8 Game-Changing Film Soundtracks By The Polish Radio Experimental Studio
default, polska-kronika-non-camerowa-fn.jpg, Still from Polish Non-Camera Chronicle 1985, Nr 8, Edition A. Directed by Julian Józef Antonisz, music by Bohdan Mazurek, produced by Studio Filmów
The Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES) spent four decades reconfiguring what was possible in terms of sound production. From the start, it was obvious that filmmakers would benefit from their intrepidness.
After the opening of the Warsaw-based studio in 1957, the new medium of electronic sound and the possibility of tape montage quickly became a subject of interest for contemporary composers. The PRES’s creations included sonic accompaniment to dozens of reportages, films, plays, pageants, open-air performances and audio-visual installations.
They started working with film houses across the country, and for those who know their Polish filmmakers, the list of people who collaborated with the studio is astounding: Walerian Borowczyk, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Jan Lenica, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Skolimowski and Andrzej Wajda just to name a few. Although most memorable to the average Pole were the futuristic sounds the PRES created for Juliusz Machulski’s sci-fi comedy Sexmission.
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The eight films presented below are not a representation of some trend in Polish cinema, but are rather a subjective yet undeniable testimony to the technical mastery and rare talents of their creators.
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Still from A Walk in the Old City of Warsaw directed by Andrzej Munk, music by Andrzej Markowski, produced by Studio Miniatur Filmowych, 1958, photo: http://ninateka.pl/film/spacerek-staromiejski-andrzej-munk
A Walk in the Old City of Warsaw
Andrzej Munk / 1958 / music: Andrzej Markowski / prod. Studio Miniatur Filmowych
The sound of the internationally-lauded A Walk in the Old City of Warsaw is an example of the symbiosis of instrumental and electronic music at the highest level. Markowski is the creator of the film’s premise, and he also composed the instrumental sequences. All the electronic interventions and transformations were put together by Eugeniusz Rudnik.
The short’s heroine is young music school student, who goes for a walk alone around Warsaw’s Old Town. She chooses the allure of an unknown world over a boring lesson, getting to know it through sound. But the suggestive effects are far from realistic or natural. When a dog barks, when a custodian sweeps the pavement, when a large tractor appears in a narrow street, when some cobblers work on shoes in their workshop – all of them are composed of electronic noises. They aren’t just illustrations but have their own musical sense.
In a scene in a church, the girl takes a violin out of its case and plays individual pizzicato sounds. She listens as they bounce around the church vaults, the impulses layering together. Listening to them now, the resulting sounds seem similar to psychedelic music, even though that genre didn’t appear until a decade after the film came out.
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When in a certain moment the girl looks at one of the Old Town’s large walls, somewhere in the musical background there appears a motif from Bogurodzica, the oldest known Polish hymn. The girl is torn from her reverie by the horn from a bus. From an open window, we hear a choir rhythmically recite Latin lyrics. They are far from random. They are a travesty of the 15th-century panegyric written by Bishop Stanisław Ciołek in honour of Kraków:
O, the city of Warsaw,
The unity in the abundance of your inhabitants
Serves as a decoration:
Plenty of clergy, dignity of men,
And matrons with large numbers of children.
Wealth in abundance.
Translated by the editor
The viewer most likely knows, just like the little girl, that for them both this short time in the Old Town is just the start of a journey into the world of sound.
First Spaceship on Venus
Kurt Maetzig / 1959 / music: Andrzej Markowski / prod. WFF Wrocław & DEFA Babelsberg (East German co-prod.)
The screen adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s The Astronauts is on the one hand an example of extraordinary invention. From today’s perspective, we can also find amusement in the past’s predictions about the future we live in. It’s also pleasant to listen to Danuta Szaflarska and Andrzej Szczepkowski, two actors whose pronunciation of the letter ‘Ł’ is consistently delightful.
On the other hand, the film both shocks and amuses with its ideology, being full of scenes that reek of communist propaganda. Lem protested against the addition of these overtones to his story and he tried to have his name removed from the film, though without success.
