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Music as a means of losing your own identity

Anete Ašmane

Kārlis Auziņš on solo, freedom and truths that are left afterwards

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Conversation with Kārlis Auziņš made me want to step aside from the usual genre of a traditional portrait interview and leave such questions as «how did you start playing saxophone?», «which school have you attended?», «why did you decide to become a musician?» aside. It all just doesn’t seem that important. What does seem important is to speak to him as an artist of today, soon after the release of this solo album «Oneness And The Transcendent Truth», about the notion, meaning of the music, the beauty in it, nature and other virtues. Because our virtue tells a different story about us, as opposed to the institution where we spent a couple of years. I sincerely hope that this interview will become a pleasant means of getting acquainted with Kārlis Auziņš and will urge you to follow his musical steps onwards!

How would you describe the place you are at in your professional life? If I understand correctly, you are done with your studies and are back to Latvia. How do you feel as an artist today?

Yes, precisely. I live here now, but sometimes I go abroad as well. I am a member of four ensembles abroad, these collectives were formed in my years of studying.

How do I feel as an artist today… That is a complicated question! I do my thing, I try being happy with it. Way back I had a more clear picture of the future, but now I just do what I do and then I see where it takes me. Of course, I have some expectations and hopes, but all in all I like where I am now. I play in the lineups I enjoy, I feel as if what I’m doing is natural and true to me. My next step is, probably, my solo work, which I have been doing, but I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Did Latvian listeners have an opportunity to hear some of your solo performances?

Not really. Before releasing the CD I have participated in an event «Tu jau zini kur», I played solo there, then other musicians performed, such as Evija Vēbere, Rūdolfs Macats, «Kaut Kaili» band, I have played with Elīna Silova there. But mostly I have played solo concerts in Denmark. It is a huge responsibility — you are all alone, you can’t run, you can’t hide, you have to be there from the beginning till the end.

But it also is a bigger freedom, isn’t it?

Definitely! But it can also be tricky, you could come to a point when you don’t know what to do next and there’s no one at your side to help you out. But I love it.

And recently your solo pieces have been released in an album.

This album was a part of the learning process — I have set a goal for myself to research the capabilities of the saxophone deeper and to look for other ways to use it in composing. I wanted to perpetuate the results. Of course, I have heard albums with similar concepts, one of my Danish teachers had released something alike. I really enjoyed the sounding, but I wanted to try it out myself, to experience it myself.

Let’s say there’s a person who doesn’t know who you are as a person and as a saxophonist, what would you tell those who want to be acquainted with you?

Hmm… (thinks for a while) I’d say that I have my music and maybe it would touch you and make you want to come to my concert and listen to more of what I have to offer. For me music is something that in the best moments makes you lose your identity. When you lose your ego and become a part of your art. In some sense it’s like becoming a part of some great energy, my music is a flow. There is a state, a balance between the brain and the subconscious when you still know who you are and what you’re doing, be it flows out of you naturally, not when you intentionally plan each note two steps ahead. In my opinion it is the most real feeling, especially in jazz music, which is an interaction, even when you play solo, you are together with the audience, with the space.

If the perfect goal is to lose your ego, then it doesn’t really matter if the flow comes out of you, me, or another person that is on stage and can play an instrument.

In a way that is the basic idea. But of course, each receives this message and lets it flow through him and then lets it out in his own way, because we all have our different experiences, knowledge, preferences, etc. That is how our identity is being created. Each person has his own musical dictionary, and that’s why the same truths come out looking different.

Did you ever manage to achieve this state of mind when you are on stage and have lost your ego?

Yes, but it’s crucial to not start being glad about it, because then it all ends! (laughs) One of these moments was recorded in an album — from the concert with «Mount Meander». It is a French/Danish quartet, and we play only improvised music. We try moving away from the free jazz doctrine, we don’t have a leader, we are one, our music belongs to all of us. This is one of the bands with whom when we meet up we can feel the magic that is being born while playing together.

If I’m being honest, it’s a meditation of a kind, because we try turning off all the mundane thoughts. When I’m playing solo it comes even easier, but I still have a long way to go. This meditative state is in fact this freedom.

