A Musical Alphabet of 2019
default, A Musical Alphabet of 2019, Photos from Polish disco parties 1970s-1980s, photo: Maciej Osiecki, center, disko4_6996834.jpg
All the way from A to Z, we’re taking the time to describe Polish music in 2019 in a neat and organised way – though the music itself is unruly and all over the map.
The Japanese composer and sound installation artist Ryoko Akama searched through the Krzysztof Kieślowski Archives (part of the In Situ Contemporary Art Foundation) to create tracks for the album Dial 45-21-95. Inspired by the materials compiled within the archive, Akama composed scores for the band Apartment House (under the label Another Timber). The tracks are simple, focussing on uncomplicated melodies and tonality. Their sound is best described by the composer herself:
Namawianie kogokolwiek, żeby zechciał sięgnąć po prozę Olgi Tokarczuk tuż po zdobyciu przez nią literackiej Nagrody Nobla i to w chwili, gdy na rynku księgarskim wszystkie jej książki stały się z dnia na dzień praktycznie niedostępne, wydawać się może zajęciem niekoniecznie rozsądnym.
Olga Tokarczuk received the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature (announced in 2019) for her numerous short stories and novels, though she was also the librettist for Ahat Ilī: Siostra Bogów (Ahat Ilī: Sister of the Gods), the opera composed by Aleksander Nowak.
The work is an adaptation of Tokarczuk’s Anna w Grobowcach Świata (Anna in the Tombs of the World) – which the writer tried to distil down to its essence, turning it into short scenes where the focus changed from Inanna to her sister, Ninszubur. Tokarczuk also devoted a graphic novel to the sister – Ja, Nina Szubura (I, Nina Szubur) – drawn by Daniel Chmielewski.
Olga Tokarczuk Wins Nobel Prize for Literature
The opera is sung in contemporary English, as well as ancient languages: Akkadian, Latin, Ancient Greek, Proto-Slavic and Aztec. At this point, the opera has only had two staged performances (at the Sacrum Profanum festival in 2018; a recording will be out soon on Anaklasis) and one concert performance (at the Tychy Mediateka public library ). Let’s hope that we can look forward to future performances.
We can find many sonic metaphors within Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel acceptance speech. She describes a photo of her mother sitting before an antique radio, where Tokarczuk would spend many hours as a child, turning the knobs in search of sound much like John Cage or Eugeniusz Rudnik.
How Family Shaped the Father of Polish Opera
Sometimes, however, the sound would falter, as though between Prague and New York, or Moscow and Madrid, the antennae’s feelers stumbled onto black holes. Whenever that happened, it sent shivers down my spine. I believed that through this radio different solar systems and galaxies were speaking to me, crackling and warbling and sending me important information, and yet I was unable to decipher it. […] Instead of hearing the harmony of the world, we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try, in despair, to pick up on some quieter melody, even the weakest beat.
Olga Tokarczuk, Nobel Prize in Literature Acceptance Speech, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/104871-lecture
As I’ve mentioned many times before, Polish music is alive and well, but sometimes, all these works become excessive and cumbersome. Artists don’t know when to stop. They can’t simply cut a few tracks from an album to make it more cohesive. They put out too many albums. They release a new single once every few months, even if it’s mediocre. They create hour-and-a-half long tracks impossible to sit through. An improvisational concert must last at least an hour – otherwise, listeners would demand refunds – even though everything was expressed in the first 20 minutes. In 2019, we remember Polish music as a little muddled and in need of tightening up. This is true of every style and genre – no one stood out in this regard.
Two important books. An exhibit in the National Museum of Ethnography in Warsaw. Remixes (DJ Duch, 'Atlantyda' VTSS). And tens (if not hundreds) of millions of listens on YouTube as well as streaming services. On top of that, thousands of parties and concerts, many of them televised. Disco polo, next to hip-hop, is the most popular musical genre in Poland.
The downside is that the conversation about disco polo hasn’t evolved since the 1990s. But in 2020, we’ll finally see our first disco polo biopic: Zenek, directed by Jan Hryniak. Krzysztof Czeczot will take up the lead as Zenon Martyniuk, and the film will also include Jan Frycz, Piotr Cyrwus, Agnieszka Suchora and Klara Bielawka. Will this film join the ranks of Amadeus and 8 Mile?
