Poland was the Epicentre of Rebellion and Dissent: An Interview with Bolesław Błaszczyk
Bolesław Błaszczyk talks about the dying embers and revival of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES), his friendship with the pioneering Eugeniusz Rudnik, and his fascination with the underground.
Bolesław Błaszczyk is a cellist and musicologist engaged in researching and describing the PRES’s legacy, as well as a member of a ‘task force quartet’ – the MozART GROUP musical cabaret. He directed the film Gieniu, Ratuj! 50 Lat Twórczości Eugeniusza Rudnika (editor’s translation: Save Me, Gene! 50 Years of Eugeniusz Rudnik’s Work), wrote sleeve notes for PRES-related discs from Bôłt and Requiem Records, and also compiled a four-disc release of Rudnik’s music for Polish Radio. Interviewed by Culture.pl’s Filip Lech, Błaszczyk discusses how Rudnik could seemingly smoke in restricted places, the grimy avant-garde punk scene of the 1980s, and his personal recollections about the salvaging and resurgence of PRES’s pioneering work.
I have been publishing texts on contemporary music for years. After all this time, my dream has come true – forgotten works stored away in the archives are now seeing the light of day, with CD releases leading to discussions about them and the artists. Material that seemed lost in the past is being unearthed, and people born well after the music was produced are finding themselves and their own worlds in it.
Filip Lech: How did you enter the world of contemporary music?
Bolesław Błaszczyk: I was drawn to contemporary music at a very young age; my brilliant older brother, Witold, took me to the Warsaw Autumn in 1980, when I was 11 years old. Since then, I’ve tried not to miss a single edition of the festival, which seems magical to me. I almost feel like a part of it, not just because I’ve played there a couple of times. There is definitely some kind of metaphysical communication. The festival’s founders, Tadeusz Baird and Kazimierz Serocki, along with all the social circles and circumstances behind its creation (about which we know more these days) all contribute to a special spiritual, musical aura floating above Warsaw at the end of September each year. Our identities were shaped by those reflections and aesthetic sensations we experienced so intensely at a young age. Moreover, I think that, as a community of listeners, we are also necessary to the composers, whose works were sometimes performed live just that once. Some of the composers I heard there used to be my idols, and have now become my friends.
FL: What got you hooked at the first Warsaw Autumn?
BB: I vividly remember the first concert I attended. It opened the festival in the hot autumn of 1980, and the atmosphere inside Warsaw Philharmonic was hot, too, right from the first bars of our national anthem (Dąbrowski’s Mazurka): the entire hall rose to sing what was the only tonal piece of the evening. The splendour of the moment was emphasised by the flags of countries represented at the festival, hanging from the philharmonic’s organ case. TV cameras, spotlights, then the unusually stirring sounds of the compositions that followed, conducted by the charismatic Tadeusz Strugała. That was when I first heard Zygmunt Krauze’s Violin Concerto, a piece that still moves me to tears today. Next came the incredible Ikar by Grażyna Pstrokońska-Nawratil. I still keep returning to that music, convinced that it is absolutely timeless.
I was excited right up until the final seconds of the concert, and overwhelmed long after leaving the Philharmonic. I have vinyl and cassette recordings of the evening – the festival released its now priceless Kronika Dźwiękowa (Sonic Chronicles). At the time, despite being official, Warsaw Autumn was also somehow a part of independent culture. It was a window on the world for music lovers not only from Poland. Warsaw welcomed people from the socialist bloc, who had no other access to American and Western European music. By seeing Western culture through that window, they became part of it, and that was very tangible. The Music Academy hosted unforgettable night-time concerts, presenting electronic music by Józef Patkowski, pieces by Olga Szwajgier singing Bogusław Schaeffer, the subversive Swedish group Nya Kulturkvartetten, and other events which fostered an atmosphere of accord among the participants of this musical feast.
Secrets of the Experimental Studio (& Eugeniusz Rudnik)
FL: How did you first encounter the PRES?
BB: The PRES was only mentioned in night-time programmes on Polish Radio 2. To me, it was some new, dreamlike world, as if through the looking-glass, accessible only to a select few. In daytime, I was a normal student at various music schools, practising my scales, etudes, etc. on the cello. Perhaps I sat down to improvise on pianos and grand pianos in the classrooms and corridors during breaks more often than the others did.
