Slawomir Kupczak‘s Report (BOLT RECORDS BR 1015 / NIKLAS RECORDS n/009) is a superb piece of modernist avant composition from a contemporary Polish composer, who comes to us with an academic background and is also a member of the improvising ensemble Phonos Ek Mechanes. Report is a fascinating and bewildering assemblage blending spoken word with computer music; as soon as you hear the first spoken sentence, your attention is firmly grabbed by the chilling authority of the voice (and its sound). The texts may appear to be documentary clips from a TV show or radio broadcast, but it seems they are all scripted by the writer Pawel Krzaczkowski (the full libretto is printed as an insert, in Polish and English), and recited by two readers, Irmina Babinska and Jacek Paruszynski. These texts alone are worth your entry money; spoken in Polish, but judging by the English translations they are a series of impassioned observations about life, work, and ideas – a tapestry of quasi-diary entries or fractured anecdotes, amounting to a pessimistic and exasperated search for the meaning of life. As the title indicates, all of these stories are “reported” – which is to say they are mostly written in the third person. “What did he say about values?” is the first piece, mounting a series of interrogations which ends with “What did he say about life?”. It’s as though we’re hearing excerpts from an official report written by the great cosmic civil servant in the sky, filing his observations on the life and peregrinations of a Polish Everyman. “All of my life I’ve lived in a game of lies”, is but one example of the world-weary utterances found in the mouth of this contemporary put-upon and somewhat downtrodden character.
Kupczak’s treatment of Krzaczkowski’s texts are where he adds his compositional value on this single 38-minute composition. To put it briefly, distortion is his plan. The readers can barely get a word out before it’s subjected to studio interference – tape loops, overdubs, filters to mangle the syllables, backwards masking, and other layers of precisely-calibrated mayhem intended to place perceptual barriers between us and the content, blocking our understanding, scrambling the data. Yet the meaning continues to burst through the walls at every opportunity; the emotion, in particular that of the male reciter, is enhanced and magnified through these interpolations, his urgent statements increasing in paranoia the further he is pushed into the echo chamber. The female reciter is sometimes transformed into a cold authority figure (a doctor or judge) passing sentence on the listener. Elsewhere, the voice becomes the distant voice of officialdom, some faceless administrator speaking through a telephone, its clipped tones announcing a certain doom. Other voices become a sinister overdubbed murmur of whispers, as of an army of dispirited bureaucrats working steadily in the typing pool. All of these strategies completely reflect and support the tone and spirit of the texts; Report is a modern-day Kafka episode, with strong undercurrents of paranoia, surveillance, and nightmarish images about frustration, the “dead hand” of authority, the impossibility of escape.
The work also includes computer-based music, of course. Taken as a whole, it’s a compelling suite of sinister abstract droning which binds together the texts into a coherent whole, before climaxing with a refreshing melody of a synth-pop tuneage which somehow succeeds in striking a note of total triumph while simultaneously undercutting it with the certain knowledge of imminent defeat. Along the way we hear a fascinating array of intelligent ambient textures – a lonely attenuated drone, a chaotic chatter of renegade machines, the abysmal soothing background hum of a shopping mall, and abstract squiggles that come close to delineating the condition of madness in sound. Kupczak’s compositions for electronic music are refreshingly free from cliché, especially in the sound, and he has found new and subtle ways to give voice to computer music without once leaning on over-familiar pre-sets. Every episode is given its own musical identity in this thought-through work, and there’s not a moment of wasted space.
Report amounts to a moving and impassioned portrait of modern society, with enough layers of conundrum and enigma to repay further returns. It’s a triumphant blend of libretto and music, where the elements are fully integrated into a carefully planned compositional schema. A modern opera for the alienated and disaffected. (28/11/2012)
This CD is part of a generous bundle of items on the Polish Bolt Records label received here in November 2012, including a massive 3-CD survey of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. We have a lot of time for this label so I hope (eventually) to give many of these CDs the attention they deserve.