Martin Burlas: And do mention that I smile often (Interview)
From Unearthing The Music
I haven't enjoyed preparing for an interview as I have now for a long time. Composer Martin Burlas is one of the most prominent representatives of the Slovak music scene. His vast, four-decade-long portfolio includes contemporary operas, theatrical productions, electro-acoustic compositions, as well as rock bands, where he's always had the courage to experiment with their form. His musical project Maťkovia laid the foundations of alternative rock in Slovakia and as such, it is one of the best recordings created in our region. Martin Burlas is a key figure in avant-garde and alternative rock. His desire to eschew boredom and avoid stagnation led to collaborations with leading figures of the music and theater scene. At the same time, he is constantly trying to develop his own work. Renowned for his strange, satirical humor, Burlas' work is also marked by social critique which he has never been afraid of. - Andrej Kabal
You studied composition at the Academy of Performing Arts in Seventies, specifically with modernist Ján Cikker. What was the attitude of the teachers towards avant-garde or new music? How did you get to avant-garde music and what do you consider to be a major influence on your work?
The attitude was different for individual teachers. While, for example, Professors Ivan Parík and Ivan Hrušovský have purposefully acquainted us with the state of contemporary music, on the other hand, Professor Cikker, for example, was rather ignorant, with a typical Slovak self-gaze coupled with the belief that something abominable was coming in from abroad that we didn't understand. It was ridiculous. I first encountered music, without knowing about its genres or styles, at home because my father is also a composer and a music theorist. But the turning point came in the 1960s when I found out that song production could change society (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, who have changed a lot since then, but they used to be an interesting band ... Genesis, Yes, Frank Zappa).
Can you describe the times when you became part of the avant-garde, a direction that wasn’t officially tolerated by the regime?
Back then, everyone but the generation of composers Dibák, Domanský, Poul affiliated themselves with the avant-garde, it was only the regime that ensured they couldn’t be heard.
You were also active in the Experimental Studio of the Slovak Radio, which has been operating since 1965. As a young composer, you also had to encounter the older generation that worked in this studio. How did this generation perceive you?
I know almost for certain that the paternal feeling that Ivan Parík had towards me may have resulted in me receiving an honourable mention for my first electro-acoustic composition Hudba pre modrý dom (The Music for a Blue House) in the Russolo-Pratella Foundation prize. Allegedly, our persecuted composers had a silent agreement with progressive composers abroad that, after the occupation, they would help to "hold" our work in occupied Czechoslovakia. For example, Mr. Peter Kolman himself, who was then the artistic director of the Experimental Studio, showed me and explained the principles of the modular ARP synthesizer that was just lying there for decades. His wife, by coincidence, taught me mathematics and was strict with me, but at the same time she had a fascinating personality. We often visited Ilja Zeljenka, a very sociable and informal person who was interested in all sorts of things.
Your music oscillates between avant-garde, rock and pop. Although you don't like boxes, would you try to say what in these genre-diverse worlds you consider to be their strongest side and what do you think they have in common?
I want my work to always be linked to an individual attitude that is believable, authentic and does not copy senselessly.
It is quite common for the academic music scene to despise popular music and popular music fans to consider the avant-garde scene snobbish and elitist. What caused this?
The flaw is in human ignorance and convenience, which today is considered a virtue, and that most people do not realize that culture transforms society. Sometimes it even predicts trends, such as science fiction. An average citizen thinks that if he or she hears Elán (note: a famous Slovak band) ten times an afternoon on the radio, it must be a good band.
The British government recently tried to stop the BBC's Late Junction, an experimental music program. Subsequently, it received thousands of protest letters that completely demolished the myth that this music is just for a narrow group of people. Do you think that public institutions in Slovakia provide adequate space to adventurous music? Your work, with a few exceptions, is very rarely played. Do you ever have the feeling, which may not seem modest, that you definitely do not deserve this with your portfolio?
The example from Britain reveals the superficiality with which bourgeois prejudices spread in society. As far as I am concerned, I do not know how to answer this, because I probably had it worse during communism, just like anybody who was doing something provocative then. For example, they have forbidden Vladimír Bokes from playing anything for several years, because some party member idiot coincidentally and mistakenly attended a concert at the Philharmonic, and what he heard offended him. My colleague Jozef Kolkovič emigrated during his studies. When I see what Rádio Devín is doing today, I think the situation has improved. As far as Rádio_FM (note: both public radio stations) is concerned, it is a normal commercial radio during prime time, and that's how it deals with my music, i.e. it practically does not broadcast it, only exceptionally. But the young have it much harder. Who would play a symphonic piece written by a young author today? My situation is surprisingly good. In terms of the number of plays as well as in SOZA (note: Slovak copyright agency), for example. It's ridiculous. Even so absurd that SOZA has articles in their statutes stating that one must not criticize them.
So would you like to be twenty again in 2019 and a composition student?
I would like to, but I won't.
New ways of communication are also rapidly changing the current society, offering us new ways of interacting and an easier access to information. This also causes the decentralization of the music industry. It is increasingly complicated to make a living purely from music. On the other hand, everybody can establish a music label today, as we have digital distribution and websites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp. How do you perceive this change? In your opinion, will public media still make sense in their old formats?
I'm not able to answer this, because as it's much easier to put your music anywhere, the music loses its value because there's so much of it around and it's impossible for even experts to get a grasp of it all. I feel overwhelmed by music much more than twenty years ago. It's a paradoxical situation. People don't have time to perceive and find quality, and I think the role of public media – spearheaded by the BBC – is much more important because quality and objectivity of choice should prevail.
You once said that you were constantly ostracized before 1989. Your project Maťkovia had a relatively accessible sound in the 1980s, and in spite of all its qualities and invention, it remains largely unknown. Has anything changed after the fall of the Iron Curtain, or did they still "think of you as a fool"? How did they treat creators like you?
I'm not able to judge this as I've become exhausted by socializing and I probably wouldn't have played regularly either way. It's tiring and depressing to pretend to be enthusiastic about something you know so well and present it in such way to people.
It's been said that Maťkovia paved the foundation for the Slovak indie rock scene. At the same time, because of the provocative nature of the lyrics you weren't able to release an official release and this project was distributed via cassettes. I'm fascinated by the timelessness and originality of this project, considering the era it was created in, as well as the decent sound of the recordings. Were you in any way in contact with the foreign scene or did you create the music in total isolation from the rest of the world?
It wasn't difficult to get to know or obtain music from abroad. It was done through friends who brought records from abroad, or via record fairs. One could also listen to the radio. We in Bratislava had the advantage of being able to catch the Beat-Club on Austrian broadcaster ORF – in the time of New Wave, I saw Police in a live stream as well as a unique project, a collaboration between Jack Bruce of Cream, Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson and other famous names, which my Alzheimer's prevents me from remembering. The sound of Maťkovia's recordings was based on the fact that I was employed as a music director and we secretly made recordings in a studio on Nedbalova Street, once even at the “big” studio in Pezinok, where the likes of Ursiny, Lučenič, Modus recorded. One of the top sound engineers, Ivan Jombík, even played drums on the first recordings. The second sound engineer, the sought after Ivan Minárik, programmed the large modular ARP synthesizer on one of the tracks I composed with him.
(Above: Maťkovia 1982-1986 (Full Album) – Posted here with permission from Martin Burlas.)
Is there something in music that makes you really angry? Something you totally oppose? Probably if someone is convinced that copying current trends well is what leads to a successful career.
You have got several projects with a wide scope of interest under your belt. Would you be able to define where your work is heading and how it develops, do you see any movement there?
No, I do not know. I don't even think I should do it. Personally, I know what I'm trying to do, but if the listeners don't see it, it's useless to talk about it.
You ended the Ospalý pohyb project with the reason that you feel that it is beginning to wear out. With a line-up which includes Daniel Baláž, Pavol Hubinák, Peter Zagar and yourself, the project has released three excellent albums that were extraordinary on our scene. You have already made a similar decision before, for example, when you were offered to re-introduce your opera Ružové kráľovstvo (The Rose Kingdom), which was forbidden by the former regime. But you refused, instead you made a new opera because you didn't want to repeat yourself. Have you ever regretted the fact that you have certain principles, which in some cases seem to complicate your life?
Not only have I not regretted this, but in retrospect I blame myself for not being able to tell my colleagues from Ospalý pohyb face to face that their music preparation isn't sufficient and it hinders the work. I will regret this for a long time. I wanted to be polite and as is often the case, we ended up in a limbo, wasting time with developing nonsense and that's why I probably made them feel it's normal. It made my life a bit more complicated in that, for example, the new album, Splnený zem, is almost absent from the radio, but I knew what I was getting myself into. When it comes to the past, our best album with Kladivo and Zagar was forgotten by a certain journalist (he forgot we ever gave it to him), and only after years it transpired that this was the reason why it wasn't played. If someone works in such a way, of course, it will catch up with them sooner or later. I mean both sides now.
Your words reveal a certain skepticism and a rather skeptical outlook on life. On the other hand, you have a great reflection of your own oeuvre, even though you often work with terms like anxiety, depression, dizziness and pressure. A friend of mine has described you - with the best intentions - as a hypochondriac. Are these frustrating factors your driving force? Or do you take them as a necessary evil?
If I were a hypochondriac, I might be worried, but since I am healthy, my life is easier again, but I have to worry about when I will get sick. Also, everything has its advantages and disadvantages. Now I have to interrupt the answer for a moment, because my nose is bleeding ... I've come back. The problem with the character of our region is that the number of idiots is growing dangerously every day. And as we know, these people usually take themselves very seriously. It's sad, but if I wept, it wouldn't be visible in this conversation. The same would happen if I laughed.
Interview by Andrej Kabal, originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Kapitál (https://kapital-noviny.sk). Translated by Lucia Udvardyova