Premiere 1/2014: Slejpnir by Dobromiła Jaskot
6 April 2014, Musica Polonica Nova; Wrocław, Centre for Audio-visual Technologies (CeTA)
Frank Wörner – voice
Małgorzata Walentynowicz – piano
Agnieszka Koprowska-Born – percussion
In the present climate of lamenting over disappearing Polish newspaper columns, collapse of professional critique tribunes, and restrictions of volume and time for commenting on the newest music, we are proposing a new initiative devoted exclusively to selected premieres of Polish works. The rules are simple: we gather in a group of people of various backgrounds of education, experience, and environment, and we comment on a premiered work in three rounds. In round one, we write down our impressions after the premiere individually; in round two, we discuss our impressions with a mediator in the background; in round three we get to know the recording and the score of the work and, if necessary, continue our discussion. This way we go through every stage of learning about a completely fresh work, both individually and collectively, at the same time shedding some light on more or less hidden categories of description and judgement. So, let’s get on with it!
Ewa Schreiber: Slejpnir was rather predacious and disturbing. None of the instruments played a permanent and pre-assigned role in this work – their sounds and expressivities transformed continuously. There were sharp and very clear moments: harsh throaty sounds, sharp “r” consonants produced by the vocalist, short piano repetitions in the low register, and cries of the pianist reminiscent of mysterious spells. But there were also gentler and more fluent sounds: singing, sighing, pitchless “sh” sounds, delicate piano utterances, playing on the strings, the murmur of metal inside a bucket filled with water, or rubbing a steel sheet. Some of the sounds emphasized the stage presence of the instrumentalists, e.g. groans of the pianist and percussionist and their amplified breathing. Thus, it was not only the bucket and the thin steel sheet that became the “percussion objects” mentioned in the work’s instrumentation, but also the piano (through playing on the strings, or amplified resonance), as well as the performers themselves, since the sounds of their bodies were brought into the foreground.
All in all, Slejpnir turned out to be a rather tight work making up a continuous tissue. Moments of heightened intensity and increased movement were also clearly perceivable at times. The instrumental parts complemented each other in a point-to-point manner: reacting to one another, and sometimes continuing a similar type of sound. Only the role of the singer was slightly more accentuated and it signalled the successive stages of the work; the singer’s part included also short solo episodes. After the work was over, the remaining impression was that of a constant unarticulated cry or call, divided between all the performers. It is as if their intention was to let out something disturbing…
Agnieszka Grzybowska: In my opinion, Slejpnir was by far the best work presented that evening [the programme of the concert titled Irrational illusion to the third power also consisted of works by Dominik Karski, Karol Nepelski, and Agnieszka Stulgińska – JT]. The performing resources of baritone, piano, and percussion, don’t seem to me like the most rewarding instrumentation to compose for – but it doesn’t mean that the challenge is not worth taking, of course. In Jaskot’s work, no performer played the leading role; it certainly isn’t easy to obtain such an effect if one of the instruments at hand is the human voice, the part of which can use words. However, Slejpnir did not feature a stream of words, because the composer was not interested in linguistic semantics – instead, it was the phonetics and sound qualities, thanks to which the work resisted extra-musical contexts referring to a branch of the humanities.
Jaskot proved once again that she can excellently manipulate silence and resonance to organize sound with extraordinary sensitivity. It is sound that demands concentration from the performers and inclines the listener towards concentration (and keeps them focused!). It is a sound that seduces. The instruments, i.e. piano, percussion and three voices (those of the vocalist, pianist, and percussionist), were directed towards building a possibly homogenous sound substance, being oriented towards each other and aiming at an effect they were generating collectively. They were developing similarities to each other, yet at the same time they were enriching the whole sound through their own unique qualities. Moreover, they were maintaining a respect for the sounds they produced, as they frequently stopped and allowed the sound to resonate fully. The work was economical in terms of both the material and duration, which left a nice feeling of slight hunger for more; I would gladly listen to it again, being sure that it would neither overwhelm nor bore me. My first encounter with it invoked in me a conviction that a repeated listening would allow me to find something else, something more, or something less in the musicality of Slejpnir, depending on how much effort and concentration I would devote to the work as a listener. And this, for me, is greatly valuable.
