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In Extremis

Spiritual Modernism: Rafał Iwański Of HATI & X-Navi:Et Interviewed
Rory Gibb , March 26th, 2014 06:42

The mesmerising music of Rafał Iwański, both in his long-running duo HATI and solo as X-Navi:Et, channels his fascination with percussive and ritual instruments and trance states. Ahead of his performance at Unsound New York as half of Kapital, he speaks to Rory Gibb about resonance, improvisation and the sounds of the cosmos

Photo by Agnieszka Janik

Rafał Iwański makes music preoccupied with space and silence, with opening room for the mind to meander. These sensations recur across his varied range of projects, from the ritual percussion workouts of his long-running duo HATI and the strung-out post-industrial drones of his solo work as X-Navi:Et, to recent wider collaborative groups Innercity Ensemble and Kapital. What binds them all together is a shared will towards open-minded exploration, a characteristic that makes them a joy to listen to; both his compositions and improvisation-based recordings feel fluid, searching and open-ended, always hinting towards multiple possible pathways as they gradually unfold.

I first came across Iwański's work in the middle of last year, when I was sent a copy of HATI's reissued early album Zero Coma Zero/Recycled Magick Emissions - a collection of sparse and meditative instrumentals, clearly inspired by ritual music and gamelan, played on a wide collection of global percussive instruments: animal horns, bamboo pipes, Tibetan bells, cymbals and gongs. But it was in the live arena that it came to life, with Iwański's performance with HATI last December at London's annual Jazz & Experimental Music From Poland festival among the year's most memorable. Normally a duo with Rafal Kolacki, due to unexpected circumstances Iwański was performing solo, and he cut a dynamic, ceaselessly moving figure onstage. Crouched behind an array of gongs, bells and hand-crafted noise-making equipment, he rattled around the kit, interweaving drawn-out resonant tones with salvos of metallic ticks and insectoid clicks. It was an involving performance, and enough to lull the sparse crowd into dazed attention - sufficient enough, in fact, to trigger one audience member to collapse abruptly to the floor halfway through, breaking the spell and temporarily bringing the set to a halt while they were revived.

Outside the predominantly hand-played acoustic instrumentation of HATI - who have also collaborated with US artists including Z'EV and John Zorn - Iwański's solo work as X-Navi:Et works more extensively with electronics. His latest album Dead City Voice collects a series of lovely, dynamic pieces that toy with ambience, synthesis, environmental sound and distortion, and his two Voices Of The Cosmos albums with Electric Uranus take that aesthetic further, using radio telescope recordings of pulsars and solar emissions to form the music's foundations.

Based in Toruń, Poland, Iwański also collaborates with a wider range of artists from the Polish music community. His duo Kapital, a collaboration with Stara Rzeka's Kuba Ziolek, have just released their debut album No New Age, a thrilling, scorched collision of molten guitar and electronics. Both are also founding members of Innercity Ensemble, a seven-strong improvisation-based collective whose new double album II is one of 2014's best so far, launching from foundations in jazz and psych rock into an impulsive, rhythmically restless trip across stylistically varied terrain.

Iwański's route into music began when he came across punk rock as a young teenager in the late 1980s. He started to play the guitar, both alone and in bands with school friend Darek Wojtaś, with whom he would later form Hati. The political situation in Poland began changing rapidly around that time, following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. This, he recalls, "also gave us the opportunity to discover thousands of new bands, like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, SPK, Chrome, This Heat, Laibach and also older great stuff: Gong, Soft Machine, Can, Faust, Hawkwind and of course Miles Davis, especially his 1968-1975 period. We also listened to Polish psychedelic groups based on ethnic and acoustic instruments like Osjan or Atman. I remember Atman's concert in Toruń in 1994 was like a religious revelation for me." These discoveries led Iwański further into both industrial music and contemporary composition, which would later come to inform his studies of ethnomusicology and his own music-making with HATI and beyond.

When and why did you decide to form HATI? What is the underlying concept behind the project?

Rafał Iwański: HATI was founded by me and Darek Wojtaś in the last days of 2001. It was then that we started to play together again, after a three year break in our collaboration. But we hadn't wasted that time, because we'd listened to hundreds of albums of ethnic music and also studied books which were very influential, including ones by Peter Michael Hamel, Curt Sachs and John Cage. In 2002 we started to play intensively in our new rehearsal space, and had our first recording sessions in 2003. At the beginning HATI was rather a studio project, and we were strongly influenced by ethnic music from Asia, mostly gamelan music, Tibetan sacred music and some aspects of shamanism. It's a strange story, but after making narcotic post-industrial music in the 1990s, we started to play meditative and intuitive music, on gongs, percussion, wind instruments and so on.

