• Natálie Kulina

“Strange observations of a stranger blues” & Big Small Wins

Ever since I've moved to Amsterdam five years ago, I've hung out in the backstage of my Dutch friends' concerts at the Grachtenfestival many times, enjoying their brilliant music making and soaking in the lovely summer festival atmosphere. I have, however, in some moments of awkwardly standing around and nodding politely to greet their families and dedicated admirers, also felt the subtle sting of not quite belonging.

I was a newcomer, a foreigner, but mostly I felt out of place as a violinist. It is inspiring to be around very successful, dedicated people, but it can be hard when you don't quite know where to place yourself within their world - in fact, the hardship starts when you try to fit yourself into a world that is not yours in the first place. I've spent a few years trying to keep up with the lifestyle, goals and ideals people around me had - I will always admire their passion for classical music, the mindblowing resilience they use for winning competitions and auditions - but it was not me, and I kept being deeply unhappy and burning out.

I have several times sat on a chair in the last row of the audience thinking: "This is so damn beautiful... I'll never be like that" and felt a huge sense of guilt for both thinking this way - envious of my own friends, and for "not being able to become exactly that". Funnily enough, for a very long time I didn't ask myself if I actually wanted the thing I was working so hard for, the thing that made me feel so insecure and guilty all the time.

It took a long time for me to rediscover and accept what it is that I was good at, what I wanted to create. It is so deeply engraved in our minds as classical musicians what our trajectories have to look like, what milestones we need to hit, and what standards and traditions we should hold ourselves up to, but the crazily wonderful thing about letting all that go is that things suddenly start falling into place in a way that seemed impossible before.

I've spent so many years frustrated over the fact that my hands can't make my instrument play the Brahms the exact perfect way I imagined it in my head, losing my mind over the apparent disconnect between my ideas and my "level of execution", comparing myself to my utopian self and others, worried sick not to fail every time I stepped on stage.

And then, at some point, I just got really tired and started to let it go.

If you ask me what I do now, I laugh and say: "Strange things". I write, I plan and organise, I play old music as if it were an exhibit in a museum and I tear paper and hit strings on stage for contemporary performances. I play music that feels like solving a puzzle, find obscure pieces of classical music to learn, try to express my thoughts and feelings with bad poetry and stage performance scripts.

Sometimes I feel more like the kid that was living her whole life in the small town library and running around in forests, building tiny towns from sticks and grass over a creek and imagining majestic pretend worlds and stories in my head, the kid I was before the violin competitions, concert gowns and hunger for approval and acclaim slowly creeped in and took over.

It's kind of silly, and this last spring, after a session I had with my friend tweaking and deconstructing and re-imagining my favourite piece of music in a swirly studio chair, I laughed wholeheartedly at the pure fun and self realisation I was having, for the first time in years: I was co-creating something strange... and something that was mine.

And it just makes me laugh how my first ever performance at that same festival that used to give me a case of "uh, I should really be practicing more" came at a time when I've stopped trying to become something that was probably just not meant for me. It might seem like a small thing to some, but it's a big win to me.

I am especially proud that it is with a programme that explores how it is to observe from the outside, not quite fitting in, but still creating something beautiful.

My friend Arieh and I are going to present a fairly silly and fairly avantgarde performance based on works of Czech composer Jaroslav Ježek, best known and beloved for his contributions to jazz/blues song repertoire and music for theatre and film.

Czechoslovakia was a prosperous country between the two World Wars - it was a golden era of independence, development and culture. Building on the rich musical heritage, the young composers were looking towards the future.

Ježek was training for career in classical music, but then he encountered jazz during his short study stay in Paris, fell in love with it, and kept following the latest developments in music of Duke Ellington and others through records when he returned back home, while writing for his own band, modelled after his idols. When you listen to the recordings, you can catch the slight “off” feeling: it feels like it's swing, it feels like it's blues....but....not quite what you expect?

This was probably caused by second-hand access to the jazz scene (not many people in Prague were familiar with how to play or sing it at the time), as well as applying Czech language and Slavic musical influences into the swingy rhythms and melodies, but in the end it does not matter: it all still comes together into something truly special.

From the Nazi occupation on, five decades of the century were gloomy for Czechoslovakia. Many artists, Ježek included, were forced to emigrate for political or personal reasons. During the communist regime that followed the Second World War (and the imposed censorship), the closest those who stayed behind got to Western culture was through illegally obtained books, films or recordings, and the longing to connect with the rest of the world was very present. It’s a part of how Ježek’s songs stayed so popular - their themes, messages and hope they represented kept being integral to the society and music in the country until today.

Ježek’s songs deal with the heavy topics with humour, sarcasm, resilience, strength and lightness.

I am so proud of presenting an integral piece of my own culture, my world, to the city I now call home. Things are still messy, and uncertain, but they are also strangely slowly starting to fall into place, make more sense.

Small steps, big small wins.

Support our duo and buy tickets to our debut at Grachtenfestival, August 14th, 20:00 in Studio150 in Amsterdam Noord