Tuned In: Understanding the World of Polish Audio
#language & literature
default, A słuchowisko inaugurating the 2016 Jacek Kuroń Festival. Called 'Jutro Będzie Słońce' (Tomorrow There'll Be Sun), it was presented in the form of a s, center, festiwal-kuronia-2016-fot-tomasz-gzell-pap_20160528_1s7.jpg
Navigating the world of Polish audio productions can be a nightmare for the uninitiated. And what is this term ‘słuchowisko’ they keep using?
Take a quick scan of Polish podcasts on any platform or app out there, and you’ll soon find a strange hotch-potch of productions. While the world of podcasting is taking off throughout the English-speaking world, in Poland it is still very much in its infancy. Whether it’s ripped audio from computer gaming videos, money-saving advice or business-oriented productions, the choice is still pretty limited and overwhelmingly talk-based (Culture.pl’s own audio escapades have been English-language-based, so they don’t truly count as part of the Polish landscape – though you should check out Stories From The Eastern West and Unseen Soundwalks if you haven’t already…). Furthermore, even though radio stations now offer on-demand listening of previously-aired shows (and distribute them as ‘podcasts’ to get on the bandwagon), there is still little in the way of original podcast programming. Polskie Radio, the public broadcaster, has hinted that it is to provide direct-to-app content, but little so far has been done in this respect.
This all beggars belief when one takes into account the long history of broadcasting in Poland, particularly its rich documentaries which are still mostly confined to the radio. Yet it isn’t all doom and gloom in the audio world in Poland: despite the meagre toe-dipping when it comes to distribution, there are some truly creative productions out there if you dig a little bit deeper.
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In the search for interesting Polish sounds, sooner or later you come across what Poles call a ‘słuchowisko’. The word ‘słuch’ means hearing, so a słuchowisko could be construed as something analogous to ‘something to listen to’. And while the word is generally translated into English as a ‘radio play’, it is not necessarily inextricably linked to just this narrative (or audible) form. So what exactly is a słuchowisko? For one group of recipients, it is closely associated to the productions of the Polish Radio Theatre, which caters for the needs of the public broadcaster’s individual channels. Setting a benchmark for traditional radio plays, Polish Radio creates a natural environment for their creation. However, the first Polish radio play, made in the 1920s, differs from our preconception of what a typical radio play could be construed as.
‘The first Polish play which was written especially for radio, was a particularly noteworthy event. Unfortunately, we only have an anecdotal history of the Funeral of Kiejstut,’ says Krzysztof Sielicki from the Polish Radio Theatre. He goes on to explain:
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Using a fairly simple technique, radio artists in Vilnius recreated a kind of radio broadcast from the funeral of the legendary ruler of Lithuania. Microphones were placed in various places dotted around the city: on the river, in the studio, and the technical crew along with the actors and spectators went some way through the open air. Even nowadays, similar artistic events do not happen very often.
It’s thanks to such ambitious approaches from sound directors of the Polish Radio Theatre that Polish radio plays are still winning awards. A key case in point is the 2013 Prix Europa award for the play Andy by Krzysztof Czeczot, masterfully mixed by Andrzej Brzoska in the Dolby Pro Logic II system. In the production, Czeczot combined his own script with the 1991 radio play Moskwa-Pietuszki.
For another group of listeners, a słuchowisko does not necessarily have to be associated with radio – after all, the creators of radio plays are increasingly able to go beyond a broadcasting context. However, as underlined by Anna Szamotuła, who has been associated with the Poznań University of Technology’s Radio Afera for over a decade, their production still remains a niche affair. Although Szamotuła is the author of radio plays and one of the organisers – along with Patryk Lichota and Maria Marcinkiewicz-Górna – of the Poznań Audio Festival back in 2016, she herself has a problem determining what the genre entails. Where does this problem come from? Well, for a start, with the ‘atomisation of distribution channels’ the number of słuchowisko genres has increased, with many forms abandoning linear narrative in favour of forms closer to sound art. Lichota explains:
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Today, the definition is actually becoming wider, and through the Poznań Audio Festival we wanted to bring it up to date while respecting some basic criteria. The very creation of the festival, at which we invite an audience to listen to radio plays together, broadens the definition. The very fact that we suggest, for example, a set of listening conditions, e.g. by inviting listeners/spectators to a scenographically prepared space (often a disused building or empty space), toying with its past and specific character. So a słuchowisko can also be an installation with a multi-channel audio system.
An example of this type of audio installation is Shell Shock by Tomasz Plata, scored by the avant-garde electronica outfit We Will Fail along with lighting by Wojciech Puś. Created as part of the New Plays project at the Theatre Institute, Shell Shock was also presented at the 2019 edition of the Audio Festival. Despite a ‘traditional’ narrative, which depicts the famed artists Władysław Strzemiński and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz as veterans of the First World War experiencing a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, Shell Shock is more like a modern art installation rather than a piece of audio that can be listened to on the metro on the way to work.
Documentary or radio play?
In recent years, a peculiar departure from traditional radio forms towards more experimental forms can be seen. A manifestation of this trend is the emergence of events such as the Poznań Audio Festival or the Sanatorium Dźwięku Festival in Sokołowsko, which draws its inspiration from sound art. Yet it’s not only at such gatherings that you’ll hear the opinion that radio has lost its ‘magic’. Rigid schedules and fossilised structures at Polish public radio stations are even viewed as unfavourable for creators who would otherwise be willing to make audio work specifically for ‘radio’ audiences.
