The Polish Composers Who Recreated Outer Space
#language & literature
small, The Polish Composers Who Recreated Outer Space, Did the aliens speak Polish? - Still from the Polish-DDR sci-fi classic 'The Silent Star' (1960). The music for the film was written by Andrzej Markow, full_silent_star_770.png
While Poland was obviously not in the front row of the powers competing in the space race, it did engage successfully in an altogether different race. Its stake was representing what space and alien civilisations may actually sound like.
Lovers of forgotten musical collections will find the 2-CD box set Pole Reports from Space brings together some of the most mind-boggling futuristic soundscapes and soundtracks created by Polish and Eastern European composers during the space race era. The inspiration for many of them came from social realist sci-fi film productions and the writings of the sci-fi pioneer Stanisław Lem, who appears on the album as a trailblazing theorist of sci-fi music. But the real heroes of this Bôłt Records album are the people behind the production of the bizarre sounds of the cosmos, working in the midst of the mundane socialist reality of communist-era Poland.
PRES & space
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The place where most of this out-of-this-world music was created, generated and sometimes composed was the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES). Here, in the little space allotted to the studio in Polish Radio’s headquarters, avant-garde composers like Krzysztof Penderecki or Arvo Pärt crossed paths with technology freaks like Eugeniusz Rudnik. But as it turns out, it was the technicians who were the real visionaries, even if the experiment in which they were engaged was not entirely voluntary and self-conscious: it was the only possible way of doing things.
One of the earliest ventures of PRES composers into the sci-fi realm of socialist film came only two years after the establishing of the studio in 1957. The original music for Kurt Maetzig’s 1959 DDR-Polish co-production The Silent Star (based on Stanisław Lem’s novel The Astronauts) was composed by Andrzej Markowski, but the electronic sound effects were realised at the PRES by Krzysztof Szlifirski and Eugeniusz Rudnik.
Uncovering the Soul of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio – Video
As Daniel Muzyczuk suggests in his essay from the Pole Reports from Space booklet, the success of the film and music for The Silent Star (the film was also screened in the US, but under the title The Star of Death, and with an altogether different soundtrack) was one of the reasons why a substantial part of the commissions coming from then on to the PRES dealt with computer sounds, futuristic devices, aliens and interplanetary space itself. As Bolesław Błaszczyk, another contributor to the album’s booklet, puts it:
Whenever voices for green aliens were needed in a film, Warsaw engineers were called to the rescue.
Lem: describing the unheard
Science Fiction Films Adapted from Lem
This early period in the output of the PRES is represented on the album by Krzysztof Penderecki’s soundtrack for the short animated film Excursion into Space, directed by Krzysztof Dembowski. The film came out in 1961, the year the first man, and a brother from the Eastern Bloc, Yuri Gagarin, was sent into space. The script for the film was written by Poland’s future sci-fi guru Stanisław Lem.
In fact, as Daniel Muzyczuk suggests, the ideas found in Lem's books may have been one of the main sources of inspiration for the musicians and composers of the PRES in creating the music of the future.
Lem’s writings, as Muzyczuk observes, bring an incredible variety of literary depictions of sounds unknown to the human ear – made by alien beings or machines that have not yet been invented. One of the examples Muzyczuk gives appears in Lem's novel The Astronauts, where scientists try to decode a hypothetically interplanetary message which, as they believe, had been magnetically encoded on a piece of metallic reel of unknown origin (the material is the same as in the Tunguska meteorite). Thanks to the makers of The Silent Star (which was based on Lem's novel) and the PRES composers, we know how an 'interplanetary letter' might sound, and even find out that the first words of this interplanetary report in this otherwise German-language film are actually spoken in Polish. Did the aliens speak Polish?
Portraits of Stanisław Lem – Image Gallery
But Muzyczuk goes on to suggest that the research into sound representation undertaken at PRES and other centres, of which Lem was the unconscious source, may have come back round to inspire the author. Muzyczuk discusses Lem’s 1968 novel Głos Pana as a case in point, whose title was translated into English as His Master’s Voice (title approved by Lem). 'Isn’t that an evident hint regarding the sources of this book?' asks Muzyczuk, alluding to the fact that this also happens to be the name used by one of the world's oldest recording companies (its logo shows a dog listening to the voice of his dead master coming from a wind-up gramophone).
