When Experimental Music Met Martial Law
default, korolkiewicz_lukasz_stan_18_grudnia.jpg, 13 Grudnia 1981 Rano (13th December 1981 Morning) by Łukasz Korolkiewicz, 1982, oil on canvas, 89 x 190 cm, photo: National Museum of Warsaw
The Polish Radio Experimental Studio, a bastion of creative freedom, came up against a new enemy on 13th December 1981 – along with the rest of Poland, the PRES had to deal with the new era of martial law. How did this brutal period in Polish history affect the studio? And how did its members try to do their bit in counteracting the communist regime's iron grip?
Owing to the attitude of its founder and long-time head, Józef Patkowski, the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES) was always an outpost of artistic freedom. Despite pressure from the management, the radio was never subordinate to the editing that plagued reportage, literature or theatre. The commissioner supervising the activities of the various units revised the institute’s profile on many occasions, chastising Józef Patkowski for the fact that the studio is:
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overly concentrated on elitarian culture, at the expense of its more practical social and institutional obligations.
On the one hand, Patkowski opened a window to the world, inviting outstanding composers from the West; on the other, he ensured that the PRES was not merely beholden to the Polish Radio committee. Small wonder, then, that by the end of 1981, the studio’s entire staff of full-time workers belonged to the Solidarity movement. Apart from Patkowski, it included Barbara Okoń-Makowska, Grażyna Karaśkiewicz, Wojciech Makowski, Bohdan Mazurek, Krzysztof Szlifirski and Eugeniusz Rudnik. To meet the minimal number of labour union group members, the PRES employees were joined by the machine operators to form Circle No. 10, headed by an engineer, Makowski, who served for many years as head of the studio’s operations department. The union’s activities included distributing consumer goods that were not readily available among the employees.
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Yet Makowski’s most interesting field of operations was sound. Recordings began to emerge in private circulation which could be copied with studio equipment for wider distribution. In this way, Makowski and his wife, Barbara Okoń-Makowska, became involved with the underground. This was literally unofficial – it was never registered, nor stamped with any publishing house emblem, operating beyond the censor’s control.
In the latter half of the 1960s, Makowski had begun a private collection of artists’ individual freedom and resistance endeavours, both in writing and in sound. Poems, songs and articles came at times of successive breakthroughs, marked by social protests and the government repressions that came in their wake. The engineer collected unique recordings, including songs by Karel Kryl, the bard of the Czech opposition, performances of works by Vladimir Vysotsky that were banned in the USSR, and the songs of Alexander Galich, another famous Russian bard. Ever since his childhood, Makowski had been friends with Jan Krzysztof Kelus, a singer sometimes called the Polish Woody Guthrie. Kelus had acquired a tape from one Zbigniew Romaszewski, filled with recordings of entirely unknown rebels in music and poetry from beyond the eastern border. As a young physicist, Romaszewski had interned in 1966 in Dubna, home to a Soviet atomic centre. It was some Russian colleagues from the centre who had passed on the tape. He purchased a Turandot radio with scholarship money; it picked up a Czechoslovak broadcast, from which Makowski had recorded a song by Kryl in 1967.
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Among the rarities Makowski collected, at risk of imprisonment, there were also recordings of the occupation strike of students of Warsaw Polytechnic in 1968. Makowski’s amateur, low-fi recordings were cleaned up with filters and other equipment, improving their sound quality. For the thirtieth anniversary of these events, the Makowskis made these recordings available for a television documentary. The engineer also gathered many hours of recordings of the militia eavesdropping on the events on the Baltic in December 1970, which were carefully safeguarded until a time of greater freedom. In 1977, Makowski borrowed a high-quality portable Nagra tape recorder from the PRES, and professionally recorded a number of Jan Kelus’ songs in the latter’s apartment. These recordings circulated around Poland on cassette tapes. The artist himself produced them, using equipment specially produced by Makowski. This was a kind of power bar, with one inlet for the tape source and ten outlets for transferring its signal, allowing you to connect tape recorders to make copies. The ‘Kelus bar’ was manufactured at PRES and, despite multiple searches of the poet’s house, it was never confiscated. The officers never suspected how this innocent-looking piece of equipment might have been used.
In the first Solidarity period, the need of the moment was to get banned songs, tapes of meetings, and other kinds of audio documents into the public consciousness. The authorities utterly blocked access to information, and, in the autumn of 1980, journalists could not even be delegated to the coast. In the programme materials, radio standards were no different from the everyday practices at Polish Television. The facts were openly manipulated, depicting a dark image of an anarchistic country, swept by conflicts, and a government that was sorely concerned for the fate of the country.
