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Electric Knights, Classics and Abstractionists – Polish Contemporary Music


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Krzysztof Penderecki, photo: Bruno Fidrych

The Roots: Lutosławski, Schaefer, Rudnik

Writing about the newest trends in Polish music should start with introspection into the past. This present generations of Polish composers where taught by teachers who were influenced by the great figures of Polish music – most importantly by Witold Lutosławski and his aleatoricism. Aleatoric music a kind of a “safe improvisation”, in which the musician produces a sound in a tempo of his choice. Some composers – for instance Wojciech Ziemowit Zych – openly referred to Lutosławski in their work. Zych did this exceptionally straightforwardly, in ''Mille coqs blessés á mort'' (2000) he directly cited “Livre pour orchestra” (1968) by Lutosławski. Other composers  look for their own means of expression: Wojtek Blecharz simply said that: ''I didn’t want to write the way Lutosławski taught me to compose. That wasn’t my language”.

In past years, another trend in Polish contemporary music has become strong – we are now discovering the pieces created in the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio. Włodzimierz Kotoński, Bogusław Schaeffer, Eugeniusz Rudnik and Bohdan Mazurek produced a vast amount of works that haven’t been fully recognized as of now. Many of these recordings are spontaneous and display an original approach to music. Tomasz Sikorski, one of the studios alumni, is considered the precursor of minimalism in European music. Using a limited amount of means he was able to shock the listener – most of his works are filled with unease and melancholy. One of the most interesting composers of the young generation – Sławomir Kupczak – dedicated his work “Creations I (thinking of Tomasz Sikorski)” (2005-2006) to Sikorski.

Connections: Penderecki, Meyer, Krauze

A few composers bridged the distance between the renowned classics of 20th century music and the newest creators. Foremost one should mention Krzysztof Penderecki, another alumnus of the Experimental Studio, the greatest representative of sonorism – his compositions such as “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” (1960-61) are still highly regarded by admirers of the avant-garde. Today he creates music that is strongly tonal and harmonic. Another composer from the Polish scene is Krzystof Meyer – Penderecki’s pupil and author of a monumental monograph devoted to Lutosławski. He’s the author of 3 operas, 14 string quartets and a dozen of solo concertos. One of his operas is based on Stanisław Lem’s literature. It is entitled “The Cyberiad” and it is set in outer space. It was only recently presented for the first time in Poland – 42 years after its creation. On the other hand Zygmunt Krauze’s compositions have been played in Polish concert halls for nearly 50 years. It is worth noting that he was invited by Pierre Boulez to work in a Parisian electronic music studio. Today Krauze is chiefly inspired by Asian music.

Younger Masters: Szymański and Mykietyn

Two composers of the younger generation may rightfully be called classics – Paweł Szymański and Paweł Mykietyn. While they do not reject the rich tradition of Western music, they transform it so that it meets their own requirements. Szymański stated that a contemporary artist “may create gibberish if he entirely rejects tradition but he may also become trivial if he’s focused on tradition too much”. He himself avoids being trivial by staying away from citations – his works contain only traces and camouflaged illusions of older styles – even if the piece is called “Preludes and Fugues” (2000) nothing in it is literal. In one of his newest compositions – “Φυλακτηριον” (“Phylakterion”) (2011) – he created his own vision of the past, which was inspired by a monophysicist tablet found by Polish archeologists.

Mykietyn is fascinated by microtonality: “it’s as if there were additional keys between black and white on  the piano - explains the composer. His piece “Becoming Prettier” (2004) was written for the harpsichord, a string quartet and a baritone. The harpsichord was tuned microtonally while the violin and cello were tuned a quarter tone lower. The resulting sound had an exceptionally colourful texture.

Electronics and Improvisation: Zubel, Duchnowski, Kupczak

In the music of Agata Zubel, Cezary Duchnowski, Paweł Hendrich and Sławomir Kupczak, an important role is played by electronics and improvisation. Apart from being composers, they are also performers of music. Zubel and Duchnowski collaborate in the framework of ElttroVoce – Zubel experiments with avant-garde singing techniques while Duchnowski searches for new ways of playing on traditional instruments. They are fascinated by various timbres and they constantly strive to broaden their performative capabilities. Duchnowski, Hendrich and Kupczak formed the collective Phonos ek Mechanes – this name ought to be understood as “sound from a machine”. There are rumors that the trio is planning to create an opera inspired by Stanisław Lem’s “Three Electric Knights”. Duchnowski, Hendrich and Kupczak chiefly play electroacoustic music – they program their computers by themselves. The computer sounds are defined by many parameters and are later merged with sounds from live instruments. This is called human electronics as opposed to the broadly accepted term live electronics.

As a composer, Zubel often searches for inspiration in literature. One of her most important works – “Cascando” (2007) – features words written by Beckett. The artist magnificently performed this piece herself. It may be found on Zubel’s album, which has the same title as the abovementioned composition. Every note is linked to the sense of the poem, everything –just as in Becket’s poetry – is drawing towards a slow reduction.

“Capax Dei” (2008-2010) is Sławomir Kupczak’s first symphony. It is also the first work by the artist, which displays his technical and aesthietic ideas. The instrumental lines aren’t dependent from one another and they form a dense, compact, overwhelming sound.  The musicians may decide themselves – as in Lutosławski’s music – how long they wish to play certain notes or how much do they wish to shorten them. However Kupczak’s most natural habitat is electronic music, and he often uses “retro” electronics – synthesizers or theremins.

Heavy Sounds: Gryka, Woźny

Two composers - Aleksandra Gryka and Joanna Woźny –give Polish contemporary music a heavier sound. Gryka participated in many international courses, amongst others at the Parisian IRCAM. She composed the ballet “Alpha Kryonia Xe” (2003 and the opera “HEARTING YOU” (2006). Her “observerobserver” (2012) electrified audiences as it used noises recorded during skull trepanations and during rummaging in human bowels. These sounds were contrasted with bursts of tones coming from flutes.

Joanna Woźny lives and works in Austria, she studied philosophy in Zabrze, and later composition in Graz. The label Kairos, which is one of the most prestigious labels in new music, releases her pieces. Her musical language is as if Woźny explored the harmonic possibilities of traditional instrumental ensembles. Her music strives for a reduction of the tonal material, which gives the compositions a certain harshness that isn’t at all painful or loud.

The Conceptual Turn: Szmytka. Blecharz

A growing number of Polish composers is making use of unusual, abstract and conceptual means of expression. Among them especially worth mentioning is Jagoda Szmytka. Her “happy deaf people” (2012) is a piece that oscillates between spectacle, a musical lecture and a radio performance. This work tells about various ways of experiencing music, most importantly - about touching it. The foreground is taken by words that are uttered in 3 different languages, the music itself is limited to simple, expressive phrases. In the opera “For the Voices and Hands” (2013) the author focuses on the problems that contemporary composers encounter when they contact a cultural institution. The viewers may have problems with distinguishing which fragment is a piece of the opera and which is a piece of everyday life.

Szmytka’s work is shown at performances of the opera-installation “Transcryptum” (2013) by Wojtek Blecharz. The plot of “Transcryptum” is inseperable from the building of the National Opera, with its winding corridors, escalators and rehearsal chambers. Almost all of the workers of this musical theatre were involved in the preparation of the spectacle. During the dress rehearsal the laundry was occupied by workers, who attended to their usual jobs without making special notice of the viewers – was this part of the show? The viewers may shape the play themselves. Blecharz provides them with a set of props, which they have to use to construct their own story.

Author: Filip Lech, translation: Marek Kępa

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