In the 1960s and 1970s, minimalism defied the order of contemporary music. Today it’s present in philharmonics and films, having moved from counterculture to high culture. In 2016, it overtook Polish records.
For the past decade (in fact a little longer), the Polish independent music scene has truly been developing. Musicians, producers and improvisers from different record labels, communities and cities – from Warsaw to Bydgoszcz – have been meeting at concerts and starting new bands. The pieces created were often ephemeral, but many were recorded. Or at least became legend. On the independent scene, jazz mixed with noisy and twisted rock, while somebody interested in synthesizers turned to electronic music, and others wanted to create hip-hop beats. Some of them graduated from music schools, the rest were self-taught.
Musicians gathered around a few clubs and record labels year after year, creating recordings later fawned over by Polish and foreign journalists in their yearly lists. The recordings stood out by their diversity, satisfying different kinds of musical sensibility. But this year in Poland, specifically in Polish phonography, one certain type of music has had the strongest voice.
It is often called post-minimalism. But what is that? Nothing scary or very serious. Just music based on repetition, with static dynamics that avoid linear narration – essentially, it is trance-like. It focusses on the smallest changes, sounds out in the details hidden deep down within the music’s structures. Its inspiration can come from jazz, rock, world music, electronics and contemporary music. Subdivisions in genre are not very important here.
Why do Polish musicians seem to embrace=ing trance, post-minimalism and apparent monotony then? This question will remain unanswered, but surely two musicians are the likely suspects: multi-instrumentalist Wacław Zimpel (this year nominated to Polityka’s Passport Award) and percussionist Hubert Zemler. Zimpel is a clarinet player present on the Polish scene from at least 2008, since his debut with the group Hera. His first solo album (Lines, Instant Classic) came out this year. He performs on the recording alone, but using many instruments: three types of clarinet, Hammond organ, khaen (a Vietnamese wind instrument, a bit like a harmonica made of bamboo) and a Rhodes piano.
Zimpel has appeared mostly in jazz (he has recorded much with Mikołaj Trzaska and other well-known and popular musicians) but it’s not his only musical idiom. One can hear a lot of world music in his music (from India, but also Africa) as well as the classics of American minimalism (Reich, Glass, Riley – composers who were probably an inspiration for all the musicians in this article). We can even hear elements of ancient music in the shortest, but possibly most courageous piece on the recording (Deo Gratias by Johannes Ockeghem, the only composition not written by the artist). Lines is fluid, diverse – maybe a little bit chaotic, but that’s just Zimpel’s broad perspective to blame.
Hubert Zemler turned out to have more discipline: a classically educated percussionist who works with symphony orchestras and jazz. His album on the Bôłt label entitled Pupation of Dissonance, there are three compositions: Zemler’s, the previously-mentioned Steve Reich’s, and Per Nørgård’s. Post-minimalism in Zemler’s music comes from the spirit of contemporary music, a spirit obeying the laws of composition but much more free than the atmosphere of a festival for instance. The most delightful is a cover (Pupation...), where in the search for a means of expression for percussion, the composer-percussionist is accompanied by Małgorzata Sarbak on harpsichord – a very good mixture. Another piece Music for Pieces of Wood by Reich arranged for solo percussion with a vivid rhythm would fit more in a club than a philharmonic. Perhaps that’s a good way to present contemporary music though.
Zimpel and Zemler met during their work in the group LAM (LAM, Instant Classic) together with pianist Krzysztof Dys. The record features three pieces in seven parts, where slow, reflective chords change into running, motor- and trance-like fragments. We can unexpectedy find here sharp jazz solos on the clarinet as well. In addition, the record is well done as far as production is concerned, and sounds wonderful (produced by Mooryc). We can hear not only the pure sounds of the instruments but also all their murmurs and rubbings.
LAM sits happily alongside an album by the violinist Tomasz Sroczyński and his trio (Primal, For Tune). Other than the violinist, Maks Mucha plays double bass and Szymon Gąsiorek plays percussion.‘Primal is music built on one sound and its aliquots in connection with following half and quarter tones,’ explains Sroczyński. In other words, the violin here is not the playful instrument known from classical orchestras, presenting a huge range of colours, but rather an instrument gracefully moaning.
These are just a few of the post-minimal recordings published in the past year in Poland. One can’t forget Lotto (Elite Feline, Instant Classic) – a trio formed from Łukasz Rychlicki, Paweł Szpura and Mike Majkowski. Their last recording sounded like a western soundtrack, while their most recent is much more static. In fact nothing happens here – sounds are suspended like air during a heatwave. It would be also wrong not to mention Kristen (LAS, Instant Classic), whose sensitive trance derives from post-rock surroundings. The group, capable of writing sweet songs but also noisy chaos, this time performed few repetitive miniature instrumentals. On the album, we can even find a lone song.
Originally written in Polish, translated by BR, Dec 2016.