Lyndon Pike talks with Polish prodigy, Hania Rani

Polish born Hania Rani is a composer and musician who trained as a classical pianist before incorporating jazz into her work whilst studying at Music School Feliks Nowowiejski in Gdańsk. Her debut album Esja, a beguiling collection of solo piano pieces on UK label Gondwana Records was released to international acclaim on 5 April 2019 and gathered nominations in five categories in the Polish music industry’s own Grammys, the Fryderyki. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rani started experimenting with improvisation and composition. This led to her follow-up release: the expansive, cinematic, Home, which saw Rani expanding her pallette, adding vocals and subtle electronics to her music. She is now recognised as a developing and pioneering artist within the post-classical (also known as neo-classical) music genre. Hania is currently on tour, and is due to play her first ever Australian shows this month.

With around fifteen collaborative and solo releases recorded in a relatively short eight year period, is there a moment in your career you feel was particularly pivotal or transformative for you as a musician?
I have been playing the piano and studying classical music quite proficiently since I was seven years old. Recently, I started composing my own music and working on my own style of recording and production. Although many wonderful things have happened to me, such as important performances, awards and collaborations, the most significant was signing with my UK label, Gondwana, as everything that happened afterwards was a result of this signing. I felt it was right for my music, and they paid so much attention to my debut album that it was a dream come true.

How do you balance technically disciplined constructs with emotional and intuitive aspects when creating a new piece? Or do they go hand in hand for you?
In the beginning of my music career, my compositions were very precise due to my background in classical music. However, as I started to become involved in other projects and began to sing and work as a session musician, I was encouraged to start improvising.

This was a turning point for me as it allowed me to search for my own language as a performer and understand the purpose of improvisation. It took some time, but it has become an important part of my composing process which I now trust and find very precious. Improvisation is the result of deep focus and listening, and it brings me great joy to allow it to be included in my recordings.

Does that improvisation transport itself and expand more effectively within the live arena, compared to the studio recording process?
I would love to be a bit more courageous when it comes to singing and improvising, although voice is not my first instrument. With the piano, synth, and keyboards, I feel confident in live performances as the perfect time for improvisation.

While I typically have a structured plan, it isn’t as freeform as jazz, but I do have moments where I can open up the structure and form to improvise. Some movements are always improvised, but I have my own limitations and formulas, such as sticking to a certain scale or chord progression, that I like to keep in mind while improvising.

When using repetitive patterns and structures, how do you maintain a sense of tension and interest within the repeating motifs? Also, how do you know how long is too long to hold a motif?
Ah, that’s a very interesting question. When playing piano, I feel limited by the instrument’s inability to sustain long notes. I’ve always been fascinated by electronic music, which can create endlessly sustained notes which are important to convey a certain feeling. To compensate for the piano’s limitations, I repeat notes rhythmically and use the pedal to create a similar effect. However, I tend to get impatient and quickly move on to something new. Despite this, I am still able to create a resonating and vibrating sound when playing the piano, which can make it feel like a different instrument altogether.

How do you stay inspired and motivated at times when creativity may feel elusive to you?
To ensure that I have a dedicated time for creativity and focus, I make it a point to spend at least a month or two each year in a remote location. It’s the perfect opportunity for me to escape and immerse myself in nature. Right now, I’m in the mountains where I’ve been working since the beginning of February. Being away from the city and its distractions allows me to focus on my work without any interruptions.

Have you noticed a difference in audience behaviour or response post lockdown?
During conversations with my audience, many of them expressed their happiness about being back at concerts, especially after the pandemic. For some, it was their first concert in a long time and they were emotional and grateful to be there, even if they had to wear masks. It was heartwarming to see how music brought people together again, and I am proud to have such a wonderful audience who motivate me to improve. While I don’t see a huge difference in my audience, I often hear comments like “This was my first concert since the pandemic” or “Thank you for being my pandemic soundtrack.” My music has a calming effect on people, and many have used it to relax and regain focus. These comments were a recurring theme during our conversations.

If you had to compose a piece of music inspired by a work of literature, which book would you choose? And how do you think the music would sound?
Nice question! There is a Polish book that I really like called Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz. This book was written in the beginning of the 20th century and has a unique and realistic quality to it, similar to the works of Italo Calvino and other writers from the same period who sought to capture both the real and unreal in their works. I found this book amazing and fascinating, and I even included a little quote from it on the liner notes for my album Home.

One of the main ideas of the book is that imagination is a very strong medium. For example, there is a scene where you can imagine a handle on the wall that you can grab and open a door. This concept really resonated with me as a musician, and I think it would be absolutely fascinating to create music that captures the essence of this book. While it would be a lot of work, I believe the end result would be worth it.

When asked how this music would sound, I envision it as a tragicomedy, going up and down, and with many different angles in its narration. It would be both fun and not very serious, making you cry one moment and laugh the next. Overall, I believe that this book would be an incredible inspiration for creating music, and I would love to explore this concept further.

And finally Hania, as a Polish native, the big question is cabbage or potato pierogi?
Ooooo, both. As long as they are prepared properly and if they are fried, preferably. And now I am thinking that I am really missing pierogi and longing for Poland, and this is your fault!

Hania Rani will be playing in Sydney at the Seymour Centre, York Theatre on May 3, 2023.
Tickets are available here
Full Australian tour schedule available here

This article originally appeared in the April issue of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine