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Experiences that change us for good. A talk to Santa Šillere

Aleksandra Line

Polish workshop festival in Latvia and a Latvian girl in Poland

Aleksandra Line

Jazz singer Santa Šillere who composes her own music as nell, is on her way to her debut album and is educating young talents not only to introduce Latvia to the world in the «jazzahead» context, but also cares about the new events in the Latvian music. In the summer of 2021 Latvia hosted the internationally recognised Polish workshop festival «Voicingers On Tour», which became a great event production debut for Santa and empowered her connection to Poland. One September evening we met to talk about it all.

What’s the one main thought you have in your head now?

Last year, maybe even a year and a half, has been a year of changes to me and many others. Whatever changes everyone undergoes, all of us are confused, maybe lost. But now, in the middle of September 2021, I think – times change, and that’s beautiful. Today I see how much around us has transformed in the musical context. Yesterday I was listening to the freshly released album of Beāte Zviedre and Jānis Rubiks. My friend Anna Zankovska released her album and a bit before this I attended your album presentation concert. It’s all so close, one energy flowing, seeing so much fresh material by the musicians and opening to the music, I really feel it’s beautiful that times change. It’s so beautiful that we can change along with it – music is such an easy weapon for living it through and sharing the feeling. Nowadays we begin hearing these changes from others. And that experience that changes us is really necessary. A similar weapon for it was the «Voicingers» workshops that changed much, and I can feel that this project has started this machinery of changes. Changing, in my opinion, is so natural, so beautiful, and one doesn’t have to get ashamed of it.

I think every time we both meet we’re talking about the beauty in the world and the music.

About all the beauty that is being created, as well as in the moments when some unexpected turns come – and nevertheless we can save and share our art. I think that’s the ultimate blessing. Some terrible things can happen around us, but it’s what nobody can take away from us people.

I absolutely agree. You also are the one who brought something new to this city along with the «Voicingers» festival – did this idea arise along with your studies in Poland?

Actually the presence of Poland in my life has always been a destiny of sorts. I’ve some Polish roots because my grandma’s family from my mother’s side has been all Polish. I have always known this fact, but well, who doesn’t have some other roots here. Before I went to Poland I listened to some opinions, I remember talking to Toms Lipskis for quite a long time who has been to ERASMUS studies in Gdansk and who tried to persuade me to think a lot. And at the end it appeared that Polish people are quite expressive in their very core, very open, and it can scare some others away. But thanks to Kārlis Mangulsons I paid attention to Katowice where I went, and since we began talking about changes I think my arrival to Poland has been a great transformation. Even though I’ve only spent half a year there I came as a different person, at least in terms of the feelings about how I feel, hear and think in music. I met many amazing musicians and our paths crossed, I met my Anna Gadt and I’ll have an honor to visit her and learn singing and composition privately for another year, so many coincidences are shaping our lives.

After my studies I also kept returning to Poland to play concerts together with the musicians I met there, and while being there I heard about the biggest workshop festival of the country, «Voicingers» and got interested. While being there, seeing the musical thought, seeing how they project themselves through the music and improvisation I was really intrigued what could await me there. It’s no surprise that Poland has really powerful free jazz roots and the teachers in the learning process not only talk about the theory of the tradition we can’t do without because it’s our dictionary, but also work with the free improvisation and how you express your thoughts and feelings through the music. Then my friend Līga Kupča and I went to these workshops and within two weeks realised that I’d really like to experience something like it in Latvia. We really have a different atmosphere both in terms of education and music.

There, in a little town called Zory, you live on the spot for two weeks and the workshop format is different as well – you wake up with yoga and sports in the mornings and are all ready by 9 am, then your workshops begin, you wake up with a consciousness about the process. I remember Anna inviting three girls to stand up during her workshops, putting a painting in front of them and saying – now sing this painting. And there’s a Disney princess on one of the paintings, a fragment from the Second World war on the other one, and you have to tell this story through improvisation, your body and voice as an instrument. This was an unbelievable feeling – now I’m telling it to you and I shiver – that’s a moment when you’re a centimeter above the known.

So you’re a singer and teach other people to sing. Do you apply the new knowledge after returning home?

I remember Līga and me right after returning trying to play some tasks through. There were lots of elements that I both applied for my master’s program and asked my students to do. The ones about this recognition of freedom in music and harmony. What Anna encouraged a lot was about the content you wish to tell through your music. Being overwhelmed with an environment full of different vocal techniques, I haven’t been so deep into the contents before. It might even sound esoteric but sometimes there’s a ritual-like feeling when she brings something out of yourself. I’m working at a Riga Dome Choir school with the musical department students, and here we deal with the content as a major part of the specialty, so yes, I both apply the knowledge I got myself and pass them on to the young vocalists.

How did you end up with an idea to bring all this gang to Latvia?

It might have been a courageous move but during these two weeks in the evenings, as usual, concerts and jam sessions until the morning light were happening, and I remember it closer to the end of the festival – everybody had this feeling of freedom, everything was happening, everyone became one family, and I took a glass of wine, sat by a table of an art director of the festival, reminded him who I was and began talking about how this concept appeared in his head and what would be the opportunity to bring this out of Poland. I was brave asking this, and he replied he was really thinking about Latvia. And then I thought – if these two weeks were a portal of sorts, then this is its culmination. And all the rest just organically happened – in my opinion, every place where I went beginning with the Academy of Music, we wanted to become a primary venue for the workshops, ending with «M/Darbnīca» as a venue for concerts and jams. Everything went with a flow.

During the workshop week, I asked you how you feel, on the first and the last day. Now when the emotions have calmed down, what’s the outcome you think about?

Evilena Protektore

I think this festival has triggered something. I really feel it. I mean in terms of some inner feelings of musicians. I’ll never forget it how we had a concert during the last day where the workshop participants performed, and one girl told it from the stage right before her performance that this evening is when she’ll be doing something for the first time in her life. And it was free improvisation. At that point, I thought – yes, this event has fulfilled its task and mission, a person is ready to step out of her comfort zone, whatever it is. All of us have our different comfort zones, but the moment that girl was ready to go into music full-speed with a feeling of risk and healthy adrenaline and love for what she does – I realized it’s one of the good things we get. Young musicians and musicians overall who dared to cross that bridge they were afraid to cross before or had their reasons not to do it got stimulated by this workshop to cross the bridge and look around.

When was the last time you did something for the first time yourself?

We don’t have to look far – during «Voicingers» in Riga this summer I had a concert together with a Polish quartet, and it happened so that the rehearsal process before the concert was relatively quick – we had a time limit. And as we all know, this is the anniversary year of Imants Kalniņš, and Grzegorz Karnas asked me to sing at least half of my concert in Latvian because he thinks you have to sing music in your language – this way you are the most honest with the other people and you can speak up the best. So he asked me to sign up for this challenge, and I took one composition, «Piena ceļš» (Milky Way) by Imants Kalniņš, and I had no idea how to arrange it, where to begin. I have no idea why I had a «stop sign» for a purposeful arrangement of this composition. And I just wrote down a melody with four chords that are the main harmony of the song. During a rehearsal, I put this sheet of paper in front of the Polish people and told them – guys, I have nothing else, just these eight bars, four chords, what can we do with it? And this is honey to Polish people’s ears. This way, we’ve traveled into ideas and feelings, and after the rehearsal, I realized I wanted to try this out during the concert with the listeners. So I announced this composition, and I had no idea where it would begin or where it would bring us, but after the concert, people came with their eyes all teary and told me it had touched a part of their hearts—really high vibrations.

When you’re on stage yourself, how much do you think of your performance and the whole sound, and how much of it is left for thinking about the audience perception?

Thoughts about the listener usually bring dual feelings in me – on the one hand, we as performers and vocalists that are standing on the stage during the whole concert, talk to the audience, talk through the music, have to think of how they feel. But along with years, I’ve realized this empathy towards the audience has to be healthy – it cannot impact what you’re doing at that time. I always talk during my concerts, it’s vital to me to narrate before I perform – why do I perform it at that moment, what’s the story of the composition – something the listener can resonate with so that he can go on this journey together with me.

Does all that you’ve lived through this summer create a turning point to your next musical steps? What can we wait for in the future?

Absolutely, yes. This, at the moment, is a question I really can answer – during the upcoming year, I’m flying to my vocal teacher Anna Gadt every single month to work on the vocal and composition. Since the time of my studies in Poland, I have had a jazz quintet there, and within this year, we’ll meet this one time per month working on the new material that can become recorded at some point. I cannot tell yet how it happens and if it happens with them only, but the fact that Poland has left a significant imprint in my heart and on my musical way is clear. I think my debut album is on its way.

So we’ll just wait and see when it reaches its destination! Meanwhile, what could your Latvian listeners wait for?

Speaking about the «Voicingers», we’re now planning next year’s workshop festival that will take part in Riga. And, talking about myself, at the moment, I’m arranging the Christmas repertoire with my original music featured. I have a feeling that I wish this very intimate Christmas air would come – meeting my listeners, meeting my friends in music, and spending time with them all. The situation keeps changing, of course, but I’d like to tell it like this – see you this year.