Hot on the heels of her first Navona Records release, award winning composer Monika Gurak keeps the fire burning with SCENES FROM A LIFE, an album of original and personalized works for piano and vibraphone. When it comes to emotion and expressive quality, Gurak leaves no stone unturned, as she allows significant timestamps in her life, unique anecdotes, and her background to resonate through her compositions. Gurak’s stories are told clearly through the piano, fostering an intimate and intriguing listening space.
Today, Monika is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our composers and performers. Read on to learn about her passion for drawing and how she fell in love with vocal music…
What inspires you to write and/or perform?
I think that my personal experiences from my adult life inspire me the most. It’s not always the recent experiences, but also the past. The experiences happened in a given time period, the feelings they produced have made an impact and the thought of them comes about when I think of writing lyrics or music.
How have your influences changed as you grow as a musician?
As a child and as a teenager, I was more influenced by classical music from the previous epochs than by contemporary classical music.
I always liked Chopin and Rachmaninoff, both great piano composers. I have played their music as well. My first piano piece by Chopin was Valse in A minor from Two Forgotten Pieces, a book that was given to me by a friend of the family. Later in life, I played his mazurkas, preludes, and etudes. I also liked the logic of Bach’s pieces. One of the pieces I loved to play was Bach’s Piano Concerto in D minor, a simply wonderful piece that I played in my last year in musical high school.
Along the way, my interests changed to contemporary music, and it’s not only piano music anymore. A good chunk of what I listen to is vocal music. I have discovered, for example, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Christos Hatzis’s Lamento and Ecstasy, David Lang’s Simple Song #3 from the film Youth. I love when the amazing composers like Hatzis (my former composition professor) or Lang, also write amazing lyrics. Sometimes, I am just enchanted by the voice and the artistic presence of classically trained singers, like Audra McDonald, Julia Kogan, Elina Garanča, or Isabel Bayrakdarian.
I also love great vocals in pop music. I attend classical as well as pop concerts from time to time. A performance that was deeply memorable for me was, for example, a concert of Alejandra Guzmán, la reina de rock, that I saw with my husband when we were vacationing in California.
If we looked through your music library, what would we be surprised to find?
What you would find somewhat surprising in my music library is the collection of contemporary scores which I have been collecting for quite some time now. It’s not only the piano or the vocal repertoire. You might find there pieces like Violin Concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Processions for Piano and Orchestra by Daníel Bjarnason, Recomposed by Max Richter, or In 27 Pieces, The Hilary Hahn Encores.
What were your first musical experiences?
The first musical instrument that I learned to play was the recorder. One of the most vivid memories I have is of me auditioning for music school. When it was my time to play and answer the questions at the entrance exam, I announced proudly to the jury that my grandfather would buy me a piano once I was accepted. I passed the exam with flying colours. My grandfather was as good as his word and indeed bought me a piano. By the way, he himself knew how to play the violin and the accordion.
Later on in my elementary school, I was a member of the choir, the contemporary jazz dance group and the old music ensemble, where we sang renaissance and baroque repertoire and played the recorders. We had an amazing music teacher and we were winning both choir and old music competitions.
What are your other passions besides music?
I love to draw, though I don’t draw much nowadays.
I started to draw when I was very young. I decided I wanted to attend the newly created arts high school in my hometown, so I spent a lot of time throughout my elementary school drawing. My elementary school arts teacher advised me to draw still life and do studies of my own hand, which I did. As I got older, I decided against attending it. As a result, the time spent on drawing lessened considerably.
At a later date, thinking about my future, I took a course in architectural drawing. I drew a lot because I was seriously considering architecture as a career. However, my plans changed.
Not all is lost though. Several of my drawings from that time of my life grace the walls of my home.
I also used to be seriously interested in the presence of music in contemporary Hispano-American literature, contemporary Hispano-American literature being my favourite subject at the University of Warsaw.
I loved seeing in the books that I read how the writers incorporated various musical elements into their writing, from the names of the composers, to the names of the musical compositions, to the musical vocabulary, to the musical structures, etc. I published two articles on this topic.
What was the first performance you remember seeing?
To obtain my university education, I moved to Warsaw. When I was a student of Spanish language and culture, I really wanted to see the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. It just so happened that they were performing it at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw. I went to see it in that wonderful, big building. I vividly remember this performance because it made a lasting impression on me.
It was then that I fell even more deeply in love with classical vocal music and the opera. I also realized that a live performance of an opera is an event to remember.