By Michal Wieczorek June 08, 2022
“Finally, someone managed to speak with the three of us,” laughs Paweł Szamburski – clarinetist, founder and informal spokesperson of the Warsaw-based contemporary classical trio Bastarda – on Zoom. Bastarda doesn’t have much time, however. The only free seat in the band’s tight schedule was just before the concert premiere of Tamojtheir latest collaborative project with the folk group Sutari.
They are indeed a busy bunch; they released seven albums in less than five years. It is amazing that the trio was born from an abandoned idea. “I wanted to record an album with Mike Majkowski, one of my favorite double bass players, but he was too busy to start another project at the time,” Szamburski told me in 2016. After releasing his solo record Ceratitis Capitata, a meditative work inspired by different Abrahamic religions, Szamburski wanted to further explore the roots of European music. After discovering the 15th-century Central European composer Piotr de Grudziądz, Szamburski contacted a longtime friend and collaborator, Michał Górczyński. They had played together in influential Polish avant-garde groups like Cukunft and Ircha Clarinet Quartet. “Michal [had] I just bought a contrabass clarinet – I think it was one of three such instruments in Poland at the time,” says Szamburski.
Górczyński himself is a classically trained musician. He offers to work with Tomasz Pokrzywiński, cellist and early music specialist. In the band, Pokrzywiński acts as an intermediary between Szamburski’s melodies and Górczyński’s deep, heavy riffs. This meandering technique is called bastard viol in Renaissance music. Hence the name of the trio.
“We got along well from the first rehearsal. The way the sounds of my cello and the guys’ clarinets intertwine is just magical. We could only play one chord and we would be satisfied,” says Pokrzywiński. This partly explains the band’s dark, droney sound. “We like to add air to our music; we don’t need to play a lot,” he adds, although Bastarda’s compositions and arrangements are quite intense and overwhelming. “It’s because I’m still a metalhead. I love fantasy novels set in medieval worlds. This darkness is in my veins; I find it difficult to play uplifting music,” says Szamburski. Górczyński’s first musical love was classic rock – Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, etc. “That’s why I play riffs on my instrument,” he says. “When I’m taking notes on arrangements, I write these short sentences, genre names like ‘death metal’ to get an idea [of] what sound i need. I’m also a huge Portishead fan.
Each album they work on together seems to open doors for the next. The release of Bastarda’s first album, Eternal promise, coincided with an international conference on composers of early music, including Piotr de Grudziądz. “You have in one place all 10 musicologists who know everything about him. No wonder they came to see our show,” laughs Pokrzywiński. One of these composers, Antonio Chemotti, worked with Bastarda on Ars moriendi, a collection of funeral songs from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. “It was definitely the most difficult of our projects. We struggled to compose songs. But for a lot of people, it’s our best album,” Szamburski says.
Ars moriendi, in turn, inspired Holland Baroque, a Dutch ensemble with an unorthodox and modern approach to Baroque music. “We were supposed to play a few gigs with that repertoire, but they had mics in their rehearsal space, so we thought we could do a few recordings. It always happens that way; we just can’t resist recording our work,” says Pokrzywiński with a smile. Their collaborative album Mine is an improvised journey through the medieval love poetry of Hadewijch de Brabant. It is captivating music with a sense of mysticism that is both timeless and contemporary.
Simultaneously, Bastarda took new steps in folk music. This path had started with their third album, Nigunim. Nigun is a genre of Hasidic Jewish mystical vocal music derived from folk melodies. Szamburski and Górczyński are no strangers to Jewish music; they performed it together in Cukunft and separately in other projects. ” Arrange Nigunim was pure pleasure,” says Szamburski.
Nigunim generates Kolowrot, a concept album on the repetitiveness of the seasons. “There’s a choir on the last track of ‘Nigunim’ and after one of the shows [around that album], we were contacted by a girl from an amateur student choir. She said we need to work together and she might even get some funding from SWPS University,” says Szamburski. It was the first time they had worked with musicians who weren’t seasoned professionals. Kolowrot is divided into four long compositions, each corresponding to a season. Bastarda based their songs on Polish folklore, drawn mainly from the collection of Oskar Kolberg.
This, in turn, led them to Sutari, who performs folk music from the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian border. “We started from [important Polish poet] Adam Mickiewicz’s ‘Ballady i romanse’ cycle, but then we decided to dig deeper, to find folk sources of his poetry, to become Mickiewicz ourselves,” says Górczyński. Meanwhile, in 2021, a refugee crisis erupted on the Polish-Belarusian and Belarusian-Lithuanian borders. It couldn’t go unanswered. Tamoj become a powerful cry against borders.
As they prepare to go on stage, one last question: what is their dream project? “We’d love to write music for a great movie, as simple as that,” Szamburski says. “No, the dream would be that John Williams decides to make a film and asks us to score it”, laughs Górczyński. “Just give us two years,” adds Pokrzywiński. In a way, this feels like more than a joke.