We were deeply interested in exploring acoustic sound. I must say that in the first years of our activity it was kind of an obsession, discipline and clear path. Our plan was to work towards discovering new instruments and sound phenomena only in the acoustic area. And it felt as though all the spaces in which we played and recorded - for example long halls in empty factories or churches - were like instruments too, resonating very well with our acoustic constructions. Year after year we became more and more active, especially when we decided to play concerts, which was probably the strongest and most important experience in our musical life, because playing for people is an amazing thing. It's been very valuable to us, collecting all these very different influences over the years. And the clear white light hit us the day we discovered Z'EV's two albums from the 1990s, Opus 3.1 and Ghost Stories.

Innercity Ensemble and HATI at Jazz & Experimental Music From Poland, London, December 2013

With HATI you use a huge range of instruments from many different traditions around the world. When did you first become interested in global percussion instruments and gongs, and what attracted you to start playing them?

RI: Shamans from Asia, Aboriginal Australians, Papuans of New Guinea, Z'EV, La Monte Young and other people were responsible for that! In the last years of the 1990s we sold all our guitars, amplifiers and drum kits, and started collecting oriental gongs, bells and gongs prepared from scrap metal objects, drums, rattles and other percussion, and archaic woodwind instruments. Every piece of metal with a good resonating sound was interesting for us. As we were getting into gongs from Thailand or China and wind instruments like ligawki - wooden long horns from eastern parts of Poland - or self-made horns, we found we had paranormal hearing experiences of a cosmic music full of overtones, weaving splendid sound. This was, and still is, a way to conscious listening, something greater than hearing. The other big attraction [for us] is to use these instruments in a non-traditional way - for example, one of the most interesting things is to prepare instruments using chains or other materials, special sticks, superballs, etc. Working with scrap metal and found objects is very important to us too. Sometimes we play our gongs like pieces of sheet metal, and on the other hand we imagine scrap metal as being like sacred gongs. Sometimes we rebuild original instruments. So, it's not a New Age sort of approach, as some people have thought...

In 1999 I began to study ethnology at the University Of Nicolaus Copernicus in Toruń, because I was so strongly fascinated with ethnic music. Through these studies I've developed my interests connected with ethnomusicology, musical instruments and the theory and practice of contemporary music. Finally, after five years, my final thesis concerned the impact of oriental and non-European influences in the practise and theory of 20th century composers' music. I also took part in workshops learning how to play traditional African percussion instruments. I was influenced by the 20th century avant-garde composers like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Harry Partch or Steve Reich. All this music and philosophy has always been a big inspiration for us, but we never wanted to simply play ethnic music from, for example, Indonesia or Japan. We were interested in integration of tribal and ancient music with the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, following goals delineated by our favorite composers and musicians.

By the way, I met Rafał Kołacki [the second current member of Hati] when we studied ethnology in the early 2000s, and in 2005-2006 we gradually started to play with him as a trio. Then in the middle of 2007, Dariusz Wojtaś decided he didn't want to play with us anymore. Since that time HATI has been a duo, and only sometimes a trio with other session musicians.

The original functions of these instruments - for example bells and gongs - are often as aids to meditation and trance-like states. Is this something you wish to explore with your music, the bringing of body and mind to these states of focus and trance?

RI: There is big potential to induce trance states. You can even say that the sound and rhythm of music is itself a device for creating a trance state. For example when improvising on gongs, which emit a huge spectrum of overtones, you can experience something like a dip in the sound. Physical contact with these acoustic instruments, listening, concentration, instant moving, drumming or blowing - all of these induce trance. The same is true of playing in places with various acoustic conditions, sometimes fantastic, sometimes worse. The acoustics of the room and the sound in space, what other musicians are doing, how the audience is responding – all these parameters help in changing the state of mind and body, and in focusing on a process of transformation in your mind and body. Playing acoustic instruments with the approach of a meditation or ritual is one of the oldest forms of human cultural activity. And it caught our attention in the original features of the music. But listening comes first.

Do you see there being an aspect of spirituality to the HATI project?

RI: In the music of East and West we look for elements of the common, of the universal. Largely this means reinventing what traditional cultures have been long aware of. Reinventing spirituality... Spirituality, ritual, meditation – these aspects existed from the very beginning of HATI, and are unbreakable. This is the foundation of music and art in general. Every concert is something special - a ritual. We have met artists who have a very spiritual approach to music, like the group Halo Manash from Finland and Z'EV, who is connected with the occult. Let me quote a few sentences from the foreword to his great book Rhythmajik, Practical Uses of Number, Rhythm and Sound: "To enter into the mythical dimension is to enter into an ecstatic space and time of unity. Contact with this dimension can heal and transform. Refusing to acknowledge this dimension is one of the causes of the Western malaise." These words are not nonsense, maybe it's just the truth, which is not easy to prove in these post-modern times. I think I'm a modernist. Maybe a spiritual modernist.