Daniel Brożek: It is hard for me to comment on this work. First of all, the CeTA hall is hardly suitable for presenting music, especially a complex and rich one in terms of sound and texture. The organisers did not have adequate amplification equipment capable of filling the space with sound and compensating for bouncing and reverb. Moreover, it is a very risky task to combine natural sound of instruments with amplification of only some of them. It causes a situation in which the reinforced sound achieves a volume that only equals the natural volume of the piano or percussion, at the same time depriving the listener of perceiving sound nuances or sonoristic explorations. Unfortunately, despite the composer’s electrifying introduction [in the programme note – JT] promising the possibilities of observing sonic fluctuations thanks to using extended performance techniques, preparation, and amplification in order to create a new sound perspective, I heard not much more than typical sounds of percussion instruments, chains, and a metal bucket. Regrettably, most concerts with amplification at both the Polonica and Electronica Nova festivals suffer from this illness.
Secondly, there is a typical dilemma connected with commissioning new works, where several pieces for the same instrumentation (percussion, piano, voice) are presented in one concert. Did the composers really want to use this combination, or did they simply respond to the institutional proposal? Listening to the set of works at the Sunday concert , I had an unmistakable feeling that the music – though interesting at times – wasn’t always intended for this exact sound-scope and instrumentation, as if the works were written only because they had to be written. Thirdly, whether you want it or not, you find yourself comparing the works in the same programme: who approached the instrumental resources in the most interesting way, who developed a more intriguing form, and who found more interesting sonic possibilities? Thus, a catalogue-like competitiveness sets in, which isn’t necessarily advantageous to the music itself.
Getting back to Slejpnir, its brief and succinct form functioning at the meeting point of whispers and shouts, baritone articulations of single letters, occasionally dense sounds of prepared piano and the previously-mentioned metallic percussion effects, turned out to be rather amusing. Unfortunately, the work is devoid of even a slight breath of freshness and the sonic nuances claimed by the composer – it created an impression of nothing more than a side-piece for something decisively bolder.
Dominika Micał: The instrumentation played the key role in Slejpnir: the timbrally and percussively treated piano, the voice with its emphasis on phonetics (not directly semantic), and percussion enriched by instruments emitting metallic, sometimes aggressive sounds. The opening gesture (the scream “o!”) generated an interest, which wasn’t necessarily maintained later. The form was shaped developmentally, with a crazed culmination. The calming down at the very end, however, didn’t create an impression of closure – instead, it seemed like the work fell silent momentarily, both within the sonic layer (a middle/high register repeated piano chord, ringing on for a long time) and the visual one (the performers freezing suddenly in the final gesture). Indeed, the theatrical aspect played a vital role. The composer decided to place the performers in such a way that it was possible to encompass them in one view. It was also possible to see all the instruments associated more with daily life than music: a bucket, chains, nails, a saw…
The clarity of expression was facilitated by the vocal resources used: fricative consonants, loud breathing in and out, shouting, nearly animal-like growls and crepitating, a rare singing (e.g. long notes in high register), muting of the voice with hand – sometimes for the whole duration of a note, sometimes quasi-tremolo – reminiscent of children playing Indians. The vocal part was shaped in such a way that its intonation reminded of speech, but without using comprehensible words, which brought to mind works like Ligeti’s Aventures.
It seems that the instruments and the voice were meant to be as one, as they corresponded with each other in terms of articulation and timbre, but rarely motivically; their dialogues were at times violent. There were moments of repose brought by fragments for solo piano. The work’s expressive tone was predominantly that of playfulness mixed with aggressiveness: rubbing a saw against a steel bucket, sounds of nails and saw (sometimes arco), and almost animal-like utterances… it’s quite clear that the composer, despite of her assurances, was inspired not only by the sound of the title word, but also its meaning, at least to an extent.
Marcin Trzęsiok: If a work is accompanied by a comment, then I read it and from that moment on I treat it as an element of an aesthetic game. The mythological theme introduces a poetic aura and gives a perspective characteristic for much of the post-Enlightenment art: the ancient is merged with the new. Still, the fact that the Nordic Slejpnir disappears straightaway and not even a single trace is left behind him, except for the phonetics, is no less characteristic (although, did the starting “sound of the hooves” on the acoustic boxes supposedly belonged to the imagined flesh-and-bones Slejpnir?). In any case, the echoes of the post-war pure-material compositional approach to music composition have not ceased, and it looks like they will resound for a while still.
