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One foot in Latvia, other in Denmark

Evilena Protektore

To teach the bears to sing, enroll into masters studies as a joke and music therapy – Elīna’s Silova’s colorful story

Alexey Koshkin

Jazeps Vitols Latvian Academy of Music’s jazz department is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and at the same time Latvia can almost welcome back one of this very jazz department’s first students — Elīna Silova. The first time I’ve heard her name was at the same time I’ve heard the word «jazz». Then I enrolled into the Academy myself and it turned out that she was no longer a part of it, instead she moved to Amsterdam to study in their local Academy. Later on her name appeared here and there, mostly in the social network through mutual friends, until earlier this year I found out she’s presenting her debut album «Resonance». I started digging for information and it turned out that she’s almost back to Latvia. Almost because moving to another country, even if it is home, is a long and painful process that requires a lot of effort. But I became extremely curious about the things she’s been doing while away, because it just can’t be peaceful and quiet — studies abroad are always an adventure. Turned out that there were quite a lot of adventures and our conversation kind of made us lose track of time, turning one cup of coffee into several. So, here’s a story about bears, music therapy and free improvisation!

First of all, congratulations on your album!

Thanks a lot!

Maybe let’s start with that? Tell me a bit about how it all happened?

It took a while. I started writing songs during my studies in Copenhagen, I graduated two years ago with a masters degree. During the first year of my studies I focused mainly on the free improvisation, had a couple of motives swirling in my head and then I started taking lessons with different improvisers and sing in concerts I realised that I want to write actual songs. It all begun with two compositions and then I felt such contentment, I realised that I really enjoy writing music. Then I figured I could combine it with improvisation, with jazz, at the time I thought it was very important, until I came to the conclusion that I don’t necessarily have to place any restrictions on myself, I am free to do whatever I want, to let it flow out of me freely. And maybe in the first two tunes I really wanted to stress the fact that I compose, that I wrote them, but after that I kind of let go and it got easier. A couple of tunes were also written here, in Latvia.

It was a long process. I decided not to rush things, because I didn’t have a clear idea of what exactly I want my album to sound like. I graduated and decided to work more in concert situations, that it would be a more powerful way to deliver my ideas. And then after these concerts I came to the conclusion that I really liked playing with these musicians, I liked the concept and I wanted to record what we played. Then I saw the shortage in songs, that I needed more, so I started putting together the tunes that I didn’t really like before, turning them into something better, to unite it all in an album. Another reason for all these tunes being in the same album is that they all were written during my years away, when I longed for home.

At first I thought it strange that the songs in different languages would be on the same CD, but then I thought maybe that’s exactly who I am — a tourist in every new place and a Latvian in his own country…

In the beginning I thought that maybe I need to keep it all in one style and in one language, and only when this is achieved to publish the album, bet resisting myself proved to be impossible, because that is the kind of person I am — today I’m happy and I want to play this tune, tomorrow… something changes in me constantly, the songs reflect exactly that, each one is like a different voice in me, my personal phases.

This isn’t your first album though, right?

This is my debut album, where I did all the production work, I published it under my name. I wanted to show my own compositions. But it’s not the first album I appear on, that’s true. I have 4 albums with the band «How Town», we play contemporary music, post pop, but only the last album is a teamwork composition wise. «Resonance» is the first album that is all me.

Why «Resonance»?

It took me a while to come up with the name for this album, I tried to dig through my feelings to understand what it means to me and what it is I’m singing about and sometimes I get upset with myself, because I have so many different voices in me that I have to find that resonance, but at the same time there are these environmental elements, when I’m with one foot here, in Latvia, and with another one in Denmark, and these two elements are moving me to create and I have to find balance in all of this to keep standing and to make the right choices. Yes, it is probably not a literal resonance as a musical frequence, but a metaphorical one, resonance with myself.

Are you back for good?

I want to be. I’m still half way there, in Denmark. It just happens so that I have projects that are difficult to say no to… Not to completely say no to, but something was started there… I’d like to think that the time will come when I’ll be back for good, completely. I’m working on it now. When nine years are spent abroad it’s a bit hard to pull everything together and move again…

What occupies your time here, in Latvia?

