Electric Knights, Classics & Abstractionists: A Brief Guide to Polish Contemporary Music
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Contemporary Polish composers draw from the past and courageously explore the future. Here's Culture.pl's quick start guide to classical contemporary music from Poland.
The roots: Lutosławski, Schaeffer & Rudnik
Writing about the newest trends in Polish music should start with introspection into the past. Recent generations of Polish composers where taught by teachers who were influenced by the great figures of Polish music – most importantly by Witold Lutosławski and his aleatoricism. Aleatoric music is a kind of a 'safe improvisation' in which the musician produces a sound in a tempo of his choice. Some composers – for instance, Wojciech Ziemowit Zych – openly refer to Lutosławski in their work. Zych did this exceptionally straightforwardly in Mille Coqs Blessés á Mort (2000), where he directly cited Livre pour Orchestra (1968) by Lutosławski. Other composers look for their own means of expression: Wojtek Blecharz simply said that:
I didn’t want to write the way Lutosławski taught me to compose. That wasn’t my language.
In past years, another trend in Polish contemporary music has become strong – we are now discovering the pieces created in the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES). Włodzimierz Kotoński, Bogusław Schaeffer, Eugeniusz Rudnik and Bohdan Mazurek produced a vast amount of works that hadn’t been fully recognised until recently. Many of these recordings are spontaneous and display an original approach to music. Tomasz Sikorski, one of the studio's alumni, is considered the precursor of minimalism in European music. Using a limited amount of means, he was able to shock the listener – most of his works are filled with unease and melancholy. Sławomir Kupczak, one of the most interesting composers of the young generation, dedicated his work Creations I (Thinking of Tomasz Sikorski) (2005-2006) to Sikorski.
Connections: Penderecki, Meyer & Krauze
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A few composers bridged the gap between the renowned classic creators of 20th-century music and its newest proponents. Foremost, one should mention Krzysztof Penderecki, another alumnus of the PRES and perhaps the greatest representative of sonorism – his compositions such as Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960-61) are still highly regarded by admirers of avant-garde. Today he creates music that is strongly tonal and harmonic. Another composer from the Polish scene is Krzysztof Meyer – Penderecki’s pupil and author of a monumental monograph devoted to Lutosławski. He’s the mind behind 3 operas, 14 string quartets and a dozen solo concertos. One of his operas is based on Stanisław Lem’s literature and is set in outer space: The Cyberiad. It was only recently presented for the first time in Poland – 42 years after its creation. On the other hand, Zygmunt Krauze’s compositions have been performed in Polish concert halls for nearly half a century. It is worth noting that he was invited by Pierre Boulez to work in his Parisian electronic music studio. Today, Krauze is chiefly inspired by Asian music.
Younger masters: Szymański & Mykietyn
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Two composers of the younger generation may rightfully be called classics – Paweł Szymański and Paweł Mykietyn. While they do not reject the rich tradition of Western music, they transform it so that it meets their own requirements. Szymański stated that a contemporary artist 'can create gibberish if he entirely rejects tradition, but he can also become trivial if he’s focussed on tradition too much'. He himself avoids being trivial by staying away from citations – his works contain only traces and camouflaged illusions of older styles – even if the piece is called Preludes and Fugues (2000) nothing in it is literal. In his 2011 composition Φυλακτηριον (Phylakterion), Szymański creates his own vision of the past, inspired by a monophysite tablet found by Polish archaeologists.
Mykietyn is fascinated by microtonality: 'It’s as if there were additional keys between black and white on the piano.' His piece Becoming Prettier (2004) was written for the harpsichord, a string quartet and a baritone. The harpsichord is meant to be tuned microtonally, and the violin and cello a quarter tone lower. The resulting sound has an exceptionally colourful texture.
