Issue 29 / 2016

Conceptual vagaries of Polish composers in recent years

Jan Topolski , transl. Agata Klichowska

On their websites composers usually categorize their works by performers or by year of creation. Different categories sometimes appear, but Marcin Stańczyk’s website was perhaps the first time when I saw the term “conceptual pieces” used on a Polish composer’s page. It includes three pieces, including the probably most radical of his works, Possible Music no. 1 (2012), which the author supplements with the following, very moving call for any and all activities, performances and inspirations (of which he has collected plenty, among them the most substantial Remote Piece from Pete Cant). Fine—if so, then can one find similar concepts that fit this label in other composers’ works? And what would that label actually stand for? As an avid listener to the discussion panels preceding the latest issue, Number 29, of Glissando,1 I was particularly captivated by one possible definition of conceptual thinking in music. It would involve all actions where the medium itself (sound) is the object of reflection or even negation. Of course this would usually take place in juxtaposition with such contexts as sound, time, performer, reception, recording, or form.

You are the performer of this piece and a part of the audience.
This does not mean that you have to appear anywhere in person.
You are performing the piece wherever you are right now.

Your task is to imagine my piece
and hear it in your own imagination.

Performers should familiarize themselves with my music in advance,
so that they can appropriately prepare for the performance
and to leave no doubt as to the piece’s authorship.

I am not giving you any more instructions on purpose.
Everything depends on your idea of my music,
on your imagination. Set it free and let it act.

If you cannot participate at this time, you are busy
or just do not feel ready, do not worry
and consider performing at some other time.2

I am certain that one cannot seriously speak about importance, continuity or self-awareness of conceptual tendencies in the context of 21st-century Polish composed music. It seems more appropriate to call them vagaries, moments of reverie and enlightenment, skittish forays. I do not want to get too entangled in explaining this state of affairs, but a few reasons do come to mind. One is definitely the anti-intellectual atmosphere pervading the many musical universities where students’ conceptual efforts are met with reserve. The grant system, including commissioned compositions, can hardly accommodate non-standard work that strays beyond writing a twenty-minute piece for a string orchestra or a miniature for the accordion. It is also not without import that only recently have we managed to rebuild the cooperation between the worlds of musical and visual arts (where the conceptual tradition is one of the pillars of modernity) which used to be so vibrant in the 1960s and 1970s — it is not by accident that works from that period are now being rediscovered3).

One would be well-served to separate musical conceptualism from relational music (as defined by Harry Lehmann) which has been seriously influencing such Polish composers as Sławomir Wojciechowski, Jagoda Szmytka, Wojciech Blecharz, and Piotr Peszat for a few years now. This approach considers the concept, which ties music with the real world, as only a deep code of the composition. This allows the piece to work perfectly well on the sonic level without it—which is not the case for La Monte Young and similar conceptual musicians. Therefore, it does not question the medium (sound, time, space) itself or make it the central subject of the piece. Of course, the distinction often becomes blurred and creates areas of conflict, as evidenced by the works of Wojciechowski and Peszat. To make it abundantly clear which kind of conceptualism I mean, I would like to offer a single clear example: Paweł Mykietyn’s Wax Music—which, by the way, clashes with his other works and stands in opposition to stereotypical public perceptions of him.4

Wax Music is a 2013 piece for piano and phonographs playing sound off wax cylinders, which are one of the first ever sound storage media, hailing from the 1880s. Mykietyn’s cylinders contain sinusoidal notes and simple additive syntheses much like those made popular by 1950s analog electronic music studios. Due to the medium’s fragility the composition sounds different every time it is played, since the cylinders erode with each performance. The piano part seems mostly ornamental, although an attempt to correlate the two layers is perceptible. The conceptuality of this piece is therefore based on several aporiae: the extreme obsolescence of the medium versus modernity, the sound versus the medium and the paradox of disappearing, which bears some resemblance to the works of Yasunao Tone and Bill Morrison. I recall that another paradox emerged during the performance of Wax Music at the 2013 Warsaw Autumn festival: although Tobias Weber, who operated the phonographs, tried to move in silence, he still made much more sound than was recorded on the cylinders. The performative aspect of Mykietyn’s piece can therefore be seen as another level of conceptualization, drawing our attention to the contrast between the delicate sinusoids and the physical footsteps.

According to Cage, real silence does not exist, the world is full of sounds,
you just have to listen carefully.

But is real silence a physical phenomenon, pressure, decibels?
Are people microphones?

People do not record reality, they create it.
In movement, sound, light, speech, space, finally in thought … in themselves.

The silence which Cage could not find exists and is doing well.
It is a shame that he did not look for it in the right place.5

To get back to Marcin Stańczyk: his Possible Music no. 1 was thought up in 2010 and is occasionally “performed” in many different situations. The author subscribes here to the Cageian-Deweyian, pragmatic definition of art as free action (not creation!) by emancipated recipients. This seems particularly apt considering to whom 4’34’’ – short piece against J. Cage (2012) — a piece for 4 instruments, 3 performers and 4 loudspeakers, a reinterpretation (a bold one, I must add) of Cage’s landmark composition—is addressed. Much like in musical theater, the performers move under a half-transparent veil covering the entire stage with three pianos and multiple microphones hidden in the least expected places. It is like 4’33’’ seen under a magnifying glass, an analytical dissection of the possible behaviors of the performers and recipients of the “silent piece” that foreshadows the acousmatic turn in Stańczyk’s work, which has been fully realized in his Blind Walk (2015).

Wojtek Blecharz is a composer who fluidly moves between relational music, conceptualism and in situ installations. Although most of his pieces are characterized by formal precision, the teamwork that precedes them allows for some variance. This is the case of Blecharz’s increasingly frequent work with actors: the music to Schubert. A romantic composition for twelve performers and a string quartet [Romantyczna kompozycja na dwunastu wykonawców i kwartet smyczkowy], directed by Magda Szpecht at the Dramatic Theatre in Wałbrzych and his own plays, such as Soundwork (TR Warszawa) and Body-opera (HCMG Huddersfield); all three dated 2016. Schubert involves four untrained performers playing Liminal Studies on cellos.

A similar approach is employed in Soundwork, where Maja Wachowska plays blacksnowfalls on the tympanum. In both cases the acoustic aspect is overshadowed by physical gestures and actors’ mannerisms, which is especially apparent in the percussion piece inspired by Sara Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis and her depressive, hysterical pitch. Workshops with performers take the central position usually occupied by the final (here, often improvised) result, especially when working with non-professionals (senior citizens in Schubert, actors in Soundwork).

Soundwork is an ambitious attempt at telling the story of sound and its musical and non-musical contexts in the form of a theatrical lecture for beginners structured around Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises, which is at one point literally performed by the actors. Soundwork is neither a composition nor a drama; it escapes traditional expectations, making reception problematic. The second subject of this performative work, after sound, is community: tribal (the percussive prologue with poles), urban (the quartet on a drying rack), spiritual (the meditative circle), bodily (the final techno dance). The audience is asked to play together in the second part, and to try out the instruments during the intermission. Although the musical layer of Soundwork is often enjoyable and written down, one can imagine it completely changed, with no ill effect on the message. Wojtek Blecharz started his work with the actors by leading a workshop on contact microphone construction and group improvisation on everyday objects. This method of “copping an acoustic feel of the world,” even if it is naïve, stems from an accurate diagnosis:

(…) we lack basic definitions for what we hear and how we hear it. The new play was born from the need to explain these basic things, to do something for the audience. It’s not concerned with music as such, there’s a lot of it in the space that surrounds us—I wanted to deal with its basic building material: sound. There is almost no public discourse about sound, people don’t talk about how they hear things, they have trouble naming even the basic things. This is especially apparent in the reception of modern music, which I write. People say that it has no harmony or melody, which is not necessary—what is necessary, is that we react emotionally or energetically. Sound can be lustrous, soft, coarse, and intense. Music doesn’t have to be pretty, it can be hoarse—one can see different qualities in music besides melody.6

In his site-specific installations Blecharz concentrates on joining the music he records with the surrounding soundscape, although he often ventures beyond the standards of sound art (which is, as I have mentioned, conceptual by definition). In Transcryptum (2013), a piece created as a part of Projekt P at Teatr Wielki (the Polish National Opera in Warsaw) two subjects intermingle: the trauma of losing a loved one and the maze of memory embodied by the spaces of building which are unavailable to the public. Blecharz conceptualizes the very form of opera, reading it through the lens of a sound walk and an in situ installation. This is especially apparent in the claustrophobic maintenance elevator scene (Anna Radziejewska’s whispers) and in the choir rehearsal room, where every audience member can go through the lead character’s notes and souvenirs. Transcryptum appeared completely different in Culture Centre Zamek in Lublin (2015), where a linear guided walk was replaced by autonomous wandering through rooms and corridors where performers were hidden. This illustrated the way Blecharz thinks about the way the parts of his opera-installation are setup, and the reception thereof. He continued in this vein with his Park Opera (2015) in Park Skaryszewski in Warsaw. Although in this case the audience members received a map with the locations of musicians, installations or items clearly marked on it, the route could be traversed without following these guidelines. In some places the arrangement and the sound were symbolic products of existing space: one example is the straw seat with hidden vibrating mats, which seemed to be a distant echo of the birdfeeders which once stood in the former city zoo.

