Interviews

We are all refugees from something — Argentine pianist Olec Mün presents his new album, ‘Reconciliation’

The story of Olec Mün’s new album, Reconciliation, is a moving example of how life can alter the course of an artist’s creative journey.

Born in Argentina, the young pianist and composer is the grandson of four Jewish immigrants who fled Europe during World War II in order to escape the the Nazi regime. When he decided to move to Spain, hoping to find a more receptive market for his electronic project, Septenio, Olec became the first member of his family to return to The Old Continent. This growing realization led to a complete shift in his creative process and a desire to go back to his main instrument. What resulted was a beautiful, heartfelt solo piano work that symbolizes his reconciliation with his family history.

I caught up with Olec a few weeks ago to talk about his experience of returning to Europe and the fascinating story behind his new album.

As a fiction writer, I always connect very strongly with the story of a particular work, which made Reconciliation a very fascinating album to listen to. Please tell me a little bit about your history with music and your career leading up to Reconciliation. In your first album, Septenio, you’ve used a lot of electronic elements. What made you switch to solo piano for your second release?

The piano has always been my main instrument. I’ve been playing it since I was about five or six years old. But I always played it in my house, internally, so to speak. Sometimes I produced songs for other people, but I didn’t have my own project with the piano.

My first album, Septenio, is purely electronic, minimalistic music. It’s not what I usually play or listen to but, at the time, I was exploring those sounds. By coincidence —or not —I got a commission to produce my first album and I was making this kind of music, so I got into that world of minimalistic experimental music. All of this was in Argentina.

What made you decide to move to Europe?

One of the reasons was that, while I was recording Septenio, both the producer and sound engineer I was working with told me that this music was not for Argentina. There is no scene for it there. I don’t know why, but those were the words I needed to hear in order to decide to leave. They gave me that push, you know?

That motivation merged with this idea of coming back to Europe and being the first one in my family to do so. But that was just an idea that was inside of me. I wasn’t planning to make this album. I just wanted to return to Europe and see what was going to happen with me and my story.

The original idea was to continue making electronic music. I arrived in Spain, in a town near Barcelona, and I bought a little electronic keyboard. Initially, I was composing electronic music. But something emerged inside of me when I arrived. I had to present my German passport in Spain. That was really strange for me. In all of the paperwork I had to write that I was German. An urge started appearing. I found a piano in a place near the town where I was living. I went there almost every day, going over the melodies that were appearing. In a couple of months, the album was composed.

I got into this ritual where I would just sit there in silence for twenty minutes and start playing. I was trying to have a conversation with my grandparents. This was very new to me. I wasn’t writing this kind of music before. I used to play more in the jazz style or folk style of Argentina. This whole language was new to me.

What do you think caused this switch internally, where you felt like expressing this very personal history in a language you hadn’t used before in music?

The music just sounded like it should be written for solo piano, you know? I tried adding synthesizers, I tried many things, but I always ended up with just the piano. It’s funny because I moved to Europe to play electronic music but it only made me want to play the piano more.

It’s a very emotional creative reaction to the changes that were happening in your life. When you were moving to Europe, was the fact that you were the first one in your family to return on your mind a lot?

It was on my mind, yes. In fact, I did many different kinds of therapy where I could see that I had to do this. I did the family constellation method, which basically shows you that the family is a system. Like all systems, it has things on the surface and things that are underlying. It’s a technique that brings to surface that which is kept in secret or unknown in a family.

I did that and this story came to light, this idea that all four of my grandparents had to leave this place. Of course, it’s understandable, given the historical circumstances. But my parents and I have have inherited this feeling of not belonging, not knowing where you’re from. I wanted to see what would happen to me if I came here.

You’ve spoken before about the guilt that comes with being a refugee and living in exile. Was this something that was brought up in conversation in your family?

It is a subject we discussed in our family, but I feel each one of us deals with these things in their own way. My father, for example, could never come back to his parents’ home town, because it was too painful for him. I understand that. I feel that, because I am a newer generation, I was able to go a little bit deeper into what all of this meant.

And that sense of guilt is really interesting. I read about it — it usually happens to survivors. One would think that you would feel happy and joyful because you survived, but it comes with the guilt of thinking, “Why did I survive and not others?” My father used to tell me that his mother —my grandmother — had that feeling of guilt really present. She had a sister who died in the concentration camps. He said that, in her last days, my grandmother was crying for her sister, asking for her forgiveness. It was a strong image for me.

What I loved about the way the album was set up is that it has a very clear, linear story, highlighted by the track placement. You start from songs that are dedicated to your grandparents, and move on to songs that represent their journey. What was also interesting was that you’ve had two different types of stories, of the two grandparents you knew and the ones you never got to meet. You’ve had two completely different ways of relating to them. Could you tell me how this reflected in your creative approach for each track?

The first piece is “Richard.” It came to me the day I did this family constellations therapy. It opened a emotional channel to connect with this grandfather I didn’t know. I came back from this session that I had in Argentina, sat at the piano and this melody came. It’s two chords — it’s really simple. I just started crying. For two weeks, I could only play this tune — I couldn’t play anything else. I sensed that there was something happening in me that I needed to pay attention to.

A couple of months later, my grandfather who is alive had to go to the hospital. He’s ninety-one years old. I went to visit him and I was already planning to move to Europe. I didn’t know when I was going to see him again. I came back from the hospital that day and his melody appeared.

When I arrived here in Spain, a couple of months later, I had these two tunes for my two grandparents and I thought, “Let’s see what happens with my grandmothers.”(laughs)

I was just sitting at the piano saying, “Tell me about you!” Especially with my grandparents whom I didn’t know. I didn’t have any reference about them. I had very little information. They had a really rough life and they didn’t talk much to my father about it. It was a purely spiritual connection.

While I was working on these four pieces, this idea came to write something about the journey of the refugee. The styles of the two parts are very different. The pieces for my grandparents are more arranged. In the movements, I wanted to keep this feeling of freedom, because every time I sat at the piano to play them, there was something new. Even now. The other day, I played the music live and just let myself be influenced by the atmosphere. If something new appears, I let it appear.

Has your family heard the music? If so, what was their reaction?

They are really happy. They feel gratitude. It’s like an interchange that is occurring between us. Like all of us, they are caught in this situation now, caused by the pandemic. They are ninety years old and can’t go out. Each time they receive a new song or an interview or something, they are really happy about it.

What I feel happened with this whole album is that I was able to express many things that they felt but weren’t able to express themselves. I think it’s a relief for them too.

On “Freddy,” you feature a recording of your grandfather’s voice. In my opinion, that really enriches the emotional impact of the song and the feeling of intimacy when listening to it. What made you decide to do that?

If I could have, I would have done it with all of them, because the spoken word is so powerful. I did it with Freddy because he’s a great storyteller. Every time we sit at the table, he tells his stories. For a couple of years, I’ve been “undercover.” I put my cellphone on the table and recorded. If you listen well, you can hear the whole table. It was a conversation after lunch.

I remembered I had this recording in my cellphone. I tried it with the piano and I thought it suits the song very well, because it’s in the first person, you know? It brings the testimony of a person who was there.

When you wrote the last four movements, how did you relate to them creatively compared to the pieces dedicated to your grandparents?

I wanted the second part to be less personal and more universal. For example, with “Exile,” I imagined my grandmother leaving to Argentina on a ship. That is an image every refugee can relate to. “New Beginning” deals with this feeling of starting anew. When you arrive in a place and you don’t know the language, you don’t know anything and the only thing you can do is move forward, build and don’t look back. But there is always this sadness of having to leave your old life behind. So I tried to summon up these feelings to see what is universal in all of these stories of exile and starting over.

The last two movements were more about my own calling to go back home. It has this repetitive motif. What I imagined with this is that you are living your life, with your dreams and goals but there is a calling there that tells you to look in a certain direction. I ended up listening to that calling.

The last one is this idea of hope and making peace with that place and those people that expelled you from it. I don’t know if people realize — some do and some don’t — that the last piece, “Reconciliation,” starts with the four motifs of the four grandparents. The image I had of that song was of me together with my four grandparents, deciding to return to Europe and move forward.

How do you plan on promoting the album, especially given the current restrictions on performing?

The original idea was to play the whole concert in my grandparents’ home towns. Last year, I visited these places. It was really emotional for me and for the people who received me. They were really happy that I was there. I suggested the idea of playing there and they were very receptive and very supportive. We were planning a whole tour around these towns. It was going to be in November but we had to cancel it.

I wanted to play there because I wanted to create this kind of psychomagical experience — to make the people say something or make everyone sings this last song. I wanted it to be more than just a concert. I wanted it to be very moving.

I still want to do it. We decided to wait and see what happens in 2021 and hopefully organize these concerts then. With this particular project, I’m not thinking about doing anything online.

What is next for you, creatively? Do you plan to return to your initial goal of making electronic music and presenting it to the European market or are you sticking on your path of writing for solo piano?

What happened is that, with Reconciliation, a new language appeared in me that I want to continue exploring. Last week, I recorded another solo piano album. I composed all of it during lockdown. It was a gift from lockdown. (laughs)

What made you decide to release the album on Lady Blunt Records?

I was looking for a label after I had the album already recorded. Looking for labels, I came upon Lady Blunt and wrote to them. What happened with them that I didn’t feel happened with other labels was that they really connected with the album. They were touched by the story, by the music. I was looking for that. With this album, I felt that I was opening my heart and I didn’t want to share it with just any person. I could see that they were really taking care of the work, and that’s why I went with them. I wanted to have a team of people that were really in love with the project. That’s why I went with Francesca, Laura and Alessandro. They are like family now. When you work with people like that and you see that other people are looking at your project from another point of view, that’s really enriching. That way, you don’t get too attached to your project and you trust that they will take care of it.

What would you like people to take away from this music?

What I would like is for people to make the time and space to listen to the music. Just listen — don’t do anything else. We’re so used to having background music. But this is a music where, if you really listen to it, you will go through deep emotions that are really healing. I really believe that. It’s what I experienced while composing. When you listen with that presence, you receive that energy from the musician. That’s what I feel when I listen to other musicians. And I’m sure that if you listen with that purpose, you will be able to reconcile with whatever you are exiled from. We are all refugees from something.

You can get Reconciliation on Bandcamp and pre-order a limited release vinyl on Diggers Factory.

Photo credit: Paloma Arbol

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