Rohan Kriwaczek

Rohan Kriwaczek comes from that rare stock of truly studied popular musician. Now really, is it just me, or is this uncommon? Whatever the case, I find it to be a special treat to communicate with a musician who has something more than raw talent and a repertoir of power chords and sultry stances. Rohan has managed to put a little more mind behind the meat, so to speak; much to my, and I am sure many others' delight. And a delight it was, to have the opportunity to peak inside his mind just a little.

Rohan himself.

First and foremost, at the tender age of seven, what do you feel it was that drew you to begin playing and composing music? Was there a defining moment or a special influence?
Thinking back, I'm sure it was a number of things. My father was an amateur musician, playing 1950s Jazz (though by the time I was born he had stopped performing and just played at home periodically), and, as a result there were a number of old musical instruments around the house (guitars, saxophones, flutes, and violins - plus he made his own set of bagpipes and a harp in the garden shed). I recall that these had the aura of magical objects to me as a child and I longed to play with them - though of course that was forbidden. When, like all middle class children in Golders Green, I started piano lessons I was immediately frustrated because I didn't like the children's beginner music. I wanted to play sad and mysterious music, even then, and it was this that drove me to start to compose. I remember the first piece I wrote was called Doloroso (Sadness) and was in A minor.

Were you ever able, back then, to get your hands on the type of music you wanted to play, or did that not come until much later?
I do remember a piece by Robert Schumann which I desperately wanted to play, and struggled with for months, against my piano teachers advice. I think I was drawn to it as much by the engraving at the top of the page, which seemed dark and moody, as by the tragic music, which I think was again in A minor. Other than that I don’t recall finding anything much I wanted to play until I was older. Other than my own compositions. Funny the things you remember.

What kind of music did you compose back then?
From the very beginning I have always enjoyed minor keys and quirky dances. I think a lot of my early pieces were waltzes, written for piano. By the age of 9 I was also playing the guitar and the ubiquitous recorder, and started writing for them. My first ensemble piece was for four recorders. When I was 10 I began to write songs, largely inspired by the Beatles.

The Beatles, eh? With recorders?
 The Beatles, the Stones and Lou Read all made extensive yet appropriate use of recorders. But no, my songs were accompanied by piano or guitar, which I taught myself.

Did you have a lot of support from your family, or did you have to push them to let you study music more formally?
As I recall my parents gave me an appropriate amount of support - they certainly never tried to push me into becoming a prodigy, but at the same time they encouraged my interest and paid for my lessons - and indeed they tried to make me practice what I was supposed to be practising, which was always something of a problem. When it became evident that I wanted to take music seriously as a potential profession their attitude was that that was fine so long as I went to University and got a proper degree in the subject, and of course, to be a serious musician I had to be a composer - a mere performer of others' works would never have been countenanced.

Have you been able to make a living solely from music?
Yes and no, depending on what you call “a living”. I have got by, just, through a combination of performing, teaching, composing, session work and busking. Everything I do, professionally speaking, has something to do with music, though that does include writing articles and teaching which don’t involve music directly. It is very difficult to be a serious musician today – the more serious you are the more difficult it is. Music has largely been relegated to the role of entertainment in this country – you can make a good living playing 70s party cover versions, but if you want people to sit down and listen to something that may challenge them a little and doesn’t fit into an accepted pigeonhole you don’t stand a chance.

A poster for the Rohan Theatre Band.

Who do you feel was your most influential music teacher and what do you think was the most important lesson you learned from them?
As far as music goes, I have never been any good at being taught. I always set my own direction, had my own interests and learnt by listening and experimentation. However, I did have three teachers who taught me valuable lessons about thinking and Art which have stayed with me, and guided me ever since. Firstly my father, who taught me the art of intelligent argument, and bullshitting - which is much the same thing. Secondly Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who taught me about aesthetics and the responsibility of the Artist: to think clearly and be aware of every implication within what you make; to never let yourself off, nor compromise anything that is essential to the purpose of your work; and to honour the gifts God has given you. Lastly David Osmond-Smith, Professor of Music at Sussex University, who taught me that there are always people cleverer than you in this world, who know more and think with more focus, and that, despite having the relevant skills, I am not an intellectual, as I have no great respect for notions of ideas for ideas sake, Art for Arts sake, and nor do I believe in objective truth. In many ways I envy the woolly thinking of the superstitious, though of course I say that from the privileged position of an educated modern western man.

