Cantus Firmi

Michal Górczyńsky
POLAND Unzipped Fly Records RP05 CD (2021)

A chunky set of pieces for contrabass clarinet, composed and performed by Michal Górczyńsky. Now, I am as much a sucker for an interesting clarinet album as anyone, so I was hopeful for this disc as I stuck it in the cd player for the first time. And I have to say I was not disappointed as it is a consignment of super-high grade product; recorded, mixed and mastered with great clarity and warmth by Andrzej Izdebski at Iziphonics Studio in Warsaw.

Michal Górczyńsky’s compositions appear to be made up of multiple parts so, being the sole performer, Górczyńsky overdubs his contrabass clarinet to achieve his desired effect. There are twelve “regions” on this disc and the sparse liner notes inform us that “All cantus firmus melodies come from Songs Of Polish Folklore by Oskar Kolberg”. Not having heard the name before, I did a little research. Born in 1814, Kolberg is hailed as “…the greatest chronicler of Polish folk life.” According to one source “…Kolberg devoted most of his life to researching folk culture. In 1839, he went on his first expedition around Masovia. He began documenting folk music, creating the graphic notation of many folk songs. Kolberg was the first ethnographer to divide Polish folklore into regions, which he described in his monumental work called The People: Their Customs, Way of Life, Language, Folktales, Proverbs, Rites, Witchcraft, Games, Songs, Music and Dances…” Friends with Frédéric Chopin, or perhaps it is more accurate to say a close acquaintance – Kolberg’s older brother Wilhelm was in fact more a close friend of the composer. However, Oscar Kolberg became fascinated by Chopin’s work and he studied at the Music Academy in Berlin. The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Music defines a cantus firmus as “…a pre-existing melody, usually derived from Gregorian chant, upon which a new composition is based…”

So, the material itself is sonically consistent in terms of the way the contrabass clarinet has been recorded by Górczyńsky in that there are no production bells and whistles; everything is recorded straight, better to let the compositions breathe, like a 2013 bottle of Nalewka Babuni.

Górczyńsky contrasts the melodic timidity of the first piece, “Lubelskie 504” with the temerity and urgency of “Radomskie 292”. The rumbling, rasping “Rzeszowskie 191” pairs the clarinet with the sound of piles of objects accidentally collapsing in another part of the studio, while “Lubelskie Oczepinowe” balances interweaving melodic lines with extended technique; Górczyńsky pummelling on the keys of the instrument; powering through the resultant blisters. He whistles in response to his clarinet lines on “Rzeszowskie 137” while Radomskie 213 churns out bass growling like the accompaniment to an all-night German Expressionist film festival in Transylvania.

Michal Górczyńsky is currently also a member of Bastarda, Boys Band Trio, Cukunft, Details In The Air (with Ken Vandermark and Mikolaj Trzaska), Ensemble Tuning XIII, Mikolaj Trzaska Clarinet Quartet, and Kwartludium. He also has releases on the Multikulti Project imprint; one a duo with Kora player Buba Badjie Kuyateh, the other a trio with pianist Thomas Wiracki and vocalist Sean Palmer. That trio’s 2019 album William’s Things is a surreal mixture of chamber jazz, improv, loops and progressive rock based on the works of William Blake which is worth seeking out if that sounds like your bag. Unzipped Fly Records describe themselves as a “Warsaw (Poland) based independent record label, management & production team”, but aside from a Soundcloud account – their website refused to load at the time I began writing this review – there is very little online about them that I could find. Since then I have successfully accessed their site, but their last release is from October 2020, so here’s hoping they are simply biding their time to resume operations and not a casualty of the pandemic. Nonetheless, they sport one of the best descriptions I’ve read of a label on Bandcamp lately; “…our music is REAL and contains the best phenomena in a borderlands of alternative / jazz / ethno music in Poland”. I’m feeling that. Good on ‘em.