To describe the general formal idea is an easy task. It is a gradual build-up leading through a dynamic and textural crescendo to a culmination that dots the “i”, plus a short epilogue (however, there is no romantic relief here reminiscent of a gradual loosening of the tightened bow). It is difficult to define what fills this simple form – but this, in fact, is a more important matter. The composer hints at a trail, which I didn’t manage to follow: that the form supposedly comes out of the phonetic properties if the title. Yet it was clearly perceptible right from the start that the voice is the leader here (whispering, hissing, choking, repressed quasi-singing, etc.) and everything else is an “after-voice”: colouring, transforming, and making it estranged (Lachenmann ist auch dabei). Moreover, the two vocally-involved instrumentalists blur the division between the voice and the instrumental resources further. By the way, I did search for the key to these dialogues, to the procedure of surrounding the vocal part with the voices of the instrumentalists – but I didn’t find it.
And what about the preparation of instruments and amplification? It was just a standard job, although the rattling of the file against the bucket, as well as a few other ideas, belong to the kind of aesthetic, which I will never develop a liking for, and I’d say that this is not so much because my tastes are old-fashioned, but because I associate it with epigonism and blandness of these types of effects in 2014. In this aura, the piano could sound “false” – but it fully belonged to the poetics of “by-sounds”. However, I’d consider this type of homogeneity as one of the advantages of the work, besides its ethereal character and a particular lightness (there’s no going overboard here). At each moment, the work seemed to say: “Here I am and here I disappear, a personification of adventure”. And that’s how it was.
Jan Topolski: Thanks for voicing your opinions. I was very curious of them, as we purposely avoided having specific points of departure, so the range of issues raised turned out to be wide indeed, as was expected. Some of you concentrated only on this one work while others (Daniel especially) considered the context of the whole concert, or even that of the entire Musica Polonica Nova. Most of you emphasized purely timbral aspects (which was, of course, triggered by the atypical instrumentation and the timbral aura), while others tackled the form too. Another interesting difference in your comments has to do with judging; it often came to the foreground (Agnieszka), although the criteria were a little different in each of your statements. While we’re expecting the recording and the score for our third round, I’d like to ask you about a few things, some of which you’ve already hinted at in the first round.
So, first of all, I missed greatly any references to the composer’s earlier output. Is this work a step forward, or a step back? Is it a refinement of her style and a continuation, or a new direction? Secondly, only one person (Marcin) commented more widely about the issue of the composer’s programme note and the title; we all know that in new music it is a key matter, and the title/reference of this work is not usual. Therefore it’s necessary, in my opinion, to view it in the context of Jaskot’s previous accomplishments (unless you are completely ignoring this aspect – but if that’s the case, I’d be grateful for an explanation why). Thirdly, the theme that crops up in everyone’s comments (especially Ewa and Dominika) is: expressivity, emotion, gesture. However difficult to capture this may be, similar impressions appear in all of you… why is that the case? Is it possible that there may be some common rhetorical figures in contemporary music, despite its striving to avoid conventions? Next, the fourth issue, also hinted at by Dominika and Marcin: the contexts of contemporary music. To which current does the composer belong? Does she still draw on influences, or is she original? Finally, the question of judging comes back, as not all of you expressed an unequivocal verdict. Should novelty of the compositional resources really be main and decisive criterion?
MT: The work is so unequivocal in terms of style and material, that it doesn’t surprise me that there are some far-reaching similarities in the comments. I’d gladly develop my note further, adding some thoughts on the themes mentioned by others, i.e. expressivity, the bodily aspect, theatricality, as well as the order of the concert programme (Slejpnir by Jaskot seemed a bit like an echo after Stulgińska’s Conversionis). I accept Daniel’s comments about the amplification with respect; perhaps I’d hear a different work, if that aspect had been better managed. Janek is asking about the context of the whole output of Jaskot. It is an important question, but I won’t go there, because I don’t know it well enough. In relation to Elferiae (2013) for string quartet, the trio we’re focusing on seems like a step backward – although it may be that Jaskot’s next step will be to fuse that interestingly rejuvenated poetics of “Elfenromantik” with the deathly effects of Slejpnir. Elferiae had some more particular tone and artistic valour, perhaps also a modestly visionary one. I perceive Slejpnir like a well-done etude maintained within a convention that seems coherent down to the smallest detail, but in some way limiting the imagination and sensitivity to the world in its fullness.
