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It’s easy to become a drummer — way harder to become a musician

Aleksandra Line

Patient Kaspars Kurdeko who doesn’t share his future plans and holds a Jedi inside him

Jānis Porietis

Kaspars Kurdeko is a drummer, percussionist, and composer, studied in Amsterdam and New York, received many awards, been active in many international and Latvian projects, performed at festivals and concerts in Latvia, South Korea, France, Germany, Portugal, and the other countries. The descriptions of Kaspars say that he’s characterized by emotional ensemble interplay and energetically whirling, honest, and meaningful musical collaboration — and I’d guess most part of the Latvian community agrees to that. Kaspars disagrees with the statement there’s a jazz community in this country at all, — but let’s start from the beginning.

What this one of the most sought-after Latvian drummers asks me a couple of times is why do I want to meet him — «I don’t have a new album right now, for example». And my reply is straightforward: I think JAZZin readers have never seen his portrait yet. This calmer period of time gave me an excellent opportunity to change it, so we began our talk with my question if this silent time has been anyhow special for Kaspars Kurdeko.

The last couple of months have helped me achieve so many creative things. So much more time to dive into all the nuances about exploring your way of playing. You get the perspective. Previously it has been a lot of freelancing, so you just dive into your work with such speed that you don’t have time to explore things that are happening — I’m talking about playing skills here. And you have to dive into the details — you can be great or good, but it’s always the details that matter. I’m quite happy — I have less time to dedicate to teaching so that I can practice my playing skills, composing, and everything that’s connected to creativity in more detail. I teach for almost ten years now — I began in the Latvian Music Academy and continue in Ventspils Music Secondary School. This period keeps me more interested in terms of teaching — build up basics for young artists.

So you, just as many other Latvian jazz musicians, have to go to Ventspils every week. Isn’t it difficult?

Everything has its own perspective — depending on what you compare to. What even is difficult? To whom? Do we use the word «difficult» just because I have to go from Riga to Ventspils? We’re talking about 180 kilometers, seriously?

Did anything ever seem difficult to you professionally?

Something that was connected to things that a person cannot take care of. It’s time — you cannot just take and stop the time, it’s the so-called frustration — the biggest difficulty is not being able to create your artistic fulfillment to the audience, to real people. It’s really difficult to stay calm about this situation now, be patient, wait until everything is okay again. Everyone has such artistic frustrations — I believe I’m not the only one, there are many.

Speaking about artistic things — do you think one can be born talented or only achieve it through hard work?

I don’t have an answer to this question yet. I also didn’t have a wish to have one. But something I know for sure — work has a lot to do with it. I’ve seen it myself how a person, my colleague who began studying in Amsterdam, and we’re on completely different levels — he has way less technique, sound, feeling of time, and tempo that’s important for drummers. So he comes every single morning at 7 a.m. and practices for his four hours per day. 3 — 4 years pass, and he becomes a really sought-after musician. And that work had really improved his skills — and that was a great proof of the fact that the work really is those ten thousand hours. How much are ten thousand hours? If we take eight hours per day, how many days should we spend on it — quite a lot, right? People who might now have lots of talent probably don’t come from a family that could give them the knowledge, but they can learn. And that is the biggest difference. I think the biggest task that the school has to give is how to learn instead of what to learn. Then you learn to learn, and all the necessary keys are in your hands.

And then, when you’ve reached the desired level — is there a certain amount of hours you need to practice?

This isn’t my favorite question. It’s pretty individual — everyone has to know for how long he can focus per day. There is a question of how often instead of how many hours. It’s better to have less, but every day or even a couple of times per day — that’s my answer to every drum student who wants to learn. As soon as I tell them one number (of hours) — that number will become a goal for your readers. They’ll think — yes, Kurdeko told me I need to practice 2 hours per day, and I’ve been doing it for four years, so why don’t I become better?

At what age did you realize you’re going to become a drummer?

This is quite interesting — I’ve realized that later on. I began becoming a musician at the age of seven — it was an education my mum has chosen. I started making music, and it slowly led me to choose drums, which also didn’t come in one year. It’s quite easy to become a drummer — it’s harder to become a musician. I feel I’m a musician, and I like seeing the bigger picture, that overview of the music. And it cannot be observed by someone with a micro view on the music, the one who finds out what exactly he has to do so that he likes doing it, but the one who sees what exactly should be done for that music so that it sounds better. What’s the rhythm, what’s the instrument choice, what’s the orchestration. This, in my opinion, is way more interesting.

