Giving Warsaw Its Sound Back: An Interview with Noam Zylberberg
small, Noam Zylberberg, photo: Grzegorz Domański, courtesy of the artist, center, noam_zylberberg.jpg
‘It was an exciting time in music history – there was nothing to base these songs on. The result was something simple but not simplistic. That’s what I love about it,’ says Noam Zylberberg. The musician, who is performing Polish pieces written and composed in the interwar period, told us about the sound he is trying to resurrect.
Noam Zylberberg studied conducting at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. He became fascinated with interwar Polish music and established Mała Orkiestra Dancingowa, which has played concerts in Poland and abroad. Their first album was released this year.
Juliette Bretan: So let’s start from the beginning. Where do your links to Poland come from?
Noam Zylberberg: My grandparents were born in Warsaw but left Poland in 1934. They were young. They wanted to follow their ideals and reinvent themselves. My grandmother’s family were Warsaw people going back many generations and so Warsaw has always been present in my life.
JB: When did you begin to become more involved with Poland and Polish culture?
NZ: I became curious after my grandparents passed away – I was still very young, but I began wondering about their pasts. They never spoke Polish at home, but I’d heard about their lives and families in Warsaw. This fascination followed me into my student years and still does till this day.
JB: Did your interest in interwar Polish music begin from that period?
NZ: Not really; It was a long time until I discovered this music. It all started through an interesting family connection – one of my grandmother’s cousins, Tadeusz Raabe, was a friend of Antoni Słonimski’s. Tadeusz was from a wealth background – his family owned a factory. When World War I broke out, they had to leave to Russia. During those years, Tadeusz spent time in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. That was when he discovered their modern art cafés and avant-garde culture – which didn’t exist in Poland at all. Back then, Poland was in the midst of the Young Poland movement; art was very serious and patriotic. So when Tadeusz returned home, he opened the first modern art café in the city with Antoni Słonimski, who in turn brought with him Julian Tuwim. This was the famous Pod Picadorem cafe.
Later he also married a well-known singer and movie star, Tola Mankiewiczówna. When I first learned about this, her name meant nothing to me. I found a video online of her singing the tango Odrobinę Szczęścia w Miłości. If I’m honest, I wasn’t that taken by it – it’s a video of her dressed as a maid, shining a shoe. and at that time I didn’t understand Polish so I didn’t know what she was singing about.
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JB: And when were you taken by these songs?
NZ: I gradually became more familiar with these songs, and as I started to learn about different individuals and pieces I began to think that it would be cool to do something with them, though I didn’t exactly know what. There was something special about these pieces. I was interested in the sound – it’s such a specific sound of the 1920s and 1930s.
The main genre of this style is the Tango. It was popular all over Europe in the early years of the 20th century, but its life in Warsaw was longer than abroad, Tango was being danced to in Warsaw in the 1920s, but it was only towards the end of that decade that the local musicians began composing them. The first initiative was taken by Jerzy Petersburski and his cousins, the Gold brothers.
JB: What makes a tango Polish?
It’s difficult to answer the question of what makes a Polish tango. I don’t know if I have a good answer, but I suppose there’s a certain softness; the basics of tango are there, but everything else is from a different world. There’s a different warmth to it; it’s less aggressive.
One good example of a Polish tango is O Piękna Nieznajoma. It’s split into two parts – a chorus and an interlude. It’s very soft and lyrical, there’s an elegant countermelody in the background; it’s very sophisticated. It sounds almost like an aria from a Puccini opera. When the intersection comes, it’s like a reminder– ‘this is tango!’. That part is as if not connected to the rest of the song, and when the main theme returns. you can almost forget that it’s really a tango: the only thing that suggests tango at the beginning is the rhythm, like an engine in the background. Everything else is water.
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JB: And what about the multicultural aspects of Poland back then – the mix of Poles and Jews and Ukrainians and other minorities?
NZ: It was multicultural – but they were all Poles. They all spoke the same language. Most of the Jewish composers and musicians came from assimilated families. They may have come from different backgrounds, but they shared similar values. Almost all of them were professional musicians and they all received classical musical education.
They knew what they were doing – if they used a Jewish sounding motive, it was done deliberately. The same way they also wrote songs in Spanish style about Spain, even though most of them probably hadn’t been there – for the audience, going to the cabarets and the theatres was their way of travelling and accessing something exotic.
They worked quickly. A piece composed one morning could be played the same evening. If something didn’t work the way they’d hoped, they could change it the next day. This way of work is like experimenting in a laboratory. This allowed a new style to take shape relatively quickly. They were even writing for particular musicians, basing their arrangements on who would be in the band on any particular day. One day, they might have three clarinets – so they would arrange the piece for them. The next day, they might have one – and so the next arrangement would be different.
The specific musicians and instruments played a big role in shaping this style. This is what differed it from early pop music played in Berlin or London at the same time.
JB: How were the instruments different?
