Dec. 17, 2021

#17 - The Creatively Engaging - Monika & Anna

#17 - The Creatively Engaging - Monika & Anna

A fascinating conversation with two amazing artists, Monika Mašanauskaitė and Anna Szałucka. Hear about their Piano Phase project in the MO Museum in Lithuania in the summer of 2021.


Show Links:
 

MONIKA'S SITE: https://www.monikapianiste.com

SUPPORT THE PROJECT: https://www.monikapianiste.com/piano-phase-project

THE PIANO PHASE DOCUMENTARY:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CG3TAvOG4M&t=791s

INSTAGRAM: pianophaseproject

CONTACT: pianophaseproject@gmail.com

 

Monika Mašanauskaitė and Anna Szałucka...

Our ultimate goal is creating musical installations in contemporary settings where two pianists perform together, giving the audience an insight into the new format of classical music concerts. We want to give the visitors an opportunity to join in as they wish. This liberal and democratic presentation of the music allows listeners to freely move around the space and experience a classical music concert in a completely new environment and fresh, forward-thinking approach. We welcome everyone - no matter your age or personal background.

We like to think of ourselves as artists, not only musicians, therefore we collaborate with dancers, visual artists, activists, podcasters and broader media. We want to spread the message and talk about issues important for us: inclusivity, perception of music, education for children and adults alike as well as artists' lives. To make the installation more affordable we decided to perform on upright pianos, because why not? (We think it looks cool too!) we want to keep this project FREE for the audience.

Be a change. Make a change. And be a part of some great installations all around the world!
 

 

Transcript

 

I'm Bruce Devereux, and this is The Creatively Engaging.

Monika Masanauskaite:

I just want to say that I think we felt victory because toward the end, we realized that for the first time we actually did everything how we wanted. And then the whole idea that it was ninth performance, it was the only recording we have and we had this only one opportunity. So it had to be good and it was good. And this was such an incredible and powerful moment. And I think this actually made us so happy and so empowered. I think this is why Anna let herself dance.

Bruce Devereux:

I feel that I could have called this episode Three Weekends in November. I tried on three consecutive November weekends to record enough content for an episode. My guests, Monica in Vienna, Anna in London, and myself in Gibsons, but unreliable wifi, microphone and camera malfunctions and garbled recordings presented a lot of challenges. Okay. You're back, Anna. We lost Monica though, right?

Anna Szalucka:

Sorry. Yeah. Oh, okay. Sorry. My internet just got-

Bruce Devereux:

Are you able to text her?

Anna Szalucka:

[inaudible 00:01:16] look around and fix it, but not at the moment, because I don't have [inaudible 00:01:21] and we don't have a wifi at home.

Bruce Devereux:

I wonder if she just went totally dead there.

Monika Masanauskaite:

I am so sorry. Bruce, I waited so I didn't close the window. So it reloaded what we talked before I [crosstalk 00:01:32].

Bruce Devereux:

I think we're back in the saddle again. We're back in the game. So who knows what we'll end up having at the end of all of this, but I'm sure we'll be able to piece it together.

Bruce Devereux:

In the end, we were successful telling the story of the Piano Phase Project would persevere. The Piano Phase Project is a story about two incredibly hardworking and skilled pianists. One from Lithuania, now living in Vienna, Monica Masanauskaite. And one from Poland, living in London, Anna Szalucka. Who take the stage in a very different venue for both of them. A stage that is open, is connected to community, it is the lobby of the MO Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania. The MO is a community hub and architect Daniel [inaudible 00:02:25] describes it as a three dimensional public space, a cultural gateway.

Daniel Libeskind:

Main concept is to create a great space for art and a great space for people. The main idea is to create a dramatic building that is functionally very smart and a building that is closely related to the urban history of venues because the building is at the edge of the medieval wall with the gate really giving visibility to the entrance of the building and the building creates also numerous public spaces, which really cut diagonally through [inaudible 00:03:02].

Bruce Devereux:

Their presence within the MO lobby was striking like an exhibit about to come alive, waiting for the first notes of American composer Stephen Reich's Piano Phase to sound. A piece they would play nine times over five days. So much work and COVID related uncertainties brought them to this moment. And I wondered what they were thinking before their fingers touched the keys for the very first time.