The sound of Lem
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Lem's relationship with cinema, which started in 1959 with The Silent Star and includes adaptations from such directors as Andrzej Wajda, Andrey Tarkovsky, Steven Soderbergh, and most recently, Ari Folman, brought us several fascinating attempts at representing the sounds of interstellar phenomena, some of them realised beyond the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. One of them was Zdenek Liska's soundtrack for the 1963 Czechoslovakian film Ikaria XB 1 (based on Lem's Magellanic Cloud).
8 Game-Changing Film Soundtracks By The Polish Radio Experimental Studio
The most famous of them all, the iconic music for Andrey Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris, was composed with the use of an ANS synthesizer by Eduard Artemev. Extensive fragments of these mind-boggling music soundtracks are also featured on the album.
Solaris – Stanisław Lem
Another, less obvious, attempt at interpreting Lem came from Arvo Pärt who wrote the original instrumental music for The Inquest (1978) (Polish title: 'Test Pilota Pirxa'), a Polish-Estonian co-production based on the writer’s short story The Inquest. Again, the electronic music was added at the PRES by Eugeniusz Rudnik.
Aliens! Poland’s Space-Age Buildings
The music from this film is represented on the Bôłt album through the work of Marcin Cichy (commissioned by Foundation 4.99), which is based on samples from the Arvo Pärt/Eugeniusz Rudnik composition. You can find a sample fragment from Marcin Cichy's new piece here.
Major Mirosław reports from space
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The album tracks the historical developments and achievements of People's Poland’s space programme (had there ever been one), the highest point of which came only in 1978… In fact, as Bolesław Błaszczyk notes, it was the year Poland soared to unsurpassable heights.
On 26th June, Major Mirosław Hermaszewski was launched into space on the Soviet spaceship Soyuz 30, becoming the first Pole to do so. And on 16th October of the same year another Pole, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, became the Pope.
During his eight days in orbit, Hermaszewski performed geo-scientific research and photographed Earth from on board the Salyut 6 space station, before landing safely in the steppes of Kazahkstan on 5th July.
As Błaszczyk explains, in the months that followed Hermaszewski's feat was commemorated in numerous books, films and reportages. Part of this production was the monumental radio broadcast A Pole Reports From Space, prepared by Eugeniusz Rudnik at the PRES in 1978.
The piece consisted of documentary recordings of words spoken by Hermaszewski, his family, Polish teachers and trainers, and Russian colleagues. It also incorporated quotes from mythology, encyclopedic definitions and scientific discourse, like the writings of the Russian pioneer of astronautic theory Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Obviously, and most importantly, it also featured a rich layer of sound illustration by Rudnik.
Who is Eugeniusz Rudnik?
Błaszczyk suggests that Rudnik succeeded in turning what was initially supposed to be a propaganda pennant into an autonomous work of art – exempt from expediency and replete with unobvious reflection: the raw material of official statements (like Hermaszewski's address of thanks to the secretaries of Poland and Soviet Union, Gierek and Brezhnev) was somehow curved through condensation and deformation, he explains before adding:
[Rudnik's] choice of using private, even intimate opinions expressed by Hermaszewski, indicates a deeper, humanistic dimension of the kind of creative assignment which the composer had taken on himself. Giving the text the desired character which was achieved through the use of filters, reverb, acoustic panoramas, and wider temporal planes used in editing, turns out to be the main domain of Rudnik's virtuosity.
He also gives examples:
The two mixed anthems – Polish and Soviet – may today appear as shocking; the fragment 'Together in Berlin, Together at Lenino, Together in space – Isn't it beautiful...' brings up a smile; but we can also hear Hermaszewski spontaneously say: 'The orbital views really are amazing; our Earth is beautiful […] Everything is in beautiful colours, one really cannot see the evil.'
Indeed, listening to Rudnik's piece, one is constantly reminded of the many problematic aspects of contemporary space exploration, while at the same time getting a sense of the idealistic optimism and innocence that were once part of this great adventure in mankind's history: a sense of a moral obligation, but also a promise that can be found in the words of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky quote in the piece:
Earth is the cradle of reason, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 26 March 2015; updated by AZ, Apr 2019
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