Krzysztof Sujata, aka Valiska, has lived in Canada since his family emigrated from Poland when he was five years old. Based in the Alberta city of Calgary, he has spent much of the past decade creating beautifully sparse compositions that often seem to reflect the wintry glint of the surrounding countryside at this time of year (for reference, this morning’s temperature in Calgary is an icy -13°C).
Last year Valiska released his latest and perhaps greatest work to date, the tenderly affecting On Pause. Created during an emotionally challenging period for the artist, the album layers gently distorted tape loops and Moog Sub 37 synth lines to gradually explore feelings of loss and upheaval with a stark honesty, allowing room not just for grief but the chinks of light that slowly start to pierce that process.
It’s a truly stunning album, and Valiska was kind enough to give MusicMap an insight into its creation…
Valiska is frequently categorised as an ‘ambient’ project, but your music is often more melodic than that genre might suggest. Do you find the tag limiting, and if so how would you define your music?
Valiska: For myself, even though the music might not be exactly what people think of when they hear ‘ambient’, I feel the tag still fits well. I’ve always approached music from an ambient standpoint, so to me it’s ambient. Of course, it does have influences from other genres: post-rock, modern composition and minimalist music, which accounts for its more melodic nature, but that’s just where my interests lie. That said, if someone doesn’t see my music as ambient, or if they think there’s a better way to describe it, that’s fine too. Everyone has their own opinions of how fluid or rigid genres are, but ultimately they’re just words that don’t really have any bearing on the music.
Ambient or otherwise, On Pause has a beautifully weathered feel. How did you create that effect?
That effect actually came about unexpectedly, but I fell in love with it as soon as I heard it. I was just starting to play around with cassette loops, recording melodies onto them and then layering those with other loops, and the effect pretty much occurred naturally through the recording process. Cassette tape imparts its own characteristics onto recordings, but also cassette loops behave differently depending on how they are spliced together. On top of that, I’ve also been using the same tape deck for a number of years now, so wear and tear has been slowly taking its toll, and it’s becoming more and more apparent in the recordings themselves. Together they created these uneven, at times broken and artifact-filled recordings. I left the recordings as they were for the most part, and that weathered feel is a result of that.
Your sleeve art is usually monochrome but the On Pause cover is quite colourful. Is there a reason for this change in visual style?
Overall, I feel that the change in visual style was less about wanting to move away from monochrome, and more due to Francis [Redman, designer, DJ and Trouble in Utopia label boss]’s incredible graphic design skill. We had numerous discussion about imagery and colour, trying to express some meaning not only in the imagery used, but the colour palate as well. The artwork we ultimately decided on is the one we felt expressed these ideas most clearly. In the end, the colours in the artwork are ones that come to mind when I hear the music, and it was through Francis’ hard work and experience that we were able to capture them in the image.
Is there a meaning behind the album’s title? It suggests something quite stilted or withdrawn but the music itself is very emotional…
The meaning behind the title comes from the feeling that your life is at a standstill. Starting around April 2016, I went through a year of emotional upheaval, at the midpoint of which my father passed away. Even though it was an emotionally charged year, it felt like I was just running in place, unable to move on.
The title also refers to the use of cassettes and cassette loops in the making of the music and the idea of repeating something, or feeling a certain way, but at the same time slowly changing in subtle ways.
What do you spend the most time on when composing, the harmony or the texture of the sound?
I’d say harmony/melody and the structure in which they exist are what I spend the most time on. No matter the genre, it’s usually the melodic/harmonic content that I connect with most in a piece of music, so I tend to base everything I do off of that. Texture is of course important, especially when talking about ambient, but I rarely listen to a piece of music solely because of its texture.
On this album for example, most of the work came in putting together the harmonies and structures in the pieces, whereas the textures were mostly a byproduct of the recording process.
It’s the first release on Francis Redman’s Trouble In Utopia label – how did that come about?
