“Just like in David Bowie’s song: ‘Fame… what you get is no tomorrow’.” -Polina Korobkova
Polina Korobkova (2001, Moscow, Russia) is a Russian composer currently based in Switzerland. Having composed for ensembles such as MCME Ensemble, Orkest de Ereprijs, Delirium, Ensemble Modern and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Polina’s intensive and provocative compositions have been performed in concert halls in Russia, Switzerland, France, Austria and Norway. Polina spoke to PRXLUDES about her philosophy on art, publication, and the creative process, her interest in film, and her views on self-promotion and technology.
DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts represented in this interview do not necessarily represent Polina or her work and may be outdated at any moment. She asked me to write this. Don’t sue me.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Polina! I first discovered your music through the piece ‘Screech of a Sparrow’, that you did for Delirium Ensemble; it’s absolutely gorgeous. Do you remember what the writing process was like for the piece?
Polina: That’s a tricky question, because it’s a piece which I’ve written a long time ago. It’s a piece I cannot perceive as a part of myself anymore, [or] my work to be honest…I believe as artists, as composers, the moment we create something, it already becomes something alien to us, [a] partial un-dead object, almost like immortal libido. For me, it’s usually extremely hard to deal with my own music after I’ve written it, it’s difficult for me to perceive it. It’s a weird way of listening, I would say, when you listen to your own music; not exactly “listening”.
I understand what you mean — is it something to do with the vision you had for the piece prior to its performance?
No — because I’d written [this piece] really long ago, it was almost the second complete piece which I’d written in my life. I don’t think it’s because of the vision in my head, in fact, I can hardly remember what the vision was; it’s just that I don’t recognise my own music, and that’s very strange. Because also, a part of the problem — especially with this piece — [is] that I’m performing myself — I’m singing — and that makes the experience even more strange for me, because when I sing, obviously, I can’t listen to it. I listen as a singer, but not from the outside. So, frankly, [with] this piece, nowadays I treat it more as a singer, when I perform it, rather than [as] a composer. -laughs-
That’s an interesting dichotomy. Would you say that played a role in why you feel it’s hard to talk about?
No, I also wouldn’t say that. I think the only trouble I have is that it’s something which is “done”. It was important for me to write it at some point, it was an important piece; [my] definition of important pieces is not that they turned out what I consider “relevant” or “interesting” now — because only God or [an] Absolute can judge that maybe, it’s not what I should do, to judge it — but [rather] the transgression, going beyond boundaries, my own boundaries, in a way. I understand that this piece went beyond all that I’d written before — it [became] a significant experience for me to write it — that it went somewhere else from [everything] I’ve done before, somewhere unexpected. That’s why I feel this piece was quite important work, but now I’m working on completely different things, and that’s the main reason.
Following on from that — what themes have you been exploring with your work recently?
It’s a long topic. -laughs- It started for me during quarantine, actually. I didn’t compose anything during this “lockdown” time; the only things I was doing [were] reading and watching a lot of movies… I’m what they call a cinephile, in an old-fashioned way. I always had tons of love for Lars von Trier; I’ve always admired him. I still remember when I first saw his [film] ‘Melancholia’ when I was 13, it was on a big screen somewhere in Moscow, and it was one of those fascinating art experiences… I still remember [that] I was so shocked, like [it was] almost a religious experience.
So during quarantine, I decided to watch all the movies of Lars von Trier, and then I started rewatching two of his last movies, ‘Nymphomaniac’ and ‘The House That Jack Built’, and so I watched them all the time. It was a very funny time for me, because it seemed that I only took walks in the forest near my place, which reminded me of ‘Antichrist’ and watched ‘Nymphomaniac’ and ‘The House That Jack Built’ over and over again; and then I started writing a text about it. So now I have tons of pages of text on these movies, or, rather, on what I found in [them]; it’s not directly a text on Lars von Trier, but it’s rather an attempt to comment on some things, topics and tools that he’s dealing with. That all led me to thinking a lot about mediality1, in general, and the conflict between mediality and content. In Trier’s movies, there is always a story, but how the movie is made, in a way, “kills” the story; by the way it is shown, it gets in conflict with what is shown. And of course Jack from ‘The House that Jack Built’ is a perfect self-reflection on this matter. It’s actually [also] a basic European dilemma of mind and senses, because the form is treated as a representation of rationality and the story as emotional involvement. [von] Trier takes this dichotomy to its extreme… I’m simplifying right now of course, it’s a lot more complex.
I definitely need to check more of his films out! It’s interesting to think about the connections to music there…
I started thinking a lot on the question of mediality of composition; what is it exactly, the mediality of composition? Because music, historically, doesn’t really have a direct point of reference, so to say, like we can’t say that [there is] a connotation and denotation as in language or visual arts, it’s much more abstract. So we have to re-define what does it mean to separate content from mediality in musical language and wether it’s possible at all. At the same time, I started doing a bit of research on the Baroque Affektenlehre2, and the history of people dealing with musical [semiotics]… in my latest works, I’m [trying] to pose the question of ambivalence between feelings — treated as semiotical units and musical archetypes, in a way — and impossibility of feelings or rationalisation of feelings. I believe that feeling is a forgotten territory in music… and not only in music. Actually, people haven’t been talking about this topic for the past 50 years, more actually — from after the Second World War, but even before that, it already became like a curse word. I don’t think that it’s possible to talk about feelings completely seriously; it would be naive, you can’t be fully serious, but irony or avoidance is not the solution anymore either. It’s some kind of strange phenomenon of being serious, but at the same time, pointing out the impossibility of this seriousness.
Also, I’m [dealing] a lot right now with [some] very personal musical material, meaning that it has some history for me, but then, I work with it in that way that it has some resistance in the structure to material’s vulnerability; form points to the impossibility of this sincerity; the way that it is composed annihilates material and our perception of it.
It’s interesting what you’re talking about with regards to feeling and mediality in music. Do you see contextual research as the main focus point when it comes to your work?
I think the research around [it] is only worth it if you can hear it in the work. I mean, it brings [an] even more complex topic right now, because this question is a little bit about “what is art?”, you know, what is art, what is [a] musical piece? In a way, we would have to discuss how can we at all listen or see things, in a musical work; it’s something which also concerns me very much, because it’s not just that you “listen”… it doesn’t exactly work like that. -laughs-
Coming back to your question — the only thing that matters, in the end, is the piece. I do this research, I enjoy doing research, but it would only matter if it would be embodied in a work somehow, if it’s needed to be. Because research is not about trying to put, I don’t know, “I’ve read Foucault, I will write a piece about Foucault” — it’s stupid, it doesn’t work like that. Or I encountered a composer somewhere on Facebook saying “it’s a piece about a house” — or an apple, something similar — and I was laughing so hard, because it’s almost like a paradox; how can it [be], what does it mean? It was some kind of direct point — this piece is about “that” — and I found it so hilarious. The thing is, the research is not for inspiration, it’s not for saying that your work is about this or that; it’s about finding some inner principles, “tools” or something which you find necessary to use in your work, to reflect upon, to have a conversation with.
I find it hard to distinguish, sometimes; how to detach what you’ve been researching from what you’re doing on the surface level.
Sometimes you understand it’s not for this [particular] work; sometimes you understand that you’ve found something and you want to do something in [a] musical language with it. These ideas — “ideas”, again, isn’t the right word, I think “way of thinking” would be more sophisticated — are also an extremely complex topic; how can you talk about a way of thinking, what does it mean?
That’s a massive can of worms. -laughs- Does that imply in any way that you’re looking to obscure the meaning in your work, like some form of abstraction?
No, what I’m trying to say is not that I’m striving for abstract music, definitely not. I wouldn’t say that I do programmed music [either]. -laughs- The only thing I try to say is that I don’t think that I, as an author, should explain to anyone what my piece is [trying to say]. As with all the greatest pieces of art ever made, authors never give commentaries. It’s not because I’m so great, so I will do [it] like them — but when you think of David Lynch, and you see his interviews, he’s always mysterious and says some kind of bullshit. Or when you see Lars von Trier’s interviews, he’s almost making fun of everyone by saying things which have no correlation to what he’s done… And I understand that very well, because whatever you say doesn’t really “matter” in the end, because what you did is what you did. It can mean something, and maybe you succeeded in what you tried to achieve, but maybe it’s something else… What should you say anymore, if it’s already there?
That really reminds me of this Xenakis interview which I watched on Facebook ages back, where he just answered every question about his compositional process with “I don’t know”. It was brilliant.
Yeah, that’s the thing. People expect you to explain, or to say something, but it contradicts the idea of art — you have to perceive it [without] it being explained. Of course, it’s a very intense correlation between perception and theory, because also, it’s not just about perception; it’s all connected, it’s always inter-connected. Art deals with this connection between aesthetic and theory; or, in other words, with theory being embodied in perception. And that’s exactly why, I don’t think I want to “explain” my works. Any explanation is a reduction.
