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Interview with Valiska

In this interview, Calgary's composer, Drone aficionado and artistic observer Krzysztof Sujata aka Valiska shares his insights on contemporary Ambient creations, weighs on the balance of noise and euphony and goes in-depth on the structures of his music. Writing music since 2010, Valiska's creations are closely attached to the municipal aura of his hometown and fathom the barriers between elation and meditation. Electro-acoustic melodies and Glitch vestiges become forcefully intertwined in his works, with the interim solution particularly depending on the listener's reflectiveness. There is rarely a transparent denouement in the artist's torn and eclectic concoctions. Sujata's reactions to my questions are as multifaceted as they are surprising. 

AmbientExotica: What is your (non-academic!) definition of Ambient music?
Valiska: Ambient music is vocal-less music that makes you feel. It makes you feel alone, or it makes you feel like you should be listening to it alone.

How much noise do you allow in your tracks? Or alternatively: how do you counterbalance noise and euphony?
I don't know if that's something that can be answered. For me, a track sort of takes on its own form, and is whatever it turns into being. I don't often try to counterbalance anything in such a deliberate way, I more look at what is in front of me, decide if it works or not, and then make changes/additions/subtractions based on that. It's the old cycle of editing and re-evaluating. That said, when a track isn't noisy at all, for some reason I'm always apprehensive about it, like I should be doing/adding more to it. But I feel I'm getting better at sensing when a track wants to be mellow and when it wants to be noisy, so maybe this apprehension will decrease over time.

Since your music can be described as part of the electro-acoustic Ambient movement and many piano melodies grace your compositions: have you been clasically trained in playing an instrument?
Not classically trained, though I did take some guitar lessons a few years back. That's one thing I would like to practice on a more regular basis, not because I would ever get particularly good at playing the piano or the guitar, I'm starting to feel my fingers are just not equipped to playing anything besides the most minimal of melodies, but just because I enjoy playing music. But, for future recordings/projects, recording actual instruments played by trained musicians is something I'd like to try. Take myself out of the source playing/recording process as much as possible. I'd still take it into the studio and mess around with it as I usually do, but having a great recording to start with will hopefully lead to a more polished final project. It's like making Sushi: You need a great fish to make great sushi (Recently watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which everyone should see).

I often tend to think that acoustic instruments and synthetic ones are conflictive forces, and the wish to overcome this conflict is by applying filters or "frequency benders" to pianos or stringed instruments. What is your take on this?
That's one of those things about modern music, it has found all these different ways to make the sounds of acoustic instruments fit with any sort of synthetic instrument. For me that area in between is what is really interesting, a humanized digital realm of sound. Sometimes the sounds clash, sometimes they work together wonderfully, and playing with that duality can lead to so many great things in a piece of music.

In your music, you oscillate between organic landmarks in nature and architectural monolithic structures in megacities such as your hometown of Calgary. Do you reserve specific textures or patterns to reflect the respective force? Do you even perceive these forces as antagonistic?
I see it more as moving between the pockets of nature found in cities into areas that lack it. You can find beauty in any environment, whether in a park, a decrepit hotel, or a towering skyscraper, wherever. I guess you could imagine less processed aspects of music as closer to nature (piano, guitar, etc), and more processed aspects being more akin to man-made things (textures, noise, etc), but I don't really feel the necessity of that distinction, since the image would lose itself without the two: This particular meaning of the park would be gone without the skyscraper on the next block over. In that way, I don't think the two are antagonistic in anyway, but only help to enhance the appreciation of the other.

How big an influence has Calgary on your music? Do you stroll through the city with open eyes or visit particular landmarks/points of interest?
Initially Calgary was my main inspiration. The City (2010) was my first EP, and that whole thing was about Calgary, and since then, the numerous walks I've had through downtown have helped me develop many of the ideas that I use in my music today. Things are becoming more abstract now to some extent, but it all started from the downtown core. On the walks, I usually go to many of the same places, some of which I've been going to since I was in High School when I used to go with friends. These days I go alone, but even though many of these places haven't changed in the 10+ years I've been visiting them, I can't seem to get enough of them.

I am a huge fan of the Havana tracks off your split release with Lcoma called Digital Architecture (2013). You have previously revealed that this track has been influenced by the architectural drawings of Lebbeus Woods. How do you approach such microworlds? Do you meticulously research every possible facette of the artist, object or location that is to be transformed into music, or do you trust your instincts and add a pinch of stereotyped particles to a composition?
That particular project was more about the ideas within the drawings and how they could be translated into music. I had been looking for visual ways to represent the kind of music I was feeling, and seeing them just clicked with me, so I began to take the drawings and try to apply them to what I was doing, or at least try to figure out how such a translation might work. There wasn't really any research outside the actual drawings themselves. I stumbled across them after becoming interested in the concept of structure from reading John Cage's 'Silence'. Havana just happened to be the first project I worked on after this discovery.

