Taming the Machine: An Interview with Elżbieta Sikora
Pioneering composer Elżbieta Sikora, long-standing art director of the Musica Electronica Nova festival in Wrocław, talks about electronic music, its history and the way it is today. ‘Digital sound has reached a certain limit, and once again we are searching for something more lively, dirty and imperfect,’ she feels.
Filip Lech: Do you remember your first encounter with electronic music?
Elżbieta Sikora: Of course. I would say my first encounter with electronic music was brief: I was studying sound engineering in Warsaw, and we had some lessons at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. Later I went to Paris to study under Pierre Schaeffer and François Bayle at the Service de la Recherche, the Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française research centre. I studied electronic music composition there for two years, starting in 1968.
FL: That was a very turbulent year in France. Were you already there in May 1968?
ES: I arrived after May but, like all my colleagues, I experienced the Warsaw events of that March. I got to Paris at the end of August. There were few traces of what had happened in May; nothing physical at least, but it had left many traces in people’s consciousness and mentality. Social divisions became very different to what they had been.
FL: How did that revolution affect music?
ES: In the same way it affected other art forms, I think. The 1960s were the strongest period for the avant-garde, and that was obvious even before May 1968 and the social revolution in France. Composers’ broad interests became even broader, and the social events influenced their later work.
FL: You studied under Pierre Schaeffer and François Bayle. To me, they are figures from musical history, but I wonder what kind of teachers they were. What did they teach you, apart from the technical side?
ES: Actually, we learned about the technical side ourselves. Besides, I had just finished my sound engineering studies and already knew how to operate various equipment, use tape recorders, splice tapes, etc. We also had to familiarise ourselves with equipment they had invented, such as the phonogène, which allowed a tape to be slowed down without changing its pitch. A computer can do that in a couple of seconds nowadays, but back then it was quite an avant-garde invention. There were many such tools at the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales).
Pierre Schaeffer was our mentor, and he also taught a general course – a sort of masterclass, discussing a range of different subjects: philosophy, interpersonal communication, the future, and paths for cultural development (not only in music). He was a fascinating personality, way ahead in his thinking, and one of the first to combine music with visual arts. A new department had been set up, where film-makers and experimenters (including Piotr Kamler and Peter Foldes) were doing some very interesting things, using various tricks to modify images as well as sounds.
François Bayle, Schaeffer’s student, taught us how to compose according to the rules of the craft, and gave us assignments to complete. For example, to create a catalogue of sounds according to the classification Schaeffer developed in his Traité des Objets Musicaux (Treatise on Musical Objects) – which I never actually read to the end but, luckily, there was a condensed version by Michel Chion. Those were two very interesting years, and it’s probably thanks to them that I became a composer.
FL: What were the most important concerts, films and exhibitions for you at the time?
ES: I went to Domaine Musical concerts organised by Pierre Boulez, and Luc Ferrari’s concerts at the Museum of Modern Art. From that period, I remember a huge exhibition by Marc Chagall. I was also very impressed by Oskar Panizza’s play Le Concile d’Amour (Das Liebeskonzil), which was very iconoclastic, showing God as a degenerate old man. I saw it at one of the pavilions in Les Halles, a Parisian district that was demolished in 1971, although some skeletons of those amazing iron structures were still standing at the time. I also frequented the famous Café de la Gare, which gave the world many French actors.
FL: On returning to Poland, your colleagues must have regarded you as an invaluable mine of information.
ES: There was a division in my life: pre-Paris and post-Paris. I already knew French a little better and had started to read a lot. After returning, I continued my composition studies at the State Higher School of Music in Warsaw [currently the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music]. My restless spirit led to me to form the composers’ group KEW, together with Krzysztof Knittel and Wojciech Michniewski, and our aim was experimentation. We combined music with visuals, working with Kazimierz Urbański, who produced very avant-garde images and sought to animate them, even though they were shot on slide film.
Knittel was in charge of our stage performances and happenings. We toured around Europe, and it was a very inspirational period. Interestingly enough, we also composed a piece together; a habit I had acquired at the GRM in Paris, where we would regularly compose collectively during our studies. We took that composition to the Festival d’Avignon, but were pelted with tomatoes. All those sounds were an enormous shock for the audience, even in very avant-garde France, but I have very fond memories of those days.
FL: Did you co-operate with other artists while touring around Europe?
ES: No, but we kept in contact with other composers. Sten Hansen invited us to Sweden. Our first concert in Warsaw came only in 1973, however, when we played our own pieces, plus compositions by Mauricio Kagla (Pas de Cinq) and other composers. I remember that a critic from Express Wieczorny (The Evening Express) wrote an experimental review, simply compiling a set of random letters and ending with the sentence: ‘A review in keeping with the music’. That earned us plenty of new fans.
FL: An interesting form of criticism seldom seen nowadays… Did you ever perform in the East?
ES: No. We went to Berlin, Stockholm, Vienna, Kraków and Gdańsk. The KEW group only existed for a very short time, then we all started to do our own things. Wojciech Michniewski concentrated more on conducting than composing, although he won a very prestigious Prix Italia for Szeptet right at the start of his composer’s career. I began to compose instrumental orchestral works in addition to electronic music. Krzysztof Knittel was the only one of us to remain in the experimental field. He is still a musical stalwart, organising the Ad Libitum festival, and improvising on stage with instruments and electronic equipment he has built himself.
FL: What is your favourite equipment to work on?
ES: I don’t think I actually have a favourite, and I don’t have my own studio either. I work on a Macintosh with an old version of ProTools. I used to do a lot on a Yamaha DX7 synthesiser, and I’ve got an old Korg. I have very fond memories of Buchla’s hybrid analogue/digital synths.
Sometimes I am invited to give various lectures. I work fairly often at INA/GRM in Paris, and occasionally at IRCAM (where I wrote one of my first instrumental/electronic pieces, Głowa Orfeusza II [Head of Orpheus II], in 1982) and the Musiques & Recherches studio in Ohain, Belgium. I also worked at the former IMEB studio in Bourges, home of a well-known electroacoustic music competition and a renowned festival. I spent a few months at the Stanford CCRMA in the States, and also composed at the Technische Universität’s Electronic Music Studio in Berlin and La Muse en Circuit in Paris.
FL: Many contemporary electronic music artists focus heavily on the technological side, even becoming obsessive about certain equipment.
ES: In France, I taught a course on electroacoustic music composition for a long time, and almost all my students were fascinated by that. Their conversations mainly revolved around various equipment and new models on the market. This is very important, but we must remember to use the technology in our own way and prevent the machine from taking over the creative process: you press a button and music pours out instantly. The real problem is getting the machine under control.
FL: How is new electronic music different?
ES: I can’t possibly characterise it, as there are too many genres. Electronics have entered so many branches of music, from entertainment to serious classical music. I think that digital and the quest for technical perfection are dominant today, but there is also some nostalgia for analogue instruments. Digital sound has reached a certain limit, and once again we are searching for something more lively, dirty and imperfect.
FL: Although remixing culture has advanced a lot in non-academic electronic music, it is quite rare in academic circles…
ES: I used to do remixes during my studies – they were called ‘collages’ back then. We would take a piece of classical music and try to turn it into something completely new. Pierre Henry remixed Beethoven’s Symphony No.10, and there were many other examples.
To quote Picasso: ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’. When we record sounds in the streets, we are also stealing, borrowing an acoustic reality that does not belong to us. The same goes for using brief excerpts from existing compositions, which we later transform. Practically every composer does it, myself included, but it is merely a pretext to create something original, of course.
Interview originally conducted in Polish, June 2017; translated by MB, Feb 2018