Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Artist Profile: Hania Rani

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

SchorleCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

"I think I am the same as an artist and as a person. Music is my way of communication and I see the art, the music as a whole thing, with no borders, divisions, or even genres." ~ Hania Rani

Hania Raniszewska, professionally known as just Hania Rani, has an extraordinary gift for blending beauty and melancholy within the frameworks of her minimalist compositions. The Polish-born pianist has roots in classical music, but her artistry propels her music far beyond the confining limitations of genre. As all great music does, it transcends simple labels and boxes and cuts straight to the heart.

If anything does define Rani's beautiful music, it's a delicate mixture of atmospherics with textures and repeating patterns that vary in their intensity from piece to piece. My introduction to her music was her striking piece "F Major," built on insistent arpeggiations that don't pummel you as much as build a hypnotic foundation for the listener to float away on. The accompanying video, shot in a cold, windswept Icelandic mountainscape, perfectly captures the marriage of grandeur and desolation that the music so vividly evokes. Rarely has a piece in a major key sounded as forlorn as this.

Incidentally, I highly recommend listening with headphones. Hearing the squeaks, clacks, and rattles of Rani's upright piano adds an organic human warmth to the piece that the sterility of digital electronics can never hope to match.

If that piece draws you in, let's go next to a solo performance from Studio S2 in Warsaw. The opening piece, "Hawaii Oslo," begins with a single repeating note, a propulsive D, as Rani manually dampens the piano string, creating a sharp, riveting intensity to set the mood. Slowly, she adds other notes, letting them ring out in stark contrast to the underlying pulse. Creating loops to let the parts play on, she shifts from her upright piano to a grand piano, adding a plaintive melody over the top.

Critics have likened Rani's work to that of Philip Glass, but on "Hawaii Oslo" I hear nothing more clearly than Terry Riley, whose piece "In C" centers on, you guessed it, a repeating C underpinning the piece like the tick-tick-ticking of a trusty wristwatch. There are many amazing interpretations of Riley's masterwork out there, but the following is one of my personal favorites, included here to give you a sense of the common thread my ears hear running between Rani's and Riley's works. (Terry's original score, notably, has the C played on a piano.)

If you wander further into the Warsaw session, you'll see that Rani also embellishes some of her compositions with subtle electronics and with vocals. Fleshing out her works appears to be a key part of her desire to expand beyond the confines of classical music and solo piano, and that evolution can be clearly heard in her two solo albums to date. The first, Esja, focuses exclusively on Rani's extraordinary talents on piano (again, put on the headphones to hear the rich subtleties and the lovely clicky-clacky humanness of the recordings), while the second, Home, incorporates vocals along with some tastefully understated bass and drums, courtesy of the rhythm section from Polish jazz outfit Immortal Onion. When you hear a little bit of their music, you'll understand why it would resonate with Rani:

But there's far more to Hania Rani than just solo piano albums. With cellist Dobrawa Czocher, a longtime friend of hers, she's produced two records -- one, Inner Symphonies, that she wrote with Czocher, and another, Biala Flaga, combining Rani's original works with those of Polish composer Grzegorz Ciechowski.

Here's a fiery performance of the "Con Moto" section of their Inner Symphonies album. Note the conductor adding some nice Moog stylings -- and what a visual delight to watch Rani's fingers practically dancing across the keys.

And here's a piece, also from Inner Symphonies, that's sure to tug at your heartstrings. The video for "Malasana" recounts the true story of a Chechen mother and her children stranded for four months in 2016 at a Belarussian railway station, seeking asylum in the EU as they sought to flee human-rights abuses in their homeland.

And, finally, here's a spellbinding 2020 live performance from the duo that focuses on Ciechowski's works.

Rani has also written music for flim, TV, and stage, and she collaborates with singer/violinist Joanna Longic in a project called Teskno.

In short, you have a vivid tapestry of diverse sounds to choose from when you delve into her magnificent works. And while I enjoy almost all of what I've heard, there's nothing that grabs my attention more than watching her sit at an upright piano and seeing the hammers punch out one of those bubbling rhythms that characterize much of her style. If you're old enough to remember the pulsating clacks of an old teletype machine, her music works in a similar way to lull you.

That propulsiveness in her music combines with passion and an atmosphere of longingness that pulls you in and somehow makes you lose track of space and time. It's slightly disorienting, but in a very good way. It manages to take you out of yourself and transport you into its own insular universe, where it washes over you, soothes you, and refuses to let you go. Rani herself observes that music has the ability to "bring you to places that you could never buy a ticket to," and she's right. All my favorite pieces of music do exactly that. She understands the power of the medium she works in, and how fortunate for all of us that she has chosen to share her magnificent gifts with the rest of the world.

Following are the released recordings of Rani's work that I'm familiar with. It may not be exhaustive, and some of the CDs are hard to find (ask me how I know), but if you want to fill your world with some beautiful, emotionally evocative works from an equally beautiful and talented young woman, you can't go wrong with Hania Rani.

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