Do you feel like you embrace the "woolly thinking of the superstitious?" with the types of music you choose to play and compose?
Certainly I indulge myself in it from time to time, but I am too knowing to really get carried away – a veil of cynicism always separates me from simple explanations of the world however appealing or far fetched they may be. I suppose the conflict between what I wish to be true and what I know is one of the sources for much of my work. When I take on folk idioms I always try to twist or corrupt them in some way, to leave a scar on their naivety as if to say “you see, things aren’t really that simple and deep down we all know it”.

You have degrees from University of Sussex and the Royal Academy of Music. What did you gain from your education at these institutions?
I have never been any good at fitting into institutions, and have always had profound aesthetic differences with my tutors. To be honest I don't think I really deserved my degree from Sussex as I was far more interested in emulating the lifestyle of Rimbaud and Verlaine than studying - though I suspect it came out a little more like "Withnail and I". With the exception of David Osmond-Smith I could run rings around all my tutors and used that to full advantage in getting away without doing any real work. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't lazy - I dedicated myself, mind body and spirit, to writing poetry, and leading the inevitably decadant life of a poet.

More than anything the Royal Academy taught me that the British classical music scene was not a world I wanted to enter, riven as it was by pretentiousness and conservatism, though it did introduce me to the music of Alfred Schnittke whom I consider to this day to be the last of the three dimensional classical composers. In many ways I see such institutions as filtering mechanisms - a great many people enter them with individuality and spirit, but if you can retain that spirit throughout the three or four years study, and leave without having had it driven out of you, then you have passed the test.

After leaving the Academy I spent the next few years earning my living as a busker and I learnt a great deal from the street musicians I associated with - I saw it as a kind of antidote to the brainwashing I had received. If you get too up your arse nobody gives you a penny and you can't eat (or drink). Simple. No room for conceptual pretentiousness there (unless you are working Covent Garden!).

What in particular has drawn you to traditional Jewish and Funerary music?
Whilst at the Academy I became increasingly convinced that Modernism in music, with its insistence on dismantling all elements of harmony, melody and repeated rhythm, was an absurd aberration, perpetrated by composers whose self-importance as "Artists" was the ultimate result of that same Romanticism which they claimed to be reacting against - thus adding hypocrisy to their list of crimes. When a certain unnamed composer went red in the face with rage at the "ignorance" of audiences who didn't understand his work, I saw first hand the fundamental problem with State funded Arts: surely music must be a form of communication between composer and audience - where language is lost nothing can be said - and there is no point in expressing even the most profound of considerations in your own made up form of gibberish. I was convinced that there were fundamental elements that made up the universal language of music, and embarked on a study of what is now called "World Music" - but which I saw at the time as various regional folk musics - in search of those eternal constituent parts (and sure enough I found that melody - usually against a drone - rhythm and repeated patterns are indeed the universal building blocks from which all music is made, bar Modernism). Having come to these conclusions, and realising that in all of my time studying composition not one teacher had ever considered the skills involved in crafting a good tune, I set about learning all I could from those folk traditions which rely entirely on the art of the "tune". I was drawn to Jewish music due to my own European Jewish background (on my father's side) and in the hope that it might reveal some secret truth about myself, which I suppose it did. In any case I needed to get my Jewishness out of my system. My involvement with Funerary Violin music came later, but I was undoubtedly drawn to its unique combination of pathos, tragedy, narrative and ritual - elements that it has in common with much of the old European Jewish violin tradition.

How did you become involved with the Guild of Funerary Violinists?
As with most life changing experiences, my involvement with the Guild came about purely by chance. I was approached by a member after a concert I had given and arranged to meet with him to look over some of their repertoire. I had expected a number of sombre funeral marches for solo violin, as I believe most people do when Funerary Violin is mentioned, and was wholly unprepared for the substantial and varied repertoire that I came upon. I could say it was love at first sight. Certainly after my first funerary performance I was hooked. Performing at a funeral is a truly unique and special experience, however many times you do it. The assembled crowd is choked with intense emotion and it is the Funerary Violinist's job to seize that emotion and channel it into something tangible and meaningful. The intensity of performance that can be achieved is, in my experience, unmatched by any other concertising experience. Over time I learnt as much of the repertoire as I could get hold of and began researching the tradition's history, and looking into the Guild's own not insubstantial archive of documents and recordings. It is this research that forms the core of my forthcoming book, "An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin".