The first full-length Polish science-fiction movie did have some good luck though. It was even distributed in the States under various titles (eg. Silent Star and Planet of the Dead) using different cuts (the length varied as much as from 78 to 130 minutes), along with dubbing and different music to Markowski’s. The creators of the electronic parts where Eugeniusz Rudnik and Krzysztof Szlifirski, whose surnames were omitted in the subtitles. Markowski’s instrumental music and its splendid fresco-like symphonies are only heard at the opening and closing of the film. The remainder is filled with electronics typical of the era, all generated from devices using recordings of radio waves and manipulated robotic voices.
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In 1978, the PRES made the soundtrack to another well-known sci-fi, also as a co-production (this time with ZSRR from Estonia) and also based on the work of Stanisław Lem. Just like 20 years earlier, the writer wanted his name removed after he saw it, and yet again he didn’t get his way. Directed by Marek Piestrak, Pilot Pirx's Inquest did not have the best reviews, and deservedly so, but today it’s treated as a favourite by lovers of retro film kitsch. But the music holds its own – the instrumental music was written by the soon-world-famous Arvo Pärt, with electronic backing from Eugeniusz Rudnik.
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The Saragossa Manuscript
Wojciech Jerzy Has / 1964 / music: Krzysztof Penderecki / prod. Zespół Filmowy Kamera
Krzysztof Penderecki had an intensive period at the PRES during the first half of the 1960s. Other than the classic Psalmus 1961 on tape and the radio opera Brygada Śmierci (Death Brigade), he created around 30 soundtracks for films and plays. Among these was the staging of The Brothers Karamazov at the Polski Theatre in Warsaw, music for puppet theatres and animated films. The original and internationally-lauded film The Saragossa Manuscript was equipped by Penderecki with instrumental music that faithfully imitated the styles of its historical setting. But it also contained contemporary music, including Stanisław Radwan on the piano.
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Alongside the instrumentation is the interesting electronica created by Bohdan Mazurek. The black-and-white landscape of old Spain (actually filmed in Częstochowa and Wrocław), a panorama of uncanny events, and a procession of eccentric characters are all complemented by ascetic interventions and sonic backgrounds. These concrete special effects were made using objects as percussive instruments, manipulated piano noises and generated tones. It all comes together to create the film’s dream-like and mysterious aura. The music was published separately on CD and vinyl in limited edition and hoovered up music aficionados.
Still from Phobia directed by Julian Józef Antonisz, music by Eugeniusz Rudnik, produced by Studio Miniatur Filmowych, 1967, photo: www.repozytorium.fn.org
Julian Józef Antonisz / 1967 / music: Eugeniusz Rudnik / prod. Miniatur Filmowych Studio
This over ten-minute film was partly created without a camera, the artist weaving together a sequence of drawings directly on film as well as traditional animation. This non-camera technique would later become Antonisz’s trademark. At the time of its release, Phobia was to cause a real aesthetic stir, perhaps all the more so in its audio layer than in its visuals. The brutalist sound bites, wilfully blended fragments of folk and light music, the jarring phonic scraps, bringing to mind a broken tape deck, the terrifying transformations of (in)human voices, the child’s screams, and the skipping of an old record: they all come together to form the soundtrack for the director’s unique blend of cinema of the absurd and broad yet sophisticated grotesque. In making Phobia, Antonisz scratched and even scorched the film tape. The music, sound effects and the cruel operations inflicted upon them are highly varied. Yet somehow the film is not revolting, and we find both humour and lyricism here. In the final sequence, we can hear the voice of popular actress Irena Kwiatkowska in a strident monologue.
Julian Józef Antoniszczak (Antonisz)
Grzegorz Lasota / 1970 / music: Jan Sebastian Bach, Eugeniusz Rudnik / prod. Telewizja Polska
Games is a musical/ballet film, a real Polish television super-production with choreography by Conrad Drzewiecki, costumes by Xymena Zaniewska, scenography by Mariusz Chwedczuk and music by Rudnik. It was named the world’s best television art production in 1970 and honoured with the Prix Italia. The opening of the play shows the dancer discovering space, shapes, forms and colours. This education of the structure of the world, created through dance by the famous Gerard Wilk, is interrupted by female figures, who appear one by one. Amorous unrest and the chaos of desire are embodied by twelve pairs of dancers. Not a single word is breathed, but the images and sounds draw the viewer into a game of love, desire, fate and death.
Shot on 35mm colour film, it has a beautiful soundtrack. Apart from his own work, Rudnik used the music of Bach (among others), fed through electroacoustic processors.
Still from Dynamic Triangle directed by Józef Robakowski, music by Eugeniusz Rudnik, 1971, produced by State Film School in Łódź, Formy Filmowej Studio, photo: culture.pl
Józef Robakowski / 1971 / music: Eugeniusz Rudnik / prod. State Film School in Łódź, Formy Filmowej Studio
Robakowski’s world-renowned piece is considered an example of structural cinema thanks to the way it keeps forms and methods to a minimum. As a background for the artist’s geometrical variations, Rudnik brought in uniformly generated long tones, with a persistent rhythmic ostinato on a parallel sonic level, a sound alluding to the dynamic of machines. Rudnik confessed that machines were an obsession that accompanied him ever since his first independent creative work for tape in 1959. At just over two minutes, the work is a coherent and concise statement.
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Concert for a Stadium
Marek Tadeusz Nowakowski / 1986 / music: Zbigniew Wiszniewski / prod. Polish Television Experimental Studio
The building where PRES was housed on Woronicza Street also hosted its visual sister, the Polish Television Experimental Studio. From the late 1970s and through the 1980s, the short forms created there used its technological facilities, expensive equipment, and above all, view synthesizers to explore the new possibilities they provided in visuals.
The director Jacek Hohensee was among those who enjoyed experimenting there. In a work just under five-minutes long, Nowakowski crossed a conductor, who sends out the musical impulses, with light athletics in a stadium and the audiences in the bleachers. These impulses are an electronic imitation of a sharp orchestra chord, also known as an ‘orchestra hit’, that is purposefully ‘off’ in terms of rhythm and intonation. The conductor’s gestures, it turns out, can only maintain control in the philharmonic hall; in the stadium they get lost in the cries of the packed crowd.
Apart from the graceful conducting of Maciej Niesiołowski, other elements are distorted with electronic devices. A kaleidoscopic effect, mirror reflections and multiplications transform the sports documentary into complex geometrical variations. In Wiszniewski’s sounds, the most important thing are the cheers from the stadium – the composer moulds the voices of the human throng in various ways, allowing the director to introduce a touch of humour to the cult of the body and the atmosphere of ruthless rivalry.
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Polska Kronika Non-Camerowa nr 8 (1985)
Polish Non-Camera Chronicle, 1985, No. 8, Edition A
Julian Józef Antonisz / 1985 / music: Bohdan Mazurek / prod. Studio Filmów Animowanych, Kraków
Antonisz’s piece, drawn directly onto the film, is one episode of the famous Chronicle, a mocking parody of the Polish Film Chronicle. These mini news reports screened in cinemas during the communist regime are reflected in the artist’s cracked mirror.
The newscaster reads the commentary in a monotonous voice:
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The age of steam is over, electronics are here, everywhere we see transistors, resistors and transformers. So, too, in the art of music we have new electronic ways of processing sound. Now all the trumpets, trombones and saxophones are gathering dust because electric synthesizers have appeared.
Polish Radio Experimental Studio
Polish film soundtracks
polish experimental music
The style reminds us of the original chronicle through its newscaster’s patronising tone, while it relates an irony-tinged text. The current flowing through the equipment, the flashing lamps, the knobs and zips, the images of acoustic waves and processions of notes flooding from the speakers drawn by Antonisz are illustrated by Bohdan Mazurek with characteristic sounds and motifs. Small wonder, as moments later we see Mazurek himself on screen operating a complex camera, depicted like a naïf painter, wearing a suit with his cheeks flushed.
For some of these composers, their illustrative film work left its mark on their later autonomously-written music. One clear example is Bogusław Schaeffer’s sound illustrations for Władysław Strzemiński’s film. The composer later alluded to the idea of the film’s protagonist in a electronic composition called Hommage à Strzemiński. The combination of his illustrative and autonomous work reached its pinnacle in his most substantial work produced at SEPR – Monodrama (1968), featuring a remarkable performance by popular stage actress Irena Jun.
Originally written in Polish by Bolesław Błaszczyk, June 2018, translated by SG & AZ, July 2018
Władysław Strzemiński’s Łódź