Prague composer Ian Mikyska on pushing the boundaries of contemporary classical music

Tea and music experiment

Prague is known as one of the culture capitals of Central Europe and Czechs have a long tradition of musical education. One of the people that prove this heritage is still alive and well is Ian Mikyska, an up-and-coming composer who is pushing the boundaries of contemporary classical music. I recently caught up with him to find out more about his ensemble’s most recent innovation.

Choice Chinese tea is being poured inside a picturesque flat in Prague’s Malá Strana where around a dozen people have gathered to attend an unusual event, described by the organisers simply as an “experiment”. Three musicians entertain the visitors with a half hour improvisation. The tea is an integral part of the performance and is elaborately poured at set intervals by Eva Dudová, who occasionally switches to join in the music by playing on a giant flute.

Some of the attendees, their expressions most serious, close their eyes to take in the sound without outside distractions, only to open them when the porcelain tea cups are passed around. Each of the cups is identified with its own number, but the risk of a Covid infection is the last thing on the minds of the guests here as the various sounds blend in to create an atmosphere of absolute calm. For some, it is a chance to let their imaginations run wild, while for others it is a welcome moment of peace.

“Up until the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea in Europe of performing old music and not performing new compositions was unthinkable.”

Their impressions and how it made them feel are discussed after the performance, which was directed by one of the musicians - Ian Mikyska  - a half Czech half Slovak composer. I ask him after the event is over what the experiment was about.

“I guess it’s about finding new ways for us to approach contemplation, listening and being in general. Tea and music are two things that really help me disconnect, slow down and focus on the present for a bit.

“This project is a way to try and find out how we can combine those things to ideally make the effects even stronger and allow people who do not necessarily have a natural affinity for siting still for 40 minutes and focus on their breathing to enjoy that experience as well.”

The performance also serves as a dress rehearsal for an upcoming festival in Prague’s Trade Fair Palace at the National Gallery, where Ian and his fellow members from the Wandelweiser composers group will first perform this innovative approach to music to the wider public, he says.

Ian Mikyska | Photo: Michal Hančovský

“The performance will take place as part of the Malá inventura festival. We are doing a sort of work in progress performance for the people attending the festival, mainly aimed at experts.

“However, we will also be doing a concert for the wider public here at my home as part of the festival a day later, so people can buy tickets and anyone can come.”

Sitting in front of a large window in his flat that looks out onto Prague’s Jánská street, which once served as the address of people such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Giacomo Casanova, I wonder if just the surroundings themselves would make it worthwhile to buy a ticket for this show.

The rooms of the flat are filled with countless instruments, some of them familiar, others exotic. The young musician says that he has lost count of how many he knows how to play.

“There are the instruments that I have in my house, then there is the much smaller number of instruments that I play at some level and then there is the even smaller number that I play at a decent capacity.”

Ian says that he doesn’t come from a musical family. Nevertheless, his path towards becoming a musician started at a very early age.

“I remember that one of my earliest memories is having this green, plastic guitar and knowing that this is what I want to do in life. For a long time it was more tacit. At the age of six I began playing the recorder at school, I also played the saxophone a bit and started learning guitar, which was something that I really wanted to do. However, this was more on a hobby level.

“I hope that what we can offer is contemplation and a slightly different experience for a person that is worthwhile too.”

“Then, when I was about 13, I really got into jazz and had the good fortune to find Petr Zelenka and David Dorůžka, two wonderful jazz guitarists who became my teachers. That gave me a really good foundation, not in jazz but just in music in general. It was also around this time that I became really dedicated and started practicing hard. I thought that I was going to become a jazz guitarist.

“But then, just before I finished high school, I realised that maybe I don’t want to just play music in a jazz club for people who are having dinner, maybe I want to focus on something where I can do whatever I want. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a classical music composer, a job where you think up the most outrageous things that you can. It turns out that that’s not too far from the truth to be honest.”

Ian went on to study composition at the London Guild School of Music and Drama. Aside from making music he also writes about it as the deputy editor of the Czech Music Quarterly, an established English language magazine that focuses on Czech classical and contemporary music. I asked him what it’s like being a composer in today’s world, where most of the classical music on offer revolves around the works of 18th and 19th century greats such as Bach and Beethoven.

Prague Quiet Music Collective | Photo: Ondřej Besperát

“There definitely is this sense of being an outsider. And it is not even within culture at large, but also within the classical music tradition that you are talking about, which is what, to an extent, I was schooled in.

“I went to a conservatory in London, where most of my fellow students were instrumentalists and singers playing classical music. The level of disconnect that has happened since the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th century in terms of the repertoire, by that I mean how many concerts are only playing composers who died hundreds of years ago, is a really marked change. Up until the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea in Europe of performing old music and not performing new compositions was unthinkable. So this situation is quite strange.

“On one side there are contemporary composers such as Philip Glass and others who have a more accessible style that can also work commercially. Then you have people working experimentally, who are trying to find new ways of doing this stuff.”

Helping Ian in his quest for finding innovative ways of composing and playing music are his fellow members of the Prague Quiet Music Collective. The ensemble features four musicians - Ian, who specialises in guitars, recorders and the viola da gamba, violoncellist Milan Jakeš, double bass player Luan Gonçalves and one of the country’s leading young clarinettists Anna Paulová.

“The standard way of running a new music ensemble is that you are trying to find quite a lot of money to put on a bit of music that will probably be played once and then put away. That works. It is kind of serviceable. It depends a lot on public funding.

“Involving the real world in the fantasy world of music is a really interesting transposition.”

“We’re interested in trying to find other ways of approaching that. As the Prague Quiet Music Collective, one of our big wishes is that, although this music is sometimes demanding, it can also be a way to relax, focus, perceive and exist in a slightly different way. I hope that we will be able to approach people who are not normally interested in experimental music but can nevertheless find something worthwhile in this experience.”

What are the current wider trends in contemporary classical music?

“I think that this music ensemble model that I was talking about before, where people commission a piece, rehearse it, play it and that’s it as far as the life of the composition is concerned is quite well established and it does not seem that it is going away any time soon, barring some exceptions.

“However, I think that there are also quite a lot of people looking to do it differently. We at the Quiet Music Ensemble are very inspired by the vandaliser group of composers, who tend to work outside of that model and have a sort of community based approach. I think that is very valuable. There are people also working on this in Berlin and Germany at large.”

What exactly do you mean by “community based approach”?

“It’s about not necessarily demanding that this part of your creative output is well paid, its about working with friends. You might call it dilettantish perhaps, but it’s also done with a deep dedication to the music at the same time.

“I find all of these approaches that try to find a different way quite inspiring. In the UK, for example, there is Gabriel Prokofiev who has a project called ‘Non-Classical’ which is about putting on contemporary music concerts in the backrooms of pubs, clubs, and outdoor new spaces.

“In Prague there is the Berg Orcherstra, a large ensemble for contemporary music that, I think, do similar things successfully and also managed to build up a larger audience than most contemporary music ensemble’s do. This has developed over the years to a stage where, wherever they decide to perform, they are likely to have 250 regular spectators and it works very well.

“With all of the competition for attention and audiences, especially in Prague which is a very culturally active city that offers a very large variety of events every night, I think it is worthwhile to offer something else. The Berg Orchestra offers continuity, different spaces, interesting programming. I hope that what we can offer is contemplation and a slightly different experience for a person that is worthwhile too.”

Prague Quiet Music Collective | Photo: Ondřej Besperát

Aside from his “dilettantish” experiments, Ian Mikyska is also a freelancer for Czech Radio, where he has worked on several of the public broadcaster’s radio plays. He is especially proud of being part of Radioakustika, a Czech Radio intermedia project run by composers Ladislav Železný and Michal Rataj which is focused on exploring the potential of radio as a dynamic medium in the 21st century.

“Radioakustika is an extremely important platform, because it is virtually the only radio art platform in the Czech Republic. By radio art I mean things that are not strictly radio plays or radio documentaries, but rather explorations of new approaches to music.

“Although funding for it is perhaps even worse than in contemporary classical music, it really is a fascinating field where they are doing a lot of great work.”

Speaking of new approaches, you also experiment with industrial sounds in your own compositions. Am I right?

“Yes. One of my big interests as a composer is bringing the ‘real’ into the concert hall. I think that it’s very important that music is ‘made-up’ so to say. You make all of these arbitrary decisions and create what is in many respects a very artificial environment.

“The way in which we produce sounds on our instruments is highly convoluted and complex. This is why I find it really rewarding to bring into that the sounds of the real world, whether they are from the urban or natural world.

“Sometimes I also use electromagnetic devices that will pick up on those signals that we do not normally hear, magnify them, transpose them and make them audible. Involving the real world in the fantasy world of music is a real interesting transposition, I think.”

Was there something that you came across while exploring industrial sounds that you thought would make a particularly interesting addition to music and compositions in general?

“For me it was more a principle rather than a specific sound. It came from working with field recordings, specifically recordings of trains in otherwise quiet environments at night.

“You can hear the train approaching in what was before a completely quiet environment, you hear the gradual bubbling up of the incoming train in relation to all of the other sounds in the surrounding environment, then it gets stronger, then there is this really powerful faze and then it passes on where again you hear its sound disappearing for a very long time. It was that final moment, of the sound disappearing which gave me a sort of idée fix that I have been following since.

“It led me to an interest in the idea of the impermanence in sound. Sound is of course generally described as something ephemeral, but [what fascinates me] is searching out and focusing in on those moments of impermanence. Things like sounds fading out very slowly while another sound remains very constant, where there is this momentary liminal zone where you sound hovers on the edge for a bit before completely disappearing.

“This has been something that I have been exploring with most of my pieces since then. It also actually led me to a wider focus on Buddhism. Impermanence is after all the First Mark of Existence in Buddhism and this idea of exploring importance through sound has become very important for me and, by extension, our ensemble.”

If you’re sitting down for a cup of tea, or just want to try out listening to something new, Ian Mikyska has several of his compositions on his website The site also features a special “game” page, where the composer has devised 25 questions that are aimed at suggesting the most fitting piece for new listeners.