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Life as a professional musician can be hard these days. With children, meanwhile, it must seem to be almost impossible. For Czech one-woman-army Beata Hlavenková – she’s a pianist, highly respected improviser, renowned composer, producer and arranger all at once – the birth of her first son turned out to be a godsend, however. Not only would it inspire her to record the first album under her own name, Joy For Joel, a collection of lush, sumptuous and epically laid-out compositions for a seven-headed jazz band. But it would also help her focus on what’s really important: “Today, I have much more respect for the time without children in which I can actually work”, she now says with hindsight, “I am more focused and in a way I can be quicker and more productive. Children give you lots of joy and also responsibility – as well as a sense of meaning in life.” On Theodoros, the follow-up to her debut, Hlavenková finds that meaning in a sound world seemingly at the entirely different end of the spectrum set up by Joy For Joel: Somewhere between sparkling romantic-era composition and moody late night jazz, between rhythmical energy and quiet atmospherics, between naked expressionism and pensive inwardness. Outwardly a programmatic work relating dedicated sounds to each of the twelve months, the conceptual angle merely allows Hlavenková to become more personal than ever. Complexity and emotional immediacy are never mutually exclusive here. Or, as she puts it: “If the performance is honest, joyful and focused, complexity will not stand in the way of having a blast from the listening and being engaged.” And that, as it turns out, is an ideal shared by all of her music.
Have you already played Joy For Joel for your first-born?
Well, I need to do it soon (laughs). He knows about it, but I have never deliberately played it for him. If we listen to something I’ve produced, he asks me and enjoys it. He has been taking piano lessons from September and he really likes it, surprisingly (laughs).
You’ve described your last two albums as marking two opposites poles in your oeuvre. Tell me about these poles, please.
My solo albums represent a particular phase in my life that I’m going through or have just come out of. Actually, only half a year before releasing Joy for Joel, I had been involved in another project called Eternal Seekers with singer/guitarist/songwriter Lenka Dusilová and the amazing Clarinet Factory, which was very much “song”-based. Then I recorded my jazz pieces in the U.S. and Theodoros followed in classical or song form. Both of these poles are quite important for me and I am sure that without being exposed to both of them I would not write such music. I never enjoyed music which is too straightforward that much; I like to do some unexpected harmonic or formal moves in a given genre. I love rhythmic pulse, good timing, and of course most of it comes subconsciously while writing.
How would you characterise the relationship between the tracks and the month they relate to on Theodoros?
The way we feel about certain months or the time of year is very subjective. We might have stronger feelings about specific months because of our experience, both positive or negative. Therefore everyone could find something for themselves which could evoke certain emotions or stories related with the months. Theodoros means the gift from God. Our life as a gift is composed of decades, years, months, days. Twelve months is a perfect form for a set of twelve, not very long compositions …
How did the pieces go from being ideas to concrete compositions?
I had been preparing the material for a period of over six months. There was a lot of playing as well as thinking about the whole concept involved. Of course accompanied with many doubts that I had started something which for me was a big challenge: to actually express music with only the piano. Some of the ideas were, from the very beginning, very clear with regards to which months they would represent. After a certain time, I started to put some motives together and they finally found their own path. They sat together in an amazing way: tonality, tempo, character … In the studio it took me a day and a half to actually record on a real grand piano. Then a few days for the mixing process, where we wanted to find a really good, mellow but yet bright sound, and after mastering in London by Tony Cousins, the recordings took on even more gleam and elegance.
Like most of your work, the album intriguingly revolves around the poles of composition and improvisation. What relevance and meaning do they have for you, respectively?
When I entered the studio, I had almost no written material, but I recorded everything and had demo versions, of course, including all the layers. I would say that there is about 15 % of improvisation, though. Both composition and improvisation are very crucial for my musical expression. Composing is a fascinating and full-on adrenalin process and a beautiful way to spend my free time (laughs). Improvisation – I could not be such a fearless person on stage without being alert to what’s going on reacting meaningfully to a given musical situation.
What is performing solo on stage like for you?
Well, I am going to perform the album live on February 1st and 2nd 2014 in Prague for the first time. The whole program, it is being presented as a suite. There have been a few concerts where I have included some of the pieces from the album in an otherwise different repertoire. A few of them I arranged together with the great guitarist and singer Justin Lavash. That gave the compositions another beautiful layer. I feel it will be demanding to be on stage alone, performing my own music, no one to hide behind. It is just like being naked – everyone can see and feel your emotions, your joy, your doubts, your fear …
What did you learn from your conservatory days in Ostrava and the USA with hindsight?
Being exposed entirely to music from the age of 14 had a vast effect on my maturing. I remember my first conservatory months, where I was pushed without any further explanation by my Russian composition professor to write dissonant music, completely the opposite to what I had brought for admission. It was a rough time for me; I was completely lost and thought that maybe I didn’t want to be an artificial composer in this day and age (laughs). I was always attracted to, let’s say, syncopated rhythm, and certain rhythmic figures, and my conservatory study was accompanied by friendships where I discovered jazz – first jazz rock, fusion etc. In the end I was taking jazz piano lessons with my friend – a pianist and trumpeter. Then I continued in Prague. My three-year stay in the US was not only beneficial from the point of view of study, but also for example in being able to go to New York to see great musicians and shows. This had an impact on me. Also, the students and friends around us were always very supportive. Often they knew what they wanted to achieve and they would just go for it. They follow their dreams maybe a little bit more than we do here. But I guess it is slowly changing here, too. The academic system is still important – these days you could easily access whatever information you need to, but there is a lack of feedback, which you can get from experienced teacher or the educated music community.
Lenka Dusilová doesn’t play on this album, but she has remained an important creative partner. How would you describe your connection with her?
I have been working with her for about eight years now. We created Eternal Seekers together in 2008 and I also worked on her solo album Baromantika (2011) with two other great musicians and producers – Viliam Béreš and Patrick Karpentski. When I started with her, she was still a very pop – rock oriented musician, even though she has always liked alternative and very interesting ways of expression as well. She turned me more towards songwriting, supporting my singing as well, and I think I turned her interest towards other kinds of music such as jazz and more complex forms. We also sometimes write songs together, which is very interesting, since we are able to function together in a very well-balanced way musically. The same is true on stage when we perform just as a duo. Basically she is trying more complex and complicated stuff and I am, on the other hand, trying to express myself in a simpler way … (laughs)
By Tobias Fischer