The Webern to Lutosławski’s Schoenberg: Włodzimierz Kotoński

Among a recent batch of CDs kindly sent to me by the Polish Music Information Centre (see also my thoughts on José-María Sánchez Verdú’s Libro de las estancios), was a disc of works by Włodzimierz Kotoński, composed between 1959 and 1975 and released as Polskie Nagrania PNCD 1521. I’ve long maintained that the most interesting composers of Poland’s avant-garde were not those who made their global names in and around 1960, through exposure at the early Warsaw Autumn festivals, but those who hit their stride later in the decade and at the start of the 1970s. Kotoński may have made his mark early on – his Study on One Cymbal Stroke of 1959 is Poland’s first piece of music for tape – but on this evidence he belongs to the latter group, and adds weight to my argument. (Adrian Thomas also notes how welcome this, and similar recent releases from Polskie Nagrania, are to our understanding of post-war Polish music.)

The most remarkable piece here is Aeolian Harp, composed in 1972–3. It is described as being for soprano and four instrumentalists, but that doesn’t properly convey an image of what the piece is like. Firstly, the soprano is not a soloist, but a textless instrument (and to my ears may even have the least amount to do of the ensemble). Secondly, the four instrumentalists play a total of 12 instruments between them – three zithers, classical guitar, electric bass, lute, psaltery, two Jew’s harps, small bells, recorder and electronic organ.

As a studio pioneer, Kotoński clearly thinks in terms of timbre parameters and their organisation. With perhaps the lute at one end and the voice at the other, his instrumental line-up makes for a steady continuum of sonic envelopes from hard attack+quick decay to soft attack+infinite decay. With the bass and Jew’s harps, there are also some interesting wah-wah variations in the middle. I’m put in mind of Boulez’s instrumentation for Le marteau sans maïtre, which can be lined up in a similar way from percussion to voice. (And Kotoński’s Music for 16 Cymbals and Strings of 1969 may even be thought of as a dialogue those two extremes, but without the middle.)

But the composer Aeolian Harp reminds me most of is Feldman. Kotoński’s piece is quasi-minimalistic in its construction, being built of slowly transforming ostinati, layered on top of each other. But unlike the music of, say, Reich, the interest is not in locking on to a groove and following its process of evolution, but in the global state of the sound or texture at any given point. Actually, having said that it’s most like Bryn Harrison, although about 30 years before the fact, and even then the comparison doesn’t capture the sometimes rapid and unsettling contortions that Kotoński puts his material through. Its connections to its Polish predecessors can also be heard – the whole piece is an extrapolation of the mobile episodes used by Lutosławski and occasionally Penderecki, but without the attachment to an older, symphonic ideal. It’s like the Webern to their Schoenberg.

Anyway, a remarkable piece in its own right, despite the number of comparisons to other composers I’ve just made. The performance on the Polskie Nagranie disc was recorded live at the 1975 Warsaw Autumn festival (there’s one huge cough from the audience midway through), but the playing, by Roswitha Trexler (soprano), and Karlhenz Böttner, Hubert Rutkowsk, Czesław Pałkowski and Bernd Dyckhoff, is on the money.

4 thoughts on “The Webern to Lutosławski’s Schoenberg: Włodzimierz Kotoński

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