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Zen Sounds 049: Hania Rani
The celebrated Polish pianist wrote her newest album in the snowy Swiss mountains
Recently, Polish experimental artist and journalist Martyna Basta conducted an interview with Adam Badí Donoval, the head of the Warm Winters Ltd. label. When asked what needs to change in the music industry, he answered:
»I think we need to shift the perspective from ‘entertainment‘ and ‘consumption‘ to deeply thinking about the value that music adds to our individual and collective lives.«
This notion resonated a lot with me.
Listening to music for pure entertainment purposes is fine, but it’s not the same as immersing yourself in a piece of art, until you feel like it’s become a well-known place that you will frequently return to. If we merely ‘consume’ music, we’re missing out. It can be fun, for sure, but it’s shallow. Music can provide so much more – a place of refuge, where we feel understood, nurtured and cared for. But we will have to make an effort to establish that connection.
Concerts can create a communal feeling of appreciation, but for me, the individual experience always came first. When I was a kid, in the back of my parents’ car, driving through endless landscapes, I listened to records on my yellow Sony cassette walkman. I never wanted those drives to end, I just wanted to keep on listening and losing myself in the music forever, always in motion, never to arrive anywhere.
This weekend, try listening to one of your favorite albums from front to back. Make yourself comfortable. Light some candles and some incense, if you feel like it, and turn off the light. While listening, don’t do anything else. No phone, no reading, no talking, no house chores. Just you and the music for the better part of an hour. It will feel unfamiliar at first, because we’re not used to it anymore. It’s definitely worthwhile though – you’re creating a connection to a piece of art that will enrich your life.
Make this a habit. Repeat it once a week. It might make sense to block a time slot in your calendar – Sunday night, maybe? Use good headphones, or play a vinyl record in a dimly lit room. Sit in a comfy chair, or on a cushion on the floor. Curl up in a blanket. Have a glass of wine or beer, or some fresh herbal tea. Follow the music, dream yourself away, but make sure to always return with your attention to the music. It’s a celebration, but a form of meditation as well.
It was around five years ago that I first heard the music of Polish pianist and composer Hania Rani. At that time, I worked as a music curator overseeing loads of so-called »mood playlists« containing mostly ambient, electronic and piano music. The track pools of these playlists tended to contain some rather generic stuff. I imagined many listeners just wanted a calm, serene backdrop for whatever they’re doing while playing it – which is, again, not objectionable per se.
I inserted some of Hania’s songs into these lists, hoping for the best. The data feedback was surprisingly positive. It wasn’t just that they were skipped remarkably less than other songs; they even seemed to motivate many rather passive lean-back listeners to actually save them to their library, search for her catalogue and listen to her other music. That conversion rarely happens in these spaces, and it’s testament to the strong emotions her compositions evoke.
A few years down the line, Hania has turned into a phenomenon – some of her music videos and recorded performances have been viewed millions of times. For example, her Piano Day performance at historic Polish radio studio S2 generated 5.5 million views until now. Personally, I couldn’t care less about any type of quantifiable success metrics when it comes to art, but in this rather sophisticated field of music, such a number does indicate a kind of special crossover quality.
Hania recently published another extremely popular Youtube video, a recording of her concert from the royal courtyard of the Invalides in Paris that features her on synth, piano and vocals, playing with a full band. It’s a one-and-a-half hour concert video and it generated over three million views. That is astonishing.
One comment under that video has been liked more than 500 times and pretty much sums up her appeal:
»You know when you pick up that rare book, when you don't know it's going to speak directly to you, and you can't put it down and you stay up half the night to finish it? That's how I feel about this performance at Invalides. I just found it on YouTube. I had never heard of her before and was just looking for some background music to do some work. I was captivated – so very much in the moment, in the present, in the ecstasy of deep connection to my soul. Her music transcends boundaries of spirit, scale, and place. It pauses time and sucks you in to be and experience.«
Classically trained, Hania’s influences range from Débussy to Miles Davis, Radiohead to Portico Quartet, Nils Frahm to Esbjörn Svensson. Her music is usually lumped in under the diffuse »neo-classical« umbrella which doesn’t seem to do anyone justice, but still works as some kind of broad marketing term. (It had apparently become an insult by 2016, when I wrote a story on neo-classical music for German magazine Das Wetter and interviewed Federico Albanese and Johannes Motschmann, two very different composers both marketed under the label. Needless to say, both firmly rejected it.)
In the last years, Hania did what neo-classical composers do when they find some modest success – write film scores. Her newest album, »On Giacometti«, is no exception, as it’s essentially a commissioned work: It only exists because film director Susanna Fanzun asked her to compose music for her upcoming documentary on Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966). Still, the album is more than just a soundtrack – these are original compositions that work perfectly well without any moving images.
Hania wrote this album in the isolation of the Swiss Alps, near Giacometti’s home and birthplace Bregaglia, in the deepest winter. Alone with her thoughts and feelings, she went back to improvising on the piano, her main instrument, just like she had done for her beloved debut album »Esja« (2019) which she’d recorded in Iceland. In the end, she added some synth tracks and cello parts from her close friend and long-term collaborator Dobrawa Czocher.
Living in a mountain valley in the winter changes the experience of time and space, as Hania depicts in her liner notes:
»The snow […] protects the whole area from the noise, each sound lands softly on the ground accompanied by echoes of immeasurable space. Each scratch or whisper is becoming an autonomic entity, opening the gate to the world of ghosts and lost spirits. It's easy to think that time stands still there, while nothing is moving and changing at the first sight.
But the ubiquitous ice and snow reveal the passage of time, transforming frozen paysage into the wild stream of water - each day, hour and second. Melting and vanishing, clearing the space from white powder and noise consuming surface. Invisible process for a one night traveller, becomes painfully real for longer time settlers.
Time flows with each new wave of sound coming through the river, reminding us that we are part of the cycle, which endlessly repeats itself.
I left the valley with the first breath of the spring.«
»On Giacometti« is a mesmerizing collection of piano vignettes, deeply inspired by the area that the painter and sculptor grew up in. At 21, Alberto Giacometti moved to Paris where he celebrated most of his artistic successes, but he stayed connected to the area where his family lived. Susanna Fanzun’s documentary film »I Giacometti« was completed in 2022 and shown at festivals starting January 2023; there’s a six-minute trailer you can watch here.
There’s one song buried deep in the second half that’s special to me. Burial once said that every once in a while, you will come across a sacred song that can be just too beautiful to listen to, and »Dreamy« might just be one of these songs. On certain days, I have to fight back my tears when it comes on.
One more thing
This week, my body has been fighting with that nasty virus so when I wasn’t feeling absolutely miserable, I watched French director Éric Rohmer’s film cycle »Contes des quatre saisons« (»Tales of four seasons«). There’s a scene from »Conte d’été« (»A Summer’s Tale«, 1996) that got stuck on my mind for days, when the protagonist, the musician Gaspard, teaches his summer fling Solène one of the songs he’d written: »Je suis une fille des corsaires«.
Like most Rohmer movies, the film is super dialogue heavy. Not much is actually happening over these two weeks in the Bretagne. But it’s capturing this weird feeling of emptiness and longing – Lana Del Rey aptly named it »Summertime Sadness« – which I happen to know quite well, probably because I grew up in a vacation resort. I definitely recommend the full cycle, but if you want to start with one, watch »A Summer’s Tale«. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze