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Polish Composers Report From Outer Space

Mikołaj Gliński
Stiil frame from Kurt Maetzig's Silent Satr
Did the Aliens speak Polish? - Still frame from the Polish-DDR sci-fi classic The Silent Star (1960). The music for the film was written by Andrzej Markowski, the sound effects were added at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio.

While Poland was obviously not in the front row of the powers competing in the space race, it did engage successfully in an altogether different race. Its stake was representing what space and alien civilizations may actually sound like.

The 2-CD box set Pole Reports from Space brings together some of the most mind-boggling futuristic soundscapes and sound-tracks created by Polish and Eastern European composers during the space race era. The inspiration for many of them came from social realist sci-fi film productions and the writings of the sci-fi pioneer Stanisław Lem, who appears on this album as a trailblazing theorist of sci-fi music. But the real heroes of the new album released by Bołt Records are the people behind the production of the bizarre sounds of the cosmos, working in the midst of the mundane Socialist reality of Communist Poland.

PRES and Space

Krzysztof Penderecki and Eugeniusz Rudnik at the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio, April 1972, photograph from Ludwik Erhardt's book "Spotkania z Krzysztofem Pendereckim" (Meetings with Penderecki)

The place where most of this out-of-this-world music was created, generated and sometimes composed was the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES). Here, in the little space allotted to the studio in the Polish Radio’s headquarters, avant-garde composers like Krzysztof Penderecki or Arvo Pärt crossed paths with technology freaks like Eugeniusz Rudnik. But as it turns out, it was the technicians who were the real visionaries, even if the experiment in which they were engaged was not entirely voluntary and self-conscious: it was the only possible way of doing things.

One of the earliest ventures of PRES composers into the sci-fi realm of Socialist film came only two years after the establishing of the studio in 1957. The original music for Kurt Maetzig’s 1959 DDR-Polish co-production The Silent Star (based on Stanisław Lem’s novel The Astronauts) was composed by Andrzej Markowski, but the electronic sound effects were realized at the PRES by Krzysztof Szlifirski and Eugeniusz Rudnik.


As Daniel Muzyczuk suggests in his essay from The Pole Reports from Space booklet, the success of the film and music for the Silent Star (the film was also screened in the US, however under the title The Star of Death, and with an altogether different soundtrack) was one of the reasons why a substantial part of the commissions coming from then on to the PRES dealt with computer sounds, futuristic devices, aliens and interplanetary space itself. As Bolesław Błaszczyk, another contributor to the album’s booklet, puts it:

Whenever voices for green aliens were needed in a film, Warsaw engineers were called to the rescue.

The temporary liberalization of life in Poland in October 1956 brought with it the establishment of... Read more about: The Musical Milestones of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio


Lem: Describing the Unheard

Lem and a toy cosmonaut, 1966, photo:
Stanisław Lem and a toy cosmonaut, 1966, photo:

This early period in the output of the PRES is represented on the album by Krzysztof Penderecki’s soundtrack for the short animated film Excursion into Space, directed by Krzysztof Dembowski. The film came out in 1961, the year the first man, and a brother from the Eastern Bloc, Yuri Gagarin, was sent into space. The script for the film was written by Poland’s future sci-fi guru Stanisław Lem.

In fact, as Daniel Muzyczuk suggests, the ideas found in Lem's books may have been one of the main sources of inspiration for the musicians and composers of the PRES in creating the music of the future.

Lem’s writings, as Muzyczuk observes, bring an incredible variety of literary depictions of sounds unknown to the human ear – made by alien beings or machines that have not yet been invented. One of the examples Muzyczuk gives appears in Lem's novel The Astronauts, where scientists try to decode a hypothetically interplanetary message which, as they believe, had been magnetically encoded on a piece of metallic reel of unknown origin (the material is the same as in the Tunguska meteorite). Thanks to the authors of  The Silent Star (which was based on Lem's novel) and the composers from the Polish Radio Experimental Studio, we may actually know how such an 'interplanetary letter' might sound (See the video at 06:30) - and find out that the first words of this interplanetary report in this otherwise German-language film are actually spoken in Polish (video timing: 06:48). Did the Aliens speak Polish?


But Muzyczuk goes on to suggest that the research on ways of sound representation undertaken at PRES and in other centres, of which Lem was the unconscious source, may have come back to him as inspiration. The author of the essay discusses Lem’s 1968 novel Głos Pana whose Polish title was translated into English as His Master’s Voice (title approved by Lem). "Isn’t that an evident hint regarding the sources of this book?", Muzyczuk asks, alluding to the fact that this also happens to be the name used by one of the oldest recording companies (its logo shows a dog listening to the voice of his dead master coming from a wind-up gramophone).

The leading representative of Polish science fiction, a philosopher, futurologist and essayist, Lem... Read more about: Stanisław Lem - A Portrait of the Writer


The Sound of Lem

Lem's relation with cinema, which started in 1959 with The Silent Star and includes adaptations from such directors as Andrzej Wajda, Andrey Tarkovsky, Steven Soderbergh, and most recently, Ari Folman, brought about several fascinating attempts at creating sound representation of interstellar phenomena, some of them realized outside the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. One of them was Zdenek Liska's soundtrack for the 1963 Czechoslovakian film Ikaria XB 1 (based on Lem's Magellanic Cloud). 