Did you notice you’ve changed your way of playing?

No. It’s the same as asking if my timbre has changed in the last ten years. It’s hard for me to answer — let someone transcribe and analyze me and write a master paper about it — then we can talk about it.

You’ve been collaborating with many different bands and people — is there something you liked more?

This is no secret that I have many projects of a different genre that have happened in a relatively short period of time. Last time I get fascinated by the fact that music can collaborate with another genre — dance, for example. I’ve had an exciting experience with choreographer Elza Leimane — she had a play called «Nestāsti man pasakas» (Don’t tell me tales), a ballet in the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. That was a great experience with Matīss Čudars and Jānis Šipkēvics junior, a whole year of freedom of creative flight. This was interesting because the music had to follow the dance, the music was not the main thing, and being instrumentalists, it was pretty hard to play by these rules. That it would benefit not only yourself but also the dance, and that result is synergic, and this project seemed one of the most inspiring to me.

Is there anything else except the music that inspired you to create?

I get inspired by personalities, people who have a wish to do something they love. They have to have a sparkle in their eyes — when they share the things they love. For example, one of the last sources of inspiration to me was Miķelis Vingris, an 11 — 12-year-old boy who wants to become a chess champion in his class. A Latvian who plays chess from an early age, is keen on it, has his own goal he wants to reach since he was a little kid. When I saw an interview with him, I also wanted to learn to play chess, so I downloaded a chess app and tried to understand the rules. And I think we also have just the same task — know that we have to inspire others and inspire them with our profession.

And what inspired you, speaking of music?

I get inspired by live music in concerts instead of recordings. I try to attend as many concerts as I can. The last one I’ve been to was the one of Matīss Čudars, Ivars Arutyunyan and Kārlis Auziņš who were playing «Sirds katedrāle» (The Cathedral of Heart) by Krists Auznieks — it was fascinating to hear and see how they play this music and take a look at the sheets after the concert. At that point, I realized I love experiencing music at live concerts — it has way more power over me. Last time I’m trying to listen to different music, and I’m currently studying ambient music. There are so many interesting artists.

How do you feel when you’re playing an idea of the other person?

In the end, everything is connected to what the music is and what the musicians are. We have a choice to make a decision, whether we want to collaborate or not. If I agree to do it, it will definitely be an exciting experience with its own challenges. I’m trying to see a source of love everywhere, why we’re doing it — even in the artificially created situations, we can see some opportunities. I think respect and openness are what’s really important for musicians. If we have that respect, then no disappointment is possible, nor are the problems connected to it. It’s a huge problem in Latvia and outside it overall — people cannot just stay honest to one another, especially if they haven’t collaborated and don’t know each other. Then it’s important to establish an honest relationship — talk the expectations through. And then that’s called experience — if the musician is experienced to collaborate with other people in a short period of time, or he still has to learn it.

Would you agree to a project with no rehearsals at all?

I love situations like this. I’d rather not rehearse. First, if these are jazz standards and I know which musicians will be playing them with me — then I already know all their music communication skills, and I know we already know these standards. And then you don’t want to steal this magic with one rehearsal. If these people don’t know these standards and only begin learning them on that day, then a concert is impossible at all — you have to have many rehearsals. And in that case, I won’t agree to it, because that’s simply not interesting to me — spend time so that these people would learn this music with me because you need to know jazz standards by default. So I know how well-experienced musicians I’ll collaborate with.

So you could refuse to play with less-experienced ones?

Yes, of course.

How often do you reject offers?

I think, quite seldom. I don’t see a «no» as a rejection — I could say no because I’d like to participate with my full attention, be prepared, and I just don’t have time. I like working with brands when I’m 100% in. Some people would freelance with 15 artists in a week — I’m not one of them. I’d like to learn something like this, but I know my nervous system won’t let it. And now, when everything has stopped, this is a difficult question.

Now, that very moment everything’s at a standstill — do you believe in digital scenarios in the industry? How drastically does the music industry transform now or will in the future?

