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Blanka Barbara [Interview]

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London (UK) based, Polish DJ, Live Act, Producer and 'Rabbit Records' label owner, Blanka brings her experience from being a professionally trained classical pianist and composer into the world of electronic music. With her first release in early 2020 and being relatively new under this guise, her body of work till date speaks volumes on Blanka's quality over quantity ethos. Apart from putting out music under her own imprint 'Rabbit Records', she's worked with a number of fantastic labels, highlighted by her releases on Mango's 'Mango Alley', John 00 Fleming's 'J00F Aura' and Lane 8's 'This Never Happened'. This week sees Blanka making her debut on Praveen Achary's Juicebox Music with 'Celestial Trail / Betrayer Moon', alongside remixes from Funksun and Forty Cats.

Progressive Astronaut caught up with Blanka to learn more about the release of 'Celestial Trail / Betrayer Moon', her studio process, musical background, future plans, and more. Enjoy.

Hi Blanka, thanks for joining us. What is your current mood and what was the last piece of music you listened to?

Hello guys, thank you for inviting me to do this extensive interview for you. Big pleasure!

I feel focused at the moment, immersed in thoughts about the future and the meaning of music we create. Lately, I’ve been listening quite a bit to Susumu Yokota, and how honest and free his music is. “Gekkoh” is a pearl that’s been occupying my headphones most recently.

How has the start to the year been for you and what are your plans for the coming week?

January has already been filled with new opportunities, which makes me really excited to drive forward. I think I have a dozen or so remix requests and ideas for collaborations - the first months will definitely be dedicated to production. The Magnetic Magazine featuring me in their “Top 50 producers to watch in 2023” article is both humbling and a big honour. On a different front, I do have several gigs coming up, with an ambitious live set kicking things off in London on the 4th of February.

Can you name five tracks that were important in your musical development and why they are so significant for you?

This is nearly impossible, as I feel easily inspired by music, especially if it comes from a different genre other than the one I am applying myself to at the moment. However, there have been several turning points in my development where music played a key role.

→ Beethoven - 2nd movement of Symphony No. 7 – it was very early on when I understood what the term “perfection” in music means. It sounds very grand, but for a young child this is a mind-bending experience to discover something that generates these thoughts. I was about 9 when I heard this piece for the first time and I keep returning to it. To me it has the perfect balance between the intellectual and the emotional.

→ Delia Derbyshire - Liquid Energy – apart from being genuinely fascinated by Delia’s life, bravery and sheer creativity, I find her experimental works hugely inspiring. Something diabolical hidden within, hypnotizing even after a few seconds of listening. Pre-techno wizardry!

→ Avoure - Aura – hearing this track absolutely randomly in 2018 made me fall in love with it. I think this whole time before then, I considered writing and producing music which was exclusively complex. As in full of layers, harmonies, telling a complicated story - often deliberately overcomplicating things for the audience! It was the time when I played a lot of ambient and complex soundscapes at art galleries and small venues around England. It is hard to know why, but this track stuck with me as a guiding star of what sounds relatively clear, clean if you will, but can still portray beautiful emotions. And the realization came - the emotions you feel listening to a piece of music are YOUR OWN, and not necessarily locked within the music itself. Music is just a perfect conduit, a medium, a mirror for your soul.

→ Cid Inc. - Fragile Circle – the utter beauty of this production struck me when I heard it the first time. I was obsessed, couldn’t stop listening on repeat! The melancholy, paired ideally with carefree emotion, the cautious yet precise percussion stitched together with miscellaneous subdued sounds creating this beautiful quilt of sound-journey. The bountiful pads and warm bass were what inspired me the most - it feels like the sound is hugging you. I very much admire the production skill with which the sounds weave this beautiful wordless story.

→ Maceo Plex - Mutant Robotics – one of my most favourite pieces of dance music ever created. I had it in nearly all my live sets before coming to see Maceo Plex DJ live when he came to London to play for several hours at Fabric in 2019. This whole journey, watching the master at work, was unforgettable. But when this track hit the dance floor, it was something else - the gates of heaven and hell opened up and sucked everyone into this relentlessly magnetic danse macabre. I need more mutant disco in my diet so I can play this track more often.

The Blanka Barbara alias is relatively new moniker with your first release coming in 2020, what musical projects preceded this (if any) and how was the Blanka Barbara alias born out of your musical past?

