Ľudmila Štefániková,is an electronic MalletKAT player, jazz vibraphonist, vocalist and composer; here is a link to her blog.
Q: What exactly is a vibraphone?
A: Vibraphone is a musical instrument from the family of percussion instruments. The player stands behind a metal frame, and with 2 or 4 mallets (when using 4 mallets, performer holds 2 mallets in one hand) is hitting tuned metal bars, that are layered on the top of the frame, in two rows, similarly to the piano. Once the desired bar is hit, the sound spreads down through the resonators in form of tubes, that are hanging below each bar.
It’s a melodic percussion instrument, like marimba or xylophone, but it has metal bars, and it also has a sustain pedal, that can make the sound last longer, again, like the piano sustain pedal. The instrument itself is pretty heavy, and to get to a gig, you need to have a big car to fit the frame in.
Q: What made you interested in becoming a vibraphonist?
A: I started as a pianist. Besides studying classical piano, I was also singing in a children’s choir and later on I started to play drums. I believe it’s a combination of all of this. Vibraphone looks like a piano but you play it like the drums. What I like about it is the fact that the player is standing, so you can actually “dance” to the music. Vibraphone is mostly used in jazz music, and as I love to play jazz, I believe that helped it too.
Q: What is the most surprising thing to you about living in the United States?
A: Besides the typical things like unhealthy food or different lifestyle than in Europe, I think it’s the fact that everything is somehow much louder. When I first came to America, I was shocked by the street noise: car noise, sirens, and even people talking too loud. I have a friend who is still walking the streets with earplugs. Luckily I don’t have to do it, now I am used to the noise, but at a time it was little bit strange.
Q: What was your greatest professional triumph?
A: This is a very hard question to answer, because everything I work on hard and that I succeed in, is a great professional triumph. Especially, as an independent professional musician, not signed to any producer or label, I am doing things on my own. It has pros and cons, but I hope I can keep this independence in my work. I know what I am doing, and I am respected for that. I received several prizes and awards as an acknowledged musician and composer, from intellectual authorities, critics and higher-level education and music institutions. These days, my work is featured (among the work of the greatest of the jazz world) at an International European Jazz Personalities Conference conducted in jazz appreciation month.
Q: What was the most challenging piece of music you ever had to play?
A: Oh, it was the classical solo piano music. I played music of Skriabine, Bartok, Prokofiev, Szymanowski, Schumann, Brahms, Saint-Sains, Bach and many more. The music was so challenging to me, it was like a gym for fingers and mind. But the most challenging was probably Bela Bartok – Allegro Barbaro. This musical piece was scary. I honestly never felt the same with vibraphone, although I played challenging music at challenging venues. I feel very comfortable and confident with vibraphone. It just feels right, and it’s probably the way it’s supposed to be.
Q: What makes your music unique?
A: Here is what one critic wrote about my work:
“This study discusses the issue of Slovak identity in the music of Ľudmila Štefániková, a Slovak jazz musician of the younger generation (b. 1982) who left Slovakia to study jazz vibraphone and composition in Paris and, later, at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Be Beautiful, her debut album released in 2011, shows Štefániková mainly as a composer and arranger. A suite of seven pieces, written for a 16-part ensemble, displays a wide range of “languages“ used in jazz in the latest decade – starting from mainstream swing through to groove and complex (or constantly changing) meters to elements of free jazz, electronic music, rap, and, last, but not least, Slovak folk songs.
Although Štefániková left Slovakia to acquire both professional musical craftsmanship and a wide knowledge of the “universal“ jazz tradition, she continues to maintain a distinct identity in her music linking to the country of her origin. She does so in three different ways using both Slovak language and original Slovak folk music. This makes her a part of the wider tradition of Central and Eastern European jazz musicians, yet the message carried by her music opens new interpretational possibilities. “
Q: What would you do if you could no longer be a professional musician?
A: I don’t even want to think about it. It’s not like be or not to be a professional musician. You just are a musician. It sometimes feel like a curse cause you just need to do the music and more you do it, more you want to do it. If there were no but absolutely no ways to do music anymore (perform, record, write or teach), I would probably get into journalism, design or computer programming. I like to do all of those little bit, but life goes by quickly and there is no time to learn everything in a greater detail. But if I had to decide about my future 10 years ago, and I would not be a musician J, I would go to study medicine.
Q: What is the most misunderstood thing about Slovakia?
A: I have impression western people think that Slovakia is still a communist country or that it’s a low-income country. In the past I met people who thought we didn’t even have the electricity. But the contrary is true. Slovakia is a middle-income country these days, it’s part of the European Union and has euro as a currency. The country is very small (population of 5,5 million), it has beautiful nature and it’s rich for natural resources. It’s a popular hiking, spa/healing, but also cultural destination. One shouldn’t forget that the country went through many quick and dramatic political changes for the past hundreds of years, from thousand years of Austro-Hungarian empire, through establishment of Czechoslovak Republic, then through Soviet Union period to the birth of independent Slovak Republic, and it’s European Union integration later.
Q: Do you think things are better there for the average person since the transition from communism?
A: Yes I do. Just for the freedom. Before you couldn’t do anything, everything was centralized and controlled by the party. There was no money – only checks and every time you wanted to travel, there was a hassle to get the travel permit, get the real money so that you can live out of something abroad, and on the way back home, you were strictly inspected by the police at the boarder. Everyone was suspected to be an enemy to the party; there was not freedom of speech. This is a complicated and truly sad topic, but these days things are much different.
Q: In your opinion is there more support for the arts in the US or Europe?
A: It depends on what kind of support. America is good for Americans – you have plenty of grants and resources you can apply for and start from there. But they are all designed for US citizens, so for me this is not the best. In Europe the funding don’t work the same way. You have grants, mostly from government agencies; the competition is high but fair. But in general, Europe deeply live with and through the art, it’s been there for thousands of years, and still develops and stretches. It’s just different – while here in America art is a certain form of entertainment and very business related, in Europe it’s considered more as a science and thus the approach and general perception of it has a totally different form.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)