#language & literature
'ULTRA SOUNDS: The Sonic Art of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio' is not only the first such comprehensive study of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES) but also a unique and well-illustrated documentation of life under the stranglehold of the communist regime. In Poland, a group of people eager to experiment and experience some freedom created the freest form of music.
The Polish Radio Experimental Studio was established in 1957, nine years after Pierre Schaeffer's experimental studio in Paris, six years after Cologne's Studio für Elektronische Musik, and two years after Milan's Studio di Fonologia Musicale. PRES began the era of electroacoustic music in Poland. Led by musicologist Józef Patkowski, it became one of the most innovative projects of the times.
Unlike the studios operating on the west side of the Iron Curtain, which eventually became dominated by a single composer (Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne, Pierre Schaeffer in Paris, Nono in Milan), PRES never hired a composer full-time but rather it provided the tools for numerous Polish composers including Włodzimierz Kotoński, Krzysztof Penderecki, Bogusław Schaeffer, Elżbieta Sikora and Krzysztof Knittel, as well as many artists from abroad such as Hugh Davis, Arne Nordheim, Kåre Kolberg, Lejaren Hiller, Roland Kayn and Dubravko Detoni.
The Polish Radio Experimental Studio – Image Gallery
Moreover, PRES employed savvy engineers, who worked arm-in-arm with composers, not only executing their ideas, but also offering a lot of creative insight. Their knowledge of the technology was indispensable in the creative process as the sound need to be processed: by cutting the tape, processing it through hardware effects, even purposely destroying it and gluing the tape back together. The engineers soon became the true heart of the institution, designing new devices, contributing to famous composers’ works and… becoming composers themselves.
Bolesław Błaszczyk provides a political context and explains the restrictions in the creative domain imposed by Social Realism or Marxist aesthetics showing how artists’ suppressed appetite for avant-gardism and experimentation grew ever larger. He offers a closer look at a whole spectrum of Soviet cultural oppression and its advocates such as Władysław Sokorski, the Minister of Culture, who, in spite of his political leanings, facilitated the birth of the PRES.
Błaszczyk’s detailed account of the decline of the communist regime and the political mechanisms still operating after the Thaw elucidates the paradox of establishing this ‘free’ studio, which was actually supposed to contribute to the propaganda of Polish technological and cultural success.
The technological aspects of radio production are taken up by Dariusz Brzostek and Joanna Walewska-Choptiany who discuss the Studio as a ‘laboratory’ – a reference to Bruno Latour’s ‘Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World’, arguing that PRES was an ‘effectively enacted utopia’.
When Experimental Music Met Martial Law
The studio’s innovation also had a physical manifestation in the design of its headquarters. In her essay, Aleksandra Kędziorek recounts the commissioning of artist and architect Oskar Hansen to adapt a room for the purposes of an electronic music studio. Designed in accordance with the guidelines of the architect’s Open Form concept, the studio was painted black (thus earning the nickname ‘Black Room’) in order to achieve a feeling of an unlimited space, which was supposed to be an instrument in and of itself.
The book also contains a conversation with a group of sound engineers from PRES led by critic and curator Michał Mendyk, which took place in 2017; an interview with sound engineer and composer Eugeniusz Rudnik conducted by Zuzanna Solankiewicz, director and screenwriter of the 15 Corners of the World documentary on Rudnik’s experimental music; as well as texts first published in the late 1960s and 70s by sound engineer Bohdan Mazurek, broadcaster Józef Patkowski and Krzysztof Szlifirski.
Archival papers are complemented by essays by scholars, music producers and curators. Katarzyna Świętochowska and Michał Mendyk examine Eugeniusz Rudnik’s Lesson, one of the first pieces produced at the studio. They argue that his sound montage technique stemmed not from his radio work but that it had a clearly cinematic provenance. Antoni Michnik recounts Michael Ranta’s residency at the studio emphasising the significance of direct collaboration between instrumentalist and sound engineer. Michał Libera investigates the Studio’s attitude to electronic music notations discerning two different approaches to scores.
An undeniable gem included in the book is an extract of the Music in Polish Experimental Film essay by musicologist Zofia Lissa, originally published in a 1961 issue of Kwartalnik Filmowy (Film Quarterly). Initially a strong supporter of the Soviet aesthetic, Lissa had become one of the most vocal and active advocates of new music in Poland after the Thaw. As the editor of ULTRA SOUNDS aptly put it: ‘she had undergone her own de-Stalinisation’.
PRES worked closely with film studios across the country. The list of people who collaborated with the studio is astounding and included the likes of Walerian Borowczyk, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Jan Lenica, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Skolimowski and Andrzej Wajda. The studio’s creations served as sonic accompaniments to dozens of documentaries, feature films, plays, open-air performances and audio-visual installations. Various projects dealing with ‘spatialising’ sound is taken up by Daniel Muzyczuk in his essay Polish Experimental Studio in Search of Multidimentional Sound Spaces, where he gives an account on site specific sound installations by Arne Nordheim and works by Krzysztof Wodiczko.
Taming the Machine: An Interview with Elżbieta Sikora
Polish Radio Experimental Studio
polish electronic music
After years of thriving, in the 1980s the studio began to fall into decline. The popularisation of synthesizers and personal computers allowed for the founding of private studios, and Polish Radio could no longer offer unique possibilities to composers. After almost 25 years, PRES ceased to exist in 2004.
However, the legacy of the studio has been well preserved. And the publication of ULTRA SOUNDS contributes to its preservation, giving access to knowledge previously reserved solely for professionals.
The revival of interest in the work of PRES has also had more creative outcomes. The Adam Mickiewicz Institute, in collaboration with music producer Marcin Staniszewski, has created a free library of PRES samples for Ableton Live. Users are now able to make music with samples from the compositions of Elżbieta Sikora, Krzysztof Knittel and Ryszard Szeremeta. In May 2019, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, together with the British music magazine The Quietus, also announced a competition for compositions using the Ableton Live PRES samples.
Book available from Kehrer Verlag’s online shop www.kehrerverlag.com, and from well-stocked art and photo bookstores.
Sound Effects On The Kids: Pioneering Animation Soundtracks From Poland
- Edited by David Crowley
- Publishers: the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Kehrer Verlag
- Designed by Magdalena Frankowska, Artur Frankowski / Fontarte
- Softcover, 19.2 x 25.8 cm
- 336 pages, 120 colour and b/w ills.
- ISBN 978-3-86828-921-3