This interview with Julia Ulehla and Aram Bajakian was conducted by email during February 2017.
Tony Reif: This is the second Dálava recording, and I’d like to go back to the beginning and ask you how this project started, leading up to the self-titled record you made in New York in 2013 and self-released on Sanasar Records (your label, Aram). Julia, when did you start working on the Moravian folk songs collected in your great grandfather Vladimir Úlehla’s book, and Aram, when did you and Julia start working together and performing them?
Julia Ulehla: The very first time I set eyes on this book was in early 2008, at its reprinting (it was first published in 1949, but suppressed during the communist regime, and reprinted in 2008). I was in San Francisco, I had been singing opera professionally, but I had spent the last few months auditioning for the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards and was about to move to Italy to begin working with them full time. I sat down at the piano and played through a few songs, and I just couldn’t do anything with them. They sounded so sterile in my operatically trained voice, and I just didn’t know how to find the life in them. After about 10 fruitless minutes, I put the book aside and forgot about it. The next time it came into my life was in New York City in 2011. I had spent the last 4 years living in Europe and touring with the Workcenter, and I now had a very different relationship to song. Aram and I were expecting our first child, and I had her little life force growing inside me. In our too-hot, barely furnished apartment in Queens, I sat down on the wooden floor with my big belly and started looking through the songs again. This time it was completely different. I couldn’t believe the diversity and richness of the melodies and their texts, and how wonderful the language felt in my mouth. This moment in time was really a disorienting, transitional time for me. Because I was pregnant, I had to leave an artistic work that I loved with my heart, body and soul, and I didn’t know what I would do next. Aram was working a lot, but as a 6-month pregnant woman who just arrived back in the US with little chance at landing a desk job (who wants to hire someone about to go on maternity leave?), I had free time. I sang these songs by myself, every day, trying to discover how they wanted to be sung. Eventually, I began to see some kind of terrain emerge, and then Aram and I started working on them together, trying to articulate little sound worlds that would bring further life to what I had begun.
Aram Bajakian: We started working on them together during Christmas of 2011. We were visiting Julia’s parents and I had brought an old acoustic guitar to play while we were there. I was getting sick of playing electric guitar, and wanted to find interesting sounds on the acoustic. I was thinking about some of the things I did as a teenager, when I was into Sonic Youth and the beautiful sonic textures that they create. I started putting wine corks under the strings, and using hair ties and bobby pins to change the sound of the guitar. We started using some of these timbres as the basis to explore the songs in the book and because of the unusual sound worlds they created, they would open the door to new possibilities for the songs.
TR: When did you form the band for the recording, and why those musicians (Tom Swafford and Skye Steele, violins, and Shanir Blumenkranz, double bass and gimbri)?
AB: Shanir and I have a long history of playing together – I play guitar in his group Abraxas, which performs music by John Zorn, and he played on my first album on Zorn’s Tzadik label, Aram Bajakian’s Kef. Shanir has the unique ability to play bass in a way that makes you want to dance and his time is rock solid. These are two qualities that might seem obvious for a bass player to have, but I’ve found they are rare. Tom Swafford also plays on the Kef record, and I’ve always loved the way he plays with so much heart, so I thought he’d be great for Dálava. And Skye had subbed for Tom sometimes in Kef, and I thought that they would play well together. Skye gets really unusual sounds on the violin and uses effects, while Tom plays entirely acoustically, so I thought it would be an interesting combination, which it was. At the time we didn’t know that it’s actually quite common in Moravia to have groups with bass and two violins, so it was a fortuitous decision. The band was formed in the same way that a lot of bands get formed in New York. Everyone tours so much, and at the time I was touring a ton in Diana Krall’s band, so we basically got together a few times in the month before the recording in early 2013 to rehearse and arrange the music. Julia and I had frameworks and we tried out ideas until we came upon something that worked. Everyone is so creative so it’s a pretty easy process.
TR: When you moved to Vancouver were you already thinking about putting together a new band here that you could develop these songs with? Did you already have some musician contacts in the Vancouver scene – so much smaller than New York’s creative music scene! And once you’d formed the band, how did the two of you work with those musicians to “grow” the songs in different directions?