Tell me about your upcoming book, "An Incomplete History of The Art of Funerary Violin."
The book presents the history of the genre from its origins in Elizabethan England, through its glory days in 18th century Europe to its decline during the nineteenth century. It presents what can be known about the lives and works of the major performers and includes a number of scores of the most important and celebrated works of the repertoire. In addition it also includes a chapters on the aesthetic of the music and performance practice. Although it was in many ways a labour of love, the book does have a serious motive. In today's sanitised Western world little or no consideration is given to funerary ritual. The deceased's final journey into the ground, or the furnace, is usually accompanied by a CD player, an electric organ, or nothing at all. Whenever I have performed in the funerary context the response has been overwhelmingly positive, however, funeral directors are by their own admission a conservative breed, unwilling to suggest anything that strays too far from their sphere of experience, and families of the deceased often don't consider the role of the funerary violinist, and indeed they are an untargetable market, at least within our codes of decent practice. My intention in writing this book was, at least in part, to raise awareness of the tradition that it might offer today's bereaved something of the solace it had offered in the past. Much has changed over the last few centuries, but grief remains grief: we have just put it to the back of our minds, which I personally feel is not entirely healthy for a society. I believe that both the music, and the tradition behind it have a great deal to offer today's confused world, and wanted to present the opportunity for people to learn more about it.

From all of these traditional influences, how did your more contemporary music come into being?
As a composer living today I am, and cannot help but be, contemporary. That does not mean to say Modernist - the "old fashioned Modernists" to my mind lost their relevance a generation ago, but it would be dishonest to pretend that we were still living in a musical world shaped by cosy harmonic rules and pretty tunes. Where my tutors sought to dismantle music, I seek to rebuild it - in the full knowledge that it can never be what is was again. But it can, and inevitably will, become something new. Therefore I cannot help but explore new possibilities, whilst at the same time I carry with me the various forms and shapes that my experience as a performer have given me. It is the only honest way for me to be.

Do please, tell me more about your Rohan Theatre Band project. How did it come about? Tell me about the writing process. How do you choose your subject matter?
The Rohan Theatre Band is an attempt to express my troubled thoughts and concerns about the world, people and culture. People often ask, “where is the Rohan Theatre?” and I just tap my forehead knowingly. It is a form of catharsis for me. I sing about middle class hypocrisy, the misleading nature of history, various forms of self delusion and self aggrandisement, dumbing down, violence, grave goods, the origins of museums (more exciting than it sounds – they began with bizarre collections of incomprehensible objects) and of course the inevitability of mortality. I cannot see the point in writing a song unless I have something specific to say. I am currently working on a number of songs about the corruption of innocence, for example. I avoid clichés where I can and rarely write about love unless it has soured. I guess there is an educational purpose too: I am challenging people to think about things. The songs always start with a concept; then comes the words, and by the time I have finished toying with them there is usually a tune. I record all the musical tracks myself and hire in musicians for live gigs. I have a new record coming out this month on Hobgoblin Records – “Perfect World” – a title that is wholly ironic, given the content.

Where do you think music comes from? (Music, to me, is such a mystery: how it works, how it makes people feel and move, and where it comes from. I mean, where does it COME FROM? You can break it down to its pieces, but there is something intrinsic about its source that makes it completely ungraspable to me.  It's obvious to me that you think a great deal about music and I am wondering if you could share any thoughts on the matter.)
Ah, now this is the big question. Nobody understands the origins or essence of what music actually is. Scientists and psychologists have studied this subject for years and reached no concrete conclusions. Anthropologists believe it is all to do with pattern recognition, something that human beings have a unique fascination with, and it has been proposed that music came before speech, and that language is an offshoot of that same process. To me, music is the last form of magic left in the world, now that our scientists have dismantled all the other mysteries. As such it should be treated with respect and not questioned too closely lest we lose that which we so value. It is intrinsically tied up with the spirit and ritual, it is both ancient and modern, and it transcends human barriers. Ah, you see, that woolly thinking rises up once again!

Is there anything about you as an individual you think the public at large should know, ie, is there anything I've missed that you feel is important to share?
Well, there is my criminal past, my arrest for technical indecency, my indecent technicalities, my struggle with addiction  and my addiction to struggle, and of course the time I was caught, in flagrante, with a minor member of the Royal family. But maybe I should keep those to myself.

Learn more about Rohan on his website:

June 2006. All photos provided by Rohan Kriwaczek.