Music from Poland in 2018: Young Composers Finally Come into Bloom
small, Young Fryderyk Chopin (composer), photo: Polona.pl, left, chopin ikonografia 02 polona.jpg
Culture.pl’s Filip Lech found 2018 in Poland’s music scene to be the moment that young composers truly broke out. Not every one has a full education and a perfect skillset, and being young means making some mistakes, but that didn’t stop them from delighting this year.
As a music journalist, I try to go to as many concerts as possible and to listen to all the newly-released pieces. For many years though, I found it difficult to listen to the music of my peers, meaning composers born at the turn of the 1990s (and younger). In 2017 though, I noticed that something had begun to change, and in 2018 I actually found it truly enjoyable to listen to their music. What happened? Was it me or them?
Either way, this has led me to create an assessment of 2018 that is explicit in its preferences towards the young and in its neglect of the old. It’s also because older artists always have it slightly easier – they have had more time to build relationships with bands and institutions and they know the world of music commissions a lot better. So, for the purpose of this subjective list, youth ends at 30.
A graduate of the Academy of Music in Łódź (class of Zygmunt Krauze) and of the Royal Conservatory of Brussels (under the direction of Peter Swinnen), Nina Fukuoka actively works with young bands making new music: Ensemble Kompopolex, Passepartout Duo, Down the Rabbit Hole, and Nemø Ensemble. Fukuoka’s style draws a lot from popular and independent culture, Internet reality, multilingualism, horror and sci-fi literature. Coming from a Polish-Japanese family, she has lived in both Łódź and Osaka, and now studies in Brussels – unsurprisingly, this has all led her to soak up rather varied cultural influences. All the same, she doesn’t forget about the sound of music itself: the hums, colours and noises that are unearthed beneath the layers of video and performance. Diving into her work would be difficult for somebody who had never spent time in front of a TV, nor seen any horror movies nor binged on mass culture. But, even if you aren’t a fan of these forms of entertainment, there’s still something interesting to be discovered in Fukuoka’s music.
In 2018, two new pieces were performed at Polish festivals: uncanny valley (during Musica Polonica Nova in Wrocław) and Yuggoth, alongside video prepared by Izumi Yoshida (during Musica Privata in Łódź). The first piece was situated on the border between Facebook Messenger and dystopia, in a world where androids resemble people too much and evoke unpleasant feelings in them, while the people themselves cannot understand each other. The latter composition was an attempt to translate a horror movie into the language of music.
Utopia/Dystopia: Polish-Japanese Workshop in Warsaw
One of the organisers of the Łódź festival Musica Privata – probably the biggest independent event dedicated to contemporary music, improvisation and sound art. Kuba Krzewiński studied in Łódź (also in the class of Zygmunt Krauze), in the Royal Conservatory in The Hague (class of Prof. Yannis Kyriakides) and in the Hochschüle für Musik under Marc Andre and Manos Tzangaris. He creates his own musical sculptures and likes to work with visual artists (such as Aleksandra Chciuk) due to his fascination with all the senses, not just hearing. Right now, Krzewiński is concentrating on touch and his official bio says that it’s touch ‘understood as a way of social communication, a subconscious, atavistic sexual need, but also as an alternative to the visual oversaturation of the contemporary world.’ But whatever sense he might be concentrating on, intimacy is one of the keys to understanding his music.
During this year’s Musica Privata, I was able to listen to his composition Entre, during which the entire audience was wrapped together in the thin plastic foil typically found on construction sites. The foil created a cocoon/tent around us that moved with our breath and our movements. Frankly, I was so dazed by the oddness of the situation (yes, it was interesting but also uncomfortable for me due to the sudden proximity of so many strangers) that I can’t remember a single note of the music Krzewiński had composed. But then, it isn’t always about remembering the music sound by sound.
"Musica Polonica Nova" - Polish Contemporary Music Festival
A composer specialising in chamber music, both instrumental and electronic, Mikołaj Laskowski also writes scores for theatre and film realisations. Together with the composer Jacek Sotomski, he forms the tape recorder duo sultan hagavik. His colleague is not on this list, only because he’s older. In 2015, Laskowski’s piece The Tiger Left Me Unsatisfied, written for bass clarinet, violin, drums and Hammond organ, earned a recommendation during the 62nd UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in the under-30 category. Laskowski now lives in Berlin. I asked him what it means to be a composer. He replied:
For me, composing music is a social activity. Music cannot exist in a vacuum and focus on itself, I think it should engage in dialogue with the community and with the audience. It should lead to some change, even if only on a microscale. One role of the composer might be to work on reality or at least some of its small aspects, the processes on which music operates. Right now, the identity of the composer is not so different from the identity of the artists involved in different fields, but composers have different tools and strategies. Different points of reference. I think that I’m more and more disconnected from the world of classical music. (…) This shows that a composer’s identity doesn’t have to be shaped by historical circumstances and the institutions of classical music.
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Paweł Malinowski began his musical education in Kraków and now continues it in Aarhus. In 2016, he won first prize during the 58th Tadeusz Baird Young Composers Competition. The keys to understanding his sensibility are camp and hauntology, the search for seemingly insignificant pieces of history. I often left the performances of his pieces slightly disappointed, as there was something substantial missing in the layer of sound – the composer actually openly admits that sound as such is of no interest to him. However, Malinowski has great storytelling skills, and he excels at creating narratives. From the very first note, the listener is in the middle of some story and the following elements of the piece only introduce its other parts.