AB: We weren’t thinking about a band. I think we decided to move in April 2013, and moved two months later in June, so it was a really quick transition. Like all things, we just jumped 100% into it. That summer I was on tour in Europe. I played at the Saalfalden festival in Austria in August, and the saxophonist Briggan Krauss was on the gig – he said you have to reach out to Peggy Lee and Dylan van der Schyff, that they were wonderful people and wonderful musicians.
JU: We moved to Vancouver so that I could begin graduate studies in ethnomusicology at the University of British Columbia. And yes, we were thinking about continuing the project, but as life goes, we were expecting another baby! She was born during the second month of my first semester at school, and all of this human creative activity postponed the musical creative activity for a while. We released the first Dálava record in 2014, when we were already living here, and we had to find a band of local musicians for the record release. Peggy and Dylan had invited us over soon after we arrived – we had a BBQ at their house – and I remember shyly talking about our project in its humble beginning stages. The record hadn’t come out yet, or even been mastered. In fact, Dylan mastered it!
So, our second daughter was born, and then a few months later we started working on the material from the first record with the new Vancouver band including Peggy and Dylan. Somehow Tyson and Colin got roped in, I don’t remember how though. Aram will have to tell you. We realized that something entirely different was possible with this new band of really beautiful musicians and improvisers, and so we started working on new material.
AB: Peggy and Dylan have been so important to us, both musically and to see how they have a beautiful, loving family (their kids are about 10 years older than ours) while being such masterful artists. In New York, a lot of people would say that you can’t be an artist and devote time to kids, which I always thought was bullshit, but it was really nice to see how Peggy and Dylan do it. I started playing in a group called Handmade Blade with Peggy and JP Carter. I had also started a trio with Colin on bass to play music from my album there were flowers also in hell. It’s really a blues and RnB rock album, with Shahzad Ismaily playing on the original record – and Colin was able to conjure up that feel, straddling the line between noise, blues, RnB, and the Beatles. I honestly forget how Tyson started playing in the band. We probably played at some sessions together, and had dinner a few times and I knew he played accordion, which I love. He has a great unassuming vibe and he’s so chill, kind of like the opposite of New York. At first I remember thinking, “Man when is this guy going to play?!?!” But he’s like a ninja: you don’t know he’s there but then he kills you with something that’s so beautiful or perfectly placed.
I also asked Tanya Kalmanovitch, who is Canadian, and who now teaches at New England Conservatory, who I should reach out to in Vancouver, and she mentioned Ken Pickering and Rainbow Robert at Coastal Jazz, both of whom have been incredibly supportive. We’re really grateful to be a part of this community. And while it’s true that the scene here is smaller, one of the downsides of NYC is that everyone is so busy, that you don’t really have a chance to grow a band before recording. The first Dálava album sounds great, because everyone plays so well. But here, we were really able to rehearse and experiment and try ideas with the band, and try out performing the songs.
JU: When I began graduate studies, I had no idea that Moravian traditional music would become the subject of my PhD dissertation, which it has, and furthermore it has fueled the subsequent performance work with Dálava immensely. During my second semester in 2013, I did a directed reading with my great-grandfather’s book (from which all the melodies come) and I began translating it with my father. My great-grandfather’s ideas about song are so inspiring and wonderful, and it has been an enormous source of inspiration. And each member of the band contributes in particular ways to grow the songs in different directions. First of all, even though it is smaller, Vancouver has a really wonderful creative music scene with many amazing musicians. And somehow the atmosphere is calmer, not as frantic or intense, and people have more time to let the music grow in an unforced, unpremeditated way. At least, that has been my experience in developing the Dálava material. Peggy is such a deep musician – she brings a big range from extreme delicacy to scratchy frenetic, and there is always so much movement and flow in her playing. And Tyson is in my opinion the MVP of this record. Every time there is a beautiful sound and you don’t know who it is, it’s Tyson. He has impeccable taste, and he understands nuance and style so well – from the tinkling bells sounds of “Fašanku” to the conjuring of 19th century piano on “Pasl Jano kone”. And Colin also has amazing style, and sense of playful spontaneity – he lays down wonderfully thick bass lines, and also does the improvisatory feedbacking sounds on “Dyby na moja”, which are so beautiful. And we didn’t have a percussionist on the first record, and Dylan has facilitated a whole other thing on this one. There are times when we lock into this groove – I especially feel it on “Ej, na tej skale and Pred nasim”, where all of the space around starts to articulate with the rhythm, almost like a sonic sculpture if that makes sense, and it is just wonderful to be inside it, and it couldn’t happen without him. And I have nothing but wonder for Aram and his creativity and life force. He turns things to magic, and is full of ideas, and also has such abundant creative force inside him.