A Foreigner’s Guide to Disco Polo
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Cover of Młody Kot album, photo: promotional materials
A small record label focussed mostly on archiving the – quickly disappearing – alternative scene. Since 2016, enjoy life has put out more than 40 albums/mixtapes/songs, and a few of them were true diamonds in the rough – musical ‘tracks’, which with a little bit of production and polish could be released to the wider public, though that might result in the loss of their unique character. After all, there’s strength in coarseness, and a little bit of obscenity can do a song good.
Jego Opalescencja (His Opalescence) by Jan LF Strach is an album divided into two parts. First, Jego has a more accessible, delicate melody. Its flip side is I ego – poorly mixed and shrieking. The songs are psychedelic, sometimes sweet, other times off-putting. Fronda’s Bez Leków (No Medication) works the listener into a frenzy, mixing musical threads and styles, building interest but maintaining an eeriness. Lochy Watykanu (Vatican Cellars) by Kakofonium is a technical and cybernetic metal album built out of medieval ruins and computer glitches.
enjoy life also contains more thought-out albums. Some oneiric, some rap, others radio plays like Młody Kotek’s Tychy, or the relaxing Peace Be With U by Ascending Order – the best Polish New Age album I listened to in 2019.
A Pitched Battle for Peace: Wrocław’s Alternative Scene
In the past decade, the best narrative film devoted to music was director Leszek Dawid’s You Are God, devoted to the story of rap group Paktofonika. In 2019, two films about music entered cinemas: Maciej Pieprzyca’s Icarus: The Legend of Mietek Kosz, which included both Kosz and Leszek Możdżer’s music, as well as Michał Węgrzyn’s Proceder, about the tragically deceased Chada. Critics’ opinions about the two films were split, but it’s a good thing that the legends of Polish music are now no longer anonymous. Instead, they are becoming fully fledged figures for the wider public.
It still seems to me, unfortunately, that Polish cinema isn’t entirely equipped to handle musical biopics. The pages of books have been much more adept at the task. Some we’ve covered at Culture.pl: Magdalena Grzebałkowska’s Komeda: Osobiste Życie Jazzu (Komeda: The Private Life of Jazz), Maria Wilczek-Krupa’s Górecki: Geniusz i Upór (Górecki: Genius and Stubbornness), and the many books devoted to disco polo written by Monika Borys and Judyta Sierakowska. It’s also worth reaching for Krzysztof Karpiński’s Tylko Smutek Jest Piękny: Opowieść o Mieczysławie Koszu (Only Sadness is Beautiful: The Tale of Mieczysław Kosz).
Poland’s Breakout Film Stars of 2019
Gone with the year
The yearly roundups are a true grindhouse, thanks to our use of the Gregorian calendar, which we have for some reason all agreed to use. I’m therefore sad that I won’t have the space to mention many of the wonderful albums, tracks, concerts and festivals of the last year. I’ll skip past the output of many important labels (such as Audile Snow, BAS, Gin&Platonic, Sound Art Forum / Canti Illuminati and Syntetik). Unfortunately, it’s impossible to listen to everything, to attend every festival – there’s too much music out there.
When I summed up 2015 in music for Culture.pl, I wrote that Polish music is stable and doing well. Has anything changed? On the whole – yes. But some things are missing. Infrastructure, or the support of local clubs and concert halls. Musical education at the higher levels. Comprehensive support for artists, not only youth. Support, not only from public institutions, but from listeners as well.
A Musical Journey through Polish History
History of new discoveries
Who would think that in 2019 we’d be listening to Grażyna Bacewicz again? In December, listeners of the National Philharmonic heard the first-ever performance of her VI Concert for violin. Bacewicz herself believed the composition was incomplete and hid it away.
That’s not the only musical discovery of the year. During the Eufonie music festival, Adam Strug and Monodia Polska sang Pieśń o Śmierci Wszystkiem Ludziem Straszliwej (A Song of Terrifying Death for All), found on accident in a German library. An even stranger find was the works of Tadeusz Sielanka, which were supposedly found in the Delhi Public Library by Wacław Simpel. Sielanka was working on combining the Hindu raga with the mazurka.
I mostly listen to new Polish music online. It also often comes out on cassettes, or rather CDs, but the physical version feels unnecessary to me. It comes across like an obvious method of proving that worthwhile music exists outside of the digital space. Paszka’s over-stimulated rozmnóżka came out on cassette, but I couldn’t bother to hook up my cassette player (especially since its high-pitched whine meant I’d have to clean it out).
The album’s different threads become danceable in the most unexpected ways – it’s not the pieces of rhythmic moments but the multiple layers that create a brand-new rhythm. It hardly fits the aesthetics of a cassette release. The previously mentioned label enjoy life also releases physical versions, though I couldn’t say why.