The shift in professional interest in what music to compose, and subsequent birth of Blanka Barbara moniker, came naturally. Although electronic music was never in my main interest growing up (since Chopin and Beethoven occupied most of my time), some tunes made my ears pop and listen carefully. In 2010s Deadmau5 and Eric Prydz’s tracks painted a new picture of electronic music that I never knew existed - long tracks with a sense of movement, a story, a destination, that were also quite poetic sometimes. Imagine: at this time I am working hard to compose a song cycle for viola, cello and mezzo which would lead to a scholarship and studying at Birmingham Conservatoire - this electronic music in my headphones was a quiet magnet and an inspiration to get influenced by different genres for what I was mainly composing then.

There, in Birmingham, I enjoy more artistic freedom from the Composition Department and gradually start using electronics more bravely, experiment with live effects, add layers of synth sounds, create complex soundscapes for art galleries, write music for theatre and silent films, etc. This adventure ends with a fully staged opera “Out at Sea” for 5 singers, a chamber ensemble, plus electronics which drive the storytelling and help create obscure scenes on stage. By that time Ableton became my go-to software.

I suppose at a certain point letting go of acoustic instruments and devoting everything to a digital domain made a lot of sense - that is the point when I start showcasing this new approach live in tiny venues and cocktail bars around England, which gently demanded some “beats” to let the music move the crowd. That was my entrance into the dance music scene - painfully gradual, and completely backwards. It’s only later I start to get absolutely struck by the whole history of dance music, learn about disco in the 70s and the birth of techno in the 80s, and suddenly realize: if Mozart was composing music today, he would probably be writing electronic dance music.

Tell us about living in London, how has it influenced your music taste and direction? Or has it at all?

London is oversaturated with events, I suppose we all know that. Which makes it incredibly interesting, challenging to attend every event (even harder to host), and massively inspiring whenever you do. In London, there is no shortage of creative minds that create exciting projects and venues that pride themselves in offering mind-bending experiences.

Perhaps an event that had opened my mind a lot was Max Cooper’s live performance at the Barbican. Paired with video designed specifically for each track by a different artist, this made it one of the best electronic musical events where the audience was sitting. Every track, every video carefully calibrated to fit the mood and the story told something new and showed us a different, mesmerising universe. And you cannot imagine what the kick in his “Void” track felt like when you have been fed out-of-the-box beatless electronic for the past 30 minutes. That’s what you call a true build-up! Genius!

Dance music naturally occupies my mind almost 100% of the time these days. “Where to take the music, what it means to me, what would I like to do with it, should I experiment more often, would the audience enjoy it?” I think genres have little to do with this. Finding the right avenue is key. “Why wouldn’t clubs do something curious and unusual?” And right at this point I attend ‘Fabric at the Opera’ in March 2022. Fabric brought dance electronic music to the iconic London Coliseum. What?! It was bloody amazing! We were dancing on the balcony to beats dished out by the likes of Frank Wiedemann, Rival Consoles, LCY, Josh Caffé, and at a certain point I looked at the people next to me (absolutely peaking with excitement!) and the balcony was shaking so hard, I thought the whole 120-year-old venue was going to collapse - we danced with passion! At the Opera House!! I’d have loved to play one of these events if Fabric ever wanted to repeat this experiment.

If you were a tour-guide for nightlife in London/UK, what would be the clubs you’d take the people to see and what local DJs do they need to hear?

To be honest, I am a lousy party-goer. I mainly go to events to experience music - that means that I follow the artists that come to London and try to see them DJ or do a Live set. The venue itself doesn’t have to be a club, like The Beams for example or the Barbican, where they host events organized by external presenters. Most recent gig I attended at The Beams in November 2022 was quite unique as it started at 12:00 and was done by 23:00 - I’d never seen Denis Horvat play at 14:00 before!

Of course, if you are a tourist in town, then the major venues with serious international reputation should be on your list - Ministry of Sound, Fabric, E1. They have a rich array of artists coming, and each of those venues have their own wide artistic focus. Keep your eye on other venues like The Steelyard, where I played a really adventurous pagan techno set, Infernos, The Grand, Duo, Queen Of Hoxton, or Sway - all depends on your musical tastes and party needs. I would also suggest coming to Printworks soon, because 2023 is their last season before closing!

And to add to that, what have been your favourite venues to perform at in the UK and why?

Low Profile Studios is a cool venue in the Northern part of the city, with two floors, and the top one, more like a balcony area overlooking the dance floor below, can be used as a chill-out space. I played my first post-covid party there and it was brilliant! My records were a mix of progressive, melodic techno, and some adventurous tracks that hit the well-calibrated soundsystem, highlighting the experience of coming back together to dance and enjoy lockdown-free life, - it was superb!