NZ: A good example is the Hawaiian guitar, which features in so many songs from the period. The main musician playing it was a man called Wiktor Tychowski – he was crazy about the Hawaiian guitar. It’s actually him playing it in a lot of these recordings – the other musicians probably liked working with him – it featured so much that eventually it became a characteristic of the style. Tychowski was just one person but he left a mark – each of these individuals had influence.
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JB: And what was the next step for you?
NZ: I spent a lot of time getting to know the style and the people, and then I went through the songs online and made transcriptions of them. Still in Tel Aviv, My idea was to collect a group of people together to play Polish tangos and have dance parties…you know, a very underground scene, playing in a dark basement with hipsters who don’t even look you in the eye – that kind of thing.
Eventually, I never actually set it up. Instead I started travelling to and from Warsaw and met up with some musicians in the city – and one day I just stayed. I spent my time making transcriptions and preparing scores – mostly tangos at that stage.
JB: So you said you transcribe these songs to be able to perform them?
NZ: Yes. When we talk about style, a lot of it has to do with instrumentation. The notes that were published and were available to the public have all the harmonic and melodic information, but don’t include any instrumentation, so they’re not helpful for playing in the original style. So I use old recordings and transcribe them.
We try to follow the stylistic traditions of the time – it will never be 100% the same and that’s not what we want. We’re different people living in a different world and we’re not interested in imitation. But we try to think about it in similar terms to those in which they were thinking when they created it.
For example, the instruments didn’t change that much, but the technique and approach did. Back then violin players tended to use a lot of portamento – sliding from note to note. But today this is considered bad playing. I can’t ask my violinists to completely change their technique, but I want them to know about it. I want them to be informed; to listen and understand why it sounds the way it sounds.
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JB: Do you think this music is coming back into fashion? There seem to be a lot of performers like you whose repertoires include these songs.
NZ: Yes, but each group is doing it differently. There’s room for everyone.
JB: Has this sound always been here, or did it dissipate in 1939?
NZ: In the late 1940s, for a few more years, you could still hear reminiscences of the style in Warsaw. But most of the musicians of the previous generation were gone by then – some perished in the war and other immigrated soon after – and the sound changed. The style back then was based on people, they made it the way it was.
JB: So what about those who survived and kept playing and singing – the best example being, of course, Mieczysław Fogg?
NZ: Fogg’s style changed– you could even say he was a different singer between the 1930s and the 1970s.
What Fogg did – what we owe him for the most – was to be a symbol. Because he was here he became a symbol of old Warsaw. Some musicians who stayed couldn’t find themselves in the new world. But after the war Fogg recorded the songs from the 1920s and 1930s in new versions. The songs Fogg didn’t record are mostly forgotten, and those he recorded are the ones we remember. He’s responsible for that.
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JB: So what made the interwar period special?
NZ: It was a peculiar and interesting time all over the world, and it was the beginning of pop culture. Before, there had been serious and folk music – but not pop. The world was changing quickly, technological advances and changes in the social structure changed the way people lived. Suddenly you have recording, and films that need music, and cities were getting larger. It was the first time in history when people had money and time and wanted to have fun. Consumers of culture grew, so there was a need for music.
This music had to be invented. There were questions – ‘How do you write a pop song?’ ‘how long should it be?’ ‘how should you sing one’
Many of the early songs just don’t work anymore; they’re not relevant and no one speaks this way, so they can’t connect. But things changed – there was an influx of artists, many from Lwów (today Lviv), who could create charming rhymes and simple feelings.
JB: And how are your performances taking this into account? Are you performing at the moment?
NZ: There is still more to do – there always is. We perform at SPATiF regularly, and we have the album, which was produced with the support of Polish Radio.
Almost all of our musicians come from a classical background – they’re a bunch of people who are interested in exploring . None of them grew up with these sounds. This style is not natural for modern musicians. So we have to think – ‘how do we achieve this?’ so even just the way of thinking about the notes was something that we had to work out together.
One point is swing. Today, everyone knows what swing sounds like, but back then it as something new and unnatural. When we started rehearsing, it sounded more like New York in the 1950’s than Warsaw in the 1930s. We had to forget it. Even in concerts I’ll remind the musicians not to swing. When you start swinging in these songs, everything falls apart and that engine dies. The piece gets heavier – it should be light.
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JB: And do you have any favourite pieces?
NZ: One song which is close to me is Codziennie Inna, which opens our album.
It wasn’t part of our original repertoire – but we had a concert in SPATiF and a couple of the musicians were running a little late. Eventually we couldn’t wait any more so, in the meantime, I decided I would teach everyone a song. The orchestra didn’t know it either. They caught the melody and the audience quickly learned the lyrics. By the end, everyone was singing together – it was a great experience.
These songs were a part of this city; these melodies were once hummed in the streets – but then they disappeared. When we did that concert with Codziennie Inna – the audience sang it 20 times. I’m sure it stuck in their heads. Some of them may have even hummed it to themselves on the street the next day.
It’s giving the city back its sounds.