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Common music-savoring experience

Aleksandra Line

Visvaldis: «When I listen to the music, I listen for real»

Aleksandra Line

I guess many Latvians, especially Rigans and jazz music lovers, have heard Visvaldis’ name at least once. Not only spotted it in the school history books regarding the king of Jersika but rather in a current context with the words like «cinema», «history of music», «Muklājs» and — during the last years — Kaņepes Culture center as well. Visvaldis Dreiska is quite a mysterious character — once an owner of a film rental «Muklājs» in the center of Riga, then an owner of quite a Boheme basement cafe «Muklājs» where a major part of the city once went, including me to work on my study papers together with my coursemates, as well as he is a music lover and a storyteller.

As far as I am informed, Visvaldis seldom agrees to interviews. The ones I could find (the ones he’s agreed to) have quite a sad emotional palette. This is the moment it gets interesting to me to find out what his personality is all about, so I find a number and call. As a result of the talk, Visvaldis quite reluctantly agrees to meet me, offers to come to visit him at his home, listen to his music collection, draw my own conclusions and just stay silent together. This already sounds promising, so I take our «Jazz in Latvia» CD selections to add up to his collection and go to visit. Visvaldis meets me at his kitchen, smoking one after another, sitting by an open window. 

Is (Artis) Orubs in this selection as well? I really appreciate him. Because if you hear anything at all about the Latvian music from me, if it’s not the Radio choir, you have to write it in a newspaper. I’m really reserved. But well, what modern jazz do you listen to yourself? I guess we’ll change roles now, I’ll interview, and you’ll respond. (laughs) so what was the last thing you’ve heard?

Now I ordered and am waiting for the new vinyl, Sachal Vasandani with Romain Collin and Joshua Redman with Brad Mehldau. And what do you listen to?

Cool question. If you put the music for listening on your phone with your earphones — you won’t hear it. You will hear the melody, but you won’t catch how the instrument sounds. You know, I perceive the album as a whole, not these selections. And my usual playlist is silence. So now we’re talking, and you can’t hear the music playing here. God forbid the radio. And when I listen to the music, I listen for real. Someone told me my way of listening is like computer tomography, so I like combos better than big band music. I began listening to jazz in 1980 — once a month I went to the «Oktobris» jazz club with lectures and concerts there. It’s not like you are born, and you know everything from the very beginning. My teacher was Vladimir Feyertag, and it was a great school. Our Ivars Mazurs knew things, you cannot deny it, but he was telling it all in a really boring way, and he couldn’t grab a youngster’s attention who didn’t know things. Meanwhile, Feyertag in his witty, frivolous way, which is very important, was talking about serious things. Okay, I seem like showing off a bit right now. What do you want, coffee, tea? I can also offer you a cold peppermint tea.

A glass of water would be great, thank you.

Alright. But peppermint tea will be tastier. I’ll pour you some. By the way, do you know we’re a brother and a sister by the name? I was christened Alexander, by the way. But speaking of listening — if I listen to the Latvians, I choose Georgs Pelēcis, Rihards Dubra, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Pēteris Vasks. And it’s contemporary music. Radio choir, little chamber choir «Muklājs», I liked this State academic choir «Latvija» until Māris Sirmais came. But there are only two or three jazzmen there, you know. And these young ones — well, who teaches them? My friend Inga Bērziņa. She has such a straightforward manner of singing, but does she even know what a syncopated sound is? She teaches them really mechanically, it’s not jazz. Actually, an answer about Latvian jazz is really simple — it’s what world-class musicians you’ve played with. Speaking of the foreigners — there’s also Matthew Shipp or Billy Laswell. There’s also Zorn from the greats, of course, and I like it when the academic music is synthesized with jazz as well.

And if you have to choose between a recording and a live concert?

I usually go to Ventspils to see Miks Magone, the best events were happening at his «Zemlika» festival. And there’s a contemporary music festival «Arēna». It’s because I didn’t know much there, it was new for me. And the fact that I’m sixty-five years old — you know, king Solomon had that great saying, «he who increases knowledge increases sorrow». How many people do you think I can talk about jazz to? Five. Earlier on, I went to clubs, I had nightlife, and I had abnormally lonely people all around me. You don’t have anyone to talk to, just plain esoteric talks. But I miss concerts a lot.

There’s much loneliness in the world overall.

