Górecki as Inspiration: 5 Remakes of the Polish Composer’s Work
default, Górecki as Inspiration:
5 Remakes of the
Polish Composer’s Work, Beth Gibbons during a Portishead concert at the Malta Festival in Poznań, 2011, photo: Marek Lapis/Forum, center, beth_gibbons_lama_060711_10.jpg
As Beth Gibbons’ new recording of Henryk Górecki’s ‘Symphony No. 3’ lights up the Billboard charts, Culture.pl’s Filip Lech examines how the late Polish composer entered the realm of popular music and manages to continue to influence it today.
Written in 1975, the historically well-regarded Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 (The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) was considered experimental in the 1960s. Henryk Górecki himself found great acclaim in Europe, even though, as an artist from the Silesian region, he was viewed as a ‘local’ composer. The story of his most famous piece’s success is one of the most important in the history of contemporary Polish music. From its premiere, some critics deemed it a masterpiece, while others considered it less valuable to the world of new music. Górecki himself called it the most avant-garde piece he ever wrote.
It wasn’t long before Górecki’s piece reached contexts other than serious concert halls. In the 1980s, his concerts were opened by Laibach, the Slovenian industrial-rock band. Górecki’s symphony could also be heard at Wembley Stadium – David Bowie had it play during an intermission. Paradoxically, the theme of Symphony No. 3 has little to do with popular culture. It draws upon the archetype of a mother mourning her lost child – fusing the Christian Mary with contemporary women of the period who had lost their children. The sound is lucid, the tempo slowed, and the work, as a whole, is marked by repetition.
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In 1992, Dane Upshaw and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Zinman, released the recording that truly introduced Symphony No. 3 to the world. The album topped the charts in Europe and the United States and played on numerous famous radio stations. Górecki became the composer of one of the best-selling records in the history of contemporary music – likely surpassed only by Arvo Pärt.
On 29th March 2019, Domino, the British record label, released a new recording of Górecki’s symphony by Beth Gibbons, the singer from Portishead, with the National Symphony of the Polish Radio, conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki. The work actually premiered much earlier at a concert on 29th November 2014 at the Wielki Theatre – National Opera in Warsaw. The project was curated by Filip Berkowicz, the former director of the Sacrum Profanum Festival in Kraków and current head of the Auksodrone contemporary music festival in Tychy. It’s thanks to Berkowicz that Aphex Twin has performed Penderecki and Mira Calix the work of Andrzej Panufnik.
Will this new recording be as popular as the one from the 1990s? Given how different musical tastes are today, it doesn’t seem likely. Gibbons’s take on Penderecki will go down in the history of this symphony, however – and perhaps influence future artists as well. But who else has found inspiration in Symphony No. 3?
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Yes, Goldie – one of the most recognisable faces from drum and bass, the uniquely fast and syncopated dance music genre characterised by deep and powerful bass sounds. He, too, was inspired by Górecki’s Symphony No. 3. The first time he heard it, he was at home with his former partner Björk. He said the symphony was a ‘miraculous gift’, which quickly had a large influence on him – not only on an aesthetic level, but on an emotional one. Goldie regularly cites the Polish composer as an influence on his work, along with the jazz artists Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.
Mother (VIP Radio Edit) is the opening track on his popular album Saturnz Return (FFRR, 1998). In fact, it’s an epic piece – it lasts for more than 70 minutes and mixes various styles of electronic music, often in reference to musical composition and jazz. Some parts of the work are designed for the dance floor, while others descend into deep electronic landscapes and string-instrument passages. The record is one of the most important in commercial electronic music, but at the same time, one of the most overlooked. This can hardly come as a surprise – considering its breadth, Goldie must have been suffering from a kind of musical graphomania, its length intimidating even the most seasoned music lovers. Listening to it more than a decade ago, the piece seemed like the height of kitsch to me – today, I view it much more fondly.
Sorrowful Songs anew
The highly-respected saxophone and clarinet player Colin Stetson also works as a session musician with the likes of Lou Reed, Anthony Braxton, Mats Gustafsson, Tom Waits and Arcade Fire. Since his record New History Warfare, Volume 1 came out in 2007, he has been taking alternative music festivals by storm. His Sorrow (52 Hz, 2016) is a reinterpretation of Górecki’s famous symphony.