A good question… I travel to Latvia every month for at least two weeks, I get to play concerts, to work a bit, to compose, to attend concerts. I’m very inspired by the time spent here, on my own land, I missed the feeling of being home. I spend a lot of time with nature, I work with myself constantly, you can’t really call it «coming home», because there are still a lot of things that are keeping me in Denmark, so I get to live in both places. I’m not completely back, but I come here often enough to be able to start a new project with my friends. Here I can create. There I can work. Here my art happens, what is related to my music, with what I want to do.

Alexey Koshkin

What does it mean «to work there»?

I have worked as a music therapist, it was very strange. I got the opportunity to try it out, try and use music as a tool to help people. I gave it a shot, worked as a music therapist for three whole months. I also work as a music teacher in a school. «Working there» probably means that I get to do different things, but nothing certain and stable, I had no chance to settle down somewhere, it just didn’t happen for some reason. Probably because I understood that I won’t be able to travel all the time.

How can you become a music therapist?

That was very odd. It was a practice opportunity that I took. In Denmark it is like that — when you graduate, you get a chance to «try out» different things, that is supposed to help you find something to settle down with. I got a chance to do that too. I was scared at the beginning of what it might be, then I came to the interview and it was in an old people resort, a retirement home, and it turned out to be less therapeutic in medical sense, more in communication. I had to work both in groups and individually, I worked with people who had memory loss, troubles moving around, just sick people. I tried with the help of music to… We sang a lot of songs, I learned a lot of old Danish tunes that we sang together, then we formed a choir, people with amnesia or just memory troubles could try and remember things. Then we arranged concerts for them, where I mostly played piano, comped them, we played a lot of popular Danish songs. There were also people with Parkinson’s disease, the rhythm helped them to move around, that was very interesting and inspiring to know that I can make such an impact, to have my input in the society, that I can help and to see the people before and after, how music wakes them up… Usually you have to study to become a music therapist, but in this case it was more like a volunteer work, helping people that really wanted to hear the music, that wanted to hold hands and that is a therapy of sorts. I was anxious at the beginning, but I like doing unusual things.

So you’re easy to involve in something?

Yes, and it’s hard for me to say no, because I’m too curious to get to know something new, to try something new out and try doing new things.

How did you get involved in music, by the way?

I was quite an active singer in my younger days, I used to dress up and arrange house concerts where I made my mother and all my teddy bears listen to me singing songs I heard on the TV. There was a lot of Raimonds Pauls, of course. I used to sing so often, that my mother sometimes couldn’t handle it… I also liked teaching, I spent a lot of time teaching my teddy bears how to sing and perform, and then my mother probably realised that there’s something in me that’s striving towards music, so she sent me to learn to play the piano. So I started and never stopped. All throughout the school years I knew I’d end up in the Academy of Music, so my attitude towards regular classes wasn’t very… attentive, which was the reason for my teachers to be unhappy with me. I went to Jūrmala music high school.

How did you start singing, if you studied piano?

I graduated from school, but it wasn’t the easiest time, because when I was 12 years old I had damaged my hand, one of the fingers, I could press the key, but I couldn’t straighten it out, so each time I played the piano I had this pain that went on to the shoulder. And then I realised, that if I enroll into the Academy, I’d have to spend hours playing, and it wouldn’t really be possible, since I could hardly spend 40 minutes at the piano. I realised that I wouldn’t succeed in becoming a great pianist and that made me very unhappy, maximalist of the youth… But I really wanted to perform, so I had to find another way. And then I found out about jazz and that our Academy is opening up a jazz department.

So I went there with all my classical background, sang two jazz standards, and there was Nic Gotham, he helped me to write the chords down correctly, because I wrote them down with notes and in classical terms, because I knew nothing of jazz, but I soon realised that I can study it up in time, because they gave me that chance and I became one of the first students to study jazz in the Academy. I was surprised that they accepted me, it was completely unexpected, so we started working. I got myself together, because I liked jazz music, but I never thought I could sing it. I thought it was so complicated… That other people can do it better than me, but I was willing to give it a try. Because I fell in love with jazz. Also I had a very good teacher, who had straightened me up quickly, the amazing Inga Bērziņa.

When did you start performing as a jazz artist?

Probably when I was in Amsterdam, when I started singing with the «How Town»…

But it was later already.