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'Rozmnóżka' by Paszka, photo: promotional materials
The internet is also now a space for serious music. I attended a few concerts from the National Philharmonic through YouTube. In this same way, I watched Stanisław Moniuszko’s Paria at the Grand Theatre in Poznań. This method won’t replace physically attending concerts, of course, but it’s a great help for busy people. It also helps deepen one’s musical knowledge.
In 2019, I was most entertained by Jacek Sotomski’s CREDOPOL, which was built in large part thanks to the Polish internet. It’s an attempt at defining our country, doing so with the help of our online output.
Everything’s going well in the world of Polish jazz. Plenty of concerts, festivals, albums, even international successes – jazz in 2019 deserves its own article.
Synergy & Celebration: What Are Music Festivals For?
Narrowing the scope to just a few names, it’s worth mentioning the saxophonist Kuba Więcek’s Multitasking, put out by the recently resurrected label Polish Jazz (the cover includes the logo of Polish Records’ ‘Muse’, though the publisher is Warner). It’s an album full of hits, catchy melodies, Eastern music (Arabic and Hindu) as well as references to electronic music.
Music in 1950s Poland: When Socialism Met Rebellion
It’s also worth mentioning Piotr Mełecha, Jacek Mazurkiewicz and Vascro Trill’s improvised trilogy (put out by Multikulti). The first two parts, BRAIN and DOG, were recorded during concerts, whilst HUM is from a studio session. Their output is a good opportunity to follow the evolving relationship between the three musicians and their improvisations.
Kalisz (& Sun Ra)
Still on the topic of jazz, one of the most interesting jazz albums put out by Poles in 2019 was actually recorded in 1986 at the Międzynarodowy Festival Pianistów Jazzowych (International Festival of Jazz Pianists) in Kalisz. It’s a recording of a Sun Ra concert, the afrofuturist mystic and multi-instrumentalist. Of course Ra’s descendant hasn’t been alive for over 20 years, but he’s left behind an incredible legacy – every year, a remastered album comes out, or a never-before-heard recording.
Live in Kalisz 1986 belongs to the latter half. It’s a worthy album to begin your exploration of the American visionary’s music. In it, we can hear the wild and noisy saxophones and wind instruments of the Sun Ra Arkestra; the cosmic piano and synthesiser solos of their leader; references to blues, big-band swing and pop music (the 13-minute Mack the Knife). Marek Karewicz claimed that he took the best photos of his career during this concert. During the album’s official launch party, Polish jazz/hip-hop septet EABS also showed off a new repertoire – EABS Plays Sun Ra Cosmic Songbook – but I’m sure we’ll hear more about that in 2020.
Yass: The Jazz, The Filth & The Fury
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Cover for Andrzej Szpindler's audiobook, painted by Tomasz Kowalski, released through label Alicja, photo: promotional materials
The three-hour audiobook based on Andrzej Szpindler’s Sucking On the Trumpet of Constant Giving – available only in an audio version – came out on Christmas Eve in 2019. I listened to maybe five minutes of the recording. It’s a very demanding listen, hard to keep up with. The writer makes use of his own voice, often digitally altered, as well as a trumpet and various items. I’m happy to see that Polish aural literature is finally shaping up. Up to this point, we mostly had the recordings of Miron Białoszewski to listen to.
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Scene from Stanisław Moniuszko's 'Halka', directed by Agnieszka Glińska, 2019, photo: Krzysztof Bieliński / Grand Theatre in Warsaw
This year was declared Poland’s Year of Stanisław Moniuszko, or the national composer born 200 years ago. Music lovers who attended the Philharmonic multiple times could hear Moniuszko’s biggest hits (personally, I most often heard the fantastic overtures from Bajka [Fairytale] and Halka). Opera houses around the world eagerly reached for his works. Halka was played at the Berlin Philharmonic, and Mariusz Treliński created a new Viennese version of the work, which was performed at the Theater an der Wien. In Warsaw, Agnieszka Glińska directed Halka for the Polish National Opera.
Varsovians might have noticed that the city’s central railway station gained a new patron (it is now the Stanisław Moniuszko Central Railway Station). Those travelling by the Pendolino trains no longer hear Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major; instead, the trains play Moniuszko’s Polonaise Concertante in A Major. Will Moniuszko’s music become a regular part of Poland’s landscape? We’ll see how things are in a few years.