There’s almost a type of ‘Death of the Author’ happening, when the work is put out…
Yeah, for sure. Each completed work is a little bit like the death of the author, as well as any book you’ve read which made an impression on you, or any event in life which changed you, because any change is a “death” of the previous [self]. Oh, but it’s so very romantic to say! I don’t know if it’s “death” or “not death”, but you can say that it’s death, [or] find another beautiful word to say, but it is what it is. -laughs- Maybe it’s better to describe it on [a] pragmatic level. When the work is done, it’s done; a very German [way] of saying it would be punkt. -laughs-
So it’s not necessarily a separation of the art and artist — but rather an irrelevance of the artist in relation to one’s work?
A lot of people say a lot of things, it can sound very beautiful or intriguing, but the fact is, when you’ve done something, you don’t own it anymore. People can also believe that they do own their work, but I don’t think it’s the case…maybe the reason of this “owning”-obsession is some kind of fear; fear of loosing subjectivity. I prefer to just put my work as an object somewhere, and see what happens. But I wouldn’t say that it means that I don’t care about [it]; it’s something else, it’s not that when I’ve written it, I stop caring, but I just let it live. [There’s] this horrible romantic analogy that you have to let kids go… or aliens and monsters. -laughs- I mean, I hate it, but it’s a little bit similar — of course, I’m extremely worried about premieres and so on, it’s not that I lose all senselessness to that — maybe I’m nervous precisely because it’s not my thing anymore, it’s not my thoughts; it’s just a trace of something which I am not in control of.
What are your thoughts surrounding virtual concerts and performances of your work — especially in this current climate?
I think that it’s just a very different mode of perception, through the screen of [a] computer. Most of my works, they need a special approach; they just don’t work when you put them into documentation — in my opinion, of course. Even a video as a documentation of the work, is something that troubles me.
I also work a lot with the idea and some aspects of ritual. This means that people who listen to it become part of the work itself, too; not necessarily directly — that they play instruments or make sounds — but that when they hear it, it’s something more than just a distant object for them, it’s something which they become a part of, in a way. It’s almost impossible to achieve through a computer screen, because it’s already a strong boundary. It puts things which are shown far, far away from you; it’s very uncomfortable for me to do that with my works.
I think that I could write a piece for computer, but it would be a piece written specifically for this occasion, and not just any piece of mine which is put through a computer-frame. On the other note — as I told you before — I don’t own [my pieces] anymore when they are written, so they can live however they like, whether I like it or not.
So is it that you’re against working with technology?
No, no. Why do you say I don’t like working with technology? I don’t mind working with technology per se — I’m critical about technology, but not “against”. That would be too simple, not to say naive. A lot of my works also deal with the topic of technology; the only thing I was saying [is] I don’t like when concerts with my music are played virtually, instead of real concerts. I work a lot with instruments which are developed mechanically — which play by themselves — with electronics, with video, so I wouldn’t say that the problem is in technology itself. It’s about perception; that’s what matters, I think. We have all forgotten it a little bit in [the] music field, actually.
In cinematography, for instance, there are these stories that David Lynch — when he made ‘Mulholland Drive’ — he was going in his car [between] different theatres, and adjusting specific colour-settings on the screen himself, and that was important for him, and I understand why. Of course one can watch movies on the computer instead of cinema, but is it the same thing? No, I don’t think it’s the same thing; it’s a completely different experience. A similar problem occurs with music; pieces can exist in different contexts without me, but I don’t think all of the contexts are good for them. But that’s my perspective; for a lot of people, they like it, and I can be happy for the people that like it, but I can also say that I can’t personally perceive it. For me, it’s almost impossible to listen to it; especially with contemporary music, I think that it’s really difficult to hear it from my computer. But maybe I’m not the perfect audience in any case, because I don’t really go to contemporary music concerts that often… even before corona. -laughs- It was something I stopped doing at some point.
That’s interesting. Something I’ve definitely noticed with my own work is that what I create and what I listen to are quite disparate; is that distinction something you’ve dealt with?
