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It’s not necessary to suffer to compose — you can just love yourself

Aleksandra Line

A talk with Ilona Kudiņa on self-identity, choices, adjusting and simplicity of life

Ilona Kudiņa is a flutist, composer and educator, coming from a small place in Krāslava region (South Latvia), moved to Daugavpils, from Daugavpils to Riga (to play at a Latvian National Symphony Orchestra), from Riga — to Boston, USA. Composes and arranges, performs, records her albums and teaches in the US, Canada, Europe, plays classical and chamber music, pop and rock, and feels the most free while improvising. During all those 17 years while living in America, Ilona continues to visit Latvia quite often. One of those times I was lucky to catch her for a talk, which — by the way — is happening in three languages, English, Russian and Latvian, at the same time, switching languages during one sentence. A talk on music transformed into an inspiring discussion on life philosophy, which, I have to admit, couldn’t be separated from music.

Juris Justs

Ilona, we’re usually talking in three languages when we meet. Which of them do you feel the most comfortable with?

Once you’re away from Latvia and everything happens in English, it’s logical that your thinking goes towards English. Emotional growth, in my case since 2001, as well. So I’m basically thinking in English. But thanks to being active in Latvian society, we are talking in Latvian right now, we’re Latvians, Latgalians (Southern part of Latvia we both come from). I also love talking in Russian — that language is tasty, juicy, interesting. I associate Russian with a childhood in Daugavpils — I remember childhood, the feeling of safety, warmth. Daugavpils, as you know, is inhabited by a lot of amazing music teachers — Polish, Hebrew, Russian, Ukrainian. In my case that’s a huge cocktail. If I could speak in Spanish or French, I would do that with pleasure.

But you speak those three perfectly well. Which was the first one?

Latvian. Then I learned Russian. But it’s interesting that I have an accent now, speaking Latvian, and have absolutely none in Russian. To be sincere, I love accents — they make people special. It becomes interesting to learn more about a person. Once, when I’ve just come to Riga, it wasn’t cool to be a Latgalian. Now that’s trendy.

Is there any place you belong to the most?

Wherever you go, it’s you that you’re taking with you. I always go to the places I have to play at, places connected to music or art, it’s people who create the environment you want to be in. But there’s a saying — «home is where you hang your hat».

That’s more or less a concept of the citizen of the world, isn’t it.

Yes, I think so. In any case, everyone has a home, you’re coming from somewhere. It’s sentimental, individual. My mother lives in Latvia, so my connection is my mum.

What was your biggest challenge when moving to America?

You know, I’m actually coming from nowhere. We were living in Krāslava district, tiny place called Trejkanišķi, where my grandmother lived. That’s a very beautiful place, but I even doubt that’s on the map. Then we lived in Daugavpils district, Špoģi, where my parents have worked at the school. When I was 10, we have moved to the city and I started attending the music school. So I’ve emigrated to the city, to Daugavpils. Then we with «Daugaviņa» have toured through all Soviet Union. Then I’ve emigrated to Riga, and then to Boston. It was different: everything was in English. But if a person from Daugavpils moves to Riga, that’s already a step. You know it yourself.

Your webpage features many genres which you do, but what jazz means to you?

Russians have a word for that — the closest translation could be «make up your mind». No words like this are in Latvian or English. You know, I still ask myself that same question . And now, when we’ve played at «Trompete» with Viktors Ritovs and «Baltic Transit», I’ve realised: the moment I finish the other projects, this will be the thing I’ll do further on, with more respect.

I was once playing in a symphony orchestra, I love chamber music a lot. Even though the big love is what you really want to do. I often realise I’m thinking — Ilona, make up your mind, you are wasting a lot of time on other things. Actually, whatever that is we’re doing, those things make us richer. You go and play various projects, that isn’t the territory I find myself in every day. This is a non-comfort zone, when you feel there’s a nerve in you, that is good. Then you return to something you want to do, and come to that point richer.

You sing as well. How did you start?

I wanted to be a ballet dancer and a singer when I was little. Father taught me to play the piano and sing. But I haven’t learned singing, that’s just an intimate process — I sing if I feel like it.

And how do you choose your instrument?

I’m coming of the Soviet times. Once we have been playing on Leningrad flutes, then there was a Democratic Germany flute my teacher gave me to play if there was a contest ahead. Then my father bought me a flute from a Democratic Germany as well. That flute is still a memory from my dad — the instrument has been mine for quite a long time. Then there was an instrument of a Latvian National Symphony Orchestra. I’ve enrolled to Berklee with a Democratic Germany instrument, and everyone kept asking how can I even play that one. Then, in America, I’ve bought myself a new one, but I haven’t actually been searching, just met one gentleman at a Boston Flute Convention — that’s an event where everyone comes and speaks about flutes. He just saw my old German flute and told me — wow, that’s a nice one, but you need one that’s nicer. And we’ve established a friendship, he knew everything about flute selling in America. Then one day I told him I’d like to buy an instrument, and he came holding two flutes in his hands: one is silver, one is golden, which one do you want. I’ve tested both and chose a Japanese instrument. I believe in human impulses. Then, when I came to Mexico, I’ve bought a flute head from a craftsman — he has just had a newborn baby, so I’ve supported him.