I loved playing a pagan techno set at The Steelyard for over 1,000 people last year. It was wild! Every member of the audience dressed creatively and became a magical creature for the night. My DJ set was carefully aligned with aerial performers, so that was a unique experience. We also had some semi-staged theatre-like performances happening and music played a big part of that. I suppose the strongest impact had the ‘Birth of Spring’ scene where I completely changed gears and played a magical beatless tune to mark this moment which shortly transformed into a full-on blazing dance track.

If you are not DJing or socializing at clubs, where do we find you in London? And doing what?

London has a massive arts scene. Like a magnet, it attracts flocks of creators from different fields into truly iconic venues, like Southbank Centre for example. If I’m not at Spitalfields or exploring the streets of Shoreditch, you’ll find me at smaller art galleries hunting for inspiration. Going to listen to other genres of music also helps gain fresh perspective. One can only spend so much time in the studio without feeling drained or as if all the stories have been told through music, right?

When you were first getting started in production did you have someone help you or are you completely self-taught? And what would you recommend new producers do to help with the learning curve of production?

I’m fixated on how I want things to sound and what they would mean, musically speaking. At the beginning of this process this was both good and bad - good because I feel that I own my achievements 100%, and bad because certain things could've been avoided or there are shortcuts I could’ve used which could speed up the learning process. I have to add I was allergic to YouTube tutorials back then. I would rather listen to a piece of music carefully and try to analyse how it was created. Still, even with tutorials widely accessible, I feel that unless I do something in a project myself I won’t have the full ownership of the process. In addition to that, to me it all comes down to how experienced your ears are in the genre of your primary focus.

A message to new producers: don’t worry, things take time. You will get it.

I’ve read that the piano has been a special instrument for you and in fact you are a professionally trained classical pianist, tell us how this has this has been an integral part of your production process.

In 90% of my projects the ideas come from improvisation on a piano or a keyboard. For instance, in “Prudence” I played the melody with the chords as a piece of music for piano. I then separated the harmony, bass line and the melody into relevant instruments responsible for each part. This approach is how I would treat writing a score for the symphonic piece. This isn’t new of course - Deadmau5 talks about this as his go-to approach: come up with a chord progression, take the bass line for the bass and use the rest for pads and chorus, plus your melody should revolve around the notes you’ve used in your chords. Clear and surgical.

Sometimes I might use the piano line as a separate body of sound, like in “Obscure Light of Dawn” or “Days Don’t Stop For No One”. Here, the piano has been improvised and stays in its ‘pure’ form, while other instruments and channels support this particular layer.

You have a new EP ‘Celestial Trail / Betrayer Moon’, out this week on Juicebox Music, tell us about the release, and how do these tracks showcase your current sound?

Ironically, neither track features piano! ha!

Essentially, I wanted to create a couple of groovy tracks which would also be musically hypnotising. The movement in the bass is the main drive enriched by a clear percussion with subdued organic elements to spicy up the sonic matter. Melodies are reserved strictly for breaks, as that is the constant element in my productions - a musical idea carrying the listener.

I’m really happy about the release, love both remixes, and truly appreciate the support from the whole Juicebox Music team.

What does your set-up look like? Do you favor physical gear over digital? And what studio tools featured heavily in the writing of these tracks?

There are positives to staying in-the-box as it allows for more control and precision. However, outboard gear provides that extra level of insecurity and it’s a guaranteed way to find something no one else will ever be able to repeat, not even you yourself! Digital synths are great in this respect - like my Korg Modwave - a combination of the two worlds with the possibility to ‘save’ the new sound. Otherwise, a small touch of a knob - like on Behringer Neutron - and you’ve probably lost that particular sound forever! When I have studio sessions like that, I find a new way to manipulate the sound on the hardware, try to get as much recorded as possible, and then work with audio files. If something doesn’t sit right, well, I better try and record it again.

Juicebox Music is not a label you have released with before and yet you had full confidence to do an artist EP straight away, tell us why the label is a good home for you music and why you had that level of comfort to release an original project with them?

Juicebox Music has always been on my radar since I got into progressive house. I often include their tracks in my mixes curated especially for Proton, called “BBBoiler”. Their selection of what to release is meticulous, the result is top notch and has been since the label started to function. So, you see, the level of comfort of the label team to release my music was a humbling moment for me.

Let’s talk about production a bit more for a moment, where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play? And was there anything that inspired the tracks which make up your ‘Celestial Trail’ EP?

Music lives constantly within me. It occupies my brain waves. The urge to start producing may come from simply entering the studio. But I’ve noticed that really significant productions come when the waves become disturbed by something unusual, become electric. Anything can be a disturbance, and can strike at any moment. An unusual graffiti on a building can sometimes be the trigger to think that a certain pad needs some saturated 8-bit textures. Or a view to the city quietly sleeping at night might mean that a solo instrument would sound much more beautiful in complete silence.

