Swetja - multi-instrumentalist creating a "world of air vibrations"

Swetja, photo: www.swetja.com

In this week's edition of the Arts, Rob Cameron pays a visit to the Prague studio of Slovak-born multi-instrumentalist Swetja. Born in the Slovak town of Banska Bystrice, Swetja is now based in the Czech Republic, where he composes and performs music on dozens of instruments. Swetja is best known for his work with an ancient Slovak wind instrument called the fujara, and in 2002 won first prize in the prestigious USA Songwriting Competition.

Swetja, you have an incredible array of instruments hanging on the wall here, take me through some of them. This I believe is a banjo...

"Yes, that's a banjo."

Followed by some flutes?

"Yes, flutes from different regions of the world, some from Slovakia, some from Africa."

Next to them you have a classic guitar, a semi-acoustic guitar, then a bass, and next to that is something very, very strange looking indeed. What on earth is it?

"I don't know the name! But it's a kind of African instrument. It makes a sound like Scottish bagpipes, but it's really quite different...then I have a rebab, it's an Egyptian instrument. Next to that is something like a small harmonium - I got it from my sister, from Sardinia. It's a shame listeners can't see it!"

Yes, it looks like a lot of bamboo pipes tied together. How do you play it?

"When I received it I didn't know how to play it. I just tried a lot of ways, and then finally found a way." (demonstrates by playing Sardinian harmonium.)

And on the floor here is the instrument you're best known for. This is a fujara, which looks to me like a long piece of wood...

"Exactly. It's a big pipe, a kind of big flute, made out of special wood. It's a traditional, unique instrument of Slovakia."

So it's a Slovak mountain instrument. How does it sound?

Fantastic. You must need really good lungs to play this instrument.

"Yes! You can't smoke."

Further round the room you have another stringed instrument. It looks like a huge balalaika, but it's not is it?

"It's called a mandolin cello. It has four double strings, tuned in octaves, which gives it a really..."

A rather sinister sound.

"I'm sorry - none of the instruments on the wall are tuned! I only tune them when I need them for a record."

Right. Further round we have another banjo.

"Yes, it's a typical guitar banjo, known everywhere. This is quite interesting though..."

This is quite interesting! It's a saw. Don't tell me you play the saw as well.

"Yes, it's a normal saw, from a hardware shop."

And you play it with a bow.

That must be a lot of fun to play. Tell me Swetja - which instrument did you learn first?

"First I was a typical guitarist, starting in the 70s with folk songs. Then I bought an electric guitar, and played hard rock guitar and so on - blues, jazz. After that I started working with sounds and making my own compositions, so I just realised that guitars and basic instruments like drums, bass, keyboards just gave me basic stuff but I needed more colour. I could have used a synthesiser, but the sound was rather chemical. So for this reason I started using the natural colour of the instrument because the sound really gives you the power of the live record."

And do you have any idea how many instruments you can play?

"I can tell you what I can't play! Classical instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, violin. I could learn but it would take time so I prefer to write the score and use my musician friends to record the music for me."

Well Swetja thank you very much for inviting me here into your studio and showing me some of these instruments. We're going to end the programme with one of your compositions; it's on one of your CDs. Tell me what this is.

"It's a piece called 'Genesis' - it was the winning song for the 2002 USA Songwriting Competition. I was thinking about what was at the beginning. God said in the beginning was the Word, and what is the Word? It's sound. So I was trying to connect all the instruments from around the world, put together in one song, and build a composition."

And how many instruments feature in this song?

"About 70. You can try to recognise which instruments they are and which area they come from."