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3rd May 1982, Warsaw, an independent demonstration in the Old Town, photo: Maciej Czarnocki / Ośrodek KARTA
A clear example of the government’s use of radio as a political tool was an incident after the ‘Bydgoszcz events’, during which Solidarity activists were beaten, including Jan Rulewski. The programme director of Polish Radio, Erazm Fethke, ordered that the High Noon programme broadcast an alleged bulletin from the Polish Press Agency (PAP), which stated that the Bydgoszcz Regional Prosecutor was considering if the injuries sustained by Rulewski were not actually the result of a road accident in which a pedestrian was killed. An on-shift PAP editor who was listening to the programme dared to protest, because the unverified news of indeterminate origin had not come from his agency. In other cases, commentaries were patched into the programme participants’ statements, changing the substance of their replies, not to mention the tendentious editing, censoring and removal of materials.
As such, the only reliable medium for audio news was the cassette. To facilitate the copying process, the talented Makowski developed a special tech system more advanced than the ‘Kelus bar’, though serving the same aim. Four studio tape decks in the PRES space were set to process 76cm of tape per second, twice as fast as the recordings they held. A ‘master tape’ was prepared, from which the left channel played the recording forwards, and the right channel backwards. After copying one side of the tape, it was flipped over, and the track recorded backwards on the right channel now sounded correct through the left channel. Three other tape decks were connected to that first deck with the master tape. In this way, three tapes were recorded every time around. Then these materials were copied at the correct speeds for ordinary cassettes. As a result, twenty minutes of work were needed to tape eighty minutes of material. This meant that a double-sided tape was created in ten minutes. This was how Makowski’s experimental technique went down in the ‘revolutionary’ history of the PRES. It was through his work that a range of unique historical recordings were spared, at a time of martial law, when audio journalism, officially collected by the Polish Radio audioteque, was being confiscated.
Maciej Szczepański, the disgraced head of the Polish Radio committee in the golden 1970s, was removed from all his posts in the autumn of 1980 and stripped of his parliamentary immunity (this was the only instance of this happening during the communist regime). He was replaced by Zdzisław Balicki from Wrocław, and in July 1981, Władysław Loranc, considered a ‘rock-hard’ party advocate, became Chairman of the Radio and Television Committee. In the Solidarity period, the truest believers from the party were chosen to replace managers who were prone to succumb to workers’ demands and postulates, both when it came to their livelihood and the programming. To illustrate the working climate of the time, we might quote Chairman Loranc:
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Polish society needs us as the intellectual staff of the party, a staff that not only steps in time with the mood, but also shapes it […] One speaks of the need for credibility. I believe that we should be more concerned with authority.
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As Chair of the Union of Polish Composers (ZKP), Józef Patkowski never concealed his views. Shortly before the advent of Martial Law, he dared to express, even in front of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, his hope that he might ‘cultivate the musical wasteland’. This occurred on 7th November 1981, at a meeting of creative union representatives on ‘national unity’, attended by Primate Glemp and Lech Wałęsa. The general was somewhat outraged by the description of Poland as a wasteland, though he remembered Patkowski’s comment rather differently. Jaruzelski wrote in his memoirs:
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A dozen days or so before martial law, there was a meeting with representatives of creative unions. The chairman of the musicians’ or composers’ union, a Mr Patkowski, if memory serves, said: 'Poland is a cultural wasteland'. I get riled when thinking of it, to this day. I admit there was an anger, a dismissal deep inside me, I thought: what have they done to this country, they must be pacified, severely and effectively. But the dissolution of the creative unions we might call an industry decision, due to the fact that the union represented a community. The community protested, took the floor, defying the laws and the rigours of martial law.
In November and December 1981, the staff of both Polish Radio and Polish Television were ready to go on strike. There were discussions of urgent changes that were needed in the mass media, the government’s news monopoly was declared anti-constitutional, attempts were made to assemble a workers’ council. On 7th December, the radio broadcast a prepared recording of the Radom discussions of the Presidium of the National Commission and the Solidarity regional council heads. The Security Service recordings were meant to serve as a justification for the introduction of martial law. On 11th December, the Council for Social Communication Media Affairs was called, though, for evident reasons, its operations never got underway.
On Monday 14th December 1981, the day after martial law was introduced in Poland, radio workers were not admitted to their building on Malczewski Street, and returned home. The army took over all the radio and television buildings. In the first phase of martial law, radio and television programmes were broadcast from the signal regiment on Żwirka and Wigura streets, far from the headquarters that had been set up in September 1981. Speakers were transported there, and all the programme participants were broadcast live by military specialists. The work of all the offices that did not provide the news was suspended.
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Martial law arrives on 13th December 1981, a tank drives through the streets of Warsaw, photo: Wojtek Łaski/East News
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The archive of Eugeniusz Rudnik contains some highly valuable documents he personally plucked from the radio trash bin during the liquidation of the PRES in 2004. These are monthly cards with a signed attendance list for the following days. The December card is filled with signatures of the full-time employees, up till and including the working Saturday of 12th December. (Free Saturdays throughout the year only came as a postulate of the August agreements). This rubric in the cards for the days following 12th December is blank, crossed out with a huge red letter ‘Z’. The attendance list was also signed by a regular studio collaborator (from 1979), Tadeusz Sudnik-Hrynkiewicz. The radio and television programme of the first days of martial law was made up chiefly of news, propaganda, classical music and documentary broadcasts and programmes. There was no shortage of reruns. Among them, the educational film Polish Judaica, with music by Rudnik, was often aired.
