Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The past and the present of Polish music avant-garde: two cases

Krzysztof Penderecki and Eugeniusz Rudnik in Polish Radio Experimental Studio,  late 50s/early 60s.

[both, in different versions, apeared in The Wire last year]

Krzysztof Penderecki
Polskie Nagrania 2011

Krzysztof Penderecki’s story is well known: a bold avant-garde composer in the 1950s/60s, one of the major forerunners of Polish School of Composition and champions of the newly emerging, strictly Polish version of atonality called sonorism, of which he was a precursor, suddenly, in the early 1970s, he gradually drops its principles and starts composing mainly grandiose symphonic music in the Romantic style of late 19th century. He gave a famous statement, that “it’s not him, who betrayed the avant-garde, but the avant-garde, who betrayed the music”. It’s not the only case of an avant-gardist rejecting the experiment for the sake of classicism, but it is his early stuff, that remains the most famous and which made him successful in the West. Pieces compiled on Awangarda CD, composed between 1958 and 1964, were all unanimously appreciated and prized on international festivals, like Donaueschingen, exactly at the same time, when Poland was opening to the western world after years of Stalinism. Strophes for soprano, recitation and 10 instruments or Psalms of David for mixed choir, strings and percussion were prized in the post-Thaw Poland, 8:27 from 1961, called this way as a homage to John Cage and later renamed as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, has become an all-time soundtrack classic, from Kubrick’s seminal use in Shining, Children of Men and Inland Empire and Polymorphia was used in The Exorcist, all becoming by accident somewhat universal sonic embodiment of radical evil. 

Despite being so well known, pieces collected here still give thrills, especially paired with less known Fluorescences, where apart from symphonic orchestra, Penderecki introduces sound smade by pieces of sheet metal, electric bell, saw, typing machine and an alarm siren. The aleatoric method of composition (a non-determined score, which gave the musicians space for improvisation) made them very difficult to perform in Poland, mutinying the players. Andrzej Markowski, who’s directing both on all the Awangarda pieces and the Utrenja (Morning Prayer), had a chief role in making many avant-garde pieces to be played at all. Utrenja (1970-1) is one of the most striking, uncompromising pieces of liturgic modern music, where the chthonic, non-western wailings (phenomenal voices of National Philharmonics soloists and choir) of Old-Church orthodoxy music is paired with the ruthlessly modern, fragmented, queasy, even ailing modern idiom, in a way that would satisfy the very Theodor Adorno. It can rival with Ligeti or Gubaidulina as a mastrepiece of religious music and convert anybody, if only for an hour; a timeless piece of music. Given its success, especially in the foreign audiences, the later denial by the composer of all this part of his work, must've been purely ideological. Perhaps the reason was easy: it wasn't the indie film fans, who were filling the concert halls, though with Penderecki's recent collaboration with Jonny Greenwood and a sudden comeback to his early work, this is certainly a subject to change.

PRES today

DJ Lenar
Bolt CD
listen! listen

The title of yet another album from the revered series resurrecting Polish Radio Experimental Studio, Re: PRES, couldn’t be better put: here, the contemporary Polish minimal techno producer, improviser and musician, DJ Lenar is trying to at the same time “repeat”, but also reinvent, a very mysterious and fascinating part of the PRES archive: the hundreds of one if its flagship composer’s, Eugeniusz Rudnik’s so called “one-minutes”, vast collection of sonic miniatures, usually exactly no longer than the said one minute.

The genius of it is that it is and it isn’t an “archival” production – because the collection of Rudnik’s pieces was so huge, the Bolt producers thought the best way of presenting them to the listener won’t be an arbitrary “curating” of some samples of it, but to give them to a musician, who would rather creatively replay them and try to use Rudnik’s method of making music. And those methods varied from a momentary distraction using the cast offs that left after other sessions, to the improvisations and planned compositions, but all must've been brief.

This makes Lenar's 17 tracks, lasting from 30 seconds to 3,5 minutes, a contemporary rendition of the Studio methods, but with no trace of the hommage. We are rather to imagine Lenar simply trying out various moods, while playing, what is meaningful, on what used to be only the aides of music-making: amplifiers, gramophone, samplers, loopstation. Sometimes they are remixes, but more often variations over a piece. What is the most gripping in this beautiful series is how the genuine idiom of Polish electroacustic music: characteristic crookedness, crunkiness with a shine of madness and surrealism, clashes with the typical contemporary language of alt-electronica, filtered through glitches and loops.

It is hard sometimes to say though, what sounds newer and what belongs to Lenar, and what to Rudnik – it is clear though this music couldn’t be played in the 1960s. The original purpose of miniatures was for thetre and you can try to imagine pictures accompanying the microstructures od Lenar - filled with romantic prettiness, yet haunted. This meeting with the past has a slightly sickly, melancholic, tuberculosis charm of old laces - like meeting a beautiful girl from a past era, of whom we know she’s dead, afterall. It is a romantic Polish soul, in search for an absolute sound, bathing in slices of sounds from many different times.

the album is a part of an excellent series, including recent Assemblage by Boguslaw Schaeffer and wonderfully artsy Knittel/Sikora/Michniewski. Also, remember I wrote about this before, and a book I contributed to.

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