Before I started working for Polish Radio, I graduated in musicology from the Catholic Academy of Theology, received my cello diploma at the Fryderyk Chopin Music Academy in 1995, then worked for the Polish Army Orchestra and the International Philharmonia of the Nations, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich and Valery Gergiev, amongst others. Finally, I passed the competitive exam for the Polish Radio Orchestra in 1997. My wonderful colleagues there are permanently etched in my memory – it was a very young orchestra, and we worked under incredible musical figures like Maurice Jarre, Michael Kamen, Jan Krenz and Ennio Morricone. We would meet interesting people at the radio canteen – musicians, obviously, and sometimes real stars, journalists, and actors recording for Polish Radio dramas, whose voices I recognised – and I got to meet those voices’ owners face to face.
FL: Did you recognise Eugeniusz Rudnik from the radio, too?
BB: Yes, I’d heard a couple of his works on the radio, but the music academy’s record library had just one recording – Dixi, probably Rudnik’s shortest composition, not counting the Miniatures. For a long time, though, I didn’t dare approach the Master, who worked one floor above, over the orchestra rehearsal room at the [Polish TV] building on Woronicza Street. Among the multitude of sounds that reached my ears during breaks spent in the corridor after the canteen, definitely the loudest were those emanating from his workshop, Room 1073. Next door, Room 1071, belonged to Bohdan Mazurek, who was rarely there, as his creative fire had fizzled. Rudnik was the opposite – working for hours on end, composing, cutting and splicing tapes, editing, copying, visiting nearby offices, and cracking jokes in the smoking area. He only really started to ‘take off’ in the 1990s. A 10-minute piece had to be submitted to enter one German composers’ competition in 1997, so he wrote and sent in three different works, each 9 minutes, 59 seconds long.
Why did the sounds carry so far down the corridor? Rudnik was in the habit of listening to his work at full blast with the door open. He’d go out into the corridor to sit and smoke in an armchair placed specially by his studio door – at that point, the frontier between corridor and smoking area was vague – to him, at least. People couldn’t just walk by without stopping for a moment, listening, and giving their opinion. This was Rudnik’s form of conversation with his environment, his dialogue with the world. On the strange stage of that corridor, he was the leading man.
I finally entered Eugeniusz’s studio ‘cave’ on 16th December 2003. I knocked just as he was leaving. He lived no more than a quarter of an hour’s walk away. I introduced myself, saying I was a fan of his work (although I hardly knew any of it back then). He invited me in, even though he was due to leave. I was installed in an armchair inside the studio, next to a huge analogue mixing console, and we started listening to music. Rudnik called his wife, Daniela, to say he’d be back later.
That day, I started keeping a notebook to document all of our subsequent meetings. On its cardboard cover, I drew a plan of the whole studio, showing the layout of the montage suite and loudspeakers. On the walls were a clock, a portrait of Józef Piłsudski, a little picture of John Cage, and a photograph of Rudnik’s great friend, Andrzej Markowski, his arms outspread in a conductor’s gesture. There was also an… unopened bar of Czech chocolate nailed with a big nail to the chic wooden panelling so typical of the middle-Gierek-era Woronicza Street TV studio interiors. Along another wall was ‘Rudnik’s rake’ – hooks for lengths of cut tape. There were solid metal filing cabinets (designed by Oskar Hansen for the PRES’s former premises at the Polish Radio centre on Malczewski Street), and stacked-up heaps of brown envelopes filled with pieces of cut tape wound onto metal reels. The floor was strewn with whorls of tangled tape, like carnival streamers. Half the studio was taken up by the legendary Fonia mixing console – designed by Warsaw engineers and built meticulously with ‘top-of-the-range’ Japanese components. Along the wall stood four huge Telefunken reel-to-reel tape recorders, and the bottle of rectified spirit standing on the shelf was used only for cleaning tape heads, of course.