Monika Masanauskaite:

So it was really scary actually. Because I remember we didn't have enough time to rehearse and the piece was unfamiliar for us in a sense that it's not the standard repertoire we usually play. And we didn't have enough time to rehearse in this actual space. So we were really unfamiliar with everything around us. I remember that we literally sat and we didn't really know what's going to happen. And exactly that happened, which we didn't know.

Anna Szalucka:

Yeah. That was surprising. It felt a bit crazy because everything was happening so quickly. Right? It's first of all, still a week, two weeks before we didn't know if it's going to happen because it was in the middle of the pandemic, it was in the middle of lock downs. So I was traveling from London, Monica was traveling from Vienna. So it just was so complicated to organize international travel.

Monika Masanauskaite:

I remember I flew to Latvia actually, a different country, because I couldn't fly directly. And then I had to take a car and it was never so difficult to go home Lithuania than it was then. And I think also it was a bit, for us, the most insecurity was that we didn't know how we will enter the countries. Will we have to be in the quarantine? Will we be admitted? And these questions, which previously we didn't have so that was the problem.

Anna Szalucka:

Rehearsals, costumes, promotion, all of this happened very quickly. But I was also excited and happy that it's coming to life. I don't think there was any bad emotion in me. I didn't feel any fear. Of course I was a bit nervous, I wanted for it to go well. I think I was definitely more towards excited.

Bruce Devereux:

Watching the Piano Phase documentary, it's visually apparent that I'm watching the duo Monica and Anna, but I could feel a third presence, almost trio like. The architecture felt like such a significant part of their performance. And it made me wonder if the MO architecture influenced their decision to be their first location to perform Piano Phase.

Anna Szalucka:

The idea just came to us when we went to visit MO Museum, just for an exhibition, a summer before. "Let's play Piano Phase in here." It was like an obvious choice that we should perform that piece in this museum. So definitely the building and the atmosphere of the venue inspired us to play this particular piece. It was just a very organic thought process. And everything just happened from there and it seemed like a natural decision.

Monika Masanauskaite:

The architecture itself is so inspiring and somehow once you are in the museum, something happens and you really get inspired. And Anna got inspired and she said, "Let's do this." And we just wrote this project and suddenly we had funds to actually do it. And then it actually became scary because it's funny how idea kind of developed only once we wrote about it. So very often as artists, as musicians, we kind of avoid this part of the job. Writing projects and looking for funding. But I felt that the whole process of looking for funds actually made the idea much more clear in our own head heads.

Anna Szalucka:

I wanted to play the Piano Phase already for some time. I was thinking about it for maybe three, four years. And it was very hard to find a partner to do it because it's a very difficult piece and there is not many opportunities to perform it. So people, they were always nice about it, but they were always saying like, "Oh, do you want to play it?" Or, "It's great, but maybe not."

Monika Masanauskaite:

I think that things happen when two or more right people appear to be in the same place. And I think it was like a coincidence that we, with Anna, decided to visit the MO museum because for me, it was also the first time I visited it. And I'm guessing you know this [inaudible 00:08:08], when you are living in a certain city, for example now I live in Vienna, but there are museums which I've never been. So it was the same with MO and once I saw the architecture and how everything is built and created, she suggested it. And I didn't know the piece. And I just said, "Yes, of course." So it was really funny to later on realize to what I said yes. I said yes before knowing what I will do. But sometimes maybe it's even better because if I would have known, maybe the whole project would have turned to be a bit different.

Bruce Devereux:

All the visual design elements of the production appear so integrated. The color palette, the piano layout, the performers' outfits, and the beautifully simple head adornments were coordinated by a well known Lithuanian designer and captured beautifully by a very skilled photographer.

Monika Masanauskaite:

the most famous Lithuanian designer, he did an exhibition of his artworks in the MO Museum already before our performance. He actually listened to the music beforehand and the music inspired him and he immediately had an answer how it should be.

Anna Szalucka:

So yeah, it seemed very natural for him as well. We just came, he looked at us, he was like, "Oh, okay." So we did it like that. So it seemed very effortless for him to style us this way.

Monika Masanauskaite:

I consider him one of the greatest, talented artists of the whole Lithuania. With two little accessories, he made us to be part of the architecture, which I think is just crazy when you think about it. And then after the meeting with him, we also felt very different about the piece and about the whole installation. I think two weeks until the whole project, we didn't really know if we can do it because it was still locked down in Lithuania. And we were actually in quarantine in Lithuania.