I try to get connected to a person I’m doing business with — money is not a priority. Flutes make me rather sentimental — they get me associated with a certain person, event. On the other hand, this also is just a piece of metal. The blowing in it sounds. I don’t have any love relationship with a flute, it’s a sentiment regarding people whom I talk to. By the way, I’ve also tried a platinum flute, my friend Denis from a Mariinsky theatre gave it to me for a try. I have to admit — yes, platinum flute, goddammit, is a nice one. You blow, and it sounds. If i’d have some spare money, I could have purchased it. But I go a completely different direction in jazz, I get interested in plastic or wooden instruments.

What, regarding the things you’ve done, are you proud of the most?

This is deep indeed. To be sincere, I don’t know.

But you’ve achieved a lot: traveling, playing, teaching.

You know, when you’re doing it, you don’t see it. It’s lonely in a way. That’s quite a lonely world, I have to admit. I’ve just been to Sigulda at a music camp with classical musicians, where I had to lead a flute ensemble. The girls play all the classical repertoire, you put the most difficult notes in front of them, and they play it all. And then the last hour before going home I’ve told them — okay, girls, you are playing it amazing, let’s relax a bit now, let’s improvise. That was a challenge to many! The moments like this, when you see it’s so normal to you, and so not to the others, you start thinking. When you play it yourself, you don’t see anything, you think you can do way better. When you collaborate with the others, you see what you’re actually doing.

If you remember yourself, just graduated from the music school, what could you advise yourself?

First of all, the age is just a number. Second, you know what I’ve noticed? There are things that you don’t need to tell youngsters now, they already know what they have to do. Giving advice is a huge responsibility. Life is so difficult, people make choices themselves, and I’m not a God to tell them what choices to make. Sometimes they know better. Sometimes they think they do. I can go play with them or go have some wine with them, or, if I see a person is mature enough, I can talk. We all are swimming in the same boat. Youngsters have access to all possible information — I can give them an impulse, lead a bit, but I can also just watch how they do their thing, and then we become some kind of a team.

Juris Justs

The impulses you give them — do you see them reflect? Do you see the results?

That’s life. You throw some ideas in the universe, some appreciate them, and some don’t. That doesn’t matter. You’re not doing this because you want an award for that. You’re doing this because that’s fun — you’re making music together. What they’re doing with those impulses further on — I have no idea, I’m not their mother. I’m a kind of a teacher who gives an impulse, shows something, then closes the door at some point. If someone comes and asks, I’ll share. Most of all I get asked not of how could one play better, but of how do you get famous and earn money with playing. Hey, the answer to all of those questions is, my friend, practice! And why are you doing this, first of all? In Daugavpils everyone knew Ilona started practicing at 8 a.m. and was the last one to go home after everyone did. That’s because I’ve wanted to achieve something in my life. That’s the only answer. If you know why you’re doing it, if you love music, the answers will come. Nobody has ever invented a pill that one can eat instead of a 12 hour long practicing session. Maybe someone invents it in the future, that would be cool.

Then everyone could become a musician. Do we need it?

I think, in the future musician could become an antique word. Now everything’s kind of visual, technological, you’re not just a flutist, you’re everything. This is how it works. It’s not enough just to play the flute.

Do you feel the difference between your students in Latvia and America?

First of all, the environment — that’s another continent. C major is a C major everywhere, and if you see a talent and a passion, that’s universal, but the continent is different. Latvians are way more shy, and it disturbs them. I’ve played at «Trompete», one flutist came to listen, and I’ve told her — come here, I’ve got great men here tonight, go play with them, now, boom! You have a choice. And then a typical Latvian thingie begins — oh, no, not me, not this time, not tonight. But there’s no tomorrow! This is it, now or never. I’m now trying to forget all the wise things and remember the passion in playing and not overthinking it. The questions you’re asking are quite typical to every immigrant — in my case this will happen for my entire life, and I have to find the answers to live on. But in fact, being an immigrant, you always adjust. And the Baltic people have really progressed in adjusting. You put a Baltic somewhere in the middle of a deserted island, and he’ll find matches, he’ll find water, he’ll find potatoes. And this is typical for us — we’ll survive wherever, no need to worry.

I have also thought about it recently. However, I think that a skill of adjusting is typical for a modern human overall, but I guess you’re right — us, Latvians, are even better at it.
Look at yourself! You also have traveled, and how much you’ve done. But speaking of adjusting — that’s another angle of «make up your mind». We’re like the linden trees — yes, of course, I can do it this way, and I can also do it that way. But you actually have to make up your mind.