Another musical conceptualist is Sławomir Wojciechowski, who draws attention with his method of composition consisting of recording or synthesizing samples of all desired sounds, editing them together in a computer program and providing the resulting sound model of his piece to the performers as a supplement to the score. This is similar to the way the Zeitkratzer ensemble worked on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Zbigniew Karkowski’s Monochromy. Moreover, Wojciechowski’s models are often so interesting that, in my opinion, they deserve to be made available publicly. This was also the process employed to create Blindspot (2011), a composition for a prepared and amplified string quartet—a watershed piece in the composer’s career—preceded by a manifesto:

String instruments bear the stigma of the archetypal act of drawing sheep intestines over a wooden box. It is motivated by the desire to own sounds, to rule over them. The practice of performing both old, folk, ethnic, and (especially) generally understood new music, uses the instrument as a tool for making sounds, a tool that is rebuilt, retuned, well-tempered, prepared or “animated” with electronics. In this context slipping a match between strings takes on a symbolic meaning: it allows the violin to squeak. It makes it into a brand new instrument, with a new sound, a new playing technique and a new range of expression. It also points—purposefully or by accident—to the clear aesthetic limits of the classical philharmonic sound with its technical getup. These limits have grown so entrenched in some musical institutions as to become a tough shell. For instance: the piano compositions of George Crumb, a 20th century classic, which ask the performers to muffle the strings with their fingers, often have to be played in rubber gloves as a way of, or so we are told, protecting the instrument, and perhaps warning the audience about the consequences of the “bad touch”. 7

For the purposes of his last, collective work entitled Aaron S. (2016), Krzysztof Cybulski went on to build several special instruments, including a set of pan flutes capable of synthesizing sound (including human speech) and a set of daisy-chained boxes with built-in loudspeakers, microphones and Google Translate modules.8 The composer also recorded the prosecutor’s speech from the trial of hacktivist Aaron Swartz on a vinyl disc and subjected it to subtle manipulation (hacking) on a gramophone. All this was done because Aaron S. conceptualizes, among others, the subjects of speech and freedom thereof, as well as imprisonment, manipulation, domination, and oppression. The words and ideas featured in Aaron S., provided by Paweł Krzaczkowski, draw a parallel between the protagonist’s story and the activities of Luddites in 19th century England and Franz Kafka’s Trial, pointing out the twisted logic of the system of power and the hopelessness of resistance. The piece is an attempt at fighting the queen of the stage arts, yet cannot escape her entirely: as admitted by Tadeusz Wielecki, the director of Warsaw Autumn who commissioned the piece, Sławomir Wojciechowski himself called his work a “multimedia opera” during a telephone conversation. The fight is lost anyway: the piece’s accompanying videos created by Norman Leto annoy with their lack of originality and polish, especially when compared with Leto’s earlier Sailor; they also rarely enter into any sort of dialog with the music.

Piotr Peszat is important to these considerations mostly because of his Birth of Venus (2014) for violin and cello. It asks for the musicians to play together on a single instrument, which is obviously not a way of searching for new sounds or techniques, but an exposition of power relations balancing between partnership and domination. Two fiddles and four hands start fighting for space on the four strings, offering an ironic commentary on the “praise of virtuosity” which is so widespread in the New Music milieu (the subject also appears in 2015’s Duck and Cover for cello, accordion and video). The incredibly difficult solo part, made up of both left- and right-hand techniques, is accompanied by humorous encouragements for the audience and a smiling or frowning (depending on the quality of the co-playing) face of Theodor Adorno appearing on the screen. These directly betray Peszat’s appreciation of Harry Lehmann’s theories and Johannes Kreidler’s music, which Paweł Szroniak not inaccurately dubbed “conceptism” (after the baroque stylistic figures). It seems to me, however, that things go much deeper in the case of the composer from Cracow: not only does he problematize the identity of instruments, the techniques of creating sounds and musical aesthetics, but also the very idea of a modernist work. Much like Mikołaj Laskowski and Jacek Sotomski,9 Piotr Peszat joins the post-Internet current in modern music which was defined a few years ago by Jennifer Walshe, where the celebration of originality is lost under the mashup of a thousand online discoveries.

Although not one of the aforementioned composers can be called a conceptualist per se, and many of them operate on the verge of relational music, such abundance of pieces dealing with the notions of creation and sound seems meaningful. This is especially so because practices like those emerging in the works of Blecharz, Peszat, Stańczyk, and Wojciechowski are nowhere to be found in Polish music from the first decade of the 21st century. This might be a starting point for identifying a certain tendency, as shown by Paweł Mykietyn, the “composer-barometer,” who experiments with the concepts of rhythm and time in his String quartet no. 3 (2015). It is difficult to make predictions about where all this is heading, but conceptualism might just be the thing that will set the tone of the coming years’ musical explorations.

  1. I mean the discussion panels about musical conceptualism which took place during the Warsaw Autumn (17.09.2016) and Sacrum Profanum (02.10.2016) festivals. Participants included: Paweł Szroniak, Monika Żyła, Antoni Michnik, Łukasz Kozak and Barbara Bogunia. 

  2. See Marcin Stańczyk website. 

  3. See also the records documenting the output of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (curators: Michał Libera and Michał Mendyk) and the exhibitions at the Museum of Art in Łódź which familiarize visitors with the history of musical experimentation in eastern and central Europe during the last half-century (curators: David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk. 

  4. See also the movie about the first performance of this piece at: 

  5. See Marcin Stańczyk website. 

  6. See [in Polish only]

  7. See Sławomir Wojciechowski website [in Polish only]

  8. These instruments were created by Krzysztof Cybulski. 

  9. See interviews with these composers in the latest Glissando #29.