You are generally fond of picking b/w photographies for your releases. How do you see these harsh contrasts unfold in your music? I have to admit that especially the aforementioned Havana proves to be a dusty amber-colored counterpart. In short: do you want your music to be linked to these contrasts at all costs?
Black and white photographs speak to me in ways that colour photos don't. My wife is a photographer, and she always says that black and white photos take away all the distractions and let you focus on the emotion, and for me that is the most important thing in any artwork/art form. No matter what is happening in a piece of music, I want the focus to be on the emotion, so I guess that's why black and white photos speak so strongly to me, and why I associate them with my music to such a large extent.

Did your long-form piece of 24 minutes A Day As A Blade Of Grass (2013) grow organically or did you glue several archived sequences together and ameliorated them to fit the mood?
For that piece, almost every sound was sourced from a 7-8 minute, multi-layered improvisation (with the exception of one section which was done separately), that grew into these various sections/movements. I kept reusing/recycling/reworking samples in different ways and eventually ended up with four sections, which I then put together with the one other section, so the majority of the piece grew organically. It was actually surprising how much mileage I got from that original recording.

So it is five sections after all which make up A Day As A Blade Of Grass! I'm a sucker for analyzing and guesstimating the amount of distinct parts in a progressive long-form piece, so thanks for clearing this up, Kris! Let's move over to another release: Structure (2013) is an EP that sports four different embroideries and "needleworks," showcasing a greater variety of moods and textures than all of your other works, at least in my humble opinion. The glitzy Rave-like opener is a particularly opalescent gem. Which one of those structures is your favorite?
All of them have some sort of pull for me, but I think Structure II would be the favourite only because the piano in part 2 and 3 of that track were so key in getting the EP released. I had sat on it for the majority of the year and wasn't sure what I was going to do with it and then one day I went back and re-listened to some of it, and specifically that piece made me want to finish the tracks and get it out there. One thing I have trouble with is sitting on music, which is maybe why my releases tend to be shorter in length than the usual. I had originally wanted to release 'Structure' as a full-length, but am happy it turned out being a 4 track EP. I felt it was almost like a reset for me.

Your answer comes as a surprise! To me, Structure looked more like a dob than a polished diamond: self-released without liner notes, no written concept, the most minimal artwork. And now you tell me that this is really more than a mere finger exercise, a conjecture I had all along, but which was altered by the inconspicuous release tactics. Speaking of release tactics: Shifts (2013/14) saw a proper, label-backed release. Yearning timbres, melancholic textures, dark and icy piano notes reign, as do reversely played notes, even though they are not completely petrifying. Would you describe yourself as an uplifting and happy guy or more of a contemplative, pondering one? I'm asking this strange question due to the amalgamation of stage personae and different spheres of actions a musician encounters.
I'd say contemplative (my wife says brooding, but I'm not so sure about that). When I was recording 'Shifts' I had just lost my job, which was a bittersweet time for me. I hadn't necessarily enjoyed my job, but it does make you question things when you get laid off. That probably has something to do with why that album sounds the way it does, melancholic and stripped-down.

Are there genre conventions or trends you tend to deliberately absorb – or ostracize – in your music?
There are definitely some trends I try to stay away from. Fade in/Fade out drone pieces, excessive reverb, long mostly-static pieces, positive/upbeat ambient music, using pads, any of the new age sounding ambient. But I wholeheartedly buy into the textural side of music. Also, I absolutely avoid using a metronome, though I'm not sure if that's a convention or not.

I am glad that you are shying away from the fade-in/fade-out formula. In my reviews, I tend to point the finger to every artist who uses this tradition. Not to ridicule him/her. Not to show how pseudo-witty or harsh I am. But due to the fact that this is an ever-repeated formula in Ambient/Drone music, spawned by the thought that Ambient is relaxing and soothing, even though contemporary artists create aural dioramas that sit on the opposite spectrum! Quite an atavistic remnant. Since I am already talking about the opposite spectrum: would you – never say never – ever want or try to produce a club-oriented track?
I'm not sure. Do they play Alva Noto in clubs in Germany? If so, then yes.

From setlists, I know that several clubs do! The moment Valiska drops a good oldfashioned 4/4 beat, I'm submerging. A perfectly common procedure – adding beats to a track or even starting with a rhythmic skeleton – would be quite the experiment for you, I suppose. But in a way, you do of course experiment all the time in the studio. Do you prefer a stable gadget- and software-related production environment or do you experiment often?
I think software is inherently unstable, and as long as you're not frustrated by it (it's not crashing on you for example), it's always fun to see where you can push the various tools that come with an environment like Logic. Other than the standard functions like recording, mixing, mastering, etc., I like the tools I use to have some sort unknown, something to surprise you, and maybe even change the whole feel of a track. The experimentation side of it is so important: It's often the case that if I happen to record something that surprises me or I connect with in a strong way, that will determine where the rest of the music will go.

And now to the final and obviously cheeky part of the interview. Quick, quick: Ambient or Exotica?


Day or night?


Rounded architecture or an angularly shaped one?


Eurodance or death?


Summer or winter?


Bontempi or Bon voyage?

Sailing away on a junk ship into the evening sky, as a sad dirge is played on a Bontempi: Bon voyage.

Further listening and reading: