An interview with founder of the Motion Trio Janusz Wojtarowicz

The final concert of this year’s International Competition of Contemporary Chamber Music (former Penderecki Festival of Contemporary Chamber Music) concluded with a powerful performance by Krakow’s Motion Trio, who won the Grand Prix of the 4th edition of the festival in 2000.

Their presence in the gala concert served as a homage to the festival’s past as well as a testament to the bright careers that are possible for laureates of this festival. I had the opportunity to talk with Janusz Wojtarowicz, who founded the Motion Trio in 1996 and whose passion for music, love of the accordion and sheer power as an individual, a composer and a musician has taken his group extremely far ? from playing on the streets of Krakow and in small clubs a decade ago, to performing at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York.

The Krakow Post: A statement from your record label says that you’ve “worked hard to change the image of the accordion.” How did the image of the accordion need to be changed? Do you feel that you’ve succeeded in changing the way people see it?Janusz Wojtarowicz: The accordion has traditionally been used for creating a fun atmosphere at weddings and parties. The roots of the accordion is that it’s a popular instrument, an instrument for good times. In the past the accordion has always been something funny, something nice.

Clarinets and violins can play sad melodies, but accordion, never, they’ve always been funny, something to dance to, fresh and interesting, but not tragic. It’s not a tragic instrument. It’s a celebrating instrument. It’s also used in the learning of ultra-contemporary music, an instrument for experimentation, music that, quite frankly, is impossible to listen to. We decided that we wanted the accordion to be heard in its own voice. This is what we wanted to change. But how to discover the sound of the accordion? This is still my question. I’m still looking for new sounds.

A violin player is not faced with these kinds of questions, because the possibilities on the violin have been completely exhausted. What more can you do on violin, and piano, after Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich? Nothing new has happened for fifty years. Q: The music that you create with the Motion Trio is extremely original ? it’s a very eclectic fusion of jazz, rock, minimalism, sound collage, experimentation, with inspiration from classical and baroque music, heavy metal, techno, house and disco polo, among other things. With this kind of eclecticism is the Motion Trio trying to make a bridge between different musical spheres?A: Yes, exactly.

We’re trying to make a bridge between all kinds of music, classical, jazz, contemporary ? this is the Motion Trio’s main goal ? to be everywhere. On the one hand we’re very interested in playing contemporary music ? the music of Penderecki, Gorecki, Kilar, the great Polish composers. But it’s also a very good experience to be present in the world music scene and the jazz music scene. Our performances with Bobby McFerrin and Tomasz Stanko have been very good experiences for us.

These kinds of meetings give us the opportunity to mix the accordion with different sounds.Q: Why is this important to you?A: We’re interested in guys like Bobby McFerrin, for example. He’s an amazing, versatile performer. He was a classical conductor, in La Scala, for example.Q: Bobby McFerrin? The guy who sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”?A: Yes, yes! The same guy! He’s a classically trained musician, a pianist and conductor. He’s also a great jazzman and pop star.Q: What did you do with him?A: We played a few concerts.

In Montreal and Warsaw.Q: What kind of music did you play with him?A: We improvised, on stage, in front of 5,000 people. It was a very dangerous thing to do!Q: These well-known musicians such as Bobby McFerrin that you’ve played with….do you think playing with them has changed the way they see accordions and accordion music? Or were they already interested in the accordion?A: Bobby McFerrin, for example, didn’t know anything about the accordion before we played with him! He knew accordion music only from us, from the Motion Trio ? he knew our music before we performed with him. He knew us as three crazy accordion players. This is another one of our huge tasks ? to show the instrument to all people, not only to students and teachers. If you show the accordion to Bobby McFerrin, the feedback comes from the entire world, because people follow Bobby McFerrin.

Q: At the gala concert of this year’s International Competition of Contemporary Chamber Music your performance included works by three of Poland’s greatest contemporary composers. How do Penderecki, Gorecki and Kilar feel about the accordion?A: I had to convince them. Q: Were these pieces that you played arranged by the composers for you?A: No. I arranged them all. But with an official agreement with the composers over the arrangement. The composers wouldn’t have been able to do it themselves ? the accordion is a completely unknown instrument to them, they don’t know how to do it. When Penderecki composes concertos for violin, he makes arrangements for viola, for clarinet. One piece can be translated into a lot of different versions. An accordion trio is as powerful as a string quartet, as powerful as a string orchestra, even. But the difference is that an accordion trio has more, many more, possibilities for creating sounds. A lot of different sounds! And this is my task ? to convince them. To say, “Look, an accordion trio is the same as a string orchestra ? but cheaper!” We’re even better than the organ in a Philharmonic hall, because we can create sounds from the deepest pianissimo up to the highest fortissimo. To do this on the organ you must change registers. And the power of the accordion!!! What kind of sound can you get from a string quartet? (Mimes playing a violin and makes a feeble, sickly sound)This is my task, to find a way to say it to them. I’m still explaining it to them.Q: There are many accordionists competing in this year’s festival. Is it a popular instrument to perform contemporary music on?A: They’re in this festival because of us. The Motion Trio won the festival’s Grand Prix seven years ago. This is the reason that there are accordions in the festival now ? we led the way for them, we opened up the door. In the year when we competed, we were the only accordion performers. We were the very first to bring accordions into the festival. Accordions are becoming more popular in the festival also because the performance of contemporary music is challenging, it’s for people who are looking for something new. Classical music is the past of music. It’s a time for new sounds, and this also means it’s a time for new instruments ? instruments other than piano, violin. The possibilities for these instruments are exhausted. Marimba, accordion, folk instruments ? this is part of the new music. This festival is a good promotion for unknown instruments. This is the main worth of this festival, in my opinion.There’s also more respect for the accordion now. At the festival seven years ago, the guy who announced us, before our performance, said, “Are you on your way to a wedding party?” It was a joke. But times have changed. Next January we’re playing at Carnegie Hall. We’ve traveled a very long distance. This is the proof that we’ve managed to change the accordion, the way people think about the instrument. Q: The world premiere of your accordion arrangement of the Penderecki piece “De Profundis” was in May of this year, in Los Angeles. Why were you interested in performing this piece?A: The original version was composed for three choirs. The symbolism seemed good ? we’re a trio, so each of our accordions is like one choir. It was difficult for me to arrange it. It’s very deep, very difficult music. How to translate it for accordion was very interesting for me. I had to think about it for a long time, it was a long process. I was even dreaming this music at night. It was the first time I was ever playing Penderecki, so it was very important for me. It’s a very important piece, part of Penderecki’s “Seven Gates of Jerusalem,” which was commissioned by the Israeli government on the occasion of 3,000 years of Jerusalem. This was in 1996 ? which was also the year when I formed the Motion Trio. A nice coincidence.Q: And what was the reaction to this piece in Los Angeles, at the premiere?A: The reaction to it was very, very good. After this concert we felt better as classical interpreters.Q: Has Penderecki ever been performed on accordion before?A: No, never before. Nor the other contemporary composers that we’re now performing ? Gorecki and Kilar. Their music has never been performed on accordion.Q: Was the year 2000, when you won the Grand Prix in the International Competition of Contemporary Chamber Music and when your album “Pictures” was voted CD of the Year 2000 by the Polish music industry, the point when your career took off and Motion Trio’s success began?A: No, it needed time. It wasn’t two weeks after the Penderecki competition that everyone wanted us. Yes, a lot of people wanted to help us.

But if you play five concerts per year, how can you live? When a classical musician wins a very good competition, everyone calls them and invites them to play in prestigious places. But after we won first place in the Penderecki competition, we went back to playing on the street. It was very funny for us.Q: When did you stop playing on the street?A: Four years ago. One week before our first concert with Bobby McFerrin in Warsaw. We had no money, so we had to go to Germany to play on the street. We had no money for tickets from Krakow to Warsaw. Q: But you were already stars ? you had been voted best debut act of the year 2000…A: Yes, yes, but it was all on paper! Those awards… you don’t receive any money for this. You have to survive somehow. The Institute of Art in Krakow has now helped us a lot ? they’ve sponsored us to buy our instruments… But that in itself is another reason why we stopped playing on the street. I can’t take an accordion that costs 20,000 euro onto the street! (laughs)Q: Did playing on the street give you any kind of experience that helps your present music?A: Yes, we feel that we’re different musicians than normal kinds of musicians, pop stars, because we’ve played in a lot of different places. In front of the building as well as inside the building. “Open air” for us a few years ago didn’t mean a big festival ? it meant the street! (laughs) It gives you power. You must be very brave to play on the street. Q: Do you miss playing on the street?A: No. I’m 36 years old now, I have new ideas. But when I look back on the past, I think of it as a very nice time.Q: You’re playing in Carnegie Hall early next year. A: Yes. It’ll be the first time that the accordion will be featured in Carnegie Hall. There’s never been a solo accordion or an accordion trio ? the first time in the history of Carnegie Hall. There have been accordions used as accompaniment, in world music groups, for example. But never the accordion as an independent instrument.Q: Do you play the same way when you’re playing for heavy metal fans at rock and roll festivals and when you’re playing for classical music lovers at Carnegie Hall?A: They’re both good. But my ideal audience for Motion Trio is about 1,000 people, not from one age, not purely a jazz audience, nor a classical audience, nor anything else ? just people who like music, good music, and want to take their families. Grandpa will feel good, and a six-year-old boy will be entertained, too. Good energy, like Bobby McFerrin. I want contact with people, with everyone. Q: Is this some kind of new era for the accordion?

Are things changing?A: It’s still not a revolution. But the accordion right now is going in a good direction, towards being independent, and I think that now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the accordion is beginning a new history. Not for Motion Trio only, but I’ve had a lot of meetings with other accordion players, and we talk about the instrument, about how to develop it. Motion Trio is only one example of how many things you can do with the accordion.Q: In 20 years what is your music going to be like? Can you imagine yourself playing with the same kind of power that you have now?A: Great question. In the future, twenty years from now, I’d like to be someone who has created a kind of legend for the accordion. Not my legend, but the legend of the accordion. I’d like our group to be a legendary group. People have to be a little bit stupid to do something different, and it’s very interesting to me to fight ? not to fight just for the sake of fighting, but intelligent fighting, for music.

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