DM: I’m happy to see that our commentaries show that we heard the same piece. I didn’t find the work boring, but neither it was riveting. When it comes to the context of the concert, I don’t agree with Agnieszka’s statement that Slejpnir was “by far the best work” in the whole programme. I certainly liked its expressivity (which I particularly emphasized) and striving towards uniformity of all the parts (the vocal enabling of the instrumentalists). Still, thoughts of works for similar instrumental resources kept appearing somewhere in my head and Slejpnir couldn’t find its place among them. Of course, I was thinking about works that have belonged to the mainstream repertoire for some time, such as Ligeti’s Aventures (already mentioned), or Kassandra by Xenakis (also because of its ancient and primal references). Now, the context of the composer’s whole output. Unfortunately, I know only the quartet, Elferiae, which won me over with its lightness and I consider it a better work than Slejpnir, so I agree with Marcin here. When it comes to description of the work, it is difficult for me to comment regarding the sound issues after Daniel’s remarks, but I can re-emphasize my earlier thoughts: in my opinion, the composer’s statement that something isn’t in the piece (the semantic references to the mythical Slejpnir) works the opposite way. OK, maybe I didn’t hear the neighing of the horse, but the feeling of something primal and changeable was there, exactly because of the title, and despite the programme note.
JT: While I’m waiting for some more answers, I’d like to mention earlier works by Jaskot. It seems to me that she has travelled a long road since the early rune-pieces for ensembles – Ingwaz (2004) and Hagalaz (2005) – which, however, were too close stylistically to Scelsi and the work of the spectralists. Then, her hannah (2007) for cello and electronics displayed maturity and originality, a search for her own path. This was even more evident in her doctoral work, the probably still unperformed (?) orchestral Echeveria (2009). But, similarly to Marcin, I must admit that in the case of Slejpnir I clearly feel that the composer has left this path and is still searching for something, the effect of which is a certain sketchiness and etude-like character of the resultant work (and the same can be said about the two other trios from the concert: Logical shift by Karol Nepelski and Conversionis by Agnieszka Stulgińska). Dominika’s thesis regarding how one is affected by the title and the programme note sounds very interesting and strong, and I think we should respond to it. The composer’s world-view and the sphere of her sensitivity and inspiration is one thing, but basing a specific work on a specific model is another, and still another is a kind of game with the listener, steering their perception.
AG: Responding to Dominika’s comments and Daniel’s observations, I’ll reiterate: Slejpnir was for me by far the best work in the context of the whole concert; what’s more, it was the only work worthy of attention. The musical idea was presented in it with utmost clarity, and it was logically developed and transformed; its presence could be felt throughout, thanks to which the work was very coherent. I like it when people talk straight to the point and succinctly (even when they are telling an amusing anecdote, as there’s nothing worse than a too long joke); I admire these characteristics also in artistic utterance. Moreover, the typical sound qualities of the pre-set instrumentation (piano and voice) are ranked quite low on my list of favourite timbres, but Jaskot managed to blur their typicality thanks to an appropriate way of merging the instruments, the choice of registers, and the kinds of articulations. I don’t agree with Marcin that the voice has a privileged role in the work. I my opinion, no performer has it. That’s why I think that considering the instrumental parts separately, as either leading or secondary, is in disagreement with the idea and realisation of the work, because, along with the typicality of their sound, they lost their individuality, so they act not for themselves individually, but collectively together and for a collective effect.
Marcin criticised the composer for epigonism and using outdated effects (implying, in a way, that they lay claim to innovation), while Daniel spoke of “sonoristic searches”, so it looks like the criterion of novelty emerges as the fundamental one indeed. It is an important criterion for me – however, when I’m encountering a coherent, thought-through and somewhat promising work, then I’d prefer to consider it within the category of autonomous musical statement, its inner formation and its in-build references, rather than just assessing whether all the solutions utilised in it are innovative or not. Sometimes I wonder why modernophiles just don’t allow composers simply to take advantage of the arsenal of compositional resources developed in the 20th century. After all, auto-exposure doesn’t always have to be their function – they can equally well be used as RESOURCES that are the building blocks of structure and form, serving a given musical work according to its own inner logic.
Comparing Slejpnir to Elferiae, I’d say it’s a step to a side, not a step back. Slejpnir seemed to me less poetic and written with a more decisive hand – perhaps less inspired, but still sensitive. I hadn’t read the composer’s note before the concert, and later I accepted her assurances about the lack of any programme “evocativeness” without any problems. I like it when associations are smuggled in this kind of tricky way – denying that music recalls extra-musical contents is unreasonable (sometimes they constitute an inspiration or a programme for a work, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t detach them from the music during listening). Slejpnir, actually, isn’t a creature that I can see as soon as I hear this name. Perhaps the extent to which we are able to remove ourselves from associations with the title creature when listening to the work depends mainly on how untamed our imagination is.
ES: I am answering as one of the last, but because of this I’ll try to respond to all the issues raised by each of you. For me, Slejpnir isn’t a refinement and continuation of Dobromiła’s style. Similarly to Agnieszka, I have the impression that it’s a step to a side, or perhaps some particular and experimental unveiling of the aggressive trait that has always been “lurking” in her music. I’ve known Dobromiła’s music since her first compositional attempts in high school and despite all the evolution, I see permanent features, which for me are rather clearly perceivable expressions of the composer’s personality: the merging of unease with meditation and pulsing, of predacious moments with the sublime and poetic ecstasy. To this day I am convinced that atnongara (2002) says more about Dobromiła’s sensitivity than many of her later works. I feel that the recent ones – Chatayu (2012), Elferiae (2013), Bright Star (2013), and Eizzcok (2013) – were moving in the direction of refinement, poetic aura, and focus on detail. Against this background, Slejpnir seems quite “over-explicit” and directed more towards an outer sounding effect than depth. Perhaps that is why this piece did not really appeal to me personally.
In my first commentary, I omitted the question of the composer’s programme note, although I’m not completely sure how to respond to Dobromiła’s comment. There is a distance towards one’s own words in it, which is frequent with composers; perhaps they are afraid that it will overshadow and dominate the work itself – or perhaps, as Janek said, it is some intentional game with the listener. In such a situation, I myself try to treat it arbitrarily and freely: I glance at the note, but before listening to the work I just skim it in order to confront it again later. This particular note, actually, goes hand-in-hand with other notes by Dobromiła, with its archaic language, mythical images, and inspiration with something wild, drawn from the natural world. I managed to identify the “s” and “r” consonants in the vocalist’s part, while the whole work I found to be of sweeping and dynamic character. The resonances evoked something primal, physical, nervous, and impulsive.
I think that the issue of references to our own gestures and expressions always remains present in music, even when it’s electronic music, removed from the visual and physical dimensions, etc. In this work, many elements appeared that carry a big and clear expressive charge. A scream will always be a scream; a physical effort will always be physical, etc. The human voice with its intonation has a lot to offer in this respect, and, after all, this is one of Dobromiła’s most important instruments. Also of importance is the pace of the changes, the suddenness of particular gestures, as well as dynamics. I don’t know if I’d be able to compile a catalogue of contemporary rhetorical figures, but I suppose that, in many cases, we would agree about the expressivity of specific works and we would manage to point out quite precisely where we perceive it.
It’s difficult for me to unequivocally classify this work in terms of style; I could come up only with some general references, although the spectral tendencies are certainly no longer on the horizon. I don’t sense a “novelty of material”, but, to be honest, I rarely do… for me, timbral searches have by now become a tradition in itself, to which one can contribute with a better or lesser effect, so some types of repetitiveness are unavoidable here. I think I prefer to use the notion of timbral sensitivity – rather than timbral novelty – and for sure there’s no shortage of that in Dobromiła’s music. It seems to me that this sensitivity is based on a feel for the specificity of the instruments, among other things; her talent in exploiting the piano is especially praiseworthy.
To finish with, I’d like to respond to the question of the aural reception raised by Daniel: while reading his commentary, I realised that I often try to neutralize context, as if it were obvious and not deserving a remark. In any case, even now I’m just writing about a short memory of a sound, or even more about what I managed to capture through making notes during listening, as I usually do. The whole of my statement is supplemented by my own reasoning and associations, but certainly the discussion with all of you makes the whole matter easier. When I talk to myself when writing a review, it’s a lot harder.
