The Story Behind the Experimental Music Haven that Escaped Communist Censorship
This is the story of how Warsaw was the fourth European city in history to have its own studio dedicated to experimental electro-acoustic music, despite being ruled by a communist regime that was hostile to free thinking and avant-garde art.
After World War II, Poland fell under the Soviet Union’s influence and had to cope with a forcefully-imposed communist regime. Harsh censorship and a considerable lack of democratic, economic and civil rights were huge everyday constraints on the development of art and culture, nevermind the regime’s open hostility to its more experimental side.
Artists were supposed to create works useful for the system, to help turn people into communist comrades, or homo sovieticus. Meanwhile, the indirect messages carried by the likes of abstract art were widely believed to be dangerous and always suspected of conveying reactionist, anti-communist messages.
But the regime had a huge glitch which allowed creative fields to go under the radar: it was inherently inconsistent.
Everybody was equal but some were more equal than others. For example, while millions had to wait days for toilet paper, one bureaucrat waved his magic wand in 1967 and put on a concert for the Communist Party by the reckless, young and politically-invested Rolling Stones. Elsewhere, another outlier bafflingly created something more long-lasting: an ultra avant-garde studio for creating abstract, experimental contemporary music in the middle of the Eastern Bloc.
Enter, a habitual liar
There was a man called Włodzimierz Sokorski – a high-ranking military officer, writer, journalist and political activist. In 1952, he was appointed minister of culture and art, and subsequently, was moved to the post of chairman of the Radio and Television Committee. He was ultimately controversial and hard to pigeonhole.
On one hand, he was known for his love of the good life, his craze for young women (he married and divorced four times, each of his wives several years junior to him), and wild parties. Most importantly, he was widely viewed as a very sturdy executor of the Communist Party’s will, a careerist, and a habitual liar.
On the other hand, some believed that during his tenure he was helping repressed artists out of trouble. They argued that deep in his soul, he knew that his strong support for the ‘communisation’ of culture was wrong.
Ultimately, he didn’t manage to build a particularly positive image among Polish artists. Notably, the great Andrzej Wajda classified putting Sokorski in charge of the ministry of culture as ‘a disgrace for the whole of Polish culture’.
Competing with France, Germany & Italy
Regardless of Sokorski’s overall moral stance, he grew politically influential and used his power to support the creation of an unusual music studio. Sokorski didn’t hesitate to put the best expert available (Józef Patkowski) in charge of the studio’s development, even though the reluctance of the latter toward the communist regime was not really a secret.
In a highly unusual move, he made the studio directly subordinate only to himself, the chairman of Radio and Television Committee (a censorship institution on its own), thus making it above any possible interventions from his party comrades. This meant that the studio was financially secure, under a ‘microclimate’ bubble of artistic freedom guaranteed by a prominent political institution, and had a chance to become an equal partner or competitor with the three earlier European studios of that type: Paris’ Club d’essai (later transformed into Groupe de Recherches Musicales), Studio für elektronische Musik in Cologne and Studio di Fonologia in Milan.
If there was anything Sokorski could be undoubtedly proud about at the end of his career, it was probably the creation of the studio. And he seemed to be well aware of this fact. On the studio’s 10th anniversary, he reportedly said*:
I do hope that good God will forgive me all of my political-activity-related sins, thanks to my engagement and help in the creation of this studio.
Given that atheism is one of communism’s principles, it gives you an idea of how cynical Włodzimierz Sokorski was…
A studio like no other
Despite being developed in an isolated country, the studio quickly, and extremely surprisingly, became one of the most open and friendly places to work for composers from all corners of Europe. Eugeniusz Rudnik, a sound engineer, who we’ll introduce properly in a moment, said of it:
When we started working at this very communist radio (obviously, there was no other), party officials would pester my superiors, saying we were transplanting degenerate bourgeois art onto pure Polish soil. That was one trend. The other one was to leave us alone. I am proud that in this goddamn communist era, when Poland was seemingly totally isolated, our works could be heard all over the world.
Other institutions of its kind usually became dominated by a single composer and ended up more his workshop than an international co-operation platform. All of the other big three had it happen: Cologne was ‘taken over’ by Karlheinz Stockhausen; Paris was overwhelmed with musique concrète’s creator Pierre Schaeffer; and Milan was almost entirely appropriated by Nono and his students.