Valters Pelns

Do you really wish to put your meditative state on display like that? For everyone to see? Total strangers? Because it is a very intimate part of yourself, very private.

Yes and no. If there’s an audience, then I’m not alone, we are doing this together. Whether you want it or not, there is always a connection. Sometimes you can feel it coming even before the listeners arrive, before you’re on stage. You can feel something special in the air, swirling and twirling, sometimes the other way around, you can feel that it’s going to be a hard night. The lace also sets the vibe.

This concept of losing yourself in music seems so opposed to what the modern capitalist society requires — the artist advertises and sells himself, how he is different from the others, his uniqueness.

Yes, yes, there’s a paradox in it. I agree that every musician has to find his own voice, but you don’t have to do it synthetically. If you have a voice, then you have a voice, and it is what it is. Your voice is unique and you have to realise it, grow it, not go out looking for something else. I remember my studies in Amsterdam, which is famous with strong American traditions, and all students were in a state of constant stress, because they had to find their own voice…

Sometimes you just have to peel off all these layers you gathered before in, let’s say, school.

Yes. In a way I was the school’s victim, but at the same time there was some very important reason why I ended up in this school. And in a way it is necessary — you have to do what you are told to get to the next level, because not everyone has everything figured out from the start. My tastes in music and repertoire also have changed in time, although my perception of music is more or less the same. There’s a lot of music I used to listen to while in Amsterdam, and I can’t listen to it anymore. And then there’s music that stayed and never lost it’s value in my eyes. That’s as an example.

You studied abroad and then came back home. How did this happen and why? Did you know from the start that you would return or have you come to this decision recently?

I knew I wouldn’t stay in Amsterdam. I stayed for another year after graduation, and one day I received a message from Rūdolfs Macats that we have to go to Copenhagen and study there. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the school there and decided to try my luck at the exams, tour the city. Ivars Arutjunjans was also there at the same time as me. It was hard for me to find like-minded people in Amsterdam, and these cities are very different in a sense of music perception. It probably sounds very abstract… Amsterdam is hugely influenced by the States, where you work hard on your basic skills and knowledge, you can see how the school looks up to Berklee or some other similar school. The music there is very intelligent, in a way mathematical, calculated, and based on the tradition. You always feel a bit scared of the jazz police. (laughs) Copenhagen gives off more feelings, energy, you can feel the Scandinavian jazz traditions. That is closer to me. I listened to John Coltrane a lot while in Copenhagen, and there’s a strong Coltrane vibe there. It was a good time spent there that proved to me that music isn’t all about the notes you play, but also about the energy you put into it.

What do you want to say with your music? Which message do you want to bring to the listeners?

(thinks for a while) I probably want the listener to feel what I’m playing at that exact moment. It is connected to losing yourself in music, what we’ve talked about just now. And that can be said also about the listener — he has to know that coming to the concert he’ll come to another space, he will feel the energy. You can call it a spiritual experience. People nowadays have a lot of concerns about money, they value material things, but I want to show them that there’s something else, something high. Because it will never come to an end, people will always want more and will never be satisfied with what they already have. I’m interested in spiritual development. It reflects on society, how we behave with each other, who we are as people.

How do you maintain this development in yourself?

Through work, practice. Sometimes I meditate, but it’s still hard to maintain as my everyday routine.

Does music always have to be beautiful and pleasant, in your opinion?

What is pleasant to hear, to listen to… it’s very personal. I don’t know. If you listen to Coltrane’s album «Transition», the music is abstract there, it turns into energy. I like listening to it. Someone might find it less pleasant. And I definitely want the interest to find my music pleasurable, although the fact that someone might find my music unattractive doesn’t influence my choice of notes. I think that the listener will be able to tell whether you’re honest or not. In the recording, when there’s no effect of being present, it’s different. But in a concert situation you can definitely feel it. If both the listener and the musician are open to it, the link will be established. And sometimes these barriers are greater in a musician, because most of them already have a clear understanding of what is good and what is bad. You have to be open. If a musician is good, then you’ll feel it, even if you might not like the style he played in. You can’t miss it if you put your heart into it.

You have a very clear picture and some experience of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, but now, when you’re back in Latvia, can you take a look and tell me how do you see jazz music fitting in the society?

