not fond of questions about whether there is any tradition in music. Theoretically, in an educational sense, there certainly is, so as to know what references there are in what you do or what someone did once in a certain period. It’s a context that you need to know.

Folk ditties have always been fun to improvise. Tomek and I get into a simple melody and then we improvise on it: following a theme, or playing something repetitively. I think that’s what connects us to the folk tradition of playing ditties. It is a ritual of making music together, playing these melodies for the hundredth time. It is strongly rooted in Polishness.

Let’s go back to the Copenhagen school and the musicians who graduated from it, such as Szymon Gąsiorek, Kamil Piotrowicz or Kuba Więcek. Add to that many others from the younger generation, like Emil Miszk or Tomasz Chyła – and yourself. You are all thriving and have decided to release albums on your own labels, such as Alpaka, Howard, Love and Beauty or Kold. Why do you prefer to act on your own?

To be independent from labels. I’m the kind of musician who often changes his direction. If I was on a major label like Kuba Więcek, I don’t think this would be met with much enthusiasm. Besides, I don’t like to risk so much with people on a formal level, especially if I have a person above me who tells me what to do. This is where the idea of Kold came from, the label I founded with pianist Jagoda Stanicka, Kuba Wójcik, sound director Filip Olecki and Kuba Więcek. We don’t just want to release music, but act as a publishing and organisational entity.

Hence the idea for Spontaneous Composers’ Meetings?

Yes. We‘ve already held 10 editions, mainly in Warsaw, but once in Gdańsk, and recently at the Saraswati Hotel in the Jizera Mountains with Piotr Damasiewicz as our guest. There was also an online Piano Day edition, where Martyna Kułakowska and Jagoda Stanicka played compositions by Joanna Duda, Marcin Masecki, Piotr Orzechowski, Kaja Draksler, Aga Derlak and myself. We want to reach out to people with our idea of creating music. A bit like the Lado workshops, their concerts in the city and in the country. To connect with the listeners.

Is it especially important to stick together during the pandemic?

Definitely, especially now. That way relationships with people will be maintained and deepened. I’m not a fan of doing online streams because they can never replace a real concert, but it’s something we have to switch to and get used to now, and it might even become some sort of post-pandemic norm. We are exploring the territory. We need to get people interested – show them new forms of doing things and playing music so they don’t treat things they find online as just another lecture or online concert that you don’t want to see.

Listen exclusively Grzegorz Tarwids’ Ay album,
which is out on April 16th by KOLD label: