In the early 1960s, new Polish music was the thing. Cold War tensions may have been running high, but in Poland, at least, state restrictions on the arts had relaxed enough to create a short-lived opportunity for experimentation. One outcome was the founding in 1956 of the “Warsaw Autumn” new music festival—the first such festival in Eastern Europe—and the opportunities that it brought for exchange between composers and performers ignited a musical avant-garde like none anywhere else, seemingly overnight.
Polish composition had its senior representatives in figures such as Witold Lutosławski and Grażyna Bacewicz, as well as Tadeusz Baird and Kazimierz Serocki, who between them helped organize the first Warsaw Autumn festivals. But it was a younger generation that grabbed all the headlines, among them Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki, who were composing instrumental music of unprecedented noise and ferocity. New playing techniques and new ways of thinking about form and expression were introduced in works like Górecki’s Scontri and Genesis II, and Penderecki’s Anaklasis, Polymorphia, and, especially, Threnody “To the Victims of Hiroshima”.
Penderecki and Górecki helped end Poland’s cultural isolation behind the Iron Curtain, and in doing so established a template for contemporary Polish music: visceral; immediate; expressionistic; profoundly concerned with timbre; open to imprecision and the unpredictable, reflected in scores that were frequently graphical or semi-graphical. But although they attracted all the attention, it was arguably others who were writing the more interesting music.
Among them was Zygmunt Krauze (1938- ). While the others had been looking to the European avant-garde led by Boulez, Nono, and Stockhausen, Krauze had begun absorbing influences from American experimental and minimalist music by composers like John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Terry Riley. A pianist as well as a composer, in 1964 he was involved in Poland’s first “happening”: Non-Stop, by his colleague Bogusław Schaeffer. In 1966 he created the first Polish sound installation, Spatial-Musical Composition, made in collaboration with the architect Teresa Kelm and the sculptor Henryk Morel. Another pianist, John Tilbury, who had come to Warsaw from the UK in 1961 for two and a half years of study with Zbigniew Drzewiecki, was an important colleague and helped Krauze discover what was happening in the US. Tilbury already knew Feldman’s music at this point, as well as that of the British experimentalist Cornelius Cardew, and he had brought many of their scores with him. In 1963 Krauze and Tilbury, along with Tomasz Sikorski and Zbigniew Rudziński (two more now almost forgotten figures of the Polish avant-garde) formed a group to begin playing this repertory in Poland—the first to do so.
By 1967 Tilbury had returned to the UK, where he went on to become the country’s leading exponent of experimental piano music, a champion of Feldman and Cardew, and later still a member of the pioneering free improv group AMM. In the meantime Krauze’s group had morphed into a unique line-up of clarinet (Czesław Pałkowski), trombone (Edward Borowiak), cello (Witold Gałązka), and piano (Krauze). It had also acquired a name: Warsztat Muzyczny (“Music Workshop”).
Warsztat Muzyczny had a great influence on Polish musical life. It was they who introduced music by Cage, Cardew, Feldman, and Christian Wolff to the country. Perhaps even more significantly, given the turn towards so-called spiritual minimalism taken by Górecki and others in the 1970s, they also performed works by Riley and La Monte Young. In what must have been a remarkable concert, they performed Riley’s still-new In C at Warsaw Autumn 1969.
Spiritual minimalism was something else really, but experimental minimalism, in the American vein, was explored and transmuted by Sikorski and Krauze into uniquely Polish variants. The avant-gardism of Penderecki and others may have had a strangely national flavor in its combination of Catholic themes and popular defiance against a hated regime (and some—perhaps fancifully—have traced that music’s love of sonority back to the quintessentially Polish piano music of Chopin), but it was Krauze who made the deepest connection with another Polish artist, the painter Władysław Strzemiński (1893–1952), whose work he found chimed interestingly with the American music he was listening to.
An avant-gardist born in Belarus, Strzemiński moved to Warsaw in 1923, where he began to develop the theory of art he came to call unism. Like constructivism in the Soviet Union and De Stijl in the Netherlands (movements it was close to), unism directed itself to a stripping away of ornament in pursuit of a pure, almost mystical mode of painting. Strzemiński’s starting point was the art of the Baroque, whose main principle he reads as the dynamic clashing of lines, out of which emerge movement, time, and narrative: “We almost have to read [a Baroque painting], to decipher gradually the working of shapes, and arrive at the seeing of the whole by a slow synthesis. However, a picture is, or rather ought to be a thing designed for looking at only.”
Strzemiński’s unistic paintings are proto-minimalist abstracts from which any of the sense of line or movement he interpreted in more figurative art has been removed. Giving equal prominence to every square inch of the canvas, they are often monochrome, and traced all over with freehand lines and curves, or repeating shapes and patterns. Krauze first encountered Strzemiński’s art while still a student, at a posthumous exhibition presented in 1956—another manifestation of the cultural thaw. The experience struck him profoundly: it was then, he claims, that he not only realized that he would become a composer, but also came to see the kind of music he would write.