HATI in 2005 (Iwański/Wojtaś). Photo by Agata Kowalczyk

Seeing you play live, you're very physical as a performer, always moving and shifting between lots of different instruments to create an always-changing array of sounds. Do these live performances involve a lot of improvisation? Or are they carefully composed in advance?

RI: That's a good question. Improvisation is always an integral aspect of our concerts based on acoustic instruments - and the same is true when I play solo, though I want to add that in my life I've played a maximum of ten solo acoustic concerts - but it's not total free improvised music, because some fundamental ideas, patterns, techniques and compositions of sounds we play live are established earlier, during rehearsals and previous concerts. Let's say that all previous musical life acts as a base for improvisation, and we can build live performances on this knowledge and practice. So in this meaning, then, improvisation means modification. It's obvious to me that spontaneous creation and an intuitive approach are the beginnings of the music. It's always about the sound, to play the best sound. The most important thing is concentration, to understand that the action in the present moment is what really matters. And this concerns not only music-making. I want to know what this is – these sounds, all people, this place right here, this state of mind, right now. I've had the opportunity to play freely improvised music with other musicians we've met while touring Poland and other countries in Europe - such as Z'EV, John Zorn, Steve Buchanan, Heike Fiedler, American guitarist living in Poland Jeff Gburek, and the group PAS from New York - either onstage or in the studio. Sometimes it happened only once but it was very strong, and important for our musical experience.

The Polish musical community at the moment seems to be a great space for collaboration and sharing of ideas, with you playing solo and in Hati, but also in Kapital and Innercity Ensemble, with a range of other musicians. Does the experimental music community in Poland feel particularly strong at the moment? Or is it more accurate to say that there are a few particularly busy artists, that are involved in lots of different projects?

RI: In the last decade, I've had the opportunity to cooperate with more than twenty other musicians and sound artists from Poland, as both a solo artist and member of HATI and other bands. The Polish community of contemporary avant-garde, alternative rock and free improvised music is quite strong. Poland is not a small country, and there are musicians who started their activities in the 1970s, 80s and 90 and are still active, and younger musicians who emerged in the last fifteen years. So there are hundreds of interesting musicians, tens of specialised festivals and a dozen independent labels.

Since 2008, I've been a curator of CoCArt Music Festival, and since 2013 we've curated a series of concerts called :audioskopia: - both these initiatives are together with Rafał Kołacki of HATI. We organize this festival thanks to the cooperation and support from the Centre of Contemporary Art in Toruń. Every year we invite interesting and important artists from all over the world, and of course from Poland. And every month we get new proposals from older and new Polish artists who are interested in performing at our festival. It isn't possible to invite all of them. So, we know something about it. I know what I'm talking about...

Recent years have shown that community of avant-garde - or, if one prefers, post avant-garde - music in Poland is bigger and more expansive than even before, and yes, some of these artists are very busy – like for example Kuba Ziołek, Mirt, Piotr Kurek and Wilhelm Bras, and "older" musicians like Jerzy Mazzoll, Zenial, Emiter or Wojtek Kucharczyk, and many others.

All these interesting musical phenomena have developed within a couple of dozen years, especially during the last twenty years, more and more intensively. Maybe a historical context worth mentioning is a strong 'Polish electroacoustic music school' which first emerged at the end of the 1950s. So we do have a strong background here in Poland, a long tradition of experimental music.

What is the appeal for you, personally, of collaborating with a range of different musicians, for example in Innercity Ensemble? What lessons do you bring back to your own projects from these collaborations?

RI: It is always a revelation, playing onstage with other musicians. All the members of Innercity Ensemble are really experienced, and what is interesting is that we are from different musical worlds. I have a psychedelic rock and electroacoustic music background, plus more than ten years of playing acoustic music in HATI, so playing in bands like Innercity Ensemble is a continuation of things I've been doing for the last twenty years. It has even been a realisation of dreams about music I've always wanted to play but have had no-one to do it with or bands have broken up. For some of us this meeting resulted in further adventures of music in other directions, such as Kapital, my duet with Kuba. It is worthwhile to be open to other sounds and other musicians. And the collective playing in the supergroup as Innercity Ensemble is a great learning experience.

What is the dynamic of playing in Innercity Ensemble like - are there lots of shared ideas discussed before you start playing? Or do you simply start playing together, and pieces emerge from improvisation?