TR: Julia, your vocals are at the heart of this music, and of course you have a special relationship with it. These songs are all from the small town of your father’s ancestors, in South Moravia near the Slovakian border, and they were collected over a number of decades by your great-grandfather Vladimír Úlehla (1888-1947), a who was a biologist and devoted amateur ethnomusicologist. You’re working with his transcriptions, and his concept of folk songs as living organisms must have inspired your ideas about how they could be re-created in another time and place (urban North America) with a very different set of musical cultures than the long-gone one they are rooted in. Can you both take us through the evolution of your thinking and approach over time, as well as the process of arranging the songs on the two recordings?
JU: I’ll be honest, there is something that has changed in my thinking and approach over time, and it influences the musical result no doubt, but it isn’t really musical thinking, or even premeditated or by design. It is something that has to do with interrelation, responsibility, and humility. When I began this project, it was really between me and the song transcriptions on the printed page. It grew to include Aram, and then our New York collaborators. But until we went to the Czech Republic to perform this music, I had no sense of responsibility for what I had done, whether to the music, to the people who practice this music now in the Czech Republic, to the place itself, to my ancestors, to the people who kept this music alive through the centuries. And slowly, slowly, I am getting schooled. During the past year, there have been a few instances that I just can’t explain, moments when I felt overwhelmingly confronted by someone – maybe my ancestors – and even the landscape and environment in Moravia itself, all of which have made me much more aware of the task I have engaged in, and the weight that it carries. At the beginning of this project, my primary concern was for the quality of the artistic product but now, I am not just standing face to face with myself as an artist, but with the people who came before me, with those who I encounter now, and those who will encounter our work in the future. I don’t mean to sound grandiose, and I don’t wear it on my sleeve, but somehow the perils, problems, and legitimacy of what I am doing are now apparent to me. My conscience is awake to them. At the same time, as a performer, I feel as though I can give space to those things in the act of performance to a fuller extent, almost as if I pull the curtain of myself aside, and let the others in.
But to answer your question specifically, exploring the concept of folk song as a living organism is at the heart of this work. That has been our first goal, how to find life, and then how to grow it. We have a much different enculturation than practitioners of this music in the Czech Republic, but also, it must be said that musicians in the Czech Republic also take many different approaches to the traditional song repertoire as well. There are more conservative practitioners, and also extremely experimental ones, and there is a long history of artistic appropriation of folk materials – the composers Dvořák and Janáček are notable examples.
There are certain features in any given melody that suggested a certain musical language to us. For example, in the song “Ej, na tej skale”, the words say, “On the tall rock, on the wide rock, seven pairs of eagles. Don’t wait for me my love, my most beloved girlfriend, don’t wait for me at home.” What a startling, stunning portent – seven pairs of eagles. A journey from which one does not return seems to be evoked, and we wanted to capture that oracle-like quality, and also something of the force of movement of the journey, hence the galloping brevity of our version. But in order to begin working on any song, it has to do something to me first, something that I can’t come up with on my own, or isn’t something that I decide to do. I tried to describe this process at a colloquium once, and a man asked me, “Isn’t it just interpretation?”, but I can’t see it that way. I feel like I have to give myself to the song, and it does what it wants. So if anything, it is the song’s interpretation, the song is the author, not me. But once it is doing what it wants, I can pay attention, and I can remember and react, and have some sense of its quality. In the song “Fašanku”, after singing it for some time, I began to feel like something really cold and icy was there, something brittle, shatter-able, shocking. This brief little song tells of a murder: “Carnival, Carnival, I killed my love, I killed her in the morning.” That’s all it says. The quiet cold of the morning, when the silence and stillness is almost unbearably oppressive, when the horrific thing had been done and had yet to be discovered, all of these things kept coming to me, and I wanted to find some kind of musical language to express that cold, precarious, crystalline.