The Lesser Known Faces of Stanisław Moniuszko
Agnieszka Stulgińska composed two tracks using the rhythm of a dog’s breath. In both FMYF and OMYF, we hear the instruments used by musicians, as well as field recordings carried out by a dog with a microphone. It reminds me of the documentary Heart of a Dog, where Laurie Anderson’s pet played on the piano.
The album In the Land of Green Dust from Sundogs (Mateusz Rybicki, Samuel Hall, Zbigniew Kozera) was recorded in Wrocław’s Osobowicki Forest. In it, we hear not only the musicians, but the natural world that surrounds them – its contributions are as interesting as the musicians’ performance (a compliment to both parties).
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Jakub Józef Orliński with the 'Opus Klassik' award, Berlin, 13 October 2019, photo: Felipe Trueba / EPA / PAP
The breakdancing countertenor received two important awards this year – Young Artist of the Year from the British Gramophone Classical Music Awards and the German Opus Klassik. He also put out his second album, Facce D’Amore. The songs are all operatic arias, which show a young lover from the Baroque period – not only from the side of joy and ecstasy, but also anger and madness. Jakub Józef Orliński is not only a singer, but an erudite scout of unique songs. He created a programme out of Handel, Cavalli, Allessandro Scarlatti, Bononcini, Conti, Hasse, Orlandini, Predieri Matteis – amongst these names, we find eight world premieres of their songs.
Orliński Wins Gramophone Young Artist of the Year Award
If I were to single out one musical group for 2019, it would be percussionists. The label U Know Me Records devoted the album Portrety (Portraits) to them – we can find eight Polish percussionists on it. Of the eight, I would pick two: Hubert Zemler and Qba Janicki.
The former leads one of the most interesting musical projects of the past year. Opla is a duet comprising of Zemler and the guitarist Piotr Bukowski. Together, they recorded the album Obertasy, a rock-oriented interpretation of traditional obereks, or Polish folk dances; noisy guitar sets the mood, and before you know it, Zemler’s music, drawing upon Polish folk, sends you to another planet.
Qba Janicki recorded Intuitive Mathematics for Bocian Records, where we can hear amplified percussion and the self-built instruments which he calls his ‘sound desk’. These unpleasant-sounding instruments combine with interesting harmonies to create new sonic landscapes.
Crooning out of car radios across Poland, moustachioed nice guy David Podsiadło continued to reign supreme for another year. But also, the rapper Taco Hemingway started to become a name on everybody's lips. For a more in-depth breakdown of what happened in pop music in Poland, you can read my colleague Olga's 2019 pop summary. Meanwhile, we have to move on to something, well, a little more radical.
Radix, the root of radicalism, comes from Latin. Perhaps this return to roots is why Polish radicals in 2019 came back to Polish traditions. This is in large part thanks to a group of violinists conducted by Maciej Filipczuk, who learned how to perform folk music. Together, playing as the Radical Polish Ansambl, they combine contemporary (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Zygmunt Krauze, Sławomir Kupczak, Agnieszka Stulgińska) and minimalist (Terry Riley, Tadeusz Sielanka) music. By understanding the spirit of folk music, they are able to play songs considered difficult and hermetic in a way that is lively and communicative.
Darkness and mystery everywhere – Polish music trends to sorcery and mysticism. Most of the time, this isn’t literal; we’re not talking about returning to ancient rituals. Piotr Orzechowski’s High Definition Quartet treats Adam Mickiewicz’s work Forefathers’ Eve as a psychological study of rituals on their album of the same name (in Polish: Dziady).
The album’s electronic tracks add another fantastical element to the album (co-created with Krzysztof Knittel, William Basinski, Fennesz, Igor Boxx and Robert Rich on certain tracks). The most literal interpretation is Robert Rich’s Widmo (Spectre), with soft sounds resembling children’s choirs – which is an artistic interpretation of the song of suicide. ‘I tried to show it through a type of frozen sound’, Rich said of his song. Overall, this is one of the most interesting albums to come out from Polish Music Publishing House’s subsidiary Anaklasis.
The musicians EABS also made their contributions to songs about Slavic demons and monsters on their album Slavic Spirit. Pianist Marek Pędziwiatr told the story of the band’s long tours, during which they discussed Poland’s complicated history:
We saw many terrifying things within it, moments we haven’t worked through, which remain to haunt us today.
They wanted to combine this conversation with Slavic demonology. But this album isn’t a simple cash grab – it’s not a rip-off of the soundtrack of The Witcher. It’s rather spiritual Slavic jazz, far-reaching with plenty of nature sounds. There are more references to the Polish school of jazz rather than traditional folk music, from Krzysztof Komeda to Jerzy Milian and Tomasz Stańko.