RI: Intelligent collective improvisation works here. However, in my opinion, improvisation as fruitful as this, and resulting in such interesting tracks, would not be possible if we didn't have the music in ourselves from over the years - these rhythms, patterns, themes, sounds. We talk a lot when we listen to our recorded sessions, and edit and mix them. But before we start recording, we're simply naturally inclined to it. We play until we drop and record the best moments. On our albums, we publish those golden moments.

You quote Hakim Bey in the artwork for the Kapital album - "...when capital is finally opposed with violence and the anger it deserves". Could you tell me about how these ideas are reflected in the project's music? What was the overall idea and concept behind the No New Age album?

RI: The duo Kapital was established in a very spontaneous way in April 2013, we were invited to perform a concert together so we needed to give the project a name, and after we played the concert at LDZ Festival, Grzegorz Tyszkiewicz of Bocian Records said he wanted to put out our debut album. After the recording session and playing further concerts, we've slowly discovered that Kapital is more a regular band than a one-off project.

I must say that the title of our debut album, the name of the band and also this part of the sentence you mention - these are very provocative words, full of meanings and possible interpretations. The same is true of the sounds with which we explore and compose. When we perform or work on our pieces, we don't think about these words and ideas, but sometimes we discuss them. We are not Marxists or anti-capitalists, but on the other hand we are conscious humans and we see the enormity of the problems of the modern world - for example capital, which is cumulative in the hands of corporations and groups of people who are in possession of it. This is not a new era, as some proclaim. This is No New Age! It is rather "a good old feudalism", or something like that. In Hakim Bey's essays we've discovered some strong visions, and also the writings of Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, William S. Burroughs and others. We are artists, let's say - musicians who read good books. I feel that a powerful message is hidden in this music.

The Voices Of The Cosmos project is a fascinating bringing together of art, music and science. Do you have an ongoing personal interest in science and space? When did you first come up with the idea to start using these signals received from telescopes and radio devices to craft music? And could you tell me about the process of making these compositions?

RI: The idea was born in 2009 during the International Year Of Astronomy, when we - myself and Wojtek Zięba, owner of post-industrial label Beast Of Prey - were invited to play solo electroacoustic shows as X-Navi:Et and Electric Uranus in the Planetarium in Grudziądz. During the night, conversations under the dome of the planetarium eventually resulted in the idea to do something together. Then Sebastian [Soberski, the Planetarium's manager] provided us with recordings of pulsars and the sun received with radio telescopes and other radio devices. We started working on pieces, each of us individually in our own home studios. In 2011 we released the album Voices Of The Cosmos, and played our first audiovisual show at a festival of arts and sciences, for a really big audience, behind a 32-metre radio telescope in Toruń Centre For Astronomy, and then played concerts in planetariums and scientific institutions in Poland and in several audio-visual festivals. Sebastian is always responsible for the creation of space visualisations and a scientific introduction before the concert.

Then between 2009 and 2013, we spent many hours listening, processing and playing along with sounds recorded from space - mostly pulsars and the Sun but also, more and more, the Aurora Borealis. The brightest pulsars are received by some of the largest radio telescopes in the world, and the radio telescope in Toruń is medium-sized. We decided to record a second album, and for this we met and recorded for several days in May 2013, at the planetarium in Grudziądz, to work in that exciting atmosphere. Along with four songs written individually, we very quickly wrote the album Voices of the Cosmos II.

Without a doubt, the recordings of the radio telescopes are very inspiring for contemporary sound artists: they are very raw, full of noises, you can detect their very regular rhythms. It's real cosmic music, especially when added to electronic sounds and effects, prepared using contact microphones and loops made from acoustic sources. When we take the radio signal of a pulsar converted into a sound wave, then we deal with a finished instrument that plays indefinitely. It seems to me that you can compare this experience of contact with ghosts or audio recordings of paranormal phenomena or EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena). It's very inspiring. On one hand there is excitement when not entirely sure what you'll hear, and on the other hand rationality and science. I often recall the words of a colleague Soberski: "when, dozens of years ago, we heard the pulsar from the radio telescope for the first time, astronomers thought that it sounded of an alien civilisation".

HATI's Wild Temple is out now on Monotype Records, X-Navi:Et's Dead City Voice is out now through Eter/Zoharum/Instant Classic. Innercity Ensemble's II has just been released through Instant Classic, and Kapital's No New Age is out now via Bocian Records/Sangoplasmo. For more, visit the HATI website.

Kapital play live at Unsound Festival's New York edition, on Sunday 6th April. For information and tickets, click here.