Electronics & improvisation: Zubel, Duchnowski & Kupczak
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In the music of Agata Zubel, Cezary Duchnowski, Paweł Hendrich and Sławomir Kupczak, an important role is played by electronics and improvisation. Apart from being composers, they are also performers. Zubel and Duchnowski can be found collaborating on ElettroVoce – Zubel experiments with avant-garde singing techniques while Duchnowski searches for new ways of playing traditional instruments. They are fascinated by various timbres and constantly strive to broaden their performative capabilities. Duchnowski, Hendrich and Kupczak went on to form the collective Phonos ek Mechanes – a name that ought to be understood as 'sound from a machine'. Rumors have long continued that the trio is planning to create an opera inspired by Stanisław Lem’s Three Electric Knights. Duchnowski, Hendrich and Kupczak chiefly play electroacoustic music – they program their computers by themselves. The resulting computer sounds are defined by many parameters and are later merged with live instruments – they refer to this as 'human electronics', as opposed to the broadly accepted term 'live electronics'.
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As a composer, Zubel often searches for inspiration in literature. One of her most important works – Cascando (2007) – features words based on the poem by Irish writer Samuel Beckett. The artist magnificently performs this piece entirely by herself. It can be found on Zubel’s album of the same name. Every note is linked to the sense of the poem, with everything – just as in Beckett’s poetry – drawing towards a slow reduction.
Capax Dei (2008-2010) is Sławomir Kupczak’s first symphony. It is also the artist's first work displaying his technical and aesthetic ideas. The instrumental lines aren’t independent from one another and they form a dense, compact, overwhelming sound. The musicians may decide themselves – just as in Lutosławski’s music – how long they wish to play certain notes or how much they wish to shorten them. However Kupczak’s most natural habitat is electronic music, and he often uses 'retro' electronics – synthesizers or theremins.
Heavy sounds: Gryka & Woźny
Two particular composers – Aleksandra Gryka and Joanna Woźny – give Polish contemporary music a heavier sound. Gryka participated in many international courses, including at the Parisian IRCAM. She composed the ballet Alpha Kryonia Xe (2003) and the opera SCREAM YOU (2006). Her observerobserver (2012) electrified audiences, as it used noises recorded during skull trepanation and rummaging in human bowels. These sounds were contrasted with bursts of tones coming from flutes.
Joanna Woźny lives and works in Austria, she studied philosophy in Zabrze, and later composition in Graz. She released her pieces on Kairos, one of the most prestigious labels in new music. Her musical language is as if Woźny is exploring the harmonic possibilities of traditional instrumental ensembles. Her music strives for a reduction in tonal material, giving her compositions a certain harshness that isn’t at all painful or loud.
The conceptual turn: Szmytka & Blecharz
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A growing number of Polish composers make use of unusual, abstract and conceptual means of expression. Among them especially worth mentioning is Jagoda Szmytka. Her happy deaf people (2012) is a piece that oscillates between spectacle, musical lecture and radio performance, as it tells of the various ways of experiencing music, especially by touching it. The foreground is occupied by words uttered in 3 different languages, while the music itself is limited to simple expressive phrases. In the opera For Hands and Voices (2013), Szmytka concentrates on the problems that contemporary composers encounter when they contact a cultural institution. Viewers often have problems distinguishing which fragment is a piece of the opera and which is a piece of everyday life.
Szmytka’s work could be seen alongside performances of the opera-installation Transcryptum (2013) by Wojtek Blecharz. Its plot is inseperable from the building of the National Opera in Warsaw in which it was performed, with its winding corridors, escalators and rehearsal chambers. Almost every employee of the famous theatre were involved in the preparation of the spectacle. During the dress rehearsal, the laundry room was filled with workers attending to their usual jobs and ignored the viewers – was this part of the show? Viewers were encouraged to shape the play themselves. Blecharz provided them with a set of props, which they had to use to construct their own story.
Find out more about the world of Polish contemporary classical music by exploring our interactive Map of Polish Composers.
Originally written in Polish, summer 2013; translated by MK, Aug 2013; updated by AZ, Apr 2019
Soundwork – Wojciech Blecharz
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