Name: Marina Baranova
Occupation: Pianist, composer, improviser
Nationality: Ukrainian
Current release: Marina Baranova's Atlas of Imaginary Places is out via Neue Meister.
1. Stefan Zweig - Decisive Moments in History: Twelve Historical Miniatures
2. C. Debussy - String Quartet in g-Minor op. 10; 2nd movement

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When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I can’t remember when I first started to compose.

Both of my parents were musicians. We used to live in a small apartment in the Ukraine and there was a piano in each room. In one of them my mother would teach classical music to her students. In the other my dad would teach jazz and improvisation to his.

Playing music was as natural to me as walking or talking. I would get down to my piano, put a children’s book with colorful illustrations on the music stand and start making up my own stories long before I knew which keys I was hitting on the instrument.

For most artists, originality is 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?

No doubt classical piano music has played a great role in this. The diversity of colors, the palette of harmonies and the sense of form - all of that my fingers have soaked in. These are my technical tools.

But as for emotional storytelling, that’s where visual objects - colors, shapes, movement - play the decisive part. I am a synesthetic and everything I see and feel instantly turns into music in my head.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I believe that my search for identity is actually the source of my creativity. My albums never repeat each other, in each new work I meditate on the theme that is currently ringing in me.

I have an album on Jewish folklore, one with the works by Robert Schumann, one on the dialogue between jazz and baroque, one on the shadow side of impressionism and my latest album is about an imaginary island, an invitation for the audience to discover the new, untravelled paths.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

For quite some time I was having trouble deciding whether I was a pianist or a composer. Once I’d made up my mind about that, allowing myself to be a pianist that performs her own work, the new issue was how to define the genre of my music. Finally, I left that to journalists to decide for themselves, which has greatly alleviated my composing process.

I think it’s impossible to be both inside and outside at the same time. Anyway, not in the 3D space where our life is happening.

Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?

I disagree. The matter of time has always been and still remains the key issue in the context of contemporary classical music. But in my case time plays its part outside the work, it is more existential, like looking back.

The longer and the more often I perform my music at concerts the more it transforms, departing from the initial idea. I never erase the recordings of my first sketches so I can later go back to them and trace the idea back to the source.

Like the parents that look at their kids’ childhood pictures and get surprised by how the features of their growing child were already marked in the face of that apple-cheeked baby.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

Sound is the decisive factor in music creation. The thing is, it’s not me who composes music, but my piano does. Every piano tells its own story, and my fingers just make it heard.

I like discovering new places, new instruments and I get powerful inspiration from how the instrument sounds. I record my improvisations and then work on them later, cutting off all that is non-essential and adding new colors.

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?

For me it is important to have conversations about music, meditate on the aesthetics, question the existing myths, and reconsider the values over and over again.

I am very lucky that my husband, Damian Marhulets, is an amazing composer and the smartest party to conversation converse with. And sometimes my partner in crime when it comes to breaking the musical stereotypes. To me that is the best form of collaboration that helps make my music more conscious.

I always play my new pieces to Damian and enjoy the discussions that we share afterwards.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. 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?

I usually wake up quite early. I’m an owl by nature, so that happens not because I’m willing to, but thanks to our two very lively daughters who are already bursting with ideas of how to have fun at 6 am.

We often listen to music while having breakfast. All sorts of music. And we observe and discuss how it influences us. Once the kids are in kindergarten, I start composing. When they come back I often play my new pieces to them, and they tell me what images appear in their heads when they listen.

I must say that when I play to my kids that’s when I best understand whether the piece is ready, or if it needs some more thought.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it? 

We always talk about breakthroughs meaning positive. In my case, the breakthrough was a bunch of negative events that made me change my course of life and think of how to move on.

10 years ago, I was a classical pianist travelling around the world and performing exclusively classical music. I am in love with Schumann, Beethoven, Debussy, Rameau, but I don’t understand competitions. Unfortunately, competitions do play an important part in the education of classical pianists. So, I took part in a high number of international competitions and won a lot of awards, but I always had the feeling of a lump in my throat. Instead of the joy of victory, I was feeling that it was all not for the music but for my own ego. I decided to take a break and dedicated myself to my own music.

Now, at concerts I perform both my own work and classical music, because there is only one thing that really matters to me - feeling connected to my audience. And what kind of music makes this connection happen is a secondary issue.

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?

Distraction for me is a blank sheet of music paper before my eyes. I never use a blank sheet while composing. What works best is a music sheet with some kids’ doodles on it.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

Music can heal indeed. I believe that through playing music one can reach a self-healing state of mind. And it doesn’t matter at what level this music-making is taking place, it works for beginners and for professionals as well.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

It’s been an important question for many composers like Stravinsky or Bartok - they’re known for incorporating cultural / folklore influences into their unique compositional language, without trying to replicate or copy the original material.

So indeed, the line is very fine and when done right it’s where magic happens.

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?

Since I was a child, I had a strong synaesthetic perception of sound. Every note I hear has a strong relation to a specific color in my mind. In fact, my mother discovered that I have absolute pitch when I was just four years old. But I didn’t know do-re-mi back then — I just “heard” the colors.

Nowadays, when I compose, I tend to be inspired by visual arts. Sometimes, it feels almost like translating pictures into music.

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?

In my case, art is an opportunity to feel connected to others.

Everything I do artistically is about “us”. About the connection to each other and the feeling of profound unity in diversity. I believe that music makes it possible to feel included without becoming similar.

If music is a language, then for me at least it’s the language of unity.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

If we could express it with words, then there would not be any necessity for music. What can be expressed through music doesn’t translate into words very well.

Certainly, music is not a language, but can function as an extension of any language.