Monika Masanauskaite:

Everything fell into their own spaces. We didn't really know the people around us so well, but somehow we contacted the right people. I wrote to maybe eight photographers and no one replied. And then there was one photographer who replied. And it's actually a very funny story because I was participating in a Lithuanian competition a couple of years ago. And I picked a number which was very early in the morning. And unfortunately that photographer missed my performance so I didn't have a single picture from that competition. And then somehow I contacted him and I said, "Maybe this time you can actually come and make pictures." And then he said, "Of course." So it became a joke. And those pictures are the most wonderful, which actually represent really well the installation and the architecture. So I think we were really lucky and we are surrounded by people who are creative and willing to contribute to something great.

Bruce Devereux:

Surrounded by creativity, Monica and Anna stepped out of their usual classical music arena to perform a piece that can be challenging to understand what is exactly happening during Piano Phase. And a simple and clear description of the process frames it beautifully

Anna Szalucka:

To put it simply, we have one melody and one of the pianists, because this is a piece for two pianos, one of the pianists is playing this melody many times and the other pianist joins in. So that for some time, two pianists are playing at the same time, the same melody, which is called unison. So we play in unison and at a certain time after, let's say half a minute, one of the pianists starts phasing, which means they start going just ever so slightly faster than the other pianist who is keeping the same speed. And doing that with this process, we desynchronize for some time, as long as possible so that at some point we arrive at the moment where the pianist who was speeding up is one note ahead. And this is the new pattern. And we repeated that process many times until we completed the full circle until we arrive at unison once again. So we keep on getting one note apart, one note. And then of course it becomes three notes apart, five notes apart. So it is a very brainwashing piece, if I may say so.

Monika Masanauskaite:

When you think about it, it's actually very three, four simple motives, but it's so crazy how much you can actually create with one idea. So I think that this is why the composers, Steve Reich, is a genius because when you think about it, it's very uncomplicated, but in a way, so creatively done.

Bruce Devereux:

And it's interesting. Anna had mentioned about desynchronizing. And as classical musicians, when you perform your pieces, everything is about hitting the note and hitting it at exactly the same time. So it would seem that this type of piece, especially, Monica, you weren't as familiar with it as Anna in the beginning, would almost create this loss of control. Did you ever feel that? This getting away from me or did you have that sensation?

Monika Masanauskaite:

Yes. A lot. And I think I can answer this because like the recording, what you heard, I was the pianist who was facing, but since in the documentary talk about it that we were not really sure which pianist, either me or Anna, should phase because we were not so secure to know who is better. So we decided that in the beginning, in the first half of the day, it will be Anna and then second half of the day, me. And in the recording I was phasing. So normally the danger is for the pianist who is phasing because as you said, Bruce, it's very hard to be in that discomfort. And I think I already mentioned it for you that philosophically I always thought, wow, this piece has this meaning, which is how to learn to be in the discomfort because everything is about being in discomfort.

Monika Masanauskaite:

And what Steve Reich explains, because there is this paper full A4 paper with the explanations, how to practice, what to think about, what it should sound. And also very interesting, because if we go a bit earlier, we don't have these things from composers. We have some markings on the scores, but such a precise way of how to practice, what should be the process, no one writes that. And he does it. And it's very interesting to actually see what he thought. And the idea was to be in that discomfort and that desynchronized phase as long as possible. So of course it's very hard because you want to push yourself to find that stable point where you can hold on something.

Anna Szalucka:

And also rehearsing, which was supposed to be over several weeks, according to his guidelines. And we had literally two days to squeeze the rehearsals because of course originally we were scheduling rehearsals before the project. So we thought that maybe I would travel to Vienna or Monica would travel to London so that we can rehearse, but it was not possible because of the travel restrictions. So, it was really, really crazy. So the phasing felt even more uncontrollable in these circumstances.

Bruce Devereux:

So feeling the loss of control is one thing, but how did you both maintain the physical and mental stamina to carry on these nine performances over the five days?

Monika Masanauskaite:

It was really difficult on the second day. And I think on the third day when I was playing, I thought like, "Oh my God, how will I do this for two more days?" I remember that moment I was playing and I thought like, "I can't hear the music. I don't hear the fragment anymore."