I was stunned and delighted at the honour of being in the master’s workshop. Once he realised he was dealing with a serious devotee, he took down more tapes off the shelves and put them onto a tray. We’d drink cola from the vending machine (the only beverage that was constantly available) and Rudnik would chain-smoke in the studio, despite the bans screaming down from the walls. In some mysterious way, he managed to avoid the guards patrolling the Woronicza building. He would also play music at nigh on full volume through powerful, specially constructed speakers, to hear all the details, and I’d sit with my notebook, listening, taking notes, and calling my wife from time to time, to tell her I’d be just a bit longer…
I also met Bohdan Mazurek, whom I knew by sight from Warsaw Autumn’s night-time electronic concerts. He’d show up occasionally at the music academy’s concert hall, straight off a train back from the mountains he so loved. He’d be dressed in outdoor gear, a parka, his trousers tucked into thick mountain socks. Later, I visited him at home as well, and he was a mine of information and anecdotes. I even recording him singing a Hutsul [folk] song! Sadly, Mazurek never lived to see the release of a CD of his work, which we had compiled together for Bôłt Records.
FL: Polish Radio released an album of Eugeniusz Rudnik’s compositions that you compiled in 2009, and only then were wider audiences able to discover his music.
BB: During our meetings, we started to catalogue the material he’d produced in the course of several decades. On my own initiative, then at his request, and finally when commissioned by the head of the radio archives, I put together a kind of catalogue. We inventoried individual boxes of tapes, some unlabelled, some with incomprehensible, handwritten abbreviations. We attempted to describe their contents, which wasn’t easy. Some recordings were source material, another archive contained separate tracks for mixing compositions, others were later versions, then there were the finalised MW (Main Works). Up until mid-2004, no one foresaw the sad turn of events that was to follow, namely the PRES’s closure. Then Rudnik wrote the piece Agonia Pastoralna (Pastoral Agony), describing the slow death of the studio to which he’d devoted almost his entire life.
FL: I’d be hard-pressed to name any tracks that the PRES produced in the 21st century…
BB: As far as production was concerned, the studio had been dying for years. Commissions were dwindling. Once the first windowsill-sized synthesizer keyboards appeared in Poland, people soon started to use personal computers for editing; laborious analogue procedures faded into history, and the PRES was just taking up space. People’s homes gradually became musical production studios, including professional composers of electronic music. So the PRES stopped resembling a laboratory, workshop, or place for discoveries and meetings between people from various fields, and its experimental nature and spirit vanished irretrievably.
Live musicians were no longer in demand at the time, for it was believed that Japanese plastic toys could create much more attractive sounds. Sound generation and processing equipment was miniaturised, and people tended to despise unwieldy, heavy cupboards full of expensive equipment. The production process began to accelerate at an insane rate, which unavoidably affected the quality of the music, since production was so quick and cheap.
Suddenly, it transpired that Rudnik, Krzysztof Szlifirski and I (Bohdan Mazurek no longer worked for Polish Radio) needed to salvage whatever we could from the dusty archives, as it had been decided that they were to be struck off the inventory. The management gave Rudnik a deadline to move everything out of the premises, which had been reallocated for a vital new purpose. Eugeniusz predicted his studio’s new fate almost exactly – as a storeroom for buckets, broom-handles and quilted workwear. Rudnik had nowhere to move his archives. His flat was small, and he was already over 70 when we met. Teams soon showed up to carry the studio’s materials out to the rubbish bins in the inner courtyard. We needed to act fast.
I started to help physically. My hands were black from tapes that hadn’t been rewound for years –the ferromagnetic particles on magnetic tape wear out and scatter. And something much worse – unplayed tapes stick together, causing sounds to print through, so you hear superimposed ‘ghosting’ of what will be played next. Rudnik kept tapes that had been commissioned internally for theatre and films. He was never asked to archive them, but simply filed backup copies in a fireproof metal cabinet, and handed the commissioned material to whoever had ordered it. This led to some illustrative pearls, music that stands alone nowadays and still shines when detached from its raison d’être (the play or film), sounding incredibly relevant. One example was Krzysztof Penderecki’s soundtrack to The Saragossa Manuscript (directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has, with sound by Mazurek), found in a cardboard box in the corridor near the toilet. We joked that it was ‘The Watercloset Tapescript’. Among other rescued treasures were the electronic soundtrack to Andrzej Wajda’s The Wedding, and the original American tape of Tomasz Sikorski’s famous Samotność Dżwięków (Solitude of Sounds), composed at Princeton.