AB: With both recordings, Julia will find the songs in her great-grandfather’s book that speak to her, and we’ll go through them, and I try and find a way to play something that keeps the living thing going in what she is singing. Sometimes it might be a texture or timbre. Other times it might be a chord progression, or something stylistic. For example, I heard a Reggaeton beat under the melody of “Dyž sem ja šel”, and I think that Reggaeton and Moravian folk music couldn’t be more different stylistically. But I heard that music every day for years in New York, and the rhythm is very much in me – and somehow I felt it would work with the melody, and lo and behold, it did. Likewise with “Studena rosenka”, it’s such a delicate melody, and performing it live is so intimate, and I think the way I play guitar in it helps support that intimacy. It gives Julia a platform for us to trust each other in that way, while on stage.
TR: Another really interesting aspect of your performance, Julia, is a part of your history as a singer, and in particular the five years you spent working and performing with the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Italy. Quoting from their website: “At the Workcenter [Grotowski] carried out the last phase of his life’s research, which has come to be known as Art as vehicle, in which, as in certain old traditions, the attention for art goes together with the approach of the interiority of the human being. Presently the Workcenter carries forward Art as vehicle research while exploring how the essential aspects of this research can unfold within creations that are destined for a variety of settings and contacts with observers, spectators and witnesses.” Can you tell us about your experience at the Workcenter, and how it has shaped your approach to learning and performing these traditional songs, as well as the concept and practice of art as a vehicle of ritual expression linking the performer and the audience members? The connection in a live situation can be very powerful, and really sets your performances apart from those of other vocalists I’ve seen. It can be a real heart-to-heart communication in which the authenticity of the performance is key, but apart from the emotional connection you make I think there is a theatrical element as well – that is, you are embodying and expressing the meaning of a song as well as its sound, and our knowing what the lyrics are saying (and being able to ponder them, as some of the songs are quite elliptical and deep) adds a lot of richness to the experience. In some way you are becoming the people and situations the songs are about, and the ritual aspect of the performance is almost like a séance, or at least a dialogue with the old ones. And in that dialogue, what do you think they have to tell us? Are there things they knew that we’ve forgotten?
JU: I wrote about this a little bit already, but there is certainly more to say. My experience at the Workcenter profoundly changed the way I understood singing, the human voice, and even the act of musicking. In so very many ways. We began working with ritual songs from West Africa and Haiti. In its beginning, 30 years ago, when Grotowski left commercial theater to undertake his theatrical research behind the closed doors of the Workcenter, two Haitian artists introduced a number of ritual songs that became the focus of the research. When I joined the company in 2007, they had been working with these songs for decades, in a daily practice, many hours a day. The work ethic there is really extraordinary. But what is even more extraordinary is what they do around song. I began to see how certain life forces were contained in the songs themselves, almost like when a certain person and a certain song interacted, amazing and beautiful and sometimes scary things would happen. I struggled a lot when I got there. My singing voice was so groomed by the training I had undergone that is was extremely difficult for me to understand that I could sing in such a way that I wouldn’t control, that there were other pathways a song could take, other resonating spaces, other trails of life than I could imagine. Slowly, when I would catch a brief glimpse of this, and my voice and body would all of sudden do something incredibly different than I had ever heard or known it to do, I would become fascinated by the sound, and lose the process of life. It really was a long, slow, difficult process to unlearn my training. But slowly I began to catch it, and I began to develop a relationship to it. I had the sense of a fine, little, silvery, filigree worm or tendril that appeared in my torso while singing, and I can help it to live, tend to it, and ask it where it wants to go. Some days it was painful, literally extremely physically painful, especially in moments in my head, or chest, or stomach, like it had to travel through gunky knots in order to make its way. I don’t mean to say it was like this for everyone, but this was what I experienced. And also, along with this, one day I realized that in some way, my singing was really an act of devotion. I am not religious, I don’t ascribe to formal religion, but it was as if I realized suddenly that singing was a matter of the soul, and that I had to give something, my self had to disappear somehow. Even my desire to be a singer, to be a musician, had never been just about the music, even if I had never realized that until this moment. I also realized that I wanted more than anything to be able to sing with as much of my human self as I possibly could. I wanted and needed to marry the meaning of what I was doing to the sound that issued from my body, and from what my body was doing. These were realizations I can never turn back from. I haven’t been able to return to classical singing, even if I love the music, because I just can’t find the way back from here. And it is a life’s work, it grows little by little, sometimes not according to effort, but almost by grace. When there is a heart to heart communication between myself and the audience, as you describe, I can only say that some small part of my need has been realized. I sometimes have the sense that form disappears, the containers of physical bodies, and it is the most delightful thing I know.
