Wacław Zimpel is six years old when his musical career takes off. Then the Polish instrumentalist starts with violin classes, but he exchanges the string instrument for the clarinet when he goes to secondary school. He enrolls at the Conservatory to study Western classical music. But by training himself in jazz and folk music from all over the world, being influenced by American minimalists and especially improvising a lot, he creates his own sound. A mix of all that, and his clarinet.
Written by: Loulou Kuster
Photos: Helena Majewska
“I started improvising in high school. I discovered the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane at a young age and by listening to them a lot I learned the art of improvisation. During my studies I got a better musical basis and therefore also a better grip on improvisation. There is a lot of saxophone on jazz records, which really triggered me to look for that same powerful saxophone sound, but on my clarinet. That is very complicated, because the clarinet is actually a very fragile instrument. That is precisely why I found it so interesting to work with it - and not simply pick up a saxophone.”
During his Western classical music training, Zimpel gets to know different forms of jazz even better and expands his knowledge of the classical masters. At the same time, he develops a fascination for Indian classical music on his own. “My uncle lived in Bangalore for a while and often sent me recordings of Indian artists making Carnatic music. That music touched me. The rhythms they use are completely different from how I'm used to hearing and playing them.”
“"The first time I played with musicians in India, I was completely lost. I had no idea what was going on."“
“In 2011, I met Giridhar Udupa, an Indian master from Bangalore. He told me that there is no better place than Bangalore to learn more about Indian classical music. A few months later I decided to visit him there and immerse myself in the Indian rhythms for five months. Here I started, with Giridhar Udupa, among others, the band Saagara, with which I released an album in 2015. 'Saagara' means ocean and with my Polish, and Giridhar Udupa's Indian influences, we wanted to musically imitate two water flows. Since that first experience in India, I come back there almost every year.”
“I've come to see that classical Indian music is more than just drones, more than that repetitive, monotonous sound I used to hear. That sound is just there; they are more concerned with the rhythm and tension between the soloist and the rest of the musicians than the drone sound. A whole new world opened up to me when I realized all that. The structures of the rhythms are so complex and so different from what I'm used to. The first time I played along with the musicians in India, I was completely lost. I had no idea what was going on. I felt like I was back in kindergarten, where everything was new and awkward. Step by step I started to learn the new language, the language of the Indian musicians.”
“Initially I was really looking for the trance I heard from American minimalists like Terry Riley and La Monte Young, who were very much inspired by Indian classical music. But this was not about that trance alone. They enter a trance, because they have mastered that complex music so well that they feel and hear nothing else than that music. I realized that the trance they get into is simply because they disappear on stage, because they are so concentrated. And not because they consciously make 'trance music'. That was completely new to me.”
Even after seven years it is still difficult for Zimpel to play with Indian musicians. What helps him is his background and interest in jazz, the many hours he has spent internalizing all the rules, improvising. “If I was a 'normal' Western classical musician I wouldn't have been able to do this, but jazz has given me a boost. I never wanted to be an Indian classical musician. I am not an Indian; I'm Western and Western schooled, so I'll never be able to be who they are and get the feel for that music the way they feel it. Ultimately, I just wanted to find a way to bring the cultures closer together, more than just putting different cultures side by side on stage.”
“"People often expect sitars from Indian influences, but this influence is deeper. You don't hear it directly, but you do feel it."“
Although as a layman you do not immediately pick out the Indian influences, the rhythm structures that Zimpel has practiced endlessly can certainly be found on his new album Massive Oscillations. “People often expect sitars from Indian influences, but this influence is deeper. You don't hear it directly, but you do feel it. The biggest inspiration has been India, but I wanted to incorporate that influence into my album in a different way.”
Surprisingly enough, Den Bosch has also had an influence in addition to India. Zimpel spent time in the Willem Twee studios. “I was completely mesmerized by the gear they have there. They were all old synthesizers that I didn't really know and because I like to improvise so much, it worked out great. I was able to reinvent those instruments all over again, which gave me ideas that I wouldn't have had otherwise.
“The studio is close to the Sint-Janskathedraal, so you can hear the chimes very well every day. I always had to tune the old synthesizers by ear and something wonderful happened with that. I thought I had tuned the synthesizers to a good scale, but when I tried to record my clarinet over the synthesizers the next day, the sound wasn't right at all. In the end it turned out that I had tuned the synthesizers to the key of the Sint-Jans glockenspiel. I thought that was such a beautiful detail that I left it as it was and tuned the clarinet to it.”
Massive Oscillations was mixed by producer James Holden. The two will meet in 2018 during the Rewire festival in The Hague. Interest in each other was already sparked when Holden had put Zimpel's album Zimpel/Ziolek in his top 10 favorite albums of 2017 a few months earlier. After Holden's concert, the two start talking. We hit it off so well that Zimpel was invited to play at Holden's Animal Spirits live shows. Although Holden is much more into the electronic corner than Zimpel, the two do have some common ground. “Just like me, James has a foundation in violin playing. That is something very small, but because of that we have the same mindset musically. We both also listen a lot to spiritual jazz, we both love Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane. And we both have a fascination for trance in music - not as a genre, but as a concept. That made the collaboration with James very good. So good that we also made a record together that will be released in March. James also made me more and more interested in mixing. He's a sound genius, so it was really interesting to work with him on the record. In the future I will definitely do more of the mixing process myself, but for now I am very grateful to James for his knowledge of Massive Oscillations.”
This article is the latest in a series of articles in collaboration with the Footprints festival. Wacław Zippel plays on Saturday 8 February at this festival in TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht. For more information, click here. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.