Anna Szalucka:

It was very, very hard. It was definitely quite tough.

Monika Masanauskaite:

And I feel almost that I will stand and go away, but I kept playing and I went through. But it's funny how you think that in music, it happens. You would think that it might happen to a runner or a swimmer, but for a musician it's the same. I constantly speak with sports psychologists about being on stage and performing. And she exactly said that the third day is that day when it's mostly difficult. And if you can go through that, your body adapts and then you can keep going. And actually that happened. On the fourth day, I was like, "Oh, I could actually do 20 more."

Bruce Devereux:

This piece is obviously so radically different than your regular classical concerts. How would you describe the difference and how did it make you feel when you were performing it?

Anna Szalucka:

Well, it is very different from other classical pieces that I've played in my life because there isn't the issue about text because the text really doesn't exist. It's the same melody, three different patterns, more or less the same melody. So this struggle with the text, "Oh, I'm going to a different key or I'm going to a different part of the performance of the piece," this is just eliminated. And the struggle is something completely different. Can I be stable? Can I be mechanical? Can I keep on phasing? Can I be the desynchronized really? So it's like the opposite of performing any kind of mainstream classical music piece. And that's why it was so interesting. And we've learned so much, I think, because it was just a completely new approach to music for me.

Monika Masanauskaite:

Yeah. I couldn't add anymore. In a way it's very liberating that you don't have to constantly think about all those things we think when we play classical music. And I think, for example, like now Anna is playing that concert tomorrow and she has to play by memory. These things are really difficult for a pianist. And I think somehow that piece gives you that freedom, which we often don't have as more conservative classical musicians. So I think if we take any other art, it's great if you do something different and it's great if you do something completely out of the box, but then since classical music is so restricted in a way, and it's not that I'm creating something new, but I'm just trying to do the best interpretation of an old piece.

Monika Masanauskaite:

And as always, there are these people that you shouldn't do something against the score. You should always follow what is written. But then on the other hand, how do I create a new thing? And I think what happens is classical music is so restricted, so then we, as classical music performers, we are so scared to do something different because if we do something different, we immediately stand out as being different. So I think it's also the specification of the field itself.

Bruce Devereux:

As you both described, Piano Phase is a very different experience than when you perform say a piece by Ravel or Beethoven. But I would also imagine that the experience with the audience was also very different for both of you.

Monika Masanauskaite:

It's very interesting because at some point we didn't have that much audience. Because very often in the museum, you don't feel obliged that you must see all pictures hanging on the walls. Sometimes you just are too tired maybe to do that. You don't have enough time so you just see something and you go home. So I think for us, it was also in a way less formal and we didn't feel so observed. We also felt a little bit more free from being on stage and that someone is staring at you and you know you shouldn't do any mistakes. So I think it was both ways, very, very nice.

Bruce Devereux:

As a result of the Piano Phase Project, the amount of work that both of you contributed, obviously, it seems that you've not only grown as creative collaborators, but also that you've developed a strong friendship in this process.

Anna Szalucka:

Our friendship was pretty deep already before we started the project because I think we bonded a lot a year before when I got stuck in Lithuania because of lockdown. And I lived with Monica and her parents for five weeks in Kaunas because I couldn't leave Kaunas. So I think we were already good friends by then. But of course, because of the project and this crazy idea we had, we stayed in touch regularly. This one performance is not the end of things. This is just the beginning. We want to take this much, much further in the future. So I think it's just a kind of inevitable consequence that our friendship will be growing. And I mean consequence in a good sense.

Anna Szalucka:

For me, working with Monica is so easy and so natural, we just don't really have problems or fights about who's doing what or organizing or scheduling anything. Just whoever has time takes a little bit more responsibility or whatever. Everyone just does their best. And this is just the best part of it. To know that we can be friends and we can party together and get stuck on the highway together and have a good time. And also we can just do some great things and work together efficiently. I think this is very rare. I must have done something good in my previous life.

Monika Masanauskaite:

I just wanted to say that I think the greatest thing from this project, of course we were friends before, but as Anna said, to find that person who is like-minded and has a similar style of work ethic, it's very hard. And especially it's hard among musicians because we don't learn how to plan our time correctly. We don't learn to respect other people's time. It's hard to put ourselves in certain frames, and work frames, I would say.

