May 22, 2024

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Interview with Dimitrije Vasiljević: I was convinced that, in music, the importance of intellect prevails over soul at any time: Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist, composer Dimitrije Vasiljević. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Dimitrije Vasiljević: – I grew up in Belgrade, Serbia and have lived there until I was 22 when I moved to USA. My dad is an opera singer, but also a jazz aficionado as well, so he got hooked me on music at the early age. In Serbia, we have public music schools that you can attend along with traditional elementary and/or high schools. I passed the audition for a music school in Belgrade when I was 6, and started learning classical piano, ear training and theory right away. For the next ten years, I attended the music school (6 grades of elementary and 4 more grades of high music school), after which I enrolled at Faculty of Music Art which is a college of music in Belgrade. Later on, I continued my music education in USA, getting another BM from Berklee College of Music, MM from NYU Steinhardt and DMA from University of Illinois. During my childhood years, I mostly played classical piano, since that was the only offered musical genre in the music school system of Serbia at that time. As a teenager, I got interested in pop, rock, funk and other more popular and modern styles of music, so I started picking up songs by ear. Soon enough, I discovered jazz, again thanks to my father who played me jazz records and took me to jazz concerts. I have always known that music is a path I will be walking on my entire life. That fact was somehow clear to me even when I was still a kid. So, I guess, it was just matter of how and where, now what will be my life’s calling.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the piano? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?

DV: – My mother played the piano when she was a young girl, so we already had a piano at home. My parents used to play children’s songs to me when I was only a baby, and I think that sound entered my ears and then stayed there. When I started music school, piano was a natural choice of instrument for me. Besides, I always liked how piano had the ability to imitate the whole band or orchestra and I also appreciated the fact that as a pianist you inevitably have to go through an intensive theory and harmony training in order to be able to play well, which as a result makes you an overall better musician. My first teacher was Milana Ulmanski, an older lady with a great reputation among classical teachers in Belgrade and a very strict professor. She made me love piano and she set up the foundation of my piano technique and a basic sense of musicality. When I got to America and started playing jazz, I had the opportunity to study with some world-class jazz pianists such as Ray Santisi, Jean-Michel Pilc, Danilo Perez, Laszlo Gardony, JoAnne Brackeen and Andy Milne to name a few. All of these piano teachers (and many more whom I’ve crossed paths with during my years of study), contributed a great deal to my pianistic skills and overall musicianship.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

DV: – I remember exploring different sounds and harmonies at the piano when I was a kid and also later as a teenager. At that time, I didn’t know much theoretically about what I was doing, but these first sincere and innocent contacts with the instrument allowed me to subconsciously express myself in the purest of ways. It turned that memories of these spontaneous excursions into the unknown realms of sounds stayed with me for all these years and I started rediscovering them much later when I was already a trained pianist. All the structured and conventional jazz knowledge actually only helped me to start being aware of what lays deep inside me and what wants to be resurfaced which was about to become my personal voice in jazz. Of course, I was influenced by many different artists and genres of music I’ve been listening to over the years. Another thing I realized was that life experiences, adventures, both inside and outside of me, as well as all kinds of strong emotions I felt toward dear people in my life, influenced the depth of jazz language and stylistic vision of the music I composed. Furthermore, incorporating the traditional musical heritage of Balkans and Serbia, and mixing it with the modern jazz language and classical influences I acquired from years of attending Serbian music school, all started to blend together and thus created what will become my personal style of playing and making music.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

DV: – I am not a big fan of structured practice, well-developed strict routines or time-measured instrumental training. Practicing is an art for itself. It should be an exciting and enjoyable experience of digging deep into your inner self, into your fears, desires, weaknesses or strengths. Practicing is about getting to know yourself better and meditating with your instrument over your musical being and ideas. Of course I had a heavy musical training for almost two decades, especially during my Berklee and NYU years when I was learning my craft. I used to shed piano in the practice room for 6, 7 hours a day, but it was always because I was hungry for music and new knowledge, never because I saw it as an obligation that needs to be done on a daily basis. But I’ve never practiced technique or chops, it came to me through playing the music. Similar situation was with the jazz theory. After reading many books and working with several teachers for 3, 4 years, I finally started getting it thoroughly and deeply. Everything all of a sudden started to make sense and jazz language to me became an open source kind of an adjustable toy, rather than a list of rules and regulations, patterns and licks. Once I’ve picked up traditional devices of jazz improvisation and incorporated them in my playing, I started feeling a great freedom of using jazz as way of expression which can be mixed with my own personal sounds and tricks on the piano, rather than feeling obliged to blindly follow the tradition and purism of the jazz genre itself.  As for the rhythm I use in my music, I heavily rely on my Serbian musical heritage and odd meters. Not because I think it’s cool or hip, but because I can’t help it. It is rooted deeply within my musical being and I simply have to write music that way. Of course I use traditional meters and rhythms all the time, but irregular meters are always there in some shape or form, whether hidden or exposed. The secret of hearing and feeling them lays in not trying to count them. One should be aware of their theoretical structure, but for playing them, one should just close their eyes and “use the force”. This is the only way they will work in a natural and organic way. Cause you can clearly hear when somebody is counting and artificially incorporating all those rhythmical divisions and hip patterns just for the sake of it, rather than for the sake of the beauty of music.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

DV: – I rely a lot on modal harmony mixed with non-functional chords and compound voicings. I also use a lot of triadic material in my music, avoiding the use of dominant chords, especially the ones with altered tensions. My harmonic progressions are based mostly on the voice-leading of the moment, rather than on some preplanned chordal movement, as well as on contrapuntal devices. I always work on exploring the dissonance in different ways. It is not hard to come up with a complex or hip chord, or harmonic pattern. What is hard is to actually fully feel and accept the dissonance with your entire being. To believe in it. As you grow as a human being and a musician, your level of acceptance grows accordingly. What sounded weird, awkward or not interesting enough to you 5 years ago, can end up sounding great today or tomorrow, because you adopted a lot more life experiences in the meantime. Another challenge that always inspires me is how to make musically complex stuff accessible to an average listener. I believe that every single person has a hidden potential to hear artistic music in a right way, even if this music is sometimes not easiest to listen to at first. But using certain musical and psychological “tricks”, I believe it is possible to get from an average (and even a non-jazz) listener, what is always a greatest compliment after the concert to me:”Wow, I really liked your music and I don’t know why, because I normally do not listen to that kind of music.”

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

DV: – That is probably the most difficult question for a musician and also a never-ending story. While I was intensively studying music, I was convinced that, in music,  the importance of intellect prevails over soul at any time. And that is because, I believed, soul can be abused and misused very easily if there is not enough intellectual support and understanding of what is being played or composed. If that happens, banal music happens. Kitsch happens. That is why I was sure that intellectual side of music is much more important because it ensures the artistic value in music and makes it sound more profound, smart and interesting. When I started doing more professional playing after I finished my music studies, I completely changed my opinion because I realized that some of my most successful compositions came mostly from the soul and intuition, and not from my theoretical knowledge of music. That is why I started completely disregarding everything I’ve learned to that point about theory and used only common sense and, of course, applied theory that was already built in my muscle memory while I play. Sometime after, I came to what I believed was the right balance – using the soul to explore new musical territories, but then using the intellect to chart it out and claim it. Now I believe that, even there can’t be a precise recipe of what is the right balance between intellect and soul in music, one should rely on both at all times, since both of them are powerful allies which need to be used together in synergy, and not exclude each other.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

DV: – In 2008, I was playing in the semi-final night of the Montreux Solo Jazz Piano Competition in Switzerland. I remember that I was scared to death, because other pianists I competed with were all much older and more experienced than me at that time. They all sounded great and I was pretty sure I don’t belong there and that I will never make it to the finals. In that same period I was reading a lot about what some pianists call “The Zone” which is a very particular state of mind which you can enter right before and during your performance. It is not about disconnecting from the audience, it is rather more about focusing so much on the music and the timelessness of the performance while you play, that is helps with fighting the nervousness and gives an artists a key to the hidden world of ideas which makes him play effortlessly and stay super-focused and inspired during the performance. I am not sure whether my extreme nervousness triggered it, or maybe my intense interest for it, yet, when my turn to play came, I spontaneously entered “The Zone” for the first time in my life. I don’t remember my performance that well since I truly was both present and elsewhere at the same time, but I made it to finals and later won two prizes. Since that time, I always try to remember that playing music for people is supposed to be fun and rewarding for both me and them. I try to remind myself that performing music is supposed to be a spiritual experience, a unique journey through time and space, and not a mental torture of being afraid to mistake a note or play a wrong key. “The Zone” kept helping me through the years of playing, up to this very day.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

