Sound Effects On The Kids: Pioneering Animation Soundtracks From Poland
small, Kartoteka by Witold Giersz, photo: press materials, kartoteka-witold-giersz.jpg
From the 1960s onwards, the Polish Radio Experimental Studio created a sonic alphabet for the imagination through sound effects that transformed the world of children's films in Poland, and influenced animation soundtracks for generations to come. Culture.pl looks at some of their most fascinating and important works.
Electronic music composer Carl Stone recently recalled for The Wire what a breakthrough moment it was when he watched a film for the first time: Disney’s Fantasia (made in 1940). It was all because of the music, and particularly the scene that used Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
Pre-war avant-garde music was making inroads to the wider public through films, often for children, forging a new generation of listeners. Post-war experimentation found a natural home in cartoons and stop-animation. Surrealism and collage techniques in particular were a good match for the post-war musique concrète.
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In Poland, experimental music and animation joined forces in the late 1950s, and in spectacular fashion. The winner of the World Expo competition in Brussels in 1958 was Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica’s animated film House, with music by a pioneer of Poland’s nascent scene, Włodzimierz Kotoński.
House – Walerian Borowczyk & Jan Lenica
Kotoński’s Étude Concrète for One Stroke of a Cymbal (1959), the first autonomous work recorded at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES), was also inspired by a work for a film – the stop-motion Or the Fish, directed by Halina Bielińska and Włodzimierz Haupe (1958). Here the composer transformed a cymbal recording to create a brief concert piece.
Raymond Scott - Soothing Sounds For Baby Vol. 1 (1962) FULL ALBUM
From the outset, the Warsaw studio was a space for creating music and sound effects for young audiences. In this, it was part of a global tendency. In Manhattan, Raymond Scott, whose works were most commonly heard in the still-popular Looney Tunes series, experimented with electronic music in the 1960s through a series of records called Soothing Sounds for Baby (1964). He was simply trying to create sounds infants would enjoy, following the recommendations of psychologists. In London, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop experimental studio made music and sound effects for the super-popular science-fiction series Doctor Who (from 1963 on). And the French Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) was a model for many creators of illustrative music, such as Robert Cohen-Solal, who made the animated series Les Shadoks (beginning in 1968). Even America’s Sesame Street (first broadcast in 1969) commissioned work from contemporary music composers, including Philip Glass.
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The work by the Polish Radio Experimental Studio for children’s animations remains surprisingly poorly documented. Not only does the institution fail to appear in the end credits of films (its participation must be assumed, given the lack of comparable units), but Polish cinema databases often lack information about which of the famous studio engineers helped the composer. In the composers’ oeuvres, their illustrative music for children’s cartoons is generally lesser known.
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A case in point is Krzysztof Penderecki, who, among his many works for film, wrote electronic music for Outer Space Expeditions (1961, directed by Krzysztof Dębowski), recorded with Eugeniusz Rudnik. He also made illustrative music for harp, flute, percussion and electronics for King Midas (1963, Lucjan Dembiński), and finally, the remarkable electronic track for Leokadia Serafinowicz and Wojciech Wieczorkiewicz’s Meetings with the Basilisk (1961), with its bevy of sounds and noises fed through filters and modulators. In The Abduction (1962), the same artists wove Penderecki’s subtly-introduced electronic transformations of percussion sounds into a more conventional, dense layer of orchestral music, creating a mysterious and unreal mood – an apt general description of that unusual space where the experimental studio shined.
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This can be best heard in Strange Planet – an episode of the Sleepy Jacek series (1962) by Warsaw’s Miniatur Filmowych Studio. The music illustrates a long, fantastical dream sequence during the main protagonist’s journey through outer space. Curiously enough, the whole series is aesthetically linked by the music of Waldemar Kazanecki – one of Poland’s most regular composers for children’s films, who surely used PRES’s services. Other episodes feature fewer electronic sounds, though there is some manipulation of magnetic tape, for example, to process vocals (In the Sands of the Desert). In turn, Georgie the Ghost, directed by Ryszard Słapczyński, with music by Kazanecki (1969), introduced horror movie effects. Again, we don’t know for sure who Kazanecki might have worked with at the Warsaw studio on it. The best guess is that it was Bohdan Mazurek, as it contains echoes of some of the autonomous compositions he made at PRES.
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Another Miniatur Filmowych Studio children’s series was Journeys through Time (1965–1966), again using Kazanecki’s music and the studio’s effects. The City of the Future episode presents a world much like that in Pixar’s Wall-E, with overweight people travelling on special armchairs, and vehicles that pilot themselves. Another episode, Outer-Space Castaway, introduces a sequence of rocket journeys, which of course required experimental sound effects – the sounds of an environment we do not experience in everyday life were perfect fodder for the PRES.
One of the most impressive examples of using the studio in children’s films is Halina Bielińska’s Nutcracker (1967), based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s famous tale, with music by Zbigniew Turski performed by the national Philharmonic Orchestra. Bohdan Mazurek’s sound effects bring elements of the fantastic to the work. Like in many children’s pieces, it was the sound that evoked poetry and a fairy-tale mood.
Sounds of the future
With Kazanecki’s Strange Planet, the effects – perfectly synchronised with the events on screen – could easily be compared with the cosmic sounds Krzysztof Szlifirski and Eugeniusz Rudnik produced for The Silent Star (1959), featuring music by Andrzej Markowski. It was the first big science-fiction production behind the Iron Curtain, and the first to be based on a Stanisław Lem novel (The Astronauts).
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Rudnik’s work on The Silent Star was developed further in his sound effects for the short made-for-television film The Friend (1965). Directed by Marek and Jerzy Stawicki, it was about artificial intelligence and also based on Lem (this time, one of his Ijon Tichy tales). Here sound effects give way entirely to original music. Along with Arvo Pärt, Rudnik created the music for another film adaptation of Lem’s prose in 1978: Pilot Pirx’s Inquest, directed by Marek Piestraka. Aimed at a somewhat older audience, the film confirmed how PRES had created how Poles imagined outer space and the future. One other bit of evidence was the feature film, Big, Bigger, Biggest, based on the prose of Jerzy Broszkiewicz and directed by Anna Sokołowska in 1962. The composer was Andrzej Markowski, but the ‘electron music’, as the credits put it, was created in the early years of the PRES. It can be heard during a several-minute-long sequence describing the inhabitants of the planet Wega in the film’s third adventure. Among these sonic visions were tales of the incredible, a little like the American series The Twilight Zone, such as the short 1964 made-for-television film Where Are You, Luiza? directed by Janusz Kubik featuring Włodzimierz Kotoński's music.
There were also educational stories using the familiar combination of animation and experimental music, often with satirical references to human achievements. A good example are the humanist issues tackled in The Card-Index by Witold Giersz (1966), illustrated by Waldemar Kazanecki’s music and Eugeniusz Rudnik’s sound effects.
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This trend can also be seen in Jan Lenica’s New Janko the Musician (1960), which features a collage soundtrack by Włodzimierz Kotoński, co-created with Rudnik, who is, as usual, absent from the credits. In turn, Moto-Gas by Kazimierz Urbański (1963) is a look at the development of transport – from travel on horseback to the railway and multi-lane highways, accompanied by an étude for electronics by Andrzej Markowski, created at SEPR with the help of Eugeniusz Rudnik. Bohdan Mazurek created the music for Robert Stando’s Mr Ciuchcia (1968) which is all about the invention of the railway.
Two later films that tackled an even grander subject had a large impact. Stefan Szwakopf's Narodziny Ziemi (The Earth's Birth) from 1974 relied heavily on music Kotoński created at PRES. Meanwhile, Danuta Adamska-Strus's visually very different Kosmogonia from the same year also showed how the Earth began and the evolution of life, this time using the music of Euqeniusz Rudnik.