Earlier I couldn’t understand it. People usually go like — black or white, good or bad. And I have the third one — banal. You understand it, right? It’s not only about music, it’s about literature or drinks as well. Culture doesn’t consist of one narrow segment only — there’s universality in culture, just take a look — Lorenzo The Great was writing his poetry in Tuscany, played music, painted, and led his country quite successfully. There was Hoffmann in Germany who wrote stories, novels, and played music. Our neighbor was Čiurlionis, who depicted music in his paintings and was a writer as well. And now — you know how it happens with women sometimes — there’s a closet full of clothes and shoes, and they’ve nothing to wear. And I sometimes go to my music shelf and have nothing to listen to. I turn to a blonde lady in this sense. So I really don’t listen to anything for a day, two, five, and then it’s a whole festival — then you listen, and music has a value. But just imagine these people who listen to the radio all the time — you get overwhelmed by too much. So, let’s move to the room? I can keep silent, you can browse through the music.

Which music do you usually put when someone comes to visit?

You simply cannot decide universally, just the same as you can’t pick one drink. By the way, I’m quite reserved towards whiskey because I know it too well. It’s just the same with the blues — I know it, but I don’t listen to it much.

Visvaldis accidentally happens to remember something, stands up, goes towards a shelf, takes out an old cigar box, and gives it to me. The box is full of concert tickets…

This, you know. And don’t you think there’s everything here — I only began collecting these tickets in 1992 or so, and there are no electronic tickets here. But actually, me and Dāvis Kaņepe have been acquainted for some fifteen or eighteen years, he brought all his musicians to my cafe after the concerts. So three and a half years ago my cafe ceased to exist, I got unemployed, and he told me — go speak about cinema. And I told him — no, I should better talk about music. At that time, when «Muklājs» was still open, Dāvis asked me to play a Christmas ball. And you know, where I am and where they are… their parents are younger than me. Maybe there are moms who are forty-two years old. So I told them: «Alright, my kids and their parents, now I’ll play some retirement jazz for you». My DJ signature… It’s funny, of course, being a DJ at sixty-five.

Now I’m going to show you some beautiful CD designs. It’s not the most beautiful music, it’s a beautiful design. And that idea is as follows — you’re sitting in this chair, listening to brothel songs of the forties and looking at the pictures. For example, look at this — Uri Caine, who’s banned among the jews, plays Wagner in Venice, and there’s Jewish irony there, however, it’s really soft because where did Wagner die? In Venice. And all my respect to this — he doesn’t laugh, he smiles instead.

And then a CD or vinyl? Is the format important for your music collection?

I had a great vinyl collection, and I voluntarily parted from it — in 1986, I was the first one in Riga who got a CD player. The audiophiles like this, you know how they tested their equipment? They took a CD of Maria Buenos and listened to whether they could hear that little bell of clay or not. You can never hear a bell of clay on Spotify. But in this recording you don’t miss a tiny thing, it’s really a festival of listening to music.

How did this love for music appear in your life?

I was born in 1956. I’ll show you this angel I was in the pictures. I was a neat child, didn’t cause any trouble, however, I was often ill, and I ate poorly. And then while I was eating, my grandma either sang songs to me or I ate to Schubert’s «Lullaby» or his «Erlkönig» on a phonograph. And as a little kid, I was really impressed by these images. When I was a bit older, in 1966, we listened to world pop music. I had an older cousin, a hippie, Zigfrīds, he already owned a «Symphony» with the stereo sound, and I went to his place to listen to music. We listened to it without any filter. When I was fifteen, my parents went through a divorce process, quarreling all the time. I got fed up with living poor, so after I finished my eighth grade I went to work and bought a tape recorder first. Tape recorder in the beginning, and only then «Wrangler» jeans. At first, I was listening to all the shit as all the normal teenagers do, and in a year or two, I turned to art-rock.

And then to jazz?

Then Russian time came, I was in the army in the sea for three years, and finished a scuba diver’s course. I served on a spy ship, the radar intelligence service intercepted NATO training, our army sneaked in the middle, and we haven’t been out of that music circulation for these three years. When the chief officer was out of the place, we immediately put on and listened to the music. We weren’t out of the music circle, and it’s quite important. And only in 1980 did jazz begin for me — the pianist Čižiks who improvised, then the more important ones — Ganelin. Chekasin, Tarasov trio. I got interested in music, bought a subscription to «Oktobris» and went to listen every month. There was that blind pianist Manoukian, then Raubiško, Rozenbergs, Briežkalns, Galenieks — that last one in his rain boots, some pants, really no public image creation. The idea at that time was as follows — don’t pay attention to how I look, listen to how I play instead. I also remember that swindler Straume, but he did such shit in Riga that I’m not sure he’s ever coming back. He was a stealthy one, scheming. But he was a great musician and I miss this. Then I began attending festivals, Ņidbaļskis was actively doing things.