Krauze’s unistic style of music closely followed Strzemiński’s manner of painting: flat on its surface, although potentially deeply layered. Where Strzemiński avoided a hierarchy of foreground and background, so Krauze avoids incident or drama in his music. Just as every part of a Strzemiński canvas is equal to every other, so every element of a Krauze work can be heard, in theory, in its first few seconds; and every subsequent moment continues to present all of those elements. Throughout the work’s duration essentially nothing new happens. However, that does not necessarily make it dull.
Probably Krauze’s best-known piece is his Folk Music for orchestra of 1972. Its forty musicians are arranged into twenty-one groups of different sizes and distributed around the stage. Each has a sequence of folk tunes, which it plays through in its own tempo, and as quietly as possible. The overall effect is of a delicate tangle of sound, whose detailed features are only highlighted as the conductor invites individual groups to rise in and out of the texture. Polish composers, among them Górecki, Penderecki, Lutosławski, and Wojciech Kilar (who later found success writing for Hollywood), had experimented with folk music, melodic bundles, and uncoordinated rhythms before, but none with quite such single-mindedness.
Those who have heard Folk Music often want to find out more. Fortunately, the Polish label Bôłt Records has in recent years been releasing a steady stream of new and archived recordings of Krauze’s compositions and performances. The latest, Hommage à Strzemiński, is dedicated to his purely unistic works. As well as three works for orchestra and two for string quartet, it includes the first example of the unistic style, Polychromy, from 1968. Written for the clarinet, trombone, cello and piano of Warsztat Muzyczny, it is presented here in two recordings: one by Warsztat Muzyczny themselves (a welcome rarity—the group only released one LP in its lifetime), recorded in 1969, and a contemporary performance by gnarwhallaby, an American successor to Krauze’s Polish group. Although it lasts just four minutes, Polychromy captures well not only the form of Krauze’s unistic music, but also its expressive register: hesitant, subdued, but always restless.
Because of its deliberate absence of drama, Krauze’s music can be a frustrating listening experience. Those new to it may find more immediate rewards in an earlier Bôłt CD of Krauze’s instrumental concertos (BR 1021), which contains works of a more lyrical, folkloric flavor. In contrast, the pieces on the present disc are rather more experimental: not only Polychromy, but also the String Quartet No. 2 (1970), which relies upon a combination of prime number series, mirror symmetries, and self-similarity to create a highly formalistic tapestry, although one whose overall sound world also owes a debt to Bartók, especially the slow movement of his own second quartet.
The orchestral pieces are characterized by dense harmonic webs, punctuated by little melodic turns as instruments shift from the notes of one chord to the next. Ligeti’s music of the 1960s might make for a fair comparison, except that where his pieces—even at their most absently drifting—always retain a sense of direction and even dramatic purpose, Krauze’s remain stuck defiantly in place, every half-step forward countered by another right back. Yet they are not without their own special emotive power. Although Piece for Orchestra No. 1 (1969) was again conceived as an experimental work, a first attempt to apply unistic principles across a large canvas, Krauze later came to associate it with the landscape and history of Masada, in Israel, the site of a great and tragic siege in the first century C.E. in which 960 men, women, and children committed mass suicide rather than capitulate to the Romans. Piece for Orchestra No. 2 (1970) shows Krauze further exploring the large-scale possibilities of unism, this time dividing the orchestra into seven spatially arranged groups, each of which performs its own, slow melodic line. As would also be the case in later works like Folk Music or the spatialized installation Fête galante et pastorale, crucial here is the relationship between the separation of individual components and the unity of the overall form. Krauze’s stases arise not because nothing is moving, but because everything is at once.
Unism’s capacity to inspire awe and sadness, which Krauze first noted in reference to Piece for Orchestra No. 1, was taken up again a decade later in Tableau vivant (1982) for orchestra, composed following the declaration of martial law in Poland in December 1981. Where other Krauze pieces comment on Polish identity through the use of thick bundles of rustic melody, Tableau vivant strips its material back to little more than pulsing monotones to convey a different late 20th-century Polish trope: suffering, mixed with stoic determination. Though the recording here, a 1991 performance by the Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Jan Krenz, dates from after the end of communism, the atmosphere of bitterness out of which the piece was composed is still apparent. Krauze’s great skill, as shown on this CD and in other works of his, has always been to invest even the most abstract principles with profound and even unsettling resonances.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes and blogs about new music. He is the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music and is currently preparing a book on music since 1989 for University of California Press. He lives in London.
Banner image: Władysław Strzemiński, Powidok światła (“Afterimage of Light”), 1949