I think nothing has really changed and also won’t. The music industry will stay as spoiled as it is already. There have been some minor changes to how it is called and to the media that keeps telling about it, but just the same people benefit from it. I don’t believe in telling about the music in the digital form — on Facebook and Youtube — it can work as a teaser, but not as a full-time product. Because what happens with the media? The media dulls people’s attention with a so-called four-second scrolling. At the beginning of the cell era, it has become a vertical information source, that four-second movement. And I really don’t consider it valid for media perception at all. That’s because people don’t have enough patience, they haven’t learned to research themselves. And people don’t change. The music we have to pass on — in a digital form, CD, doesn’t matter, voucher, vinyl — I think that the past is our future. That format is so good in terms of quality and perception that it will be able to last.

And since we began talking about the future — what physical music formats do you believe in?

In the last 15 — 20 years the vinyl has become very popular again. And the ones who have enjoyed it have realized that it’s a huge experience value. You cannot compare it to Spotify or mp3. The ones who have noticed it already understand that they have to have a vinyl record player. I think that the future format will be mixed. The audience that listens to pop music is growing as well — they will be the ones who’ll listen to mp3.

Do you have any grand life plans or future wishes?

Yes, I do, but I won’t share them. This is my principle — not to share such things. I also advise the others not to, just to hold that Jedi inside you. Then it helps yourself. It’s just the same as stopping smoking — if someone wants to stop it, please don’t tell it to others.

What, in your opinion, is the easiest and the most difficult in being a musician?

That is a question that the ones who want to become musicians should read to have a heads-up, right? A happy musician is the one whose limit of patience is really high. And the one who knows what patience is — it’s the base of a musician’s career that will last. That is the most difficult. I’ve seen many people who just quit because they can’t put three notes together; they haven’t seen that big picture. And I think that the easiest in music could be playing the unknown. Something that hasn’t been written in the notes.

If you would have to choose between playing something really free or playing something strictly composed — what would you choose right now?

Now, this very moment? I’d like something precise. When a composer has his own idea, and he wants it to sound just like he wants it to. I’d like to be that musician who just wants to make his genius idea work. That’s a big challenge. So I liked that aforementioned concert of Krists Auznieks were three of my favorite jazz musicians — Kārlis, Ivars, and Matīss — were playing. They were the ones making that composer’s idea come true, and that was some sheet music with very precise tasks. It’s a really difficult task for a jazz musician who’s trained to improvise instead of repeat something he’s played before — it’s some iron discipline. You practice, you find some peace in yourself, and you accept what’s written.

Did you ever struggle with finding your inner peace?

Of course, I do all the time.

Where do you think Latvian jazz is right now?

We could discuss it in some 30 years, then this question would make sense. Right now, it’s unnecessary to discuss it. Because there’s no such term as «Latvian jazz». You have to understand that we might want to believe we have some Latvian jazz sound, but it’s way more complicated. Many generations have to change, the ones that have moved out of Latvia, got an education, learned jazz communication skills — that’s the first task. The second task is to create jazz as a personality, make it live. And that, in my opinion, isn’t something that you can just create with your mind. And that’s a challenging task — we might be talking about Scandinavian jazz nuances, direction, and it isn’t like that direction has suddenly appeared. And it has many sources of inspiration — maybe nature, maybe people who have left some historical musical legacy.

Jazz music doesn’t have any nationality or color — it doesn’t have to have color. It can have an accent. If I go to Brazil and play samba, it will sound like I play with an accent because I’m not a local. If I lived there for 10 — 15 years and play together with the locals all the time, my ears would get used to their rhythm and manner of playing so that I would play as a local. I see music as a universal language — everyone has chosen the directions he likes. And I’m just the one who chooses the musical language that I find easier and more interesting to communicate in. But making that goal — okay, let’s make some Latvian jazz, and it’ll be jazz with Latvian lutes, lute big band — well, that’s hilarious. And pathetic. How can you reach the spot where jazz has a nationality — find an accent how it might sound like. The voice we already have inside us, and that isn’t yet been seen deeper, analyzed. Trying to see that voice and develop it, try harder, do a master thesis about yourself, find out who you are.

That’ll be a life-long master thesis, then.

Well, of course. All the greatest have sounded like somebody else at one point. This is why it’s so important — to research yourself at one point. I wouldn’t like to tell you don’t have to study — you have to study, the more, the better, but there comes that one point when you have to tell — okay, now we forget everything and begin researching things that we’d better keep to ourselves. And all of it comes through your own prism. And at one point — maybe you won’t notice it yourself, but the others definitely will.