Maybe. Hmm… I think it depends, because I listen to tons of pop music, especially when I compose. I think it’s also not exactly “listening”, though. It can also be not “music” — you know, when I’m composing for the whole day, I have two options in the end; I [can] either go to bed and sleep, or fuel this time with some bullshit, enormous bullshit, which I would be ashamed [of] after, but then in the end, the day was not “bad” because I composed. So I could feel like I have no brain for some time. It happens. -laughs- The other thing is that I do have [a] few composers who I appreciate, composers who I know were, or are, important for me. I can not listen to them for a long time though, but I know what I learned from them; what I appreciate, and why. When I compose, for me it’s impossible to listen to the music of others, and when I finish composing, I start reading so much…
Do you think there’s an ideal form of documentation or promotion for yourself?
As I said, I don’t like documentation of my work, in any case. I do have some documentation of more recent pieces, which I consider already being in the “field” of what I was talking about. But somehow, I don’t even have a need to share them somewhere. I don’t like composers posting on Facebook, “this is my new piece, check it out”! I have something like disgust to that; it’s not about people, but about the way [in which] one deals with one’s work. It’s not that I’m denying technology or social media, no, but this gesture of “check it out, [it’s] my new work”… I’m very sceptical of [it].
There’s very much this “hustle culture” that surrounds self-promotion.
Yeah, I think that it [goes] a little bit in the direction of show-business, but without the business. -laughs- That’s what’s so crucial, because in general, a lot of contemporary music [marketing] turns to pop music / pop art strategies, but without the pop… by this, I mean that they are treating it like “we are trying to sell things” — not only composers, but also festivals, ensembles — I think that [in] most of the [contemporary music] landscape, people don’t want to create the space for experimentation, creation, experiencing something together and discussing it, but rather it all becomes something like a parody, show-business side-kick without the business. Because they’re “selling” it to other composers, so it makes no sense.
It feels like everyone’s competing to be seen, or get their work heard…
I think that it’s the craziness of nowadays, especially. Internet and social media played a big role in this. Of course, we know the story that Morton Feldman hated Boulez, that is all clear, that composers almost never shared a lot of sympathy [for] each other, but it was because of aesthetic reasons and not the amount of commissions or performances. Of course it’s difficult to talk about the past, there is always a danger of falling in an illusion that things used to be better than at the moment. But I still try to hope that for most composers of previous centuries it was more [about] an act of creation which has no pragmatic reason behind it, no profiting; the act of doing it without any kind of benefits. Maybe it’s naive.
Do you think there’s an inherent insincerity in self-promotion?
No, I think the problem is that it’s unreflected. I don’t have anything against promotion as itself, but [it’s] promotion that doesn’t reflect its own roots; that’s what’s so dangerous. If someone would do promotion as [an] artistic strategy, consciously being aware that it would be part of [the] person’s work, I would not mind it — and, by the way, there are a few people who do that. In general, I don’t mind it, it’s people’s [choices], so why would I mind it? Maybe I will change my mind, in some time, but right now, I don’t feel the necessity of any kind of… no, promotion is a horrible word, actually. For me, it’s interesting which formats of “sharing” there could be which aren’t “promotion”, because sharing is different [to] promotion. Obviously, your work needs to be somewhere, otherwise it just doesn’t exist, you can’t avoid it.
It’s got to be tangible in some format, surely; unless you want your work to be temporary? If a tree falls in a forest and no-one’s around to hear it…
But it also depends on the definition of art, again, because I think art can also exist without any kind of “proof”. It can also be a personal act, just for yourself. But also, when you create, it’s always yourself and something else, whatever this “else” is… you can call it “will of material”, “Absolute”, “Universe”, or “God” — [though] I don’t believe in any of those things — but what I’m trying to say [is], the act of creation is a bit like a prayer, or even better — it’s a prayer that knows and reflects its own limits and roots. Like Ouroboros. It’s a prayer without God, in a way, it’s just a prayer for the sake of prayer itself.
Honestly, I have so much sympathy to Schubert, who lost almost all of his music. I don’t want to live like Schubert, that would also be a romanticisation, I don’t think anyone wants to live like Schubert… -laughs- But I have huge sympathy to the gesture of being and creating like this. It’s not just about creating in the moment, but also about the need to write for the sake of writing, the gesture of writing and forgetting; he wrote it, put [it] somewhere and it became non-existent. It points out the necessity of creating, [even if] it won’t be found, or performed, or heard. He didn’t know, and we all don’t know what will happen with our music. Just like in David Bowie’s song: “Fame… what you get is no tomorrow”.
Polina’s work can be found at:
- mediality: A perceived reality influenced through media that one is exposed to.
- Affektenlehre, a.k.a “doctrine of the affections”: a theory in the aesthetics of painting, music, and theatre, widely used in the Baroque era.