If we look at the bigger picture, jazz is a relatively new thing for Latvia. There are people abroad that do only jazz and nothing else, that’s it. In Latvia a lot of musicians have to earn money in other ways, and that means that their artistic side starts lagging behind a bit. But I understand it, I do. I think it’s also easy to become lazy. Latvia is a small country, everyone knows each other, if you can play and earn money with music, the feeling that you need to learn, to change something in you doesn’t show its face. Let’s be frank — it doesn’t pay off, if we talk about money. I don’t feel as if Latvian jazz has found its voice, it’s not anything unique yet. In time, with new generations it will change.

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And in spite of the situation you decided to come back. I think you haven’t really answered me why.
Yes, I got distracted… I don’t know, why not live here? There are interesting experiences here, like with a trio (with Matīss Čudars and Ivars Arutjunjans) we played a new tune by Krists Auznieks, I wouldn’t be able to experience it anywhere else. In a way the possibilities that are hidden here, in Latvia, are huge, if you are creative. Yes, sometimes I do go abroad, that’s why I’m glad that the lineups I’ve formed there are still alive, the people with whom I play there. But I don’t want to leave now.

In truth I’m a loner. I’d gladly live in the countryside, practice, do my own things, and when necessary I’d go and play concerts. I’m already working on establishing this living model for myself right now. During my last years in Copenhagen I noticed that I don’t really need the city. It’s great that you have an opportunity to attend good concerts, that there’s this hustle all the time, but I don’t tend to go outside every evening, I like being with myself. I do need to be with other people and play with them, but I don’t need it on a daily basis.

Do you think that the attitude towards jazz here is very conservative and changes too slowly?

It’s hard to say… the only difference I see is in the age of the listeners. When I play in Germany I see that the listeners are of an older generation, they have the tradition of listening to jazz music. Jazz is the music of their youth. And even though jazz is different nowadays, they still attend jazz concerts, because they are used to it. Latvian older generation doesn’t have the same traditions because apart from Raubiško and Rozenbergs there were almost no other jazz music examples. That’s why here concerts are attended mainly by young people who are ready to take a risk. And that makes me really glad.

Do you like sometimes playing jazz standards, if you arrange them?

If it were my own band, then no. But sometimes I play jazz standards, I do like them. But recently I have come to the realisation that even though I like this music it is not my folklore. When you go to America you see that it’s their folk music, and they feel it differently. You can try feeling it the way they do, but the feeling will never be as deep as when you hear «Tumša nakte, zaļa zāle». Naturally, I’m talking only of my own feelings and experiences. It also doesn’t mean that I’m going to go and play only Latvian folk songs, I am interested in creating something of my own using the experience I gained. I still practice improvising over jazz standards, searching for new ways to do that.

You’ve mentioned folk music. Were the topics of your self identification and awareness relevant to you while living abroad?

Yes, and it’s funny how you start realising those things only while away. This realisation was most relevant when I lived in Amsterdam, because it was the first time for me being away from Latvia. I started realising that all people are different. Suddenly you are all alone and all others are different, and then you understand what exactly in you is different. It’s not like I’ve dedicated a lot of my time to those thoughts because I don’t want to go deeper into nationalism, although I do realise that every nation has its own identity, way of thinking and understanding things. At the same time we all are people and our basics have the same language. It’s important to understand and accept your differences but not become proud of them. To say that we, Latvians, are special because of something, is a sign of low self esteem.

You said you wanted to live by nature, to be closer to yourself. Do you listen to the sounds of nature? Do they inspire you?

I think so, yes. I don’t know if it results in some certain way, I don’t go transcribing the bird songs, although I have tried doing that in the past. It’s a certain state when you are experiencing nature and can just silently observe the movements of it. I can tell you about my experience with my first teacher in Denmark, Carsten Dahl. I was very inspired by his attitude, he’s a very bright personality. He told me once: «Take a look outside the window, do you see the leaves moving? That is how I play music!» It might sound strange to some, but he believes in it and when you listen to his music, you start hearing it. In a way the name of my album, the «transcendent truth», symbolises nature. We will fade away in time, but nature will stay and the truth will stay. And the creative energy and a peace on the universal level will stay.