Francis and I originally got in touch through his NTS radio show. When Francis initially told me about his intention to start a record label, there were a number of ideas about what he was planning and what my involvement would look like. As things progressed, one thing turned into another and we ended up with this album. I’m not sure if it was ever meant to be the first release, but it just happened to work as such. Either way, it was great to work with Francis on releasing this album, and I cannot wait to see what’s next for his label.
Same here. What was your first experience of making music like, and how has your approach changed over the years?
My first experience actually making music came at around the age of thirteen or fourteen, when I got my hands on a copy of Fruity Loops. Everything was on the grid, some tracks had a beat, some didn’t, but it was all done within the software. But even then, they were often ambient tracks that were trying to tell a story. I remember one track which told the story of a submarine setting out on a voyage, almost getting destroyed by depth charges, and then after a while starting back up and continuing on. I used to spend a lot of time playing video games or listening to video game soundtracks, and I think that’s where my interest in merging ambient and storytelling came from.
Over the years, I think things have only gotten more complicated. I’m constantly trying to think of ways that I can write music differently, not necessarily reinventing the wheel but just differently from how I’ve been doing it, while at the same time staying authentic to myself. I’ve developed an interest in looping and repetition, and am always trying to find different ways in which they can be used to make music. As much as I make ambient music, something that on surface isn’t necessarily complicated, I like to approach it with an experimental mindset: looking at the things I’ve learned, and then changing their relationship and seeing what happens. Overall, I feel that each of my releases is different [from] the one that came before it, but I feel there is a constant thread that grows, shifts and contracts that can be found throughout all of them.
When did you move to Canada from Poland, and has your birthplace exerted any influence on your work?
I moved to Canada when I was five. I’d say Poland has definitely influenced my work, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes not. Repetitions, an album from a few years back, was very much inspired by a month-long trip to Poland, so there’s an obvious example. In a more subtle yet permanent way, being an immigrant and being raised by immigrant parents who themselves have always felt alienated by Canadian culture, I’d say largely by choice, is something that affects who and how I am, and that of course also has an effect on the music. Maybe it’s more in the undertones than on the surface, but your experiences are your experiences, and they always stay with you.
I’ve heard some Canadians (not from the city themselves) describe Calgary as quite a bleak place, is that fair and do you think living there has an effect on your sound?
Calgary can be quite a bleak place depending on what your experience of it is. I’d consider it a working city, in that many people come here from various other places specifically for work, and may not participate in what the city has to offer otherwise. Calgary also has a large suburban sprawl, so most people don’t live close to the downtown area. Because of this, Calgary isn’t what I could call a city with a vibrant downtown, which if you were just passing through, would most likely be your takeaway from the experience.
However, if you love nature then Calgary is not a bad place to live in at all. I live right next to Fish Creek Park, which is one of the largest urban parks in North America. It’s quiet here, the walks are lovely, we get the most sunshine out of any city in Canada, and the mountains are only two hours away by car. All this of course has an effect on my sound, but I also feel that Canadian music often seems to have a thread running through it, regardless of which city it was made in.
Can we see a picture of the view from your window?
What would you recommend music-loving visitors to Calgary should go and see/hear?
If you’re passing through Calgary, I would recommend doing a tour of the National Music Centre. They have a huge collection of instruments and synthesizers to check out, some of which are very rare. Not only that, but the building is beautiful.
If you’re looking to catch a show, I would recommend seeing if FOONYAP is playing any shows in town. Her music and live performances are incredible, definitely something to see if you get the chance. Other than that, if you’re up for being challenged, I would recommend looking into whether Timepoint Ensemble is putting anything on.
That said, if you’re making a trip of it, I would highly recommend attending Sled Island. It’s an amazing music and arts festival, and definitely my favourite week of the year.
Finally, what is the meaning behind the name Valiska?
Valiska is just the polish word ‘walizka’ but written phonetically in English. It means ‘suitcase’, referring to a journey.
Interview: Kier Wiater Carnihan