But I certainly felt that Dziś Wydaje Mi Się Że Jest Lepiej (editor’s translation: Today Everything Seems Better) lacked for nothing, a piece that aims at settling the score with an imagined 1990s. I similarly enjoyed It Helps Relieve Tension #2, written for flute and a tape containing motifs from the Twin Peaks soundtrack, that was presented in 2018 during the concert by the Youth Circle of the Union of Polish Composers at the Warsaw Autumn festival.
Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music
He is not a composer in the traditional sense of the word, but paszka has so many ideas for his music, that many of the academy graduates described in this article should be jealous. This year, he released three solo albums: first for the enjoy life record label led by Kuba Malinowski, who is known for making music as Sierść and uncovering teenage talents such as Złota Jesień; secondly for Audile Snow; and the third, under the name of rużaw, for Mik Musik, which is run by Wojtek Kucharczyk, a veteran of the Polish independent scene. He also found time to record with other young Polish musicians.
paszka is one of the children of the new wave of Polish electronic music, all of them raised by the Internet. They are anonymous and usually have no music education, but that doesn’t stop them from creating sounds that are crazily varied and interestingly put together. Their music is usually played on laptop speakers and sometimes in independent clubs, but, given the chance, it could work just as well during serious festivals of contemporary music.
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Another representative of Polish non-academic electronic music, Julek Płoski is associated with the BAS collective. In 2018, he released an album called Tesco which is devoted to the feelings connected with spending time in Tesco supermarkets. He also performed at Kraków’s Unsound Festival. In Tesco, echoes of popular music, most importantly hip-hop and electronic music, are filtered through a noise sound. Płoski said in an interview with Emilia Stachowska that he never listened to noise and became interested in it only after he recorded his album. This openness is one of the characteristics of the new wave of Polish electronic music. These young producers use styles that they don’t know, but, paradoxically, they make it sound better than when it comes from the educated and the experienced.
Her pieces are performed at festivals, but most people are more likely to hear her scores for film (Tower. A Bright Day directed by Jagoda Szelc) and theatre (Hymn do Miłości [Love Anthem] by Marta Górnicka and Listopad [November] by Tomasz Węgorzewski). She has also worked with Katarzyna Kozyra and worked on improvisation. In 2018, she debuted at the Unsound Festival, where, together with Antonia Nowacka (known from the bands WIDT and KIRK) and Kamil Szuszkiewicz (known from many improvised music bands), she played a variation on ASMR – those short videos recorded by Internet users around the world that are meant to relax using whispers and delicate hums.
Unsound Festival takes place in Kraków every year, but it also travels to New York, London, Adelaide, Toronto and other cities. It is probably the most opinion-forming Polish music festival, but it very rarely features academic Polish composers. This year saw producers of electronic music, improvisers and self-taught artists, but it was difficult to spot composers who present their works at festivals of contemporary music. Does that mean that 2018 marked the year that contemporary music in Poland finally began to leave the philharmonics?
Tower: A Bright Day – Jagoda Szelc
A graduate of composing (he specialised in multimedia) at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw, Ryterski lists three tendencies that shape his music: glitch, noise and spectralism. Sometimes he uses the concept of contextual music. He admitted in one interview: ‘Yes, it sounds funny’. Despite his young age, he has already written an opera entitled Anonymous.
In 2018, during the Warsaw Autumn festival, there was a performance of his Disco Bloodbath (Got to Be Real), in which he refers to many things that are not commonly associated with contemporary music: video games, queer culture, disco and vogueing. I have a feeling that this piece could only be fully understood if Ryterski gave us a list of readings that shaped him. I heard critique blaming Ryterski for working on too many themes, that there was chaos and a lack of inner discipline. But there is a method in this multitude. The great number of associations opens up the possibility of new interpretations, while at the same time it guides us towards specific understandings.
Szymon Stanisław Strzelec
Szymon Stanisław Strzelec’s compositions have been performed by bands from Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Ukraine during concerts in Poland, Germany, the United States, France and the Netherlands. He is probably the most traditional composer among the artists listed in this article. He has incredibly broad horizons – they are expressed in his essay Strzykawka z Muzyką: O Sztuce, Wrażliwości i Świadomości w Dobie Wczesnego Posthumanizmu (A Syringe Full of Music: On Art, Sensibility and Consciousness in the Era of Early Posthumanism), available only in Polish – but his compositions use rather traditional means that are typical of contemporary music. And that is a very good thing, because how often can you listen to transmedia pieces that have been written for performers and video and that have hundreds of contexts on top? They often lack actual music.
classical contemporary music
contemporary electronic music
Saying that an artist uses contemporary reality in their work is now a banality, because almost everybody does that today. But it’s impossible to ignore this truism when thinking of Monika Szpyrka’s music. Szpyrka uses statistics and refers to fashion and consumption trends as well as the socio-political reality.
How does it look in practice? In an interview with Jan Topolski and Magdalena Pasternak, Szpyrka said:
In my graduation piece Useful Statistics, written for orchestra in 2018, the rhythm is supposed to represent a certain loop and serve as an analogy for stereotypes, because the composition derives directly from statistics. I wanted it to stress the feminist perspective of equality. I decided to use rhythmic contrasts and the potential of the orchestra as a band that has its own historical connotations linked to gender inequality.
When writing about Strzelec earlier, I mentioned that sometimes the musical layer can get lost in the ideas of young composers. But Szpyrka’s work shows quite the opposite and that one does not have to know the meaning of the piece to enjoy its musical quality. Although this makes for a different reading, ultimately the strength of her music lies in the fact that it can allow for non-intellectual and spontaneous listening.
Originally written in Polish, Nov 2018, translated by MW and edited by AZ, Dec 2018.