FL: What happened with the equipment from the PRES?
Everything that was left still functioned until 2012. The studio had been formally closed, but the space still hadn't been adapted for anything else. Eugeniusz simply kept coming to work and nobody was brave enough to stop him at the gate. It even turned out that some of the guards commuted to work from Wyszków where the composer lived. They were friends with him. He would chat with them, joke and high-five, then pat them on the back and walk in. He couldn't function any other way, he had been doing it for so long that even in retirement he had to come to his post in the morning, put his key in the door, switch on the recorder, wind the tapes, listen to something, record a sketch. Although he did stop smoking, and now avoided caffeine.
After a while, any spare tape started running out, as it wasn't being sent from its German factory anymore. Rudnik's existence remained as a creator who had to have contact with his material, but who created less and less. A few commissions appeared during this period, including the soundtrack to Stanisław Lenartowicz's last film Ruchome Okno (Moving Window), put together using a long, painstaking and exhausting process typical of Rudnik, and the music to Vivat Academia, Vivat Profesores by Jerzy Kalina, the film made for the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw's jubilee.
I bought equipment from Polish Radio that had been taken out of use: several Mechlabor and Lyrec tape recorders, as well as a Brüel & Kjær generator which emitted a wide range of tones, from the lowest thuds to pitches higher than humans are capable of hearing. I also took some modulation devices home. But most important were the tape cuttings, the 'samples' recorded and cut by Eugeniusz's hand. It's precisely from these, these found materials, that he really built his sonic world. He decided to make new pieces in a new place, at my home studio in Nadkole. That's how the album Erdada for Tape came about, made from pieces recorded away from Polish Radio. In the studio he made music, and in Nadkole itself he rested in the quiet of our wooden home, among the fields, the forests, close to the slow flow of the River Liwiec.
I was with Rudnik during his last sad goodbyes to Józef Patkowski and Bohdan Mazurek. He did try to treat those moments with humour though, to get the mourners talking and inspire a ray of hope.
FL: Which PRES-produced track is the most important for you?
BB: It would be difficult for me to choose... All of Bogusław Schaeffer’s pieces are exceptional, since he used different technology for each one. Schaeffer’s most ‘epic’ work, as they say these days, was Monodram from 1968. I’m also a great fan of works by the KEW trio (Knittel, Sikora, Michniewski). Henryk Kuźniak, well-known for his soundtracks for big-screen hits involving Rudnik, also composed a number of outstanding experimental collage soundtracks here. Then there is Eugeniusz Rudnik’s Skalary – one of the few multi-version tracks on earth, recorded in 1966. It can be played from start to finish, or from finish to start; the left or right channels can be played independently; and the tape can be run at 19 or 38 centimetres a second. The channel distribution, speed and direction can all be altered. It can be combined or split and it still makes sense musically. It isn’t just a jumble of sounds, but has a clear structure, whichever way you play it.
Why was the track created? In 1965, a delegation of Soviet composers were invited to visit Poland and the Warsaw Autumn. They fitted in with the prevailing conservative, still essentially socialist-realist style, restricted by communist party rules. Polish Radio had appointed Eugeniusz Rudnik to present the PRES’s technical capabilities, and as he was playing the guests an excerpt from a track, one delegate asked with a sneer: ‘If you played that track backwards, would it sound just as bad?’ Rudnik didn’t react immediately, but a year later he recorded Skalary, a composition which sounds equally good in all ways.
Underground sounds, punk performances (& the lady from the secret police)
FL: Regarding persecution, do you have any personal recollections of the 1980s’ musical underground?
BB: As a music-school student during those rather grim years, instead of sonatas and concertos performed by the masters of my instrument, I was listening to albums by Dezerter, Brygada Kryzys, or underground cassettes by Miki Mousoleum and Kolaboranty. Deep down, I was always a bit of a rebel. Mentally, I had little in common with docile, well-behaved artists making musical careers, who were seemingly deaf and blind to the evils going on all around them.