And yes, I do think there is much to learn from the old ones who show up, and we need it and they need it. Like we discover our humanity through disappearing and reappearing in each other. It is quite esoteric and opaque what I am saying, and I only have intuitions about this, and much to learn, but this is how I sense it right now. The Dálava project is a new frontier in terms of this research around song that I was participating in at the Workcenter, because I am working with songs from my people, at least, my father’s people. In that way it has become a lot more personal. It is not abstract; I feel indebted and responsible to specific people I know (my grandfather, his father, and so on), and I carry the weight of my appropriation.
TR: Your grandfather Jiří Úlehla was a folk singer and we also hear him performing the first and last song on the record in archival recordings from the 1950s. Tell us about him. Did you know him? And when you listen to him performing, what do you hear?
JU: Yes, I knew him. My father left communist Czechoslovakia when he was 19, in 1968, and he was not allowed to return until the Velvet Revolution for fear of imprisonment. But, my sister and mother and I were allowed to go, and we began making trips there when I was 5 years old. He died a few years ago, and needless to say, it really shakes me up to hear him. I think his singing is just beautiful – so open hearted and expansive, and with nothing artificial or forced. My dad has a great story about him: during the communist years, he met his parents in Constance, Switzerland, at the home of one of their old friends, who were also Moravian. Besides a few rare occasions, my dad didn’t really know Moravian traditional music until I began working with it. He didn’t like it as a kid, and then he moved away, so he missed it in a sense. But in Constance, late one night, his dad and the husband of the couple they were visiting began singing. My dad describes the scene as something rather magical. He says the two men, both of whom were short in stature, slowly became like giants, as the songs began animating them with bigger and bigger life force. He says he’ll never forget it as long as he lives. I never saw my děda (grandpa) in this way—I can only imagine it. He taught me a lot of things – how and when to pick fruit from trees and how to climb them, make apple cider, look for mushrooms, bushwhack through fields and forests, cut down Christmas trees. He was really critical of America and American individualistic values, and secretly I fear his censure of what we have done, even beyond the grave. But there have been a few times when my cousin has heard me sing, especially in a big-hearted, open, almost hollering way – not unlike his style in fact – when she says, “I think děda would have really loved your singing.”
TR: Aram, are you more or less the musical director of the band? – anyway, for you, what are the criteria that make for a successful performance, either when you and Julia are performing as a duo, or in a band situation? There has to be a dialogue in which everyone’s involved, right? But there’s also the idea of improvisation or freedom of expression within the parameters of the song – its lyrics and the arrangements. And, in spite of the genre-agnostic approach to the arrangements and playing, that brings it closest to (avant) jazz, doesn’t it?
AB: I would say that both Julia and I are the directors. Every decision that we make in terms of the music is so that she can turn “on” like they did at the Workcenter. It’s really tough to describe, but like you said, there’s not a lot of singers that do that. The instrumentalists have to support that as well. Generally, I don’t like to be too nitpicky in my bands – a big part of the process is thinking about which instrumentalist will bring the music to life. Then you kind of need to step out of the way. It’s always such a drag playing in bands where the leader is nitpicking every little detail, so I try not to do that once I’ve chosen who is going to be in the band. I’ll give a direction, and then let them follow their own take and interpretation of the songs. For example, in “Vyletěla”, we knew we were hearing an overdriven Hofner, like on all those great Beatles tracks. Colin was psyched to do that so I just let him go with it, but then didn’t give him any other directions – and what he did with his instinct was amazing. But there was another track, “Na strážnickem rynku”, that when we recorded it initially with the full band, the feel wasn’t there. There was something missing, so we went back and decided to do it just as a quartet, with Peggy on cello and Tyson on accordion. And it worked beautifully that way – I think it’s the most beautiful, heart-aching track on the album now. So we trust that instinct.
