Names: Veronika Harcsa, Anastasia Razvalyaeva, Márton Fenyvesi
Nationality: Hungarian, Russian-Hungarian (Anastasia Razvalyaeva)
Current Release: Debussy Now! on BMC
Recommendations: Veronika Harcsa: David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest - a unique reading experience; Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question - a real philosophical composition.
If you enjoyed this interview, check out the individual home- and facebook pages of Veronika Harcsa, Anastasia Razvalyaeva and Márton Fenyvesi.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Veronika Harcsa: I was specializing in maths at high school, and learning music was just a hobby. I learned to play the piano, and later I switched to the saxophone, which led me to improvisation. When I started singing blues and Janis Joplin songs, the freedom of it really got me, and that turned me to jazz.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
VH: In the beginning people often said that I sounded like Björk and Róisín Murphy. it’s true that they were among my favourites, but I always heard myself very differently. I guess we don’t realize when we are copying, it’s one of our instinctive, automatic learning tools after all.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
AR: During my studies at the Liszt Academy of Music one of my goals was to become an international solo harpist, and I felt a need to challenge myself with the most difficult classical repertoire possible. It took me years to get to know my own self and find the building rocks of my artistic path. Today I enjoy collaborating with various musicians, and challenge myself with improvisation and making transcriptions of non-harpistic repertoire for harp.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
VH: It’s the easiest for me, I’m a singer, I only need a quiet space, and occasionally a piano to practice. I try to close out the environment, so I don’t think it matters very much to me. Quiet is essential though.
Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
MF: As a guitarist and improviser I have been interested in technology since I picked up my brother’s electric guitar when I was ten years old. I studied classical guitar for twelve years in music school and I took it pretty seriously for few years after my college years as well: the acoustic instrument and acoustic tone production is a strong part of my musical thinking, a strong base of my soundscapes when I’m modifying my guitar sound with several tools like analog fx pedals or digital electronics, computers. “Debussy Now!” is the first album I ever made where I’m not using my guitar on most of the tracks, my acoustic input is the voice and the harp. To me this situation is more about being responsible for my companions than in a “usual” situation of instrumental improvisation where I’m the input and the output with my instrument at the same time: in “Debussy Now” I really have to think, move and wave together with Nasztja and Veronika in every moment in a way I never experienced before.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
VH: Days can be very different depending on various factors. I rehearse, I go on tour, go to the studio, I write a lot of emails, etc ... which all have different routines. I try to do sports in the morning, when I’m the most flexible. Everything else is blended flexibly according to my actual tasks.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
AR: The ideas may come from any part of life. It may be a thought from a book I read, an impression of a movie, an interesting discussion with someone or something I heard at a concert or on a recording. In this case, it all started with that I always wanted to play with a singer who had a non-classical voice, and when I heard Veronika singing a Ravel-song I thought she is the person I was looking for.
After some brainstorming by e-mail we chose a few Debussy songs to start with. We tried several of them in many tonalities exploring how a song’s character would change. It was also interesting to hear that a song would make a totally different impression if it was sung in English instead of the original French text. We also started to improvise on the themes of each song, which was a brand new playground for me coming from a classical background. We worked for about a year before we went on stage together for the first time. It was a fantastic experience for me, as I rarely have so much time to prepare one single program.
Doing concerts in 2018 and 2019 we often felt we need to bring a bit of hard-edge to this pure acoustic sound. This happened at the end of 2019, when Márton Fenyvesi joined us with his vast palette of electronic effects. After the first concert as a trio I was overflowing with the feeling that this project had finally been fulfilled.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
AR: It is difficult to define what is “ideal”, as it is probably never ideal … However, my creativity grows when I have time to think about new ideas, do some research and brainstorming on that topic with others, when I have time to read, be alone and think, watch movies, go to exhibitions, have interesting discussions, rehearse with people whom I like to play with. I also feel a boost of creativity when I teach.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
VH: In our project Debussy Now! sound design is key, and it is achieved through technological tools. Anastasia and I had been experimenting with Debussy’s songs acoustically for years, altering structures and improvising with their motives. But we knew that one element was missing, we wanted to add sound design to the natural voice and the harp. That’s when Márton joined us, and we got ready to record the album.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through playing together or just talking about ideas?
VH: I always feel blessed when I find people who inspire me creatively. Luckily it happens a lot, and I like to engage in collaborations. It’s the differences that inspire the most, maybe that’s why I, a jazz singer, choose to work with classical musicians, contemporary dancers, photographers. I look for anything that I can adopt from specific improvisation techniques to work attitude and concept building skills.
How is preparing music, playing it live and recording it for an album connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
VH: As a jazz musician, these three phases of making music are not that different, as spontaneity and improvisation are present in all of them. The psychology is different when there is an audience, or when the red button is pushed for recording. It’s a higher alertness, but the tendency to take risks is always there.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' and 'performance' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre?
VH: Some composers like Debussy may give very specific instructions on timbre and sound. However, the instructions can still be interpreted in a myriad ways. I come from jazz where the performer is often considered just as important as the composer, and they have a very large freedom in interpreting the written material. I tried to bring some of this attitude into the classical songs, with respect to the written music.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
VH: Compare a film scene with and without music. Compare a concert with amazing visuals, and with plain, static lights. I think visual and auditory senses can easily strengthen or alter each other’s affect.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
VH: I’m very pleased to hear that we encourage people to take challenges, and to step on unknown paths.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music and performance still intact. Do you have a vision of music and performance, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?
VH: I think that the last century already widened the scale. Music is not only for dancing and listening, but for distracting and distancing during commuting, for focusing during work, for healing through therapies. Performance has many new forms in the digital world, and it will surely get more diverse through augmented reality and VR in the future.