Stetson first heard Górecki’s piece as a 20-year-old college student. Since then, Górecki’s recording has never left his side. Stetson claims that he didn’t add anything to the original score, he just enriched it with references to minimalism, metal and drone music. In an interview for Culture.pl, Stetson said:
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My approach to Symphony No. 3 was to broaden, in a way, how I imagined certain sounds and parts which were absent in the original, which for myself, were some sort of an extension of the emotional core of that piece.
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The debut album of Lamb, the trip-hop duo from Manchester, featured a popular single called Górecki (released on Fontana, 1996). Even though you won’t find any reference in the lyrics, you will certainly hear it. The British musicians sampled the string section from the second movement of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3. A few years later, Nicole Kidman sang their song in the movie Moulin Rouge – unfortunately, this time without Górecki’s strings.
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Górecki’s music is a great starting point for improvisation. His work has been used by many artists including jazz musicians Marcin and Bartłomiej Oleś (double bass, drums) and Christopher Dell (vibraphone) on the album Górecki Ahead (Audio Cave, 2018). They draw on diverse compositions by the best-selling composer, beginning with his Ad Matrem, written in 1973, all the way to Good Night from 1990.
A well-trained ear will quickly catch the motifs borrowed from Górecki, however, even without this musical knowledge, their album is extremely enjoyable. Using the language created by the Silesian composer, the Polish-German trio tells their own stories. And they do it with respect and class – it’s not just an empty aestheticisation of the music of a well-known composer, even when the musicians adhere to jazz standards.
On the Musiquette: Improvisations on Górecki (Bôłt, 2017) album, the co-founder of Bang on a Can All-Stars, Evan Ziporyn, and his band (Adrien Lambinet – trombone, Mikołaj Pałosz – cello, Kuba Sokołowski – piano, Kamil Szuszkiewicz – trumpet), play Górecki having partly forgotten his music.
On the first day of rehearsals, they practiced Lerchenmusik and the fourth part from the Musiquette series (the so-called Trombone Concerto), following the score closely. The next day, they tried to recreate what they had learned without looking at the score and without checking any recordings. On the third day, during the recording session, they tried to forget about the score completely and, instead, tried to focus on what they had played the day before. In Ziporyn’s own words:
Since the beginning, I detected great improvisational potential in Gorecki's pieces, even though they are perfect and complete entities and I see no contradiction here. Modern societies put great stock in defining roles and putting up clear borders. Throughout history, however, creative musicians all over the world have built on the work that came before them. They did this in a direct or veiled manner, with or without the knowledge or approval of the original creator. Standard classical interpretation itself can be seen as a manifestation or at least a remnant of prior practice.
The musicians Ziporyn brought together are mostly from a musical improvisation background. Górecki’s music unleashed an extraordinary amount of energy and bravado in their work, while, at the same time, they left space for the meditational echoes of the original pieces.
Can Beth Gibbons sing Górecki?
Listening to the newest release from Beth Gibbons, the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra and maestro Krzysztof Penderecki, a question comes to my mind: ‘Did the Portishead singer do a good job with the Górecki repertoire?’ In short: no. Gibbons can’t reach the high notes and often sings in a lower register. She isn’t a classically trained singer, nor has she mastered the vocal techniques necessary to correctly sing Górecki’s pieces.
But then more questions come to mind: ‘Who puts forward these requirements?’ and ‘Should we care?’. Although Gibbons’ album can’t compete with the performances of great classical singers, it is a rather intimate reinterpretation and this definitely holds true to the orchestral original. It’s definitely not a must for classical singing purists who like listening strictly to what’s in the score.
That being said, Gibbons does deserve praise for her proficient Polish pronunciation. Her language skills are much better than many classically educated singers who choose to dabble with Polish repertoires.
Originally written in Polish, Feb-Mar 2019; translated by LD, NR & AZ, Apr 2019
henryk mikołaj górecki
classical contemporary music
polish electronic music
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