Yes, well… We played frequently at the Student’s club, we had those jazzy Tuesdays or something. It was a while ago. My coursemates always tried playing in different combos, it depended on the theme of the evening or something like that. And then on my second year of studies I went to Amsterdam and never came back, so to say. I went to Amsterdam as an exchange student, but I liked it there, so I stayed. I got my bachelor’s degree there, it just happened, don’t know for better or for worse. And then I started to perform abroad, because a band «How Town» was formed, we had a lot of concerts, toured, came to Latvia several times as well. And then Rūdolfs’’ (Macats) band «Vēstnieks», I started singing with him more, but that’s already here and later. I don’t really remember myself performing here, this is the first time when I’m performing in Latvia as a solo artist, under my own name.

I remember a concert you took part in, it was at the «Bildes» festival in «Kaļķu vārti» club, I don’t remember the year though, but this guy approached me and said: «Do you see this girl? She’s the best Latvian jazz singer.

Oh! That is a fine compliment! There are probably things I don’t remember… My classmates sometimes tell me stories about things that somehow hadn’t stayed in my memory. Now I remember that concert! But I don’t remember what I played there or with whom… I probably thought it was a big event, in my student years. But yes. Now I have my own band and I want to attract more attention to that and I want to concentrate on arranging more concerts here in Latvia.

Why did you decide to stay in Amsterdam?

I think I was enchanted with the possibilities — one day you had Kurt Elling as a teacher, another day it was Davin Linx, a lot of visiting teachers and a lot of interesting classes that we didn’t have in the Academy then, various workshops, and we could also plan our own studies, choose our classes. I really wanted to study the rhythms of India, I wanted to learn improvisation from Michael Moore, and I already had this wish to compose, so I took a lot of classes with instrumentalists. There were also a lot of Latvians in Amsterdam. But I didn’t really plan to stay there, it just happened.

What happened next?

I lived a year in Amsterdam, after I finished my studies. I wanted to see what happens. The thing they don’t tell you at school is that Amsterdam has a very strong free jazz movement, there are a lot of legendary people still living there, they still play and jam, and it’s so inspiring, it is such a beautiful world, the atmosphere is so open and welcoming that you feel as if you belong. I can’t say the same about Denmark though. Amsterdam attracts you, absorbs you and you want to stay. I tried playing a lot of improvised music there, attended jam sessions and concerts.

Alexey Koshkin

The I enrolled in Denmark. As a joke. I thought — if there ever comes a time in life when I’m going to become a student again, it’ll be in Copenhagen. I liked the fact that they let focus more on the music you write, the music you want to play and on what you are and what you want to say with your music. I sent an application but I was sure that I won’t be accepted. But then I received the confirmation letter and I knew that it was a sign, that I needed to move along. It was interesting, how I would feel in a new country. I felt I learned everything I could in Amsterdam and that I needed to take this experience un apply it while studying for my masters degree in Copenhagen.

The department there is called «Music Performance», you can’t really call it a composition department, but they concentrate on the music and on you as a musician, as an artist who wants to compose, that comes from what you are, what you feel and what you want to tell to the world. Some of my course mates did improvised music, in my case it was songwriting. It’s not a composition department, but you can’t just play jazz standards, you have to figure out what you want to «sell» — they described it that way, but in truth it’s what you want to say, something that is unique only to you, the style isn’t so important. It was hard for me, my teacher asked me who I was, and I couldn’t answer. It was a painful process, to understand who I am and what I really want. In Amsterdam I could always consult with the teachers, to ask for advice on what to sing. Here I had to figure out who I was and what is the music I want to write.

So, who are you?

Yes, exactly, who am I? I don’t want to label myself with a certain genre. It is very hard to do. I know a lot of people see me as a jazz singer, which is flattering, sometimes I see myself that way as well. Sometimes I see myself more as an indie-folk artist, sometimes as a free improvisor. I am a whole made of all my wishes, all my desires, what I wanted to explore.

Does it make sense nowadays to label ourselves with a certain style?

I don’t know if it does you any good, but it surely makes life easier. Probably. But I think there is no point in that. In my case it’s too complicated. In one concert I don’t sing words, instead I sing different sounds, in other concert I sing songs. Sometimes I get lost in what I am. But I know for sure that I couldn’t sing only jazz. Maybe it’s different for someone else, then it makes sense.