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  • elzbieta bilicka

Handshake with pop culture

A few days ago, I had a nice chat with Aleksander Debicz, a pianist I met several years ago at the Mozarteum Summer Academy in Salzburg. Alek has just been nominated to the prestigious Polish phonographic award Fryderyk 2019! On this occasion I decided to ask him a couple of questions about the way that led him to this great success.

- I’ve been following your career for a while and I’m under great impression of all three of your CDs! What led you to the contract with Warner Music Poland?

- I can say I followed a very conventional pattern – the offer came after my success at the Transatlantic Instant Composition Contest in 2013. It was a very special competition, participants had to compose and improvise live music to a movie they saw just a few minutes before getting on stage. The jury consisted of many important people from the film music world, like Leszek Mozdzer or Dave Porter, the author of the ‘Breaking Bad’ soundtrack. Winning that competition was a big deal and instantly helped me get noticed. Soon, I was asked to record a demo with a completely free material. That was when I came up with an idea to stick to the Transatlantic Festival direction and show to a wider audience my two great passions that I’d been cultivating my whole life in private until then. I decided to combine improvising and composing with movies and film music. It turned out to be a good choice and a few months later I was recording a professional CD for Warner Music Poland in a great Alvernia Studio with absolute sound engineering virtuosos, Aleksandra Nagorko and Andrzej Sasin. This is how the Cinematic Piano came to life.

- Tell me more about improvising and composing – where did you get this idea?

- I’ve been doing this ever since I remember. As a child, instead of playing scales I would warm up improvising or playing various melodies by ear. I like to say that my composing now is a result of fun I’ve been having this way all my life. Nobody ever taught me how to do it professionally; I've taken part in a few workshops on improvising but apart from that I’ve learnt everything by myself. Of course, now that I’m older and have more knowledge I listen to music in a more analytical way and that is hopefully translated into a higher quality of my pieces. Still, though, I prefer to call myself a pianist that happens to compose rather than a composer. But I admit openly that composing turns me on a lot! Whenever I’m sitting at the piano I have to have a pen and a piece of music paper in front of me. It calms me down for some reason, like meditation.

- And what about movies?

- Films have been my life-long hobby. Right now as we’re talking it’s the middle of the Oscar time and I’m fanatically watching all the nominated movies one by one! I’d like to actively get involved in the world of film music. I've already had a few successful attempts – I’ve composed the soundtrack to a few Polish documentary movies and it’s been a very inspiring experience. The last project of this kind was a set of piano-saxophone improvisations with my friend, Szymon Nidzworski.

- You like to cooperate with other musicians. Your second album was recorded with a cellist, Marcin Zdunik. Had you played together before or did you form this duo specifically for that project?

- We got to know each other closer with Marcin at the summer piano workshops in Nowy Sacz. We worked together and shared a room there. Very soon it turned out from our long evening conversations that we were both Bach fanatics and so we decided it would be great to play his music together. This is how we came up with an idea of the Bach Stories.

- Just like that?

- Just like that. There were no contracted concerts or recordings; it was all done purely for music. We were inspired especially by Bach's Chorale Preludes. Finally, we decided to prepare a set of their transcriptions for piano & cello and to intertwine them with our own musical ‘comments’ in an improvised form. The idea was to make these improvisations as free and personal as possible, with no regard to the Bach style. Later, we registered this material on the second CD of our album; on the first one we focused exclusively on Gamb Sonatas and Cantatas.

- Can you tell me step by step how, starting purely from music, you and Marcin ended up recording the Bach Stories CD?

- From the distance the whole process seems so neat and smooth right now but in fact it wasn’t all so beautiful at the beginning. Advertising our project was no easy task. First, it was Bach, difficult and not very popular kind of music. Second, we were offering non-jazz improvisations, the idea which most people completely didn't understand and it took time to convince them. The first opportunity we got to play our program in public was a modest concert in a church - a result of our own initiative. Later, we recorded a demo that we used to support our offer and finally we received a proposal from the agency in Cracow to play in a beautiful monastery there. Step by step, we ended up having a lot of concerts together. Our cooperation still goes on; as a matter of fact we’re working on a new project right now. But yes, in general I’d say that the whole process cost us a good deal of a struggle and patience, it’s never an immediate miracle.

- Let’s talk about your last CD. The Invention album has recently been nominated to the prestigious Polish phonographic award Fryderyk 2019 (congratulations!!!). Your choice of repertoire for this CD was again brave and unconventional – you decided to record a set of Inventions and Sinfonias by Bach and top them with your own compositions/improvisations that combine Bach stylistics with contemporary music influences. Didn’t it seem too risky to you?

- I didn't think about it this way. It had been my dream to record Inventions and Sinfonias for a long time. In my opinion this music is very underestimated, mostly because children are tormented with it at schools in early years. Since, quite naturally, at that stage they lack in abilities and musical means to fully show the beauty of this music they completely distort and simplify it. That’s why I thought it would be a good idea to show how incredible these pieces really are, that although their main purpose is pedagogical, in terms of the level of mastery they can be compared to Etudes by Chopin. From the practical side, I also figured that a CD with a less popular repertoire would be a better idea than another album with Goldberg Variations or Partitas. I log on the I-Tunes store every week and check all the released CDs (it’s too many of them by the way) and I just don’t want to repeat what I find there. I prefer to propose some new material than go for something that has already been recorded in hundreds of versions.

- Have your CDs brought you many concert offers?

- In general, yes. Both Cinematic Piano and Bach Stories have a program that sells well on stage. The Invention’s repertoire wasn't intended to be particularly suitable for live performances but it’s getting some concert attention too, especially now after the Fryderyk nomination.

- What projects are you working on at the moment?

- Right now, composing consumes most of my time. I’m experimenting with writing for a bigger ensemble but I don’t want to say too much about this project yet. I need to finish the piece and then I’ll decide if it’s worth anything (haha). Apart from that I’ve recently started making video clips with my recordings and putting them on the Internet, it seems to be a great way to get to a wider audience. Lately, I’ve started cooperation with my friend, an outstanding filmmaker, Adam Andrzejewski, who takes care of the visual part of these clips.

- You like to take full advantage of means of promotion that popular music artists commonly use but the classical ones are still very reluctant about.

- Yes, I do it for two reasons. First, because it simply gives me a lot of fun and second, because I'm convinced that it is the only way to draw attention of the younger audience today. Popular music influences, video clips, concerts in venues not commonly associated with classical music, like shopping malls or bars – these are all means that make good music more approachable to the young generation. I believe that there are only two kinds of music: the good and the bad one. From the physical point of view it is the very same mechanism that gives us goosebumps when we’re listening to Beyoncé and to Mozart’s Symphony so I am absolutely ok with combining influences from both sides.

- You seem to be in a very good place in life right now – a 30- year-old pianist with a classical education who functions successfully on Polish musical stage. What do you think you owe it to above all?

- It's many factors but the first thing that comes to my mind is people, the ones that have had a crucial, long-time influence over me, like my parents or teachers and those ones whom I've met briefly at various points of my life. This is important for many reasons – support, contacts, inspiration, self-development and many more. Apart from that, I’d say that today it’s extremely significant for classically trained, young pianists to find something that will make them stand out from the hundreds of their fellows. It cannot be anything forced, though, only the naturally driven ideas are convincing and sell well. When I think about some advice I could give to those young people, the tired ‘follow your heart’ slogan comes to my mind. But that’s actually all it takes – define your strengths and special interests, be flexible about them as you change throughout your life and just invest yourself in whatever you feel like doing the most!

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