Monika Masanauskaite:

And when you think about these projects, the playing is the last thing. Even the last thing was to go to Lithuania and to actually bring the pianos. The biggest part is to write the project, to find the money, to contact all the people, to talk with the media, this is the hardest part. And I think this is why actually many of us, many musicians, struggle because we ignore this part and then things don't happen. So I think it's really funny that sometimes we think that art is all about being artistic and free, but actually it's about incredible discipline and motivation, and just sitting and writing and putting those ideas into a certain frame.

Bruce Devereux:
How do you feel other classical musicians will relate to this piece of work that you've done?

 

Anna Szalucka:

I don't know actually because we haven't done market research of what people actually think about it, but my intuition tells me that there will be people within classical music region who already think forward, and they are not surprised by it at all. They find it an organic part of the development of classical music scene. And there will be a lot of people. And I would say they are a majority who justdon't really relate to it. For them, something like this will be perhaps something strange, perhaps undignified, or not significant.

Monika Masanauskaite:

It's a very good question because I feel especially, probably for Anna, she is four years older than me. I think you are 30. Right? So I think we are getting close to this place in our lives and we understand what do we do with this performing career and where do we go and can we keep repeating the same repertoire, can we keep repeating the same pieces we play? And when you think about it about this project, it's not that it's something new, it's just a piece which was written some time ago already. But at the same time, we just created a new way of presenting this piece, making an installation and suddenly it became a new presentation of the piece. So on one hand, I think we need this change for ourselves, and we really look for it.

Monika Masanauskaite:

And I think the question, when you asked how would my colleagues see this, and one side of my personality says I don't care. I just go and I do it. And I wish I could feel like this, but at the same time I care and I care because I will have to work with them and they will be people who might help me or we might collaborate together. So of course it's very important how they see it. So I'm always torn. I'm always torn a little bit because I feel like I have certain ideas, but I'm very scared to do it because I feel like my colleagues might see me from a bad angle or something like that.

Monika Masanauskaite:

But on the other hand, they will not be my audience. So this is a very big question because it feels like then I'm doing art just for my audience. So I think it's a very interesting topic. And probably for you as a listener and probably for you as a person who doesn't come from classical music, it's also very interesting to see. So I wonder what you think about this, because this feels like we are circling in this little circle that we play for each other almost, and we do projects for each other. All these big piano competitions, it's also made for the jury and the jury is not my audience actually. So I wonder what you think as a listener about it.

Bruce Devereux:

For me, it was the experience. The museum, the visual design, your relationship with each other, and the uniqueness of the Piano Phase piece, and the apparent willingness to take a chance to create change, to present something new. Listening to you speak about the process, you obviously didn't know exactly where it would take you or how it was going to unfold for you. You mentioned earlier, I think, that you both didn't know what would happen. And exactly that happened. To me it reinforces the belief that when you start a project and you feel you know exactly what is going to happen, why bother doing the project? You're not creating something new at that point, but when you go into the project, not really knowing what's going to happen, that's when it gets exciting.

Monika Masanauskaite:

I didn't think about that. That's a very nice way to put that.

Bruce Devereux:

I feel you both really accomplished that with this piece, the documentary, and I really view both of you as change makers. Taking your skills and your talents and musical experiences and inspiring people to listen in a different way.

Anna Szalucka:

It's very nice to hear this kind of feedback. We really welcome feedback from anyone who wants to give us feedback. Because when you are doing it, when you're organizing it, it doesn't feel that great or that significant. It just feels like a lot of little things you have to do. You have to go to the shop and buy these things, or deal with that piano rental. It just doesn't seem that grandiose. But then actually when the project happens and you talk about it and you make it accessible for people, then you start realizing how big of a change that is. And I think we felt it very much. I think some conversations that we have driving back from [inaudible 00:31:43] after each performance day, were really invaluable for me. The thoughts we had, I think we were really inspired and our creativity was just so pumped up. So that was really great. And from that perspective, it really does feel like a change.

