Polish minimalism redux

Image: Unist Composition no.14, by Władysław Stremiński

In a post trailing tomorrow night’s episode of Sacred Music, which focuses on Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt, Norman Lebrecht returns to a favoured assertion of his that Górecki and Pärt found their own voices “independent and largely ignorant of American minimalism”. This echoes a post Lebrecht wrote back in 2007, in which he claimed

The so-called East European Holy Mininmalism of Part and Gorecki was pretty much sui generis, rooted in counter-communist early Christian monodies, unaware of US trends.

This is a complicated assertion to make: how aware or unaware Eastern European composers were of Western trends during the 1960s is difficult to ascertain without some detailed research on the ground. When such research has been undertaken (such as Rachel Beckles Willson’s piecing together of precisely which recordings Hungarian composers had access to in the early 1960s), the discoveries can be surprising. What is known is that works of US minimalism had been performed on several occasions in the East, at festivals such as the Warsaw Autumn and, on at least one such occasion, it was a Polish group who were performing (Terry Riley’s In C in 1969). For more details (and a little introduction to the Polish artistic movement of Unism), please read my 2007 response to Lebrecht.

Henryk Czyż memoires

Fantastical melancholy has been translating extracts from the memoires of the great Polish conductor Henryk Czyż. I’ve only just caught up with this series, but they are well worth reading, especially for those with an interest in Polish and 20th-century music. The items on Barbirolli and Penderecki (two | parts) are particularly recommended.

Welcome – and pull up a Schaeffer

Welcome to all those arriving here from Alex’s kind words in the New Yorker this week. This isn’t really an mp3 blog (although I have posted some avant-garde mixtapes of my own in the past), but I’ve just uploaded these for someone else, so I might as well share the links here.

If you thought the Polish avant garde of the 1960s was all about Penderecki and 101 Penderecki-clones, then say hi to Boguslaw Schaeffer. Schaeffer is one of the most interesting composers to come out of that whole period in Polish music – he’s known as a playwright and graphic artist these days, and both the visual and the theatrical feed into his music. I understand he’s known in the US mostly for his Introduction to Composition (1974).

Schaeffer notation

I don’t know nearly enough of Schaeffer’s work first hand; probably the most well-known piece of is the 1966 Symphonie, which appears on those fantastically expensive Electronic Panorama LPs that Philips put out years ago. I gave it another listen today (no, I don’t have the LP, no I wouldn’t sell it if I did); it’s not that great actually, and I have a feeling the mp3 I’ve got cuts it short anyway. But here are a couple of other Schaeffer schlices:

Little Symphony: Scultura: http://rapidshare.com/files/62731840/03_Little_Symphony__Scultura.mp3.html

Recorded at the 1969 Warsaw Autumn by the Poznań PSO and Andrzej Markowski. Composed in 1960.

Quartet 2 + 2: http://rapidshare.com/files/62723368/BSchaeffer_Quartet.mp3.html

I’ve previously mentioned Zygmunt Krauze’s new music ensemble Warsztat Muzyczne; this is a piece Schaeffer wrote for them (they perform it here), and is a minor classic of its type in Polish music. (You might remember this from my first Blogariddims contribution.) I love it – it sounds like mayhem, but it holds together somehow to moving effect.

There’s very little writing on Schaeffer in English – Adrian Thomas’s book on Polish music is your best bet (and contains more examples of his amazing graphic notation). If you’re OK with German, then this is the book you need. This book also looks very desirable.

Minimalism, Pole to Pole

Everyone will have read it by now of course, but while I was away the NYT’s ‘The Greatest Minimalist Albums: Ever!’ article caused a lot of comment. I haven’t got much to add to Kyle and Steve‘s remarks other than to say that the fact that the NYT even attempted such a survey puts most of the British press to shame.

But I did want to comment on Norman Lebrecht’s response at Slipped Disc. According the Fact-Checker Supreme himself:

The so-called East European Holy Mininmalism of Part and Gorecki was pretty much sui generis, rooted in counter-communist early Christian monodies, unaware of US trends.

Not entirely true. A quick check in my Warsaw Autumn 2004 book shows that although Reich (Clapping Music) wasn’t heard at Warsaw until 1977, one year after Górecki’s Third Symphony was completed, by this time Terry Riley’s music had been performed no fewer than four times: Keyboard Studies in 1968, In C in 1969, Dorian Reeds in 1973, and the Riley-John Cale collaboration Church of Anthrax in 1974. More revealing for a demonstration of Polish awareness of American minimal trends is the fact that the influential Polish chamber ensemble Warsztat Muzyczny (Music Workshop) were the performers of In C, and their leader, the composer and pianist Zygmunt Krauze, was also one of the performers of Keyboard Studies (along with John Tilbury and Gérard Fremy, neither strangers to the American scene). Krauze’s own music had, since the early 60s, been following a small-m minimal aesthetic, influenced by the Unistic paintings of Władysław Strzemiński.

Strzemiński, Unistic Composition no.11 (1930–32)

I don’t know precisely how aware Krauze was of American minimalism at the time of his Five Unistic Pieces (1963), say, but certainly by the end of the decade he appears to have been reasonably clued up and, as a friendly colleague of Górecki’s (Warsztat Muzyczny commissioned Muzyka 4 in 1970), may well have discussed it with him

I can’t speak for Pärt to the same extent, but I find it extremely hard to believe that works like Perpetuum mobile (1963) and Solfeggio (1964), both long pre-dating the ‘Holy Minimalist’ tag, were as sui generis as Lebrecht would like to believe. (Incidentally, Perpetuum mobile went down a storm at Warsaw Autumn in 1964 and was swiftly performed in several other Soviet bloc capitals.) In any case, the idea of minimalism arising miraculously from the ‘inspirational’ isolation of the Soviet bloc (a cliché that runs a little close to Dryden’s noble savage for my taste) is somewhat misleading.

There’s a second, more obvious, blooper in Lebrecht’s post – Michael Nyman didn’t, of course, write the score to The Pianist (that would be The Piano). The honour should have gone, instead, to Wojciech Kilar, another Pole whose music – ironically – has shown more than a passing influence from minimalism itself in the past.