Feature/Interview

Alex Roth – from London to Kraków!

This feature/interview with Alex Roth written by Tomasz Furmanek was first published in Polish in the June issue of Jazz Forum magazine. Tomasz has kindly provided LondonJazz News with this English translation:

Roth, Zemler, Zimpel
(Photo: by Ada & Sobiesław Pawlikowscy)

Composer, improviser, guitarist, producer and interdisciplinary artist Alex Roth has gained a reputation across the UK as one of the most innovative and impressive talents at the forefront of London’s newest art music. His current projects include strong Polish accents: a collaboration with Warsaw-based musicians Wacław Zimpel and Hubert Zemler and a site-specific sound installation (in Poland) with sculptor Benedict Romain. 

On the 30th of June 2019 Alex Roth and his brothers Nick (saxophone) and Simon (drums) will be playing at Festivalt, the alternative Jewish arts festival in Kraków, which presents new currents of radical Jewish art in Poland. They will present improvised music using field recordings made at sites of importance to the Jewish community in Kraków, they will be performing in several different locations throughout the day.

Quite unusually, Alex have moved from London to Poland, Kraków, leaving the buzzing London music scene behind: “I moved from London to Kraków in August 2018  and the idea was that I’ll be there for about a year, and the big part of the reason for that was to re-connect with my ancestors’ homeland. My great great grandfather came from Kalisz to London about 1890, so I am kind of reversing that migration pattern in a way, by going back to Poland. And the idea was just to experience of that historical inter motion on my family and to figure out what it means to me today”.

Roth’s staying in Poland wasn’t meant to be limited to only one year. Collaborations, ideas, festivals and inspirations kept constantly appearing, and the project with Zimpel and Zemler seemed to be a significant step on his Polish musical route: “When I knew I was going to Poland I was listening to a lot of music that was being made there, and Wacław and Hubert were two musicians who seemed to be on all the recordings that I really liked. I got in touch via a mutual friend, the bass player Olie Brice who played a lot with Wacław, and we spoke about doing something together. That was a year before I actually went there. 

During that time I got funded by the Arts Council England to undertake a period of research in Poland exploring my family history, so I put the pieces of the Jigsaw together and decided to ask Wacław and Hubert if they would be involved in the project. The concept involved using the recordings that I’ve been making around Poland and Ukraine of sounds and places that were of significance to me, or to my family’s story, or to the Jewish community in general”.

All that came together in the two concerts in January 2019: at Kraków’s Galicia Jewish Museum and London’s Jazz Café POSK. Roth, Zemler and Zimpel’s music was received enthusiastically in both places. And which of his many skills and talents Roth himself identifies with most?: “well, when people ask what I do I normally just say I am “a musician”, but obviously within that there’s lots of different activities, like composing, improvising, leading band, producing, going on tour… But at any one point one of those things can be more in focus than the others. So right now, I am working on a dance piece with my partner Kasia, my role is more of a musical director, before when we were doing the gig with Zimpel & Zemler it was more as a band leader and improviser. Shortly after that I wrote the score for a Théatre Volière show in London, so I was composer/performer in that context!”

Apart from gigs at Festivalt there is one more exceptional project coming in Poland from Alex, a very special installation: “it’s based on the idea of The Righteous Amongst the Nations and uses the winds to play specially designed and built objects/instruments that will be modelled on items from the POLIN museum’s collection. I was looking for someone to build the objects and thought of the sculptor Benedict Romain, whom I met on an artist retreat hosted by Asylum Arts… We begin building the instruments this summer, testing them out, figuring out how to make sounds from them, how to amplify them, and the installation will be launched in June 2020 when they will unveil the 3 new names of the Righteous Among The Nations that are to be added to the path in the Ogród Sprawiedliwych. The moment when they will plant a new tree in the honour of the 3 new Righteous Ones will also launch the installation. 

The idea of using the wind is a symbol of two things to me: on the one hand it symbolises freedom, the ability to move across borders, invisibly, with complete freedom – a liberating symbol. Then on the other hand, like for example “halny” in the south of Poland, wind can be very destructive and unpredictable and it can cause an absolute havoc… So the wind has these two sides, and to me it’s a perfect metaphor for migration, as a potentially freeing thing, but the sense of dislocation and loss of homeland can come with, so that’s where the idea of the wind comes in”.

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