FL: You came up with a lot of your own projects…
BB: When I was 15, I co-founded the group Legendarne Ząbki (The Legendary Teeth), playing semi-composed forms filled out with some fairly controlled improvisation. As a four- and occasionally five-piece band, we played a Polish Unita Eltra B-2 electric organ, xylophone, percussion, bass guitar, amplified cello, saxophone, clarinet, recorders, piano and pre-recorded tapes (with sounds of pneumatic drills recorded in a Warsaw street, or motets by Palestrina), plus our youthful vocals. We only ever recorded ‘in one take’ with no production, but using an excellent cassette recorder with chrome tapes, through a fairly good Japanese stereo microphone. Nothing can replace a recording of a live band. Years later, Requiem Records released a disc of Legendarne Ząbki tracks from 1984–1986. You can hear every sound perfectly and, listening on headphones, you get the impression that individual sounds are swirling around your head, neck and nose. No virtual digital sound-processing can replace the effect of walking around a microphone when playing or singing. That was our recording technique.
One important venture of mine was the industrial/political project 997 Psycho TV. Fascinated by the strategies applied by Laibach, whose astounding show I saw at Riwiera in 1983, I felt that such poetics still had a lot to say. Following our industrial band’s concert at Remont club in June 1989, a lady from the secret police appeared and banned us (orally) from performing with such a controversial, provocative name. So in Łańcut, we played as Na Przełaj, referring to a popular, lowbrow youth magazine, the Polish equivalent of Bravo. In Wodzisław Śląski, I played solo as 997. Provoked and offended by my arrangements of Stalinist songs for voice and piano, and German disco hits reworked as monumental socialist anthems, the Silesian audience nearly stoned me to death.
As part of my ‘solo career’, I recorded tapes at home on four reel-to-reel decks, each with one head disconnected, resulting in noisy, lo-fi style multi-tracking. I ran one tape through all the recorders at once while reciting Soviet poetry into the microphone (a translation dashed off by my Russian teacher from a school textbook). I embellished it with shocking feedback and distortion from various sources, and had lots of fun in the process. Many of 997’s old recordings were released by Requiem Records on a disc tellingly entitled Pieśni Masowe na Zespół Świetlicowy (Socialist Anthems for a Rural Arts Club Group). I never used cassette recorders according to the manufacturer’s instructions, ruthlessly messing around with the speed, etc.
Apart from the music school on Miodowa Street, I also studied at the Adult Education Centre on Noakowski Street, Warsaw. It was designed for young people who were working or studying at other schools in parallel; musicians and sportsmen, for instance. The school’s profile also suited those who were pretty maladjusted. My group contained up to 60 pupils and we only had classes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The lectures were visited (an apt description) by real freaks. For example, one friend would answer questions at the blackboard while walking on his hands, and another had half his face shaven: smooth on the right, stubble on the left, along with dyed, sugar-spiked hair on the left, and an ideal fringe to the right.
FL: Did the underground and academic worlds ever converge at any point?
BB: The academics and amateurs deeply despised one another. To me, aesthetically, it never posed a problem. In fact, my professional training, knowledge of sheet music and harmony greatly simplified my perception of the independent scene. I could better analyse and accept the musical content on offer, and I found it very inspiring. On the other hand, academic musicians are impaired in some respects. They can never be so spontaneous or attain the nonchalance and energy of spontaneous artists.
What was amusing was that creative musicians from those radically opposed circles and communities moved so far away from one another that they ended up bumping into each other again! As it turned out, their music was about the same things, and their methods were similar, too.
FL: What do you feel, looking back on those recordings?
BB: Joy and satisfaction that they’re back in demand today. In those days, they helped me survive. A source of great satisfaction to me is that foreign cultural researchers are also interested in the Polish non-academic avant-garde music scene. I’m friends with an American musicologist, Andrea Bohlman, a graduate of Stanford University currently lecturing and working in the States and Berlin. I was involved in her study into the phenomenon of independent cassette production in Poland under the communist regime, and cassette and tape media in general. My old archive recordings from Remont and other underground parties came in useful.
These days, as you can see, such things are vital not only for us, but also for the world. Back in those days, Poland was the epicentre of rebellion and dissent against totalitarianism and social control. Musical culture was a powerful force in that resistance movement – defending, attacking and rescuing.
Interview originally conducted in Polish, Nov 2017; redacted version translated by MB & AZ, Jan 2018 (full interview can be read in Polish here.)