In “Betrayer Moon” for example that meant calming down the groove while leaving this hectic synth going to keep the attention, to not slip off the tracks and let this train ride into the darkness. (London has my favourite tube line called DLR, which runs on tracks above the city - the view is really pretty, especially at dusk.) The fat melodic synth is wolves crying at the moon in highs and Geralt of Rivia’s stare, majestic and confident, in the lows.

Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?

I love looking over the city for a bit and focus before I get to produce. Since I work at different times of night and day, the city skyline always looks differently. I admire the colours and the gliding clouds.

Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice? And who is someone you share your new music with first for feedback?

If I’d allowed myself to work without deadlines, I don’t think I would ever finish a piece of music. There is always something I could change: volume of a particular channel, slight EQ adjustments, the waveshape of an oscillator, different compression. It could literally be endless.

Often a piece is finished within one go and requires adjustments to get mixing right. Sometimes though, the project needs to lie for a bit if I feel my judgement is suffering, and I’ll come back to it in a few days.

What is the task you enjoy the most when producing and what would you prefer someone else to do?

Production for me is a holistic thing. Even if I collaborate, I still view the music-making process as one. The track grows and develops gradually and should not become a pile of separate ideas shoved together in one project file. Every element needs a reason to co-exist with the others.

What would be a musical extravagance for your studio you would pay for, if you were very wealthy?

A house! A big house where I can have more space for the studio. I am so curious to experience the true meaning of having speakers really far away from the room walls. Does a listening experience without any anomalies even exist??

Now let’s talk about DJing for a moment, it’s a unique discipline at the border between presenting great music and creating something new with it, between composition and improvisation to an extent. How would you describe your approach to it?

Thank you for this brilliant question! To me the selection of tracks and then mixing them are two separate art forms. The destination plays a crucial role here, as for a radio show the process of selection and mixing would look very differently to DJing at a venue.

Selection for me is key, I can compare it to choosing the right fabric for your desired piece of clothing. Apart from only picking new tracks I often reach for older gems that contain the right energy. Essentially, both selection and mixing have many common elements with production - the result is to create a smoothly functioning lengthy musical quilt for others to admire.

Can you tell me a bit about how your work as a DJ has influenced your view of music, your way of listening to tracks and perhaps also, your work as a producer?

As my passion for electronic music originated from listening rather than going to the clubs, my first electronic productions were devised from the composition point of view. For my first ever DJ gig I bought a lot of dance tracks that I simply enjoyed listening to. The dancefloor verified so many of my choices, but it was tricky to create momentum. Some incredibly well-produced tracks with inspiring melodies didn’t work in the club environment at all, but some other tracks which to me were just there to ‘fill the gaps’ made the crowd move (and yes, I secretly take notes). I find that the more I DJ the better or more educated my production process is.

If you could set up an event with a line-up of five artists of your choice, who would you book and what set times would you ascribe to the artists?

I suppose it would have to be a 5-day festival, where each artist would have a minimum 5-hour DJ set on each day.

Patrice Baumel / John Digweed / Nicole Moudaber / Cid Inc. / Maceo Plex

Current top five tracks?

→ Mike Griego - Blood Echo

→ MOLØ - Hymn

→ James Harcourt - India

→ Einmusik & Solee - Mariposa

→ Nick Muir, John Digweed, Eagles & Butterflies - Crazy Diamond

What’s a book you’ve read or film you watched that has left an impact on you, and why?

‘An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics’ by Daphne Oram. She played a key role in developing of the British electronic music and co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958 - such an inspiring book! Daphne’s knowledge of music and physics as well as relentless creativity led her to building the Oramics machine, a unique synthesizer that allows the user to paint and draw audio waveforms, and incredible sound productions like score to the 1961 film ‘The Innocents’, which was a pioneering work in electronic music.

Incredibly fascinating to read about genuinely driven people who work tirelessly to shape the field they are utter professionals in. If not blindly inspiring, this is an intimidating read.

What is one superpower you would like to have and how would you use it?

A time-rewinder with a possibility to save progress.

What does 2023 hold for you? Anything you can share with us?

The ‘Celestial Trail’ EP on Juicebox Music kicks off the year brilliantly! I have a few more releases lined up as well as several remix requests and collaborations. I feel I can shape my sound better and channel inspiration into productions more efficiently, so watch this space.

Hope you enjoy listening to my music and whenever a gig is announced feel free to come and say ‘Hi!’ :)

'Celestial Trail / Betrayer Moon' is available now via Juicebox Music: https://bit.ly/3WZkREe

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