Between Tradition and Renewal

Interview with Polish composer Pawel Szymanski

By Anders Beyer

Anders Beyer: The term that is used in connection with both your own music and that of Stanisław Krupowicz is ‘surconventionalism’. We’re familiar with the word ‘surrealism’, does the word ‘surconventionalism’ cover something comparable?

Pawel Szymanski: Krupowicz and I invented the word about ten years ago. Our object was to find a word that describes the essence of our music in the same way that the word ‘surrealism’ is an apt expression with regard to visual art. In music you can’t use the work ‘realism’; it is absurd to speak about the presence of something ‘real’, or therefore ‘surreal’, in music. But speak of musical convention does make sense: baroque and classical style are, for instance, concepts that I understand and perceive as musical conventions.

In visual art one of the principles of surrealism is to use real elements, but in a broken syntax, for example, in the form of a dream-like representation. It is the same in my music: I use some traditional basic forms and structures, but I break the rules consciously. ‘Surconventionalism’—at least for Krupowicz and me—applies to music that relates to tradition, but at the same time breaks with it.

AB: So, the relationship between tradition and renewal creates tension in your music. That’s a description that can be applied to just about all music, except for those composers who claim to create something absolutely new each time. Can you elaborate further?

PS: The traditional elements in my music are not difficult to see even though I often try to hide them, like, for example, in ‘Two Pieces for String Quartet’. I admit that baroque music generally influences my music. My hope is that my musical reconstructions, transformations, or deformations, if you like, are audible in the sense that the historically-conscious listener, so to speak, can listen backwards and forwards in history at the same time.

AB: It seems that a number of recent works by the older generation of composers sound a bit old-fashioned, to put it bluntly. I’m thinking of a composer like Kotonski, and also the latest works of Penderecki and Lutosławski that bask in the warmth of tradition. Is there a neo-romantic wave on the way? What explains this mild breeze that currently blows through Polish music?

PS: I think there is a trend to rely on what’s over and done with, and in fact the later works by Penderecki and Lutosławski are not particularly strong or uncompromising. The latter hasn’t renewed his technique for a long time. Perhaps you are right that his latest works have become more consonant, and something similar is happening in the middle generation: Wojciech Kilar, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki and Włodzimierz Kotoński. It’s going too far to say that they have become old-fashioned, but they have turned back to tonal music. In my generation— Stanisław Krupowicz, Rafał Augustyn, Eugieniusz Knapik and myself—we are all interested in discovering our own attitudes to tonality and to tradition. We have never been interested in avant-garde ideology. At the conservatory we learned the twelve-tone technique and all the other new ways to compose. We listened to the music of the ‘Darmstadt’ composers, but for us this avant-garde was already an academic issue. We tried, in other words, to free ourselves from the musical strait-jacket of the 1950s.

AB: If we look at a festival like the ISCM World Music Days, where we are at the moment (Warszawa, May 1992, ed.), with music from nearly forty different countries, you can’t fail to notice that melody and tonality have made a comeback, albeit in many different guises. The Americans are here with their contribution: repetition seems to have developed into a collective neurotic obsession with them. More and more composers are turning their backs on what is usually termed modernism: Schoenberg and his school, and further on to Boulez and Stockhausen.

PS: That is also my impression and not just on the basis of the works at this festival—and not only here in Poland. There is a new trend in which the best works are not only an expression of a simple turning-back, but a musical freedom and a wealth of ideas seen against the background of the 1950s avantgarde terrorism. This freedom relies on the notion that each composer can write music as he himself thinks fit and each is free to collect historical elements and insert them into the music. Now, late in the 20th century, we can hear music from the last ten centuries, both live and recorded. It is an amazing situation because it is the first time in history that this is possible. The whole tradition is a part of our consciousness. That doesn’t mean that one should compose in the style of Mozart, but it is possible to go back to Mozart and find out one’s own relative position. This basic attitude has something to do with pluralism, some call it ‘postmodernism’.

AB: When you speak about compositional freedom now, you almost sound like a spokesman for the view that everything is now possible. You don’t mean that, do you?

PS: No. The past should not become all-important. I want my music to be taken in and understood on a higher level, so that the transformations and deformations of the past become only a small part of the experience. Naturally everything isn’t possible now, nor will it become so in the future. We can still talk about a good and a bad work. The aesthetic criteria are still valid, even though the aesthetic judgements have to be based on new premises. Yes, we come with preconceived ideas: this is beautiful, or this is ugly, and so forth. It is not my role to state what is good or less good, but what we can conclude is that a great deal more is possible and acceptable now than a few decades ago.

AB: When you use the phrase ‘it is beautiful or it is ugly’, does this also relate to something in your own music? Do you think in conceptual pairs like pretty/ugly?

PS: It is very difficult to define what lies in the word ‘beauty’. What is beautiful and what is ugly? Not every single detail in a painting by Rembrandt is beautiful but the paintings as a whole are. I can say that it has never been my intention to write ugly music. On the other hand