The most famous of them all, the iconic music for Andrey Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris, was composed with the use of an ANS synthesizer by Eduard Artemev. Extensive fragments of these mind-boggling music soundtracks are also featured on the album.



Another, less obvious, attempt at interpreting Lem came from Arvo Pärt who wrote the original instrumental music for The Inquest (1978) (Polish title: Test Pilota Pirxa), a Polish-Estonian film co-production based on the writer’s short story (The Inquest). Again, the electronic music was added at the PRES by Eugeniusz Rudnik.

The music from this film is represented on the Bolt album through the work of Marcin Cichy (commissioned by Foundation 4.99), which is based on samples from Arvo Pärt/Eugeniusz Rudnik’s composition. Find the sample fragment from Marcin Cichy's new piece here

Major Mirosław Reports from Space

Soyuz 30 crew: Pyotr Klimuk and Mirosław Hermaszewski during training in 1978, photo: SovFoto / Universal Images Group / East News
Soyuz 30 crew: Pyotr Klimuk and Mirosław Hermaszewski during training in 1978, photo: SovFoto / Universal Images Group / East News 

The album tracks the historical developments and achievements of People's Poland’s space programme (had there ever been one), the highest point of which came only in 1978… In fact, as Bolesław Błaszczyk notes, it was the year Poland soared to unsurpassable heights.

On 26th June, Major Mirosław Hermaszewski was launched into space on the Soviet spaceship Soyuz 30, becoming the first Pole to do so. And on 16th October of the same year another Pole, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, became the Pope.

During his eight days in orbit, Hermaszewski performed geo-scientific research and photographed Earth from on board the Salyut 6 space station, before landing safely in the steppes of Kazahkstan on 5th July.

As Błaszczyk explains, in the months that followed Hermaszewski's feat was commemorated in numerous books, films and reportages. Part of this production was a monumental radio broadcast A Pole Reports From Space, prepared by Eugeniusz Rudnik at the PRES in 1978.

The piece consisted of documentary recordings of words spoken by Hermaszewski, his family, Polish teachers and trainers, and Russian colleagues. It also incorporated quotes from mythology, encyclopedic definitions and scientific discourse, like the writings of the Russian pioneer of astronautic theory Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Obviously, and most importantly, it also featured a rich layer of sound illustration by Rudnik.

Eugeniusz Rudnik in the Experimental Studio in 1981. Still from Gieniu, Ratuj!. 2008. Film: color, 28 minutes. Directed by Bolesław Błaszczyk. Image courtesy of Bolesław Błaszczyk
Eugeniusz Rudnik in the Experimental Studio in 1981. Still from Gieniu, Ratuj!. 2008. Film: color, 28 minutes. Directed by Bolesław Błaszczyk. Image courtesy of Bolesław Błaszczyk

Błaszczyk suggests that Rudnik succeeded in turning what initially was supposed to be a propaganda pennant into an autonomous work of art – exempt from expediency and replete with un-obvious reflection: the raw material of official statements (like Hermaszewski's address of thanks to the secretaries of Poland and Soviet Union, Gierek and Brezhnev) was somehow curved through condensation and deformation, he explains and adds:

[Rudnik's] choice of using private, even intimate opinions expressed by Hermaszewski, indicates a deeper, humanistic dimension of the kind of creative assignment which the composer had taken on himself. Giving the text the desired character which was achieved through the use of filters, reverb, acoustic panoramas, and wider temporal planes used in editing, turn out to be the main domain of Rudnik's virtuosity.

He also gives examples:

The two mixed anthems – Polish and Soviet – may appear today as shocking; the fragment Together in Berlin, Together at Lenino, Together in space – Isn't it beautiful... brings up a smile; but we can also hear Hermaszewski spontaneously say: The orbital views really are amazing; Our Earth is beautiful (…) Everything is in beautiful colours, one really cannot see the evil.

Indeed, listening to Rudnik's piece, one is constantly reminded of many problematic aspects of contemporary space exploration while at the same time gets a sense of the idealistic optimism and innocence, which were once part of this great adventure in the history of mankind: a sense of a moral obligation but also a promise present also in the words of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, quoted in the piece: Earth is the cradle of reason, but one cannot live in a cradle forever


Pole Reports from Space - coverThe double CD box released by Bolt is part of their Polish Radio Experimental Studio series, and apart from the archival materials, includes also new commissions made by the Foundation 4,99: two new pieces by Marcin Cichy (based on samples from the original soundtracks for two socialist sci-fi classics: Kurt Maetzig's The Silent Star (1959) and Marek Piestrak's The Inquest of Pilot Pirx (1978)); and the original electronic piece KOSMOPOLEX FORTE by Sultan Hagavik, an avant-garde Polish experimental collective. Arturas Bumsteinas' audio-play Audiokaukas was commissioned in 2014 by the Lithuanian production house Operomanija.

Find out more: Bolt Records home site 

Listen: sample tracks from Pole Reports from Space on Wire magazine

Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 26 March 2015

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