JT: We’ve received the score, together with the following note by the composer: „A few words, if I may: in the score, there are some more of the ideas which turned out to be not completely successful in the realisation, and I intend to modify them from now on. First of all, instead of the bucket, I’d use a smaller metal bowl with thinner rim, so that you can do a tremolo on it and rock it at the same time (the bucket didn’t resonate and it wasn’t possible to obtain the rocking with purposely varied resonance of the water). The lack of the resonance of the oscillating water was very disadvantageous for the contrast with aggressive accents. But it’s my fault, too bad. Also, I know that it’s time for greater textural density and more layers, but all this in the next works… That’s all in my own defence, because the performers did an excellent job and I have absolutely nothing against them”. We thank Małgorzata Walentynowicz for the recording – unfortunately, with the Polish Radio it would have taken much longer to obtain it. So, the cards are laid on the table, and my simple question is this: after the repeated listening of the work and seeing the score, do you have any new and different observations, have you discovered anything new, has your judgment changed – and if yes, what has changed and why?
MT: Listening to the work with the score takes away the whole of its theatricality, which is one of the essential elements here, it seems. In my opinion, the little work looses a lot in this way, and even more so because not everything seems to have been registered in the recording; in any case, on my small speakers it’s not possible to hear well every detail of the score [the recording in question is a private one without mastering – JT]. So, instead it’s possible to concentrate on the craft, as visible in the score. One can look for logic, e.g. by identifying a caesura in measures 48-49, which constitute a Golden Section, as the whole is 81 measures long (another caesura, a hierarchically lower one, dividing the first part at measure 25, results from symmetrical division). However, one cannot be sure of these formal plans. A “cold” listening and looking through the score reveals, without a doubt, a pitch centre on d, which is a kind of ostinato in the low piano register, at times transported higher and surrounded chromatically from above and below in numerous textural variants.
At the concert, I could see how various actions and interactions between the performers were building the logic of the form. During a “dry” listening, most of this disappears – only a general impression of textural crescendo remains, together with the piano’s key role in articulating the most important formal points (the high registers returning at the pivotal moments, sometimes even having the character of a reprise, a reminder, or a bracket). The percussion part would need a closer look, as it doesn’t reveal any structural principles at the first glance and hearing, except for the general crescendo and the “ritualistic” lifting of the chain from the skin of the bass drum and hanging it on a stand.
Of course, I must correct my memory. In my first text, I mentioned an “acoustic box”. It’s not in the piece, actually, but I can identify the place which I had been thinking about. It’s in measures 13-14, where cowbells and the Chinese gong kind of imitate the beating of Slejpnir’s hooves. And one more self-correction: I change the “file” to the “metal spiral saw”. But these are all secondary matters. My experience of hearing the piece at the concert is confirmed: it’s a “neither-this-nor-that” kind of piece, not very characteristic, although written consequently and skilfully. It has a predacious yet discreet character (in plus). Suspens. Turpism.
To finish with, something very subjective. Ultimately, a deadlock. I think I can imagine what is the point of the work. But it’s just not my cup of tea, and I’m admitting it openly. It seems to me that the exploration of these timbral and psychological regions are no longer attractive.
DM: The repeated listening of Slejpnir didn’t really alter my reception of the work, so I stand by what I’ve already written. The interactions between the parts are equally clear in the score and in live listening, although it was more pleasant to follow the performers on stage. I’m still convinced that expressivity and musical gesturing are dominant, and that the timbral resources serve these features first and foremost. When following the score, it was easier to concentrate on the letters that make up the title, especially after the general pause in measure 25, where the “sh”, “p”, “n”, “i/y”, and “r” are being successively added, naturally making up a variation on the word “Slejpnir”. When it comes to the issue of the pitch centre pointed out by Marcin, it is d indeed that pushes its way into the centre, perhaps in conjunction with a, around which the final cluster is built (g, g sharp, a, a sharp, b), and which crops up earlier as a significant pitch. The form: final, with caesuras and general pauses; clear.
When I see the score, the work seems much simpler to me and I don’t perceive any mystery in it (I think it was Krzysztof Droba who so often says that a work has to have a hidden mystery); nothing that would make me fond of it in long-term. I remember that I listened to it with curiosity at the concert, and perhaps with a certain pleasure; if I notice it programmed again, I’ll probably go in order to listen and see it again, and in this case, the latter is equally important to me.
DB: The recording of Slejpnir is a typical concert registration from the perspective of the audience – not the instruments on stage. That’s why we don’t find out anything more than what we’ve heard at the concert, which is confirmed by the comments of the participants of our party. The composer has admitted that not everything sounded as she had planned, that “it’s time for greater textural density and more layers”, and this indeed constitutes the confirmation of what I heard and what I wrote in my first commentary. I do keep my fingers crossed for greater density of textures and layers, because – despite what Marcin believes – the exploration of these timbral regions still makes sense and leads to very interesting results, also in some parts of Slejpnir.
This kind of exploration, however, requires that the composer tries their strength at being a performer, at least a little, that they verify their sonic ideas on the living body of an instrument, and perhaps that they free themselves from the score for the sake of confronting the essence of sound. It’s about experiment not as a creative method, but as a working method functioning between the composer, the performer, and the listener. That’s why I’m very happy about the discussion that we, the listeners, are holding, as well as about Dobromiła’s openness to our comments.
It’s interesting what Dominika said about her disappointment after reading the score: that the mystery disappears and the piece seems simpler. The score only serves the performance of the work – it’s not the work itself, it has no sound, no dynamism, no tension between performers on stage. That’s not the place to look for mystery and illuminating moments. In this situation, it’s not only the composer who has fallen victim to the score (as the performers, remaining faithful to the written instructions, didn’t obtain the adequate resonance in the bucket), but also the listeners, as they are denied the mystery.
DM: Perhaps my statement about the mystery wasn’t well put. There are works which you can listen a million times, of which scores you can analyse in million ways – but there will always be something beyond your reach (and this is often the case with technically the simplest of compositions). I don’t sense this here; is it because Slejpnir is more about a search than reaching a particular point? I have no idea. I think it’s a well written work (and it will surely be even better after revision); I listened to it intently at the concert, but it didn’t leave anything in me.
ES: I think that, thanks to the score, I have satisfied my curiosity of how it was done. I’m referring to even just the question of exactly what percussion objects were used, also the details of how sounds were produced, and an overall technical aspect of the composition. By the way, I find the number of symbols in the performance notes quite striking, as well as the necessity to specify every single letter that the singer produces, and ways of articulation for each performer. This also says a lot about the composer and her striving for precision. Moreover, it reminds me about a conversation with the percussionist, who said that she wasn’t always sure what kinds of sounds she should produce, so she had to consult Dobromiła. Thus, despite the detailed notation, there are still notational problems, and other ways of communicating the intentions are necessary. In this case I have a feeling, similarly to Daniel, that music is for listening, while the score is just something that helps me a little.
Has anything changed in my impressions as a result of listening to the recording? Not radically, but in terms of some details, it has indeed. This time I felt the drama of Slejpnir to a lesser extent, it wasn’t quite as disturbing. Also, the texture seemed sparser than in the concert performance (perhaps it was made denser then by the sight of the musicians and their gestures…), while the singer’s voice seemed more dominant in terms of expressivity. However, I’m now able to perceive familiar elements of Dobromiła’s style more easily, certain types of sounds, expressions, reiterated figures, etc. I think I felt more alieneted at the concert. On the recording, the work became more tame, it lost some of its aggressiveness, perhaps it became more etude-like, but also more delicate.
I tried to ask myself whether I could form a picture of the concert situation in my mind, with all the tension it had, on the basis of the recording, and I think not – yet in some instances it can be possible. In this respect, the 2008 work Hum for a similar instrumentation seemed more trans-like, although I know it only from a recording. When it comes to Marcin’s fears about being stuck creatively: have no fears, a composer is always in a process!
AG: Listening with the score, following the parts in the notation, analytical listening through distinguishing each of the parts – all of these things are not advantageous to this work. Of course, you can concentrate on sounding together and look at how things happen vertically, but I have the same impression after the second listening to Slejpnir: there is one sound organism here. Just like in the cases of all phenomena that stand out thanks to interactions of smaller forces, the features of this organism do not constitute simply the sum of the different parts and particular performance apparatuses. I know that what I’m writing here doesn’t sound very precise. But in this work I really don’t get the impression of a sum; perhaps because of lack of dense textures, and because the playing occurs more in the horizontal than vertical dimension. There is playing with sound quality – but not with sound combinations. Sound quality seems homogenous at each moment; not only a single quality, but also an outer one in relation to the parts, which we either separate during listening or observe in the score.
I enjoy watching performers playing live, as I feel that it works well for the reception of the work: the merging of sound and the visibility of the ways it’s produced. However, for some time I’ve been not too fond of theatricality in music, as it disrupts the attention and can divert it away from the music itself, while I really like to think of music as being the most important and absolute (sic!). Sure, it always relates to the world, but you can sometimes pretend that it doesn’t. Or to convince yourself, that it’s the world that relates to music.
MT: I’d like to add another ten cents, so to speak, as there are a few thoughts circling in my head that are perhaps worthy of noting down in this discussion. Excellent comment from Dominika! The “mystery” of the relationship between the work and the title (and the composer’s note) has been solved. The placing of the name after the caesura in measure 25 confirms the significance of this moment within the formal architecture (as I’ve already mentioned). Also, the effect of rocking the bucket – a very important one, judging by Dobromiła’s comments after the performance – isn’t placed accidentally (before the formerly-mentioned measure). And one more important factor: it’s only after that moment that the instrumentalists’ voices start to participate. By the way, my supposition following the first listening that one should look for traces of Lachenmann’s technique in Slejpnir (imitations of speech produced by instruments, as in …Zwei Gefühle…) seems to lead nowhere.
It seems that the perspective on the score turns out to be one of the demarcating lines in our discussion. We all know the difference between aesthetic and analytical listening (especially with score). What remains is the question of assessing the results of such analyses. Are they of little importance? I think that we can’t assume that in advance. For some reason we are unveiling this discussion in several stages. And for some reason we introduce the score in the last stage. The primary importance of aesthetics over analysis is unquestionable for me too. However, I treat the skill of working with the score as a particular kind of touchstone of the music critic’s professionalism – one of many, for sure. And it still is…
I’d like to throw in a few more sentences regarding the impression of the proportion between an individual voice and the attempt to judge from the viewpoint of “a common mind”. For me, it’s the most difficult matter. Over-abundance of performative utterances spoils the debate about music. “This should be…”, “This shouldn’t be…”; “This is trendy…”, “This isn’t trendy…”. On the other hand, it is exactly such blatant performative utterances that bring colourfulness and life to critique (by the way, I went through critiques of Hanslick and Hugo Wolff and didn’t find any political correctness there). I do my best to formulate my judgements in such a way that I don’t push away those by others. What it means is that I simply define my specific point of view somehow and I don’t get bogged down in justifications.
But if I may, a final word about just that. Music isn’t “innocent”. It carries something with it (however, I understand – even though I don’t subscribe to this point of view anymore – that what music carries may be for someone nothing but “the absolute”). For me, Slejpnir belongs to that ethos of the contemporary “arts-not-fine-anymore” which was perfectly captured by Jean-François Lyotard and Wolfgang Welsch. The latter wrote: “Decomposition of art corresponds to the end of meta-tale; reflectiveness of art has its parallel in the elementary constitution of the mind that still searches for the principles of its own functioning; openness of thought to paradoxes and the elusive complements the aesthetics of grandeur; in an experiment, philosophers and artists are ‘brothers’; pluralism, then – in a deep sense and defined by heterogeneity and the non-commensurate – constitutes the essence of Lyotard’s concept”. And more: contemporary art is “dissociative and pluralistic; agreement is neither its ideal [as it was still the case with the modernist Adorno – MT] nor the rule. Thus, whoever would like to assign the task of reconciliation to modern art once again, still keeps seeing it from an anachronistic perspective of beauty, not grandeur, making an elementary mistake”.
Not everything in these quotations is applicable to Slejpnir, but perhaps most of it is. I don’t have any easy recipes, of course. A return to the classical understanding of beauty is neither possible nor needed. But can we expect that this Lyotard-Welsch state of affairs will satisfy everyone? That’s all regarding this bagatelle that is Slejpnir.
JT: So it’s only at the end that wide perspectives have opened: the absolute and the semantics of music, the present-day role of the score versus performance (including the acoustic side of it), the modernist paradigm of the new and our contemporary paradigms of disassociation, pluralism, paradox, and openness. We surely have ample material until the next unveiling of the Premiere cycle, which we can expect already after this year’s Instalakcje [Installactions festival], due to take place exactly at the time of the publishing of this issue of “Glissando”. What a paradox: such a modest work like Slejpnir, probably not the most important one in the output of Dobromiła Jaskot and rather not the best one at this year’s Musica Polonica Nova festival, became the point of departure for considerations drawing aesthetic horizons much more widely than anyone of us supposed at the start. To quote Andrzej Chłopecki, “it’s worth to continue…”