Structurally speaking, the PRES was a separate production unit of the Committee for Radio and Television Affairs. Thus, when Polish Radio was transformed into a militarised institution, the studio’s activities were suspended ‘until further notice’. From a political perspective, belonging to the delegalised Solidarity organisation gave the authorities sufficient cause for prosecution, though for the PRES employees it never came to this.
The first few days brought disorientation, as they did everywhere. After some time, the studio employees were informed that were to go on leave for an unspecified period of time. They could pick up their monthly wages at a point organised at the school on Joliot-Curie Street. Owing to the hiatus, the government found another way to cut costs – salaries were much reduced, as employees were reclassified as ‘on call’, thus earning only minimal wages. By the end of January 1982, those radio units whose directors could justify the present necessity of working were allowed to resume normal functions. They did, however, have to be cleared by the army commissioners, along with their entire staff.
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Józef Patkowski, head of the PRES, had no intention of accepting these proposals, and so the studio went on hiatus. He concentrated on the day-to-day affairs of the Polish Composers’ Union, of which he was chairman. Krzysztof Szlifirski, in turn, was affiliated with the sound engineering department of the Music Academy, where normal classes were being resumed. For the rest of the PRES employees, however, unemployment was a huge problem. Among them, Rudnik and Mazurek had the greatest dilemma, as their main source of income had been commissions from outside partners, mostly film and television producers. Commissions were waiting to be taken, and over time, new ones appeared, including those from the Czołówka military film studio. Both engineering composers began seeking a way to return to the studio on their own. Finally, at the end of February, both Rudnik and Mazurek managed to enter the PRES production rooms. Patkowski neither blamed nor obstructed these ‘strike-breakers’.
Makowski gathered his own ‘independent’ sound materials in an upright cupboard in the corner of a room at the PRES, just behind the station’s record-player. When the station was sealed off, the fate of these illegal recordings was very much up in the air. Had they been discovered by the military, they could have destroyed the careers of the engineer, not to mention his boss, or even brought about the end of the unit. Luckily, however, they were never uncovered.
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In late April 1982, Makowski began working with Janusz Piechurski, running the studio for reconstructing recordings, part of whose work was making stereo recordings from the archives. Piechurski was happy to befriend Andrzej Rakowski, an acoustics specialist and lecturer at the Music Academy. Swayed by his authority, Makowski agreed to return to working with sound in a new unit belonging to the Musical Directorship of Polish Radio. Verification procedures were necessary, though these, happily, were only symbolic, concerning only professional, technical qualifications and not involving politics. Makowski’s activities in Solidarity were not mentioned, and nor were his convictions.
After martial law was introduced, Patkowski, head of the ZKP and PRES rolled into one, consistently refused to co-operate fully with the authorities. The Warsaw Autumn Festival, organised by the ZKP in 1982, was not held.
In 1980, a plan was introduced to transfer the PRES to new headquarters, Block C of the radio-television building on Woronicza Street, whose construction was underway. In spring of 1982, they came back around to preparing the new spaces – three control rooms and an administration room for the PRES, which was originally planned for the fourth floor, above Studio S1 (at present, the W. Lutosławski Studio). On 31st December 1982, the regime announced that martial law would soon be called off. In early 1983, the PRES’s activities were ‘restored’, and, only on 22nd July, was martial law finally lifted. In that year, the SEPR received a new technology station, Studio 5, on the ground floor of Block C on Woronicza. The Polish Radio Theatre, previously operating in the centre on Myśliwiecka Street, was soon transferred to Woronicza, and then the PRES was housed on the fourth floor. Then the studio again moved, this time for good, to the complex grounds on Woronicza. The REF-1, REF -2 and REF-3 control rooms remained in operation for the next two decades.
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Martial law in compositions
The Martial Law period was reflected in the work of composers tied to the Studio.
In 1982, Bohdan Mazurek created Polnische Lieder ohne Worte, a wordless electronic lament, and Epitaph for 31st August, for the victims of the dramatic riots and repressions in various parts of the country on 31st August 1982.
Also in 1982, Eugeniusz Rudnik composed Elegy to the War Victims, for those who fell during martial law. The same year, he made Berceuse, which pairs a lullaby for his daughter with the rumble of tank treads heard through the window. In 1983, Mazurek recorded his composition From a Notebook, an original music chronicle depicting the prevailing mood of stagnancy and hopelessness.
When martial law came to an end, the PRES resumed its activities, but Patkowski’s work was obstructed. In 1985, he refused to participate in a meeting with Jaruzelski, who longed to seal the success of his ‘normalisation’. After refusing this invitation from the general, the main initiator and brains behind PRES lost his position and his workplace. On 5th July 1985, he was fired and dismissed from Polish Radio. The composer Ryszard Szeremeta was named the new head of the unit.
Originally written in Polish by Bolesław Błaszczyk, July 2018; translated by SG, July 2018