Discussions: Monika Bugajny

Monika Bugajny’s new recording with Machinefabriek is among the best we’ve heard so far this year. It pairs her interpretations of classical works with electronic sounds by Rutger Zuydervelt. The project marks a new phase in the classically trained clarinetist’s career.

When did you first pick up the clarinet, and why did you choose that instrument?

It was more about music for me, than a specific instrument. Clarinet was a kind of accident. I was attending a private primary school, which was in the same building as a music school. I was around children playing, especially in the second part of the day when I was waiting for parents to pick me up. And after no time I started to be interested. 

I wanted to play flute or piano. Now I can say I was lucky to be offered something else. I remember a saxophone teacher was looking at me, checking all important things like teeth, and suddenly he asked: What about clarinet? You have good fingerprints for clarinet.

To be honest, I still don’t know what that means, but I am grateful I have them. 

They checked your teeth?

Yes, mostly to see if I had any new ones. I was only nine. You know it’s hard to play if suddenly you’re missing top teeth in the middle.

I think that would sound amazing. My daughter studied both violin and piano at a young age. She enjoyed it, but to me it seemed like an extension of school work to her. I didn’t see a passion for music come out of her lessons. What was your experience like?

I had a fantastic teacher at the beginning. Very active. She made us play solo and in ensembles. There were a lot of concerts, competitions. I liked this. In middle school, I had a fantastic professor who showed me what it is all about. To create beauty, give emotions. There were concerts when I had shivers down my spine performing, or even lessons with goosebumps! And I knew that I’m creating something beautiful. 

But back to passion. I think I fully felt it when I was maybe 20 or so. Quite late. I didn’t lack passion before, I wasn’t aware of it or I didn’t identify it. Perhaps the idea of being correct seemed more important. It was more like … I can’t live without music. It was part of me.

Now I get shivers down my spine while teaching. That’s where I fully felt what passion is. When sharing with my young students. I heard once that love never divides, it multiplies. I guess it’s true. It happened to my love of music – sharing with young musicians helped me realize how extremely exciting, beautiful and wonderful art is.

I hear from a lot of artists with classical training that their education began – at some point – to feel constraining. It’s what leads them to seek out more contemporary styles of music. As a teacher, are you conscious of the need to help your students stay open minded about music?

There is often this idea that it is not only about playing these works, but also playing them correctly. Only one way is right, and anything else is somehow incorrect. This makes interpretation a difficult subject. I want my students to have the freedom to play the repertoire in a much more fun way. Not worried at every step. A lot of students are taught that there’s only one right way to play a piece. It’s drilled into so many people. 

I like to observe students when doing something new. At first, they’re totally closed and find it difficult to improvise or add something different like flutter tonguing (when you roll the tongue like a rolling r while playing), or adding the sound of the voice while playing. Later, they become so much more flexible and excited. 

I love when they come and ask questions, explore on their own and then share with me what they found. It’s a fantastic process. I tried to introduce them to different kinds of things. I send them recordings, to show them group improvisation, graphic scores (like Christian Marclay), works by composers like Robert Ashley that show them music can be so different. Even some John Cage. They find it odd, but it still gives them ideas.

I’m thinking about organizing a concert of contemporary music next year. I just want them to be excited. There was a moment a few weeks ago when they wanted to improvise rather than play written pieces – something I would not have thought would happen at the start of the year.

I was trying to speak through the music. Not in a sense of telling a defined story. More just producing sounds to describe my feelings and relationship with the pieces, their history and mine.

Monika Bugajny

I imagine that artists like Cage would sound like so much fun to young students, and encourage learning through play. You’ve come a long way from that young student learning the classics.

After a series of less than positive events, I remember talking with a friend and making a very conscious decision to not keep accepting less in life than I dream about. We are surrounded by so many rules and practicalities that those dreams can easily be pushed aside. 

After I met my partner, I was preparing to play my final recital for my masters degree. The support I received was something totally new. It had nothing to do with getting good marks. It was all about taking risks, trusting instincts and feeling my own ideas. That’s when the magic started in music for me. Maybe it was something that had been there when I was a child, and it was buried. I’m not sure, but it was suddenly very present. With that gentle push, I started to want more and more. I tried new things and that is when suddenly new projects exploded, including Recytle with Rutger. It was a pure pleasure to create.

I think that when musicians take that step from believing it’s their role to play/interpret the masters to believing they can make new music, it changes their entire relationship with music. It empowers them in a way that the classics can’t. Does that sound right?

Very much so. For me, this project has been a kind of bridge. The pieces which form the structure are classics of the more traditional literature. They are the pieces I played while studying. In this album I used the pieces almost like jazz songs, like standards. I was not exactly improvising on a theme but more looking at how I remember them, how sometimes we forget and remember incorrectly and turned them into a kind of reflection of the original. 

Sometimes I found it difficult to run away from old habits. I wanted to do something else, but the material I had learned kept taking me back. Luckily, I managed in the end to play exactly how I felt. I felt a freedom. I think this is one of the first projects where I really felt this kind of freedom. With each track I recorded I felt I could let go more and more. I felt more brave in a way too. 

This was fantastic. There was almost a sense of surprise for me listening back to what I had done. For so much of my life, I had been pushed away from improvisation to the point of doubting myself, and yet now here I am. And I’m pushing others to do the same thing!

Can you talk about Recytle for us – which pieces are featured, how did you choose them and how would you describe your interpretations? I’m also interested in your perspective on what Rutger added to each.

They are all pieces I played in the past, works which I really enjoyed playing. Aaron Copland’s “Clarinet Concerto” was a piece I desired to play for years, and finally did around the end of my university studies. I’ve loved the Johannes Brahms and Francis Poulenc sonatas for as long as I have played clarinet. Joseph Horovitz’s “Sonatina” was the first piece to give me goosebumps in middle school. Malcolm Arnold’s “Sonatina For Clarinet and Piano” was the first to make me feel like I was somehow creating beauty. I was in middle school, and it all kind of clicked while working on the piece. 

Igor Stravinsky appeared on Recytle almost as a challenge. I didn’t think I could manage, but it ended up being great fun. Claude Debussy, I liked while playing and felt a lot of space in this impressionistic melody. Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” moved me in many ways, the music itself and the history behind its original creation in a prisoner of war camp. It is a very strong piece for me. 

All the pieces are important, and made a difference in my life. As for my interpretations, to be honest I just played and let myself enjoy the process. I was trying to speak through the music. Not in a sense of telling a defined story. More just producing sounds to describe my feelings and relationship with the pieces, their history and mine.

Rutger brings it alive. I feel that I gave my individuality, and he adds his. Later, hopefully listeners will add their parts, as a result of experiencing the music we created.

It’s a beautiful recording, Monika. I hope you are very proud of it. What’s next for you?

Thank you. I have an album with Gareth Davis which is very much an ambient drone work, an album with Robin Rimbaud (Scanner) and a soundtrack for Colombian film maker Sebastian Widemann.

More recently, I also was asked to cooperate with Bill Seaman. We have an idea, hopefully it will work. I’m recording two Phill Niblock works, hopefully over the summer. 

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