Monika Masanauskaite:

Yes, I think in the beginning, we ourselves didn't really get if this is an important thing we are doing. Will it change something to us? I think we really didn't know what we are doing. We were just, "Let's do it." And I think it's also very funny how sometimes the ideas become something once you do something. So I think what Anna means that we had those hyped conversations, creative conversations, just because we were doing something. We were creating something and we were in this unknown zone for us, and then ideas come to you. So I think what we also learned from this, that only by doing you can achieve something and you can get that inspiration to do more things.

Bruce Devereux:

Okay. So what's next then for the two of you?

Anna Szalucka:

So at the moment we are trying to organize one performance in London and we already have some things in mind. So hopefully we will be coming to London sometime soon. And what's going to happen for sure is going to be the next installation in MO Museum again in June. So exactly a year after. And this time we are going to play The Right of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. And we want to make our own arrangement, including the percussive instruments and dancers as well, live dancing. So we think it will be just very, very exciting. And it'll be just another stage for us with the music installations. Especially now after the Piano Phase installation, we just took this name and we will be using it in the future. So it just ultimately became a Piano Phase Project, regardless of the repertoire.

Monika Masanauskaite:

I just wanted to say that we had the idea to become only pianists or performers who perform in museums and doing installations. And I think this kind of limits us a little bit. But we want to keep that Piano Phase Project and also play another repertoire, but kind of creating installations rather than simple performances where people come for one time and then they leave. We want to become part of the space for some time. We don't want to be a single thing. We want to include us more to the art and the architecture of the building.

Anna Szalucka:

Ultimately, we will be branding ourselves as the Piano Phase Project. And this original idea about the museums, it's perhaps a little bit too limiting, but what we want. We want to just perform in unusual venues. So it doesn't have to be only the museum. It can be a school, it can be a train station. Just anywhere where we can make it accessible for regular people. Maybe people who don't go to classical music concerts. So who knows? Maybe one day we will perform in some kind of concert hall. But this is not our main idea at the moment. We are looking for unusual spaces where a lot of people come in, they come and go, and they can just observe us and be a part of the installation as if we are some kind of exhibition or a painting or just a part of the room. A part of the space.

Monika Masanauskaite:

Also for us with Piano Phase Project it was very important that we felt that we are not so much egoistic performers. It felt that we were part of the space and the music and the art was actually the center of the whole installation and not us or the quality of our playing. Of course, it's very important, but I think since we constantly practice every day the classical music pieces, we become so self-centered that we very often forget about the public, forget about surroundings.

Monika Masanauskaite:

For example, very recently I spoke with one actress and we talked about connection with public and audience. And we were talking about my performance and she asked, "Okay, so how do you want the audience to feel?" And then I realized that I don't think about the audience. I just only think how well can I perform the piece. But when you think about it, it's really wrong because I'm performing for people. So I think this project really allowed us to remember that we want to be inclusive and we want to include and not only think about our own technique or the way we play.

Monika Masanauskaite:

We cannot say that the old tradition of classical music is worthless. It's not. It's a way. It is a style of art and we really appreciate it. But at some point it makes you a little bit stuck, I would say. At least it made me a little bit. And I think this is why this project was born. And because I think Anna was a little bit stuck as well.

Bruce Devereux:

In the beginning of the episode, I was wondering how both of you felt while you were sitting at the keys before you started Piano Phase. How did you feel at the end of Piano Phase when you knew that you had completed the project?

Monika Masanauskaite:

We felt victory because it's toward the end, we realized that for the first time we actually did everything how we wanted. And then the whole idea that it was ninth performance. It was recording, the only recording we have, and we had this only one opportunity. So it had to be good and it was good. And this was such an incredible and powerful moment that I think this actually made us so happy and so empowered. I think this is why Anna let herself dance.

Bruce Devereux:

It was such a great experience to spend these last three weekends in November with Monica and Anna while we pieced together the story of Piano Phase at the MO Museum in Lithuania. As always the links for all we chatted about today will be available in the podcast description and on my website. Having the opportunity to support these two great artists has been incredibly rewarding. I'm hoping that you feel the same. Projects such as Piano Phase take time, talent, effort, and financial resources to make it happen. So if you feel you'd like to contribute even a small amount to Anna and Monica to support their next project in June of 2022, and who knows, maybe they'll be in your part of the world one day, just click on the fundraising link for buymeacoffee.com and search Piano Phase. Thanks again. And see you in 2022.