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There are exceptions to the rule, with such works usually firmly placed in the category of radio documentary. Cases in point include the productions of the Polish Radio Documentary and Reportage Studio, as well as audio works by Agnieszka Czyżewska-Jacquemet or Monika Hemperek from Radio Lublin or Małgorzata Żerwe from Radio Gdańsk. These are just Polish examples, while other European countries are experiencing a renaissance of new radio and documentary forms. This can clearly be seen – and above all heard – at the Hearsay Festival in Ireland. It is in this small Irish mountain village that the most striking documentaries and audio works are heard, while their producers are often not public radio stations at all, but rather small production outfits or even individual artists.
However, with all the attempts to abandon radio, the medium remains crucial for audio makers. An example – the 2014 multimedia radio play Radioterapia from Polish Radio Czwórka, whose theme was a competition for scriptwriters as part of Radio Imagination Theatre [Radiowy Teatr Wyobraźni]. The play, directed by Xawery Żuławski, was probably the first attempt in Poland to combine the best radio traditions with a linked video transmission.
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Slightly more traditional forms of the radio play remain on air, thanks to people such as as writer Anna Dykczak, who in 2015, together with her husband Kordian Piwowarski, created La Soupe Des Fraises for Polish Radio. Three years later, she wrote and directed Parakeets in Richmond Park, a radio play a Polish immigrant in London returning to their homeland, and in 2019 she directed Narożnik, a radio play based on a script by Janusz Łastowiecki, which previously won a gong in a competition organised by the Polish Radio Theatre and the ZAiKS Association. Mixer and master sound engineer Andrzej Brzoska was involved in all these productions.‘I come from a film background so I think perhaps my radio plays are quite visual rather than theatrical,’ reveals Dykczak. When it comes to what drives her, she explains:
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I love the fact that radio is so immediate and intimate. If you’ve got a good play you just need your actors and you do it. It’s just about the words, the voices and the sound effects – the rest takes place in the audience’s imagination . I think there is something very inspiring in this mutual act of creation.
The new wave of the airwaves
Nevertheless, it turns out that there is still a lot of interest in creating radio plays. In 2019, the first edition of the radio directing course run by the Polish Radio Theatre and the Wajda School took place.
‘Now there are ten directors pretty much fully prepared to work in a Polish Radio studio environment,’ says Krzysztof Sielicki. Two graduates of this school are the aforementioned Anna Szamotuła and Paulina Pikiewicz, who, together with Weronika Stencel, runs PęPęPę at UJOT FM student radio in Kraków.
‘It was our shared idea to read my artistic texts on the air of UJOT FM, interweave them with appropriate music and then discuss them,’ says Stencel about the project. ‘These were short stories I wrote on impulse, about a gorilla or a character called the Dessert Dachshund... As it turned out, they were well received, and in 2019 these recordings won the main prize at the Maria Czubaszek Festival and were aired on Polish Radio Trójka,’ adds Stencel. As a result of our meeting in Kraków towards the end of 2019, I began to wonder if artists born in the 1990s do not have a greater sense of freedom and courage in audio production. ‘Perhaps, although I wouldn’t assume such a division,’ says Patryk Lichota. He adds:
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Certainly the słuchowisko got through to these people in a different way. Radio was no longer the basic carrier of the medium. As a result, they actually treat non-radio works with greater zest. Although I’ve also encountered tendencies to achieve this classic format as something exotic and therefore attractive. The generation born in the 1990s is heavily marked by the experience of the Internet, as well as video games, which have done a lot to popularise interactive audio. This has all formed a different imagination, and the use of software tools is more natural. In the dramatic aspect, we can also observe changes: the narrative is not linear, it often consists of many parallel arcs, textual offshoots, or simply builds a field of acoustic phenomena through which the listeners navigates and from which he assembles an overall experience. Although this is a generalisation, because older generations also reach for these solutions.
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Paulina Pikiewicz & Weronika Stencel, creators of audio for PęPęPę, photo: courtesy of the subjects
A definition fit for listeners
Ultimately, maybe the need to find a set definition or translation for ‘słuchowisko’ is unnecessary? My doubts are supported by Krzysztof Sielicki:
The old Polish word ‘słuchowisko’ reminds us that we listen not only to clearly articulated words and linear stories, but also to obscure things such as ‘rustlings, lumps and pathways’ as the eminent poet Miron Białoszewski once wrote. Here I see a chance to find a new formula for Polish audio, which on the airwaves of Polish Radio will probably remain the same, but in the near future will take the Internet by storm.
Patryk Lichota is reminded that the popularity of audio is growing along with the development of streaming platforms and audiobooks:
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This is a fairly large market, Poles really listen to more books, and hence audio works distributed through the same channels. So large commercial productions with star casts, well-known composers and music bands responsible for the scoring have been created in recent years. The ontologies of the genre, between meticulously crafted audiobooks and other audio works, begin to blur.
More recently, a series called Czarny Romans (Black Romance) appeared which was produced by Audioteka, the audiobook distribution platform. The production is a documentary series about Jan Wiesław Polkowski, a Warsaw legend. Its creators, which include award-winning film director Michał Marczak, boast that it is ‘the first Polish audioseries realised on such a scale’. However, it’s not just about super-productions. After all, the democratisation of the media allows anyone with an idea and access to equipment to make audio.
‘There is a growing group of independent audio art creators who see the recording and processing of world sounds as a chance to create a suggestive story of a rapidly changing contemporary life,’ says Sielicki. ‘We managed to jointly implement and broadcast several such experimental radio plays created by actors, writers, directors and musicians seeking new forms (and not only from Poland).’ He seems enthusiastic about the future:
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We hope it’s not over. For now, these artists, often close to contemporary trends in music, avant-garde poetry, etc., present their works mainly on YouTube. One thing is certain: all electronic media, including radio, is on the verge of a great revolution which will see change in the sender-receiver matrix. The recipient has ceased to be anonymous.
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So what a słuchowisko really is depends only on us, the listeners.