DV: – It is simple. Jazz is not only standard tunes. Jazz is not only this or that stream, style or genre. Jazz grew to become much, much more than that. Jazz have changed its appearance every decade since its beginnings through its many forms and subgenres. Then, after the emergence of fusion-jazz in 1970s, it has taken a different path. From that time on, it started developing itself more as a certain infinite but structured language and a way of personal musical expression of each individual artist, rather than a strict genre with predefined stylistic boundaries. Jazz is many things nowadays and it is becoming what classical music used to be for centuries. It adopts the characteristics of the time it is played in, but at the same time it is not losing its original sense and essence. If we compare it to a language, we can say that the words and grammar always stay the same, only a dialect changes. Jazz is now successfully mixed with world music, with hip-hop, with pop, rock, funk, classical, even electronic music. And I think we should acknowledge this organic will of jazz itself and not try to stop it on its path of becoming the world’s most successfully used universal language of music that connects people, traditions and cultures all around the world.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

DV: – I think that every person has their own understanding of these metaphysical and existential topics such as spirit and meaning of life. John Coltrane certainly was a personification of music itself which we can tell from many of his interviews and articles about him, as well as of course, his timeless and genial music. However, I have a slightly different opinion about what spirit is, and I believe that music cannot be a defining force of a human being, but rather a reflection of nature and a key to the much bigger truth that lies somewhere within the ethereal plane of existence. On a spiritual level, we are all interconnected and music serves as a coded language of nature that helps us understand and recognize the harmony around us which makes things and life flowing, functional and beautiful. So, those who were gifted with greater ability to understand or even create music on a higher artistic level, serve only as conduits of nature or God, to spread the truth and beauty among other people. They’ve been gifted to understand deeper levels of nature’s harmony, but also cursed to feel the divine power only so much and yet never be able to reach further, because, music as powerful as it is, is only a window to higher planes. That is, I think, a big part of the reason why many great artists in history had such a fruitful and rich spiritual lives on the inside, but were at the same time deeply unhappy on the outside, with many of them ending up in the most tragic of ways. For me, meaning of life is about finding one’s life meaning. Truly understanding what you are made of and what you are made for, and then fulfilling the “personal prophecy”.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

DV: – I know this will sound like utopia, but if I could miraculously change one thing in music, that would be a business aspect of it. To be a successful musician in modern day and age, you have to be many more things than just a good performer or writer. You have to be able to negotiate, advertise yourself, manage all kinds of websites, social media and other means of marketing, you need to have a basic understanding of law, of finances, to have a bunch of intermediaries in the form of agents, lawyers and managers who will take care of your bookings, image, accounts, copyright, etc. All of this, in my opinion, takes not only focus, but also the magic away from music and art. If artists could be funded from a magical third-party budget source in order to freely create and perform, and then share their art for free with all people without the need to actually live from their art, I feel that there will be much more good music happening, and much less crappy, shallow and kitsch music that surrounds us in big amounts nowadays.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

DV: – I always listen to many different genres, styles and artists. Not just jazz and not exclusively jazz. So, on my iPod (yes I still use one of those) I have anything from Brad Mehldau and Fred Hersch’s albums to Yaron Herman, Tigran Hamasyan, Ari Hoenig, Vardan Ovsepian, Tomasz Stanko, Marcin Wasilewski, Itamar Borochov, as well as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Brahms, but also Serbian traditional music, world music from many other parts of the world, electronic music, rap, etc.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

DV: – My favorite era of human history is medieval ages. Becoming a knight who fights for honor or ideals, or a lonely warrior who wanders the world knowing no pain, always seemed much more appealing to me than being a spoiled modern citizen of present day and age armed with a cell phone, all kinds of gadgets and ever-evolving talent for complaining about life and his surroundings. I also tend to use medieval and mythical references for the background stories of the music I write and am a big fan of all kinds of movies, books and games put in this kind of time frame and setting.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

DV: – As a jazz critic, you must have come in contact with a great number of all kinds of different jazz musicians from all around the globe. Even though we all play and compose differently and there is a great deal of variety in approach to music, jazz and life for each one of us I would be interested in what is it that you find most in common for all of us jazz people who you interviewed so far?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. They are more than 300, among them there were great musicians, and samazvanzi, and … So it’s hard to say …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Картинки по запросу Dimitrije Vasiljević

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