The other important thing is that we don’t go in and edit the music to death, or do a million takes of each song. We did two or three takes, and then did very little editing. You can hear little mistakes in it, but it makes the music stay alive. I can’t stand hearing music that’s been edited to death. When you listen to all the great recordings from the 60s, there’s all these “mistakes” on them that today would be edited out – so we’re going for that aesthetic. Like Lou Reed always said to me, if Walk on The Wild Side had been recorded an hour earlier or later, the saxophone solo that we all love would have been different. So we took that aesthetic, which I think is really rare now, and captured a moment. And you can feel it when you hear the record. You can really feel it.
JU: I just want to add that it isn’t just me “turning on”. I think it is everybody, all of us making music, even the audience too, and that it is contagious. It has to do with life, and growing it, circulating it, following it. For me, the musical decisions I make have to do with growing that life force inside the melodies, giving it more favorable conditions to expand and articulate, and I guess it is based on some kind of intuition. This may be different for Aram, but for me it never begins with an arbitrary idea, but always is catalyzed by some experience or event that takes me by surprise, which I then try and coax into further elaboration.
TR: In the booklet, Julia, you write a bit about the transformations that occur in almost all the songs, their characters or narratives. Folk tales of course are full of such magical transformations of an often grim or difficult reality, that’s not unusual. In your studies at UBC you’ve been focusing on these songs and texts in greater depth than most traditional or neo-traditional singers would normally subject them to or perhaps even be able to bring to them, in terms of analytic models, historical context, etc. And in my mind the idea of transformation within the songs seems to intersect in some way with Vladimir’s concept of songs as living organisms linked to their ecological environs and subject to various stages of evolution in their musical characteristics. Of course it’s the nature of folk music to both deal with topical situations and also adapt to changing social, cultural and political forces. These songs were planted in the earth of an agricultural society, in a time before Czechoslovakia was a nation-state, but as you’ve mentioned they are still performed in the Czech Republic in a range of styles from traditional to more experimental. Now that you are intentionally subjecting them to further, and often radical, musical evolution, how have people there, and here, responded to that? And if there was one “message” that is becoming clear in the process of studying and performing this repertoire, what would it be?
JU: For me the biggest shock in performing these songs in the Czech Republic is that people there have very real, deep, and personal relationships to this music, and so they have very strong opinions about what we have done with it. Somehow growing up mostly in America, I just don’t have an innate or intuitive sense of a unified body of traditional music to which “Americans” relate. It just doesn’t exist in the extremely diverse and heterogeneous society of the US (at least, let’s hope it stays that way under the new administration). I have less of a sense of this in Canada, where I haven’t lived for very long, although I will say that the ways in which I have been fortunate to witness Indigenous communities maintain and care for their heritage has made a strong impression on me. In the Czech Republic in Moravia, people learn the traditional melodies in school, and there are many efforts in place to keep traditional culture relevant and alive. And here, most audience members don’t have any idea what the traditional incarnations of this music sounds like or what the words mean (unless I translate them), and so they in some sense have an easier time beholding what we do from a purely musical or performative perspective. I guess if there were one message that is becoming clear in the process of studying and performing this repertoire, it would have to do with the question of one’s relationship to culture and one’s humanity. It is hard to perform this music in the Czech Republic. Even though most people love what we do, I know there are some people that will hate it. But even that discomfort is necessary, because it catalyzes many questions. What is authentic? What do you lose when you leave your place of origin? Do you know where you come from? Do you know your ancestors, and can you care for them or communicate with them? At one of our performances in Brno this summer, a woman was irately complaining to a friend of mine, “If her great-grandfather heard this, he would kill her!” He told her she was free to leave, and there was no need for her to stay. She replied, “No, no, I want to stay to see what happens.” It would be false if I tried to render these songs in a traditional way. I didn’t grow up around them, and as a friend of mine who is an excellent and renowned folk violinist said, “No one can play Horňácko (a sub-region of Moravia) music better than people who grew up in Horňácko” (and he is not from Horňácko). So, what I am doing with these songs is trying to give them as much as I can, as humbly and truthfully as I can, hybrid-American-diaspora-girl though I may be.