"Flowing Into the Unknown": An interview with Peter Machajdík

Peter Machajdík is a contemporary composer living in Berlin, Germany. He has been the composer in residence at the Künstlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf, at the Künstlerhäuser Worpswede, and at the Künstlerhaus Lukas. Growing up in Bratislava, Slovakia, Machajdík was influenced by the Western avant-garde, including prog rock, so he is happy now to have collaborated on his latest album, Namah, with Yes singer Jon Anderson.

"Sadness of Flowing" is a 5-part/10-minute composition by Machajdík with a vocal added by Anderson. To my ears, this may be the best work Jon Anderson has done for half a decade, with an intimate, delicate quality to his vocal. Namah is also one of the first releases since Anderson suffered acute respiratory failure in May 2008, which has kept him from performing since. This interview was conducted by e-mail in 2008. Many thanks to Peter for taking the time to do this interview! (Henry Potts, 30 October 2008)

Yes news pages     -     Peter Machajdík at MySpace     -     Peter Machajdík homepage     -     Musica Slovaca (label)     -     Jon Anderson news

How did the collaboration with Jon Anderson come about? Had you always planned to adapt "Flowing Into the Unknown" into a vocal piece?

Peter Machajdík: As many Yes fans worldwide surely know, Jon Anderson was seeking collaborators for some of his new projects last summer [2007]. I found that announce[ment] on his website, so I decided to email him three short piano pieces, with which I was just tinkering at that time. Two days later, I received an email with following words: "very good piano playing ... jon". I could not believe it was really that Jon, whose music I listened to since I discovered it in the mid 1970s, who praised my music and asked for more of it, and who asked me for orchestrating his tunes. He sent me some more of his new songs that I orchestrated then, and he really appreciated my work. Early October 2007, I got a call from Jon via Skype (Skype is the main communication means between him and me). He asked me to send him some of my chamber music compositions. I sent him works, which have been written in the last few years, mostly after 2000. I think that he received about 60 minutes of my music, from which he especially liked "Flowing Into the Unknown" for oboe, violin and piano, and "Namah" for string orchestra. In fact, I had never planned to adapt "Flowing Into the Unknown" into a vocal piece, but when Jon told me that he would like to add his vocal to it, my answer was "Yes, do it, please". After a few days, I received from Jon an MP3 of "Flowing", titled now "Sadness of Flowing" with a splendid lyric and with a beautiful lead melody, and with a gorgeous colour of his voice. The piece is now included on my newest album, titled Namah.

To me, and also to some of my friends, who have already heard the new version of my piece, Jon's voice sounds on it different from his solo albums or from the releases with Yes, Vangelis or all the other artists with whom he has worked before. Jon created here a very special mood. He succeeded in an atmosphere, which combines sadness with an enormously huge beauty, and which absolutely differs from his previous recordings. I cannot imagine "Sadness of Flowing" without Jon's vocal. Thanks to Jon's work, the piece has became very popular in Slovakia, where the CD has just been released. Also the producers from the Slovak Radio really love "Sadness" as well as the whole new album and broadcast it often.

How does working with someone like Jon Anderson from what is basically a rock music background compare to working with a vocalist like David Moss [a contemporary music performer]?

PM: At 14, I got an LP of Close to the Edge, released on Supraphon records in former Czechoslovakia. I can remember that I listened to the record perhaps ten times a day. Since then I have very much liked the music of Yes as well as Jon's solo albums. In 1996, after a gig with David Moss [David Moss homepage] at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophone (an international festival for jazz and improvised music), a journalist from the Czech music magazine Rock&Pop asked me to name musicians with whom I would wish to work. I mentioned Jon. Twelve years later, the Bratislava-based label "musica slovaca" [Musica Slovaca official site] released an album featuring both Jon Anderson and David Moss.

Of course, there is a big difference between David and Jon. The music background of both of them is totally different, but on the other side both David and Jon have many experiences with musicians coming from different music corners. The kind of the music expression of both Jon and David is very specific and original. They both know a lot about music, which is more than important for me. Jon says he likes the music of Stravinsky, Sibelius. David has worked with jazz musicians and improvisors such as John Zorn, Fred Frith, Malcolm Goldstein, Heiner Goebbels, with modern dance troupes, with contemporary music composers such as Luciano Berio and Olga Neuwirth, among others. In 2001, he was even involved in Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus" at the Salzburg Festival.

To be frank, I cannot imagine Jon working with John Zorn or singing Olga Neuwirth's compositions, and I also cannot imagine David Moss working with Vangelis.

My own music had always seemed to be a bridge between various music genres. I have never cared about the name of the style of my compositions. In Bratislava, where I grew up, as well as in Berlin, where I have lived for the past 16 years, I have also worked with musicians of different styles, with dancers, visual artists, as well as with film-makers. Maybe therefore I could really enjoy working with both Jon and David, who have had similar experiences, and I am very happy that they now appear on Namah.

If I can also ask more generally about your music... Your life as a composer has spanned a period of great change in your native Slovakia with the fall of Communism and the break-up of Czechoslovakia. What was it like as someone promoting new music in that changing environment? 

PM: The artistic scene in former Czechoslovakia before the fall of Communism was not less progressive than the current one in the Czech and Slovak Republics. Many visual artists, film-makers, writers and musicians created works that would have been comparable with the Western art, if they would have been shown outside Czechoslovakia. There were a huge community of people whose thinking differed from the official state ideology. Unfortunately, a lot of interesting artists such as Milan Kundera, Petr Kotik, Jan Hammer, Miroslav Vitous, Milos Forman, Jiri Kylian [Wikipedia link for Jiří Kylián] had to leave the country, and many of those who didn't flee were persecuted and couldn't appear before the public. The most well known example was the Czech writer Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia before its break-up.

Concerning my life and my music in the late 1980s: I was still a student at that time and could do almost everything I wanted to do. I had an ensemble, called Transmusic Comp., which introduced electronic music, free improvisation, performance art and multi-media projects in former Czechoslovakia. I also had letter contacts with composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Adams and many others, who sent me records of their music, as well as books and scores. That was my study, the best school of music at that time. I also received records from Harold Budd and Peter Gabriel. In fact, there were almost no promoters of new music before the fall of Communism, but there were a few good rock & jazz journalists in Prague, who had regularly written about the ,music of Yes, Genesis, ELP, and there were also a lot of people interested in contemporary art, contemporary music, jazz and progressive rock music, so friends often met at someone's flat and listened to music and talked about art and life. I can remember very lovely meetings in my flat, where I and my friends were, during the same evening, listening to such different music as Yes, John Cage, Weather Report, Philip Glass, Henry Purcell and Ravi Shankar.

The break-up of Czechoslovakia took part when I was in Berlin. I could not understand what problem the political parties had, I did not understand why some of the Slovak politicians wanted to found an independent Slovakia. At that time, the Slovak goverment (and many people in the small cities and the countryside) was pretty nationalistic, led by the authoritarian Meciar [Wikipedia link for Vladimír Mečiar]. By the way, this guy as well as another extreme nationalist, Mr Slota [Wikipedia link for Ján Slota] are in the Slovak goverment also now, in the 21st century. They build a coalition with the populist Prime Minister. This is a very sad matter for the whole country and its development, but on the other side it reflects the knowledge and the standard (level) of the voters in Slovakia.

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