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Kosmogonia (1974, Danuta Adamska-Strus)
In the 1970s, illustrative music increasingly made use of the synthesizers appearing in Poland – Waldemar Kazanecki used them in Piotr Szpakowicz’s The Blizzard (1976), along with orchestral sounds. Films for children and young people had soundtracks in tune with the latest trends, including big beat, psychedelic rock, and rhythm n' blues. Examples include the music by Waldemar Parzyński and Novi Singers, or the Zdrój Jana group (Ryszard Antoniszczak’s So Long, Steam! from 1974). The soundtrack visions of Wojciech Trzciński (Witold Giersz’s Star from 1984) and Krzysztof Suchodolski (Łucji Mróz’s Flightless from 1984) are interesting, but did they really require an experimental studio? All these technological changes were signals that what constituted a modern Polish film was no longer tied to the Warsaw studio.
The Academy of Mr Mazurek
Continuing the studio’s 1960s explorations into the 1980s, the spirit of playing with sonic layers and space lived on in the compositions and technical work of Bohdan Mazurek. Even his autonomous pieces (such as A Child’s Dreams from the 1976 album Sentinel Hypothesis) evoke the world of the child’s imagination. This was confirmed by his promotional work – Mazurek created the children’s radio programme Musical Hocus-Pocus. He was also interested in visual art and multimedia, and had close artistic contacts.
Small wonder, then, that Bohdan Mazurek’s work crowns this period of experimental work in children’s films. The most well-known of these is Mr Kleks series, directed by Krzysztof Gradowski. In The Academy of Mr Kleks (1983), the eclectic music of Andrzej Korzyński had strong electronic touches thanks to Mazurek, who according to the credits was responsible for ‘compositions and producing electronic sound effects’. These effects were important to the film’s creators, as the series was a response to the American wave of new adventure films based on modern technologies, championed by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Budget restrictions held back the Poles in visual terms, but the sounds of the robots and computers or the outer space flight controls created by Mazurek developed throughout the sequels (1985’s The Travels of Mr Kleks, and 1988’s Mr Kleks in Outer Space). Even though the sound engineer was finally mentioned as a music creator, his input – like all the work mentioned in this article – never made it onto record, unlike the movie’s songs and Korzyński’s original score which became bestsellers.
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In the Mr Kleks series, Bohdan Mazurek was the equivalent of Ben Burtt (sound effects creator for Star Wars), though on a smaller scale, of course. He was also responsible for the sound effects in the Polish-Czech co-production Mr Samochodzik and the Prague Mysteries, directed by Kazimierz Tarnas in 1989. On one hand, this was an extension of Mazurek’s work in the Mr Kleks films; on the other, it draws from the classic sound effects of American cinema of the 1950s and 60s.
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polish electronic music
film for children
Polish Radio Experimental Studio
Mazurek also created the music for the half-hour-long televised cartoon Dziwne Dziwy Czyli... ‘Baśń o Korsarzu Palemonie’ Jana Brzechwy (Odd Oddballs, or: Jan Brzechwa’s The Tale of Palemon the Corsair) directed by Krzysztof Dębowski (1986), a late masterpiece among children’s film soundtracks. Here he builds a complex and metaphorical musical backdrop for a tale that is told literally in the visual sphere. The music recalls many of the tropes of PRES in the 1960s – mystery, spatiality, and figurativeness – and has undoubtedly aged better than the film itself. But did it sound as appealing and suggestive to the children brought up in the 1980s as it did to those raised in the 1960s?
The Polish Radio Experimental Studio held no ordinary recording sessions. ‘It was like a bunch of boys playing around,’ said Eugeniusz Rudnik in Bolesław Błaszczyk’s television documentary Help, Eugeniusz! He added a moment later: ‘I’m the master of the world I create.’ The work of PRES proves how these two important attributes of experimental music – the creation of new worlds and child’s play – perfectly corresponded with the developing art of animation and film sound effects, helping transport cinema into the realm of boundless fantasy.
Originally written in Polish by Bartek Chaciński, June 2018, translated by SG, July 2018