At the end of the day you just have to realise what you want in life, and what makes you happy. It’s like chasing a rainbow. You can chase it up to some certain point, some might also reach it, but I’ve talked to people who have caught it — this is impossible at some point. It’s also important to ask youngsters — what do you want? What’s important to you — money, name, music, image? You find the thing that’s important to you. Maybe the money — then you can sell your soul to Satan, or perform in front of your cool friends, and it’s not that important at what level, when everyone drinks beer and enjoys the night. It works for some, and some want more. You should always choose. You have chosen to do this very difficult JAZZin thing — it takes a lot of your time. I’ll go home and continue drinking wine, and you’ll postproduct our talk — that’s a job. Right now my choice is being happy and focussing on music. I’m an ambitious person all in all — it’s not enough for me just to sit there and drink beer, I can sit for some time, and then I want to act. That’s normal — you want to grow, so you’re still alive. I’ve told myself that maybe when I turn 50 I’ll record one more album. It’s not that important now, now I like playing, making new friendships, buying a new ceramics flute.

You’ve come by a very important topic to me. I, for example, have recently promised myself to never regret any choice I make for at least a year.

Yes, speaking of those choices. If we get back to us Latvians and Baltic people — especially women are too critical towards themselves. This comes from our mothers, grandmothers. Jazz itself is meant to free you from all complexes, which we have a lot. You have to be happy, you have to do what you like to, if you like it. And that’s it! And your mother or grandmother will go on saying — this is wrong, you have to get more conservative. No! This is not what you feel! These are our cultural roots. Latvian culture has its standards, but jazz culture is a totally different way of thinking, another body language, another approach.

Our thinking has its roots in Soviet culture, as well.

Yes, and this, on top of all the rest. We are bad at accepting something that differs.

Speaking of your dreams — is there anyone you want to play with?

I’m happy to play with Viktors Ritovs every time I come to Latvia. All in all I have to say I’m lucky with pianists. I don’t have to dream of a prince, and the big names are usually way too busy, they won’t play as heartfelt as someone you have a contact with. I play with the people I want to. I like Marcus Miller, yes, a nice guy, but I also like watching his shows and listening to his music, it isn’t that important to play with him. I also like Avishai Cohen, love his ideas, his music, his body language — I already start to plan how this scheme is going to work with my music. I like Toms Rudzinskis, I’ve played with him — this was great, a good collaboration, we have played it and enjoyed it and went on, just as everyone else. Now I know for sure the way I’m going, musicians change, but pianists is a special case.

What inspires you to compose?

I remember it like this — if you’re doing really awful, you write really good. And then I started to think — Ilona, listen, you’ll die soon like that, you can’t do it anymore. And then I was watching a documentary on Brad Mehldau, this is how the jazz musicians lived — the more pain they experienced, the better their music sounded. The pain factor plays its role. There’s music I’ve written when I felt happy. But I’m keeping myself disciplined, making myself work every day. I sit and work. I don’t have any recipe. Deadlines also work — when you have a gun to your temple, you have to compose.

Nowadays people don’t have to go through drugs and other extreme things. Therapists do their work — professional people can help you live a longer, happier life. Especially women have to take care of themselves. I’ve met a jazz musician recently — she told me she’s feeling pain, and uncertainty, and her physical body cannot bear the work loads on tours. You simply cannot live like that, you have to love yourself! Yes, you can sell the story of this musician, people get compassionate, but you have to make healthy choices. Once I’ve read a lot of jazz musician biographies, and then I took all the books and donated them. The end. You can be happy, you can have a family, and you can play jazz, all of it at the same time. I’m playing chamber music, classical music as well, and I think this also keeps me balanced. Balance is the key — maybe this is what I’d like to tell to young musicians. Wine is a good thing. Not too much. There’s a limit.

And speaking of your future plans — what happens next?

Okay, I turn 50 once. (laughs)

Then there’s an album, right?

I guess so. Right now I just love doing things, enjoying life, buying more ceramic flutes. Write more music, explore it, perform, use every chance. Every chance to a musician is important. Be happy, play music. Simple. I’m trying to live a simple life.

I usually ask musicians which advice would they give to their colleagues, but let’s go the opposite direction this time — what advice would you give to jazz listeners?

I don’t think an advice is needed here. They just have to listen. A good bottle of wine sometimes helps. Life in music is like a glass of water to me. Clear. I like going to shows and listening. You find a jazz club anywhere in the world, you enter it, entering a safe environment, you can always meet new friends, there’s a feeling when you come into your very own living room, a good feeling. That’s a fantastic world. So — listen. Everything in life is simple — we are the ones making it difficult.