The Polish Radio Experimental Studio placed itself in a unique position thanks to two unconventional features. First of all, it never hired a composer to work full-time at the studio. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, it offered composers great help in plumbing technical issues.
Methods of processing sound were still a true novelty when the studio was founded in 1957, even for up-to-date avant-garde composers. Rudnik said of it:
Composers who came to work at our studio could have no clue about all the technology in the world because, by default, they were assigned an experienced sound engineer to work with them.
A little prank here and there…
Savvy engineers were working arm-in-arm with composers, not only executing their ideas, but also offering a lot of technical creative approaches. Their knowledge of technical issues was far more advanced than the knowledge of any composer who might turn up at the studio. Still, many composers tried to impose their superiority. It led to engineers sometimes using a trick or two to get the workflow in order. Rudnik recalled:
During first years of the studio’s existence all those overly-educated, smug composers who had heard about Fourier series, sound components, harmonics, (…) would come to the studio and start declaiming their scholarly opinions on things they didn’t really understand. I was no super-expert on the subject, but I was an engineer, and it was very funny to me.
For example: I’d play one of those ‘smug composers’ a sinusoidal sound. He’d ask: is it sinus 127,048 Hz? I’d go: ‘Yes, absolutely’. Of course it was something completely different.
Or, they’d ask: ‘Do you have a sine series generator at the studio?’ I’d answer: ‘No, not at all, we only have a cosine series generator, sir.’ ‘I’m not interested then’ he’d say and leave the studio.
As you all know, this is exactly the same device, the only difference being where do you start the phase. So you know, just a little prank here and there…
Apart from those funny but rare misunderstandings, the co-operation between composers and engineers gave exponential results. At that time, sound was processed in a very analogue way, by cutting the tape, physically processing it through hardware effects, purposely destroying it and gluing the tape back together. It was a fine craft that needed a lot of time to excel at. Not surprisingly then, engineers soon became the centrepiece of the institution, designing new devices, contributing to famous composers’ works and… becoming composers on their own!
The most successful and extravagant of the engineers was the aforementioned Eugeniusz Rudnik. After having worked for over 10 years as a sound engineer and as an assistant, he started producing his own compositions. Even though he didn’t have any formal musical training, years of collaborating closely with the most important avant-garde composers of the era quickly helped him become a true revelation. He said:
I haven't spent a single day at any music academy and I can't even read music. Still, I'm a well-known composer of contemporary classical music in Europe, Asia and both Americas.
In the years to come, he wrote and realised musical scores for the Polish Radio Theatre and the Television Theatre’s productions, with nearly three hundred film soundtracks to his name. His compositions, as well as the films with his soundscapes were broadcast by radio and TV channels in Poland and abroad, becoming classics of electro-acoustic contemporary classical music.
As much as Rudnik became the icon of the studio thanks to his eccentric character and unusual background, on a daily basis it was hosting all the most important composers of the time. It has resulted in its archives being full of masterworks of early electro-acoustic music.
Synthesizers sound a death knell
In 1970, the studio gave birth to KEW, a group of composers that created timeless compositions and introduced live performances of electronic music into Polish contemporary music. It was however the last group of composers brought up by the Polish Radio Electronic Studio.
After years of thriving and being ‘10 years ahead of the country’s overall development’* the studio started falling into decline. This started in the early 1980s, after living the last moment of greatness thanks to being the first institution in the region to buy that new musical invention: the synthesizer.
Moreover, Poland’s economy started swaying terminally after being subject to inefficient communist management for over thirty years. Maintenance and further investing in the development of the studio was a luxury expense that could no longer be justified. The popularisation of synthesizers and personal computers allowed the founding of private studios, and Polish Radio could no longer keep pace and offer unique possibilities to composers. After almost 25 years of gradual agony, the studio ceased to exist in 2004.
Fortunately, the legacy of the studio is well preserved. Legions of contemporary musicians cite its influence on them, and its most famous composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, is a major force in classical music. For the record diggers out there, the studio’s huge back catalogue is being repurposed by independent record labels such as Bôłt or Requiem Records.
The studio’s most prolific graduate, the prankster Eugeniusz Rudnik, passed away in 2016 – but it wasn’t before he finally released his debut album, just two years earlier at the spry age of 82.
Author: Wojtek Oleksiak, 15 Nov 2016.
*quote: Michał Bristiger
*all quotations are author's translation from Polish