Alright, now you pick what we’ll be listening to. You mustn’t make a mistake. (laughs) Sometimes at Kaņepe, foreigners call me a guru, and I don’t like it. I’m a cosmopolitan, but I’ve problems with Indians. And the essence of what I do at Kaņepe is getting people acquainted with the music the youngsters don’t know. Some call me a cannibal. And if we accept that we don’t like pop music — in jazz, all the Gershwins, Glenns Millers, Woodies Hermans are pop music. Because what actually is jazz? We perceive it all wrong very often. I haven’t put atonal sound in public for a long time because people are seldom prepared for it. You have to be prepared for music like that so that you can listen to it, and it’s hard. Actually, when you’re listening to music, you can even sweat. Okay, let’s take something not too extreme. Their names, you see…

Visvaldis is a powerful name, as well.

Wait, wait. Keep on going — where’s the power? Who beat him, that king of Jersika? Two knights. He got beaten by two knights — his castle was burnt down, his family taken captive, and he just ran away to another riverbank. This isn’t a powerful name, it’s a shitty example.

Visvaldis takes CDs from his shelf and puts them one after another. Smokes faster than the recordings finish, so another pack of cigarettes gets opened

So, you already know Mahler, that Forest legend? Listen, there’s jazz and academic music — funny, isn’t it? Dave Douglas is blowing here. So is this free jazz or not? It’s the one I like a lot, a bit of psychedelia. Now, do you understand why I’m not listening to music often? This is my jazz world. I want the recording to not just be a one-time listening, but so that I can take it out from the shelf and listen to it from time to time. Alright, now I’ll take something more extreme. This is a very interesting project. Luis Clavis, Aldo Romano. Look at the instruments that can be heard here, on the other side. Now let’s turn it the other way, take their travel photo album out. Put your feet right here, choose a drink, look at the pictures and listen to the music. Just imagine — you’re listening to someone old, put your feet here, swing, and look at the old photo album. Photographs are glued here, just look at what compositions there were earlier, they really got prepared — here, for example, is my grandmother, her older daughter, tired eyes. You also have some old photo albums at home, don’t you? I recommend you listen to the music this way.

Look at this photo of mine — a monster with his insults, and here such a child, this contract. But see, I’m insulting people not because I’m that evil — I just try to explain so that a person really understands what I’m saying. At my age, one has to actually listen to rock music more than anything. Now we’re listening to Uri Caine, I’ll convert you into my religion with the help of his irony now. I actually combine my interest in music with my interest in history overall. Okay, while my neighbors don’t protest, I’ll turn on some John Zorn whom I listen to once a year. And now I’ll turn on something I call dance music (picks out some hip hop). I also don’t like how the Latvians rap — you’re listening to the vocals as a rhythm section, not as the message it brings. Isn’t it funny that I’m listening to rap, huh? Youngsters are the ones who usually do.

I’d say, not only, and youngsters happen to be different as well.

Most of them are just stupid. When I was a teenager, music was a deficit, it was a value. Nowadays, you have everything, and you have nothing at the same time. I have a term for the ones who visit festivals and are talking to each other while the music is playing — I call them verbal masturbators. When I went to «Sansusī» — it’s a great festival, but I couldn’t listen to anything there because everyone was talking in the meantime. They learned to talk at «Positivus» and cannot stop anymore. Okay, now I’ve got you acquainted with my musical world a little bit.

How can you define yourself in this musical world, who are you?

There’s a banal word I’d rather not use during an interview, but quite a precise one — savorer, enjoyer. You might feel that I pay a lot of attention to details. And I hope you understand why I listen to music so rarely. Jazz is something outside nationalities — and do you hear how subtle the sound is right now? It can be so even without any aggressiveness or sweetness. For how long are you staying? Because I’d like us to listen to my favorite one, Finnish guy Kimmo Pohjonen now.

Do you happen to think how short our life is that it won’t be enough to hear this lot of music?

And to think we verbally masturbate way too much and listen to the music way too little? Do you know many people of my age who listen to music at all? Time passes, and they’re out of the race. Actually, if you listen very attentively, you can get tired quickly. Alright, I won’t torture you any longer. How are you going to get home — along the Dzirciema street or nearby Dzegužkalns? The main thing, when you’re on this side of the river, is not to pay attention to architecture that much but pay attention to the trees instead. These oaks, these lindens. The architecture can be different, but the trees are always real. Go along the Botanical garden, you’ll really be amazed.

I take into consideration the advice of the route, say goodbye to Visvaldis, and go after my bike. On my way, I realized that even though I’ve been prepared for this interview, it seems that I haven’t asked him any of the questions I had in mind, after all. Visvaldis accompanies me to the door, and, despite the severe image he tries to stick to, hiding behind his beard, he smiles at me goodbye.