Polish lyrics keep getting weirder! Especially in hip-hop. And I’m not just talking about Piernikowski (‘I live like Piernikowski, child from Poland, special M-M-MC, I’m not a poet, Diggity, diggity, dong, dong, dong, look, I’m biting concrete’) or Hewra, slowly creeping into the mainstream (‘When I leave, I put on a hat on my head, not always, but sometimes, I’ve got here a white coat, black-belted, got sleeves, no kufajkas’). In search of this weirdness, we can look at the vision of teenaged rapper Koza. Just in case, I won’t quote any lyrics for fear of a greater scandal than the one that befell Mata’s Patointeligencja.
The Polish Radio Experimental Studio has been discovered by Polish listeners slowly, over decades. Over the past few years, it has fully entered the canon of Polish culture and become a recognisable symbol. This is thanks to albums from Bołt and Requiem Records, public exhibitions, books and scientific conferences.
The Adam Mickiewicz Institute (AMI, our parent organisation) funded many of these initiatives, including a project co-hosted with Ableton – the works of Elżbieta Sikora, Krzysztof Knittel and Ryszard Szeremeta were added to the Ableton music library (users of other programs could access these works as well). More than 20,000 people from across the world downloaded the samples.
A year later, AMI and the music website The Quietus hosted a contest based on these PRES samples. The winners were: Adrian Hindmarch, Bad Progress and Tymon Zaniewski. Will the next decade see PRES becoming an equally important part of Polish culture as Chopin and Tokarczuk?
When Experimental Music Met Martial Law
In terms of club music, this year belonged to VTSS, the Warsaw-Berlin DJ and music producer. Her tracks appeared on six vinyls, two of them solos. She also toured around all of Europe and a few other continents with her set. Her style is fast, blunt and focussed. One of her biggest hits of the year was Atlantyda, based on a sample from synthpop band Jauntix. Thanks to the track, the spirit of disco polo lives not only in television, museums and intellectual discussions, but on dance floors across the world as well.
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Mieczysław Weinberg, photo: Kremerata Baltica festival promotional materials
In 2019, we celebrated the 100th birthday of the Polish Jewish Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg. One of the most enduring tributes to his memory will be the albums recorded by Gidon Kremer for Deutsche Grammophon – it’s hard to pick a better memorial. Weinberg’s compositions are played more often, not just in Poland and Russia. I have a feeling that his works will circulate much faster than Moniuszko’s will.
His Work Is Very Profound: Gidon Kremer on Weinberg
Another phenomenon that marked not only 2019, but this whole decade – let’s remember, it’s just ending in 2020 – is a fascination with music from the Interwar period. This was especially the case with pop music, but the trend has also expanded to include other artists from the Second Polish Republic such as Ludomir Różycki, Emil Młynarski and Ludomir Michał Rogowski. The Polish Music Publishing house made a splash with its anniversary release 100 na 100: Muzyczne Dekady Wolności (100 for 100: Musical Decades of Freedom).
Polish Tangos: The Unique Interwar Soundtrack to Poland’s Independence
The Mała Orkiestra Dancingowa (Little Dance Orchestra) under Noam Zylberberg attempts to recreate the sounds of pre-war Warsaw, and dance lovers often attend their concerts at Club SPATiF. The Jazz Band Młynarski-Masiecki plays the old hits of Zygmunt Karasiński, Henryk Wars, Fred Melodysta and others. These artists keep in mind, however, that almost 100 years have passed since the original songs and they’re in need of updating – their performances are an imaginative continuations, yet still respectful of the originals.
Giving Warsaw Its Sound Back: An Interview with Noam Zylberberg
Zipping across the world
Many artists believe that international success is the key behind better coverage in their home country. In interviews, Grzegorz Kwiatkowski from Trupa Trupa (they recorded the excellent album Of The Sun this year and played in Europe and the United States) and the Passport Polityka-nominated Hania Rani, also known as Hanna Raniszewska (she records under the British Gondwana Records) both agree with the sentiment. The article on Orliński in The New Yorker brought him a lot of attention from the Polish media. The brothers Tomasz and Łukasz Konieczny are often shown through the lens of their international success. I could keep going with these examples.
There is certainly some truth in Kwiatkowski and Raniszewska’s words. I think that a good New Year’s resolution for us all would be listening intently to what’s happening within our own countries and creating our own musical canon, regardless of the media’s opinions.
Originally written in Polish, Jan 2020, translated by AZ, Jan 2020; additions by AZ.