People in art

“The past is a perfect commentary on the present…” – an interview with Sławomir Zubrzycki

Sławomir Zubrzycki, a Polish pianist, composer and designer of old musical instruments, is talking with Anna Karahan about reconstructing viola organista, the power of imagination and his concerts.

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At first there was an idea and a mystery connected with it. Then came a growing curiosity to hear how this instrument sounds. Which of these elements made you decide to construct viola organista?

The most important element was definitely the sound. I found historical descriptions of how this instrument could sound.

Leonardo da Vinci didn’t build viola organista – this was only an idea written down in Codex Atlanticus, which he must have kept deep inside him. After all he was entertaining it for many years and created 8 different versions of the instrument, as if he was looking for the best one. Starting with a funny, circus-like marching instrument to the model which looked a little bit like a harpsichord. There was also a version with the keys similar to those used in the organ or carillons, which I rejected as a completely meaningless one.

I chose what seemed to be the last version created by Leonardo da Vinci – an instrument with normal keys (like in a harpsichord), which is a stringed instrument with a keyboard.

The second element, which took me completely by surprise and captivated me at the same time, was the fact that from time to time this idea appeared somewhere in Europe and then disappeared again. This was a surprise for me! The design and idea behind viola organista were available and sometimes someone got an interest in it. For some reason it was never completed though. Today, apart from one instrument, which is not so good from the construction point of view, there is nothing left. The effort of a large group of people, who were devoted to this masterpiece in the last 500 years, is completely unknown. When I started to be interested in this story I discovered that there were only 3 or 4 people who also took an interest in it in the last half a century.

Is it easy to get hold of Codex Atlanticus? Is it available to researchers?

Yes, it is. I managed to read its most important pages. But the Codex itself only gives you an idea, shows certain key elements, but it doesn’t tell you everything.

Maybe the approach to the subject was too complex after all. I decided that if this instrument somehow appeared and disappeared throughout history I had to adopt a more detailed tactic, be more creative and do something extra than just building a historical gadget.

I didn’t want to illustrate da Vinci’s drawings. I wanted to create an instrument, which would express his idea. After all we can assume that if Leonardo da Vinci had built viola organista, he might have wanted to improve it. Maybe it would not be an instrument he expected from the start.

He was a genius able to come up with an idea, anticipate and suggest something that seemed to be intended for future generations.

Maybe this is where the secret of your success is hidden – the idea existed for centuries, appearing and disappearing from time to time. Would you say that the suitable conditions and the time to create this instrument came now?

I definitely think so. Many factors must come together to achieve a significant result. I was aware that this story needed to be written almost from the beginning. The idea was to get to a certain point in history, which I imagined, that would be best for viola organista. To think about the tradition of building musical instruments, take Leonardo da Vinci’s notes as well as numerous pieces of information from the beginning of this story or a strange construction model, which can be found in Brussels today, into consideration and finally to create the right instrument.

I wanted to achieve a success, which means for viola organista to become a real concert instrument that will have its own expression and will include everything we know from history, its descriptions and Leonardo da Vinci’s idea.

The word viola clearly indicated that it was a viola da gamba type of instrument. What is most important, I found a moment in history when it could be successful and I placed my instrument in this point in time.

Did you also want to achieve the sound from that period?

Yes. I wanted to find the sound from that period that would be specific for the music from those times. Therefore, I had to reconstruct the repertoire and playing technique at the same time, as well as everything that could develop throughout the centuries but didn’t.

In the case of viola organista we have few points in history and many blank spots. Thus, I knew that if I wasn’t creative and didn’t take all the available sources, traditions, playing techniques etc. into account, I would never be able to build this instrument.

You have to enter the period, move there mentally. Only then you can build an instrument that will express Leonardo da Vinci’s idea.

How do you “enter” the period? Through literature? Films?

I must say it’s a strange feature of mine – in my imagination I always loved “looking” at modern times through the eyes of people from other periods. Maybe it comes from the fact that I was born in Kraków, near the Wawel Castle and I had close contact with history since my childhood. I often walked through castle and touched stones, portals or wood carvings, which stimulated my imagination.

In the context of building the instrument, I was interested in entering the period in such a way. I’m looking at a sophisticated piece of art or craft and I imagine the circumstances in which it was created, the tools and the author’s thoughts. Being a musician I also imagine what people heard at that time. What was the silence we don’t have nowadays like?

We know that instruments from that period were quieter than we have now and that they were sufficient for the audience in those times, for example the harpsichord that I had built earlier.

Such “entering” the period was possible thanks to my awareness, which I have been building for years through my contact with music, art and literature. I’m interested in the past expressed in philosophy and the approach to the reality among men from every period of time and their relation with faith and science. All these elements are a huge fountain of knowledge unavailable to single people, which can only be taken from in a little amount. At the same time we have to be aware that acquiring all this knowledge is impossible. We can only have access to its fragments.

The past is very attractive to me because it’s a perfect commentary on the present. Who would we be without knowing the past? The past is a great knowledge written down in the Bible and many books by ancient philosophers that we can read today. This is brilliant stuff, extremely didactic and practical – The Book of Wisdom, Wisdom of Sirach – they give advice which is still valid today.

I’m listening to you and I’m wondering if the fact that viola organista was finally built now – at the “right moment”, as we have already said – in the era of new technologies, constant movement and rush is a sign for us to stop and think? Doesn’t it result from a longing to find silence, music, paradise?

You hit the nail on the head. This awareness was slowly building inside me together with various opinions I heard. I must say, though, that one of the most interesting reviews I got after the first concert mentioned the feelings that this instrument evokes.

I think I nailed it. On the lid of my instrument I put a quote from Hildegard of Bingen, a philosopher, music composer, specialist in the then medicine and theologian, meaning a very well-educated woman from the Middle Ages. In my opinion she created the most beautiful description of music: “Music is the memory of paradise and of Adam’s signing. Music comes from angels”. Pope Benedict XVI added that “music was overheard in heaven”.

The quote comes from Hildegard’s letter and says: “by following the saint prophets, wise people with their hearts for art invented musical instruments to please human soul”.

It turns out that despite modern technologies, tablets and smartphones, nothing really changes. My instrument is built from other components. It’s not modern, it doesn’t have a touchscreen, there’s not even power involved. Still it makes people interested in it with its difference and its sound. Of course, Leonardo da Vinci has his part in it but the main element is the sound.

Does the audience want to have a look inside the instrument after concerts?

Yes, it does. I have to make sure no one presses the key. The construction of this instrument is different than the one of a piano and you cannot press keys just like that. It requires special technique.

What does “playing strings on keys” mean?

It involves thinking in the stringed instrument category, its playing technique and style. Shortly speaking, this instrument has a different playing system – the string is propelled by legs, only by changing the speed. You press the string using a key but you don’t push it to the fingerboard but the fiddlestick, which rubs it and makes it vibrate. The keys also have a vibrato function. Everything else is in the string, similarly to any stringed instrument.

Was it easy to switch to the “stringed thinking”?

Yes. I’m a pianist who has various interests. I think that building a harpsichord, which also has a keyboard with a vibrato function, was an interesting practice for me.

I also have experience in composing and working in a studio. I recorded lots of musing using the sampling technique. It involves thinking a virtual instrument but you only have a keyboard at your disposal. Working in a studio you have to feel the nature of a given stringed or wind instrument. You have to try to recreate certain natural elements within the instrument that you are aware of. Everything is a matter of imagination and this is the way to get to know the technique of playing an unknown instrument – imagination and experience in music tell you what to do.

So it’s not enough to be a constructor to build an unknown instrument? You are a composer and a musician. For a long time you had a TV show about musical instruments so you must know a lot about them.

Indeed. An English journalist asked me recently where I learned the building of instruments. I thought: has anyone educated in this area built viola organista?

It’s not enough. It has to be an individual story and a need in someone who is ready to face the challenge and sees this challenge as something just for him or her.

Do you mean the things we have already talked about – the right moment, every element, such as time, place and people, coming together?

Yes. This is what happened in my case. It came to me with all the necessary information and this is how I see it. I completed a task. Maybe it was intended for me (laughter).

At the beginning there was a mystery and surprise. What does your audience feel now?

The reception is similar everywhere, despite seemingly big cultural differences in particular countries. The audience is still surprised, moved and grateful. They receive me very well. Usually after the concert I answer many questions from the public.

I’m also recognised and appreciated by the professionals. I have recently talked to a countertenor in Brussels who was very positive about my playing style. It was very uplifting for me because it was said by a specialist in Baroque music who feels it in a completely naturally.

I also received a very good opinion at the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels where the only historical copy of viola organista is kept. The museum was very keen on recording my instrument. I was a little bit sceptical at first because I always want to know what the acoustic is in a specific room. The recording turned out to be excellent and I think it’s the best one so far. They specialise in recording old instruments, which is very important for me as I delay making my own record, although I have already received a few offers from large record studios.

I want to have as much concert experience as possible by playing my instrument in different places, getting to know it and its sound in order to know where it sounds better or worse.

My instrument sounds well in churches – I think I achieved the best sound in one of the churches in Finland. The studio record from Brussels demonstrated viola’s other assets, which was a surprise for me.

How does viola organista cope with all these travels?

Quite well, I must say. I have already played in Scandinavia, Montenegro, Germany, Belgium and Turkey. I have constructed a protection that secures the instrument on the move and it makes loading it on to a car quite easy. Humidity and temperature have been managed with a special Yamaha quilt.

In 2014 I gave more than 20 concerts. I think it’s a very good result considering the first year and the need to travel on land, covering huge distances between countries.

What kind of repertoire do you present during your concerts?

This instrument was constructed for the 17th-century music. There are pieces from the 16th and 17th century that can be easily adapted to viola organista. For example, I play Concert 44th by Jean de Sainte-Colombe – the sound of viola da gamba is delusively similar. Clare Salaman from BBC-3 Radio, who hosts a series of programmes about rare instruments, got interested in this piece and presented my record in one of her programmes. I think it is a very good idea and a good piece of music that lies in the soul of this instrument.

Baroque music is also perfect for my instrument. There is one piece – C.Ph.E. Bach Sonata – written especially for the bowed clavier instrument built in the 18th century in Berlin. I must say that when I was preparing the repertoire for the Polish Music Days I also discovered many good pieces of Polish music by Jarzębski, Długoraj and Szarzyński, as well as some compositions by Telemann from the time when he was in Poland and wrote Bourrée alla Polacca. Despite the fact that he was a German, this piece is very Polish in its character. The repertoire is very vast. The only thing is to copy the notes in order to adjust them for the keyboard and not a stringed instrument. Of course, the question of composing new music is open and I think that it will come with time.

With the instrument revealing its secret and “telling” you what it would like to play, right?

I think so. I have to say that the dialogue with the instrument is very interesting. Sometimes I try to play something and it tells me “no” instantly. I reject such a piece of music immediately.

At other times I know that a piece of music is good and fits the instrument’s spirit from the first note.

Does it mean you’re still discovering and looking for the secret of this instrument? Viola is revealing its charms very slowly…

That’s true. My attitude towards this instrument changes along with the discovery of new compositions. Sometimes I play something and it turns out that the instrument makes a different sound, as if suggesting its own version, a different one to what I expected. It’s as if it was sayting “let’s play it in a different way”.

What concert plans do you have this year?

For now I only know I’m going to play at the Milano Classica in Italy, the Ohrid Summer Festival in Macedonia, the Pianodrom Festival in Albania and the Piano à Riom Festival in France. But the year has only just started and there are more plans to come.


Photos © from the Piano Classic’s archives