Composition Games

Another chapter in the seemingly endless exploration of the history of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio arrives in the form of Homo Ludens (BÔ?T RECORDS BR ES20), a showcase for the work of Eugeniusz Rudnik and Krzysztof Penderecki. This particular release stresses the friendship and collaboration between these two great Polish composers, and the role of the studio itself as a meeting place for the two where they could share and discuss ideas. It’s fair to say that here is where Penderecki cut his teeth in terms of working with electronic music; apparently he was at first afraid of the equipment, and wouldn’t touch anything for fear of electric shocks from the high voltage, so he left most of the physical labour to Rudnik. Rudnik also helped him to meet deadlines for cinema soundtrack commissions, some of which are represented on this set. All the Penderecki pieces are from the early 1960s, so if experimental tape composition, film and theatre soundtracks, Poland and the 1960s are check-boxes that set your personal pulsometers throbbing, this is the set for you. As far as I can discover, none of these Penderecki pieces have ever been released previously.

Two personal favourites of mine are ‘Left Home’ from 1965 and ‘Polish Ballad’ from 1964, mostly I suppose because of the high gloom quotient – they are grey, bleak, and highly atmospheric. ‘Left Home’ was used for a theatrical piece by Tadeus Rozewicz, and comprises voice recording overdubs; the booklet invites us to see parallels with Penderecki’s more conventional choral scores from this period. You have to wonder what ‘Left Home’ was all about when you hear these intense and bleak sounds. A nondescript murmur and whine is punctuated with a slow typewriter click or metronome, creating instant gloom and tension. It feels close to the grand spiritual themes we know and love old “Penders” for. The echo chamber voice effects are juicy and weird, and the electronic music treatments are glorious.

‘Polish Ballad’ is another theatre piece, again heavy on the vocals; the erudite booklet points out things like the stereo picture being created, the “ascetic vocabulary of sounds”, and “electronics verging on brutal”. Me: it’s a gloomoid monster…heavy and ponderous groans, murmurs, passing like evil wind overhead. Some horrific vocal fragments that seem to be passing a death sentence on the listener. If this is a sound-ballad about Polish life in the 1960s, the sheer difficulty and pain of everyday life is what comes across most strongly. If you like classical electro-acoustic message to weigh heavily across your shoulders, tune in now. I do wish these cuts were mastered a bit “louder” though; maybe it’s something to do with the limitations of 1960s technology.

Another Penderecki goodie leads off the second disc, some 20 minutes of ‘Painters of Gda?sk’, realised for a cinema piece in 1964. Marian Ussorowski picked up the camera and directed this “panoramic” view of the artists working on their canvasses in her bid to do justice to the Gda?“scene”. Penders responds with a composite of nice instrumental passages, changing from one mode to another in highly fluid fashion. Organ and bass swing in a balmy jazz-like fugue. Pleasant flutes dominate a chamber music passage. Tape edits signal the changes of scene. Electronic treatments eventually kick in, shifting the balance even further towards the modernism of how I imagine these Gdansk daubers liked to work. Alternately suspenseful soundtrack music, then pastoral pleasantness, then just plain mysterious.

Also here is ‘Basilisk Encounter’, for a puppet show film made in 1961 by Lekoadia Serafinowicz. It’s a great title, but the music is not earth-shattering. Drumming fragments followed by whistles and tiny howls, slightly scary in places. Highly episodic in nature, assembled like a mosaic. Small mysterious fragments are produced by tape edits, producing that timbral cut-off so reminiscent of Schaeffer. Equally episodic is ‘Glass Enemy’, an animated film by Stefan Janik from 1961. Some jazz music fragments wander in among the sonic abstractions. The musique concrète elements were created using bits of metal and glass as a starting point; there are brief moments when the music shines like little points of light or snowflakes, but overall this is very slow and grey.

The set is top and tailed by two compositions of Eugeniusz Rudnik, neither one from the 1960s and it’s not quite clear what they’re doing here. ‘Birds And Men’ (or ‘Birds And People’) is from 1992, described as a concert etude for four artists, three violins, two nightingales, a pair of scissors and one village potter. It’s supposed to be a montage reflecting friendly disagreements and misunderstandings between the parties involved, and is humourous in intent. Electronic drones, voices jabbering and chanting weirdly, it does indeed convey the effect of a disrupted conversation about something, dialogue being blocked or interrupted.

1984’s ‘Homo Ludens’ is a radio ballet, again intended as humourous (the title is Latin for ‘Man At Play’), and laced with autobiographical elements. It’s a crazy collage of sound, voices, music and noise, whose sensibility doesn’t really travel and which has not aged well; in fact it would have felt dated even if released in the 1960s. Even John Lennon’s ‘Revolution 9’ carries more power and political weight than this stodgy melange. Songs, pop music, folk music…children’s voices, war sounds…laughter, and various stern lectures delivered in Polish. The booklet admits that the “abundance of sources carries the risk of creating Babel-like chaos”. But it does remind us of the skill in Rudnik’s editing craft, pointing to numerous witty juxtapositions in the tape (e.g. perhaps gunfire followed by laughter), and reinforces the personal and very human dimension to this composer’s work. In the end his themes are about humanity, not about abstract ideas; “humani nihil a me alienum puto” is his motto. From 12th February 2016.