Czech sound-artist Lenka Morávková on creating unique instrument made of Bohemian crystal
Czech sound-artist Lenka Morávková on creating unique instrument made of Bohemian crystal
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Lenka Morávková is a sound-artist and electronic producer from North Bohemia who divides her time between Prague and Los Angeles. A few years ago, she created a one-of-a-kind glass sculpture called the Bohemian Cristal Instrument, a unique version of the legendary Cristal Baschet. The sonic explorer, as she calls herself, has since achieved wide international acclaim. She performed at the prestigious Broad Museum in Los Angeles and her video, shot in the blooming Californian desert, has attracted more than two million views.
I met with Lenka Morávková during her stay in Prague to discuss her work and see her perform on the experimental instrument made of Bohemian Cristal.
“This is my own version of an instrument called Cristal Baschet, which was originally made by the Baschet brothers from France. They had been developing experimental instruments and sound sculptures since the1950s and the best-known instrument they had ever built was the Cristal Baschet.
“When I lived in Barcelona I had a chance to meet their successor, the Metaludic Baschet Studio from University of Bellas Artes de Barcelona. These guys are taking care of all the Baschet instruments all around the world and they are also working on new, post-Baschet sculptures.
“I invited Martí Ruiz from Barcelona to Nový Bor and we ended up building this sound sculpture, which is the only one in the world in this design and the only one made of Bohemian crystal.”
“At the time, I was working with the sound of Czech glass to raise awareness about the biggest decline of the Czech glass industry in 2010. When I met Martí from Metaludic Baschet, I suggested that we could make a piece out of Czech glass that would be a physical representation of Czech crystal.
“They liked the idea and in a year, I got invited to the International Glass Symposium in Nový Bor. I was asked by the organizers to present my performance Glass Spilled Out Over a Broken Bathtub and I also suggested that we construct the first Cristal Baschet from Czech glass.
“So I invited Martí Ruiz from Barcelona to Nový Bor and we ended up building this sound sculpture, which is the only one in the world in this design and sound and also, the only one made of Bohemian crystal.”
Can you introduce it to our listeners? How does this instrument work?
“I think it’s always surprising for a lot of people to see that this experimental instrument works like any other acoustic instrument you can think of, like a piano or a guitar.
“However, you always need to fulfil several parameters to get some sound out of an object. One of them is amplification. The amplification part here are these resonators made of stainless steel. Those have a huge delay and echo and when I take them off, there is basically no sound.
“It has a more experimental, roaring and edgy sound. I think it has more identity. It can get annoying and it can be very loud and I like that challenge!”
“You also need a part that triggers the sound wave. On the guitar you have your fingers on a string to trigger the sound wave. Here we have glass rods. I wet my fingers in the bowl with water and then I basically rub the glass rod, without applying too much pressure.
“It doesn’t matter whether I am fast or slow. What matters is to find a certain pressure when you start feeling the resonance in your fingers, so that you are sure that the sound wave travels to the core.
“Each of the glass rods has its own metallic rod, which can be this short or this long, according to the metalic bar at the end of the rod. And when I push the bar up, the pitch gets higher the same way it does on a guitar.”
In what way is this Czech version of the Cristal Baschet different from the original?
“The original version of the Cristal Baschet is different visually at first sight because the glass rods you can see here in front of me and which are vertical are horizontal in the Cristal Baschet. So basically it is upside down and all the glass rods are transparent. They are the same size and they are tuned as a piano.
“I decided to orient my instrument vertically because I was building a visual sound sculpture. Also, when I played the Cristal Baschet in Barcelona I realised that when you perform on it, the audience cannot really see anything, because they have these thick metallic rods in the way. And I wanted the audience to have the pleasure to see what is happening.
“On the other hand, I made it way more challenging for myself as a performer, because it is harder to perform on such an instrument. So the visual part is one thing, but the sonic part is also very different. With the Cristal Baschet, even if you get to the lowest register, you are not really getting much low frequencies.
“Whereas here, you really get these super low bass sounds, which are amazing. It also has a more experimental, roaring and edgy sound. I think it has more identity. It can be sweet and mellow, or it can get aggressive and very loud, like a distorted guitar and I like the challenge!”
You said the Bohemian Cristal Baschet is just like any other music instrument but the music that you produce sounds like nothing like I have ever heard before. Can you actually produce any type of classical piece on Cristal Baschet just like you would on a guitar or a piano?
“I can perform anything within my range and tuning, however I am limited by staccato compositions because the nature of the instrument is mellow and it has a very long resonation. So while you can move quickly, you will always hear the overtones that will be layered on top of each other. If you think about it, every instrument has its limits, it is just the way you work within those boundaries.”
“I do play classical instruments. You can see the saxophone here, which I have played since I was fifteen. I also play the piano, I sing and I play some guitar.
“So basically, I am not that much interested, while working with this experimental instrument, to play traditional music, because you can do that on any other instrument.
“I sometimes feel sad when I see people playing the Cristal Baschet and they stick to very traditional repertoire, like Bach or Beethoven. I understand it has its audience, but if you have such a unique experimental instrument, you want to hear new music coming out of it!”
Do you prefer to perform on your own or do you also enjoy playing along other artist?
“I love working with other artists but I also enjoy playing solo shows. My great experience from this spring was when I performed with a symphonic orchestra for a movie.
“I also work with other people in LA or Prague to provide a full band, drummers and synth and string players. My new single EVAPORA is a collaboration with LA movie composer Sofia Hutlquist aka Drum&Lace, who recorded great strings and sent it over for the song. It’s just harder, after Covid, to book full-band shows, because they are obviously more costly.
"So, for this moment, I prefer to just perform solo shows while I try to provide a full band sound and experience with the instrument, my voice, synthesisers, accompanied by an immersive light show with lasers.
“But I am hoping that once I go back to LA this fall I will do full-band shows again. I am already pre-booked for a huge festival in the US next year, called Lightning In a Bottle. It is California’s second biggest festival after Coachella and I am really excited about it.
“I was already supposed to play there this year but my visa was not ready on time. But this time, my visa is coming in just a few weeks’ time, so I really plan on doing a big show there. The stage I got this year was for 4,000 people, so I hope they will give me the same one, so that I can do something spectacular there!”
Nowadays, as you say, you are partly based in Prague and partly in LA. But you originally hail from North Bohemia, that’s how the idea of the Bohemian Cristal Baschet came about. Is the glass making tradition important to you?
“That’s a good question. I would say that while I was just a local artist living in Czechia, glass was not that important, because it was just so normal to me. Since I was a kid, everyone I knew worked in the glass industry in any way you can imagine.
“While when I started to live abroad, make those installations around the glass and work with the instrument to raise awareness about this huge economic decline of the industry and give a voice to the local people who were losing their jobs, I think that was the moment when I realised it was something important and a part of who I am.
“It is true that when I am in LA, people definitely recognize me as part of the Czech glass industry heritage and I love to talk about it, because this instrument is a representation of this tradition, I think.
“I love when the tradition is combined with something innovative and you take it and morph it into something unexpected. I feel that this is what I am doing sonically and conceptually within this project.”
So what are your plans for the near future?
“We shall be releasing a new single and music video with my other electronic project, MY NAME IS ANN in just a few weeks’ time. I am going to Warsaw as a Czech delegate and also to play a show as My Name Is Ann. Then I am flying to Canada, Sweden and the US for more events and shows.
“I also have some ideas for a new interactive installation which would combine uranium glass and bioluminescence. There is a cave in New Zealand with bioluminescence worms, so I just emailed the New Zealand University today asking if I could get an art residency.
“I have another plan specifically for the Bohemian Cristal Instrument and that’s a new music video for the new single called New Nature, which I would like to shoot it 3D.
“I think it is a beautiful project that could be invited to festivals, if we do it properly. I just wish musicians in Czechia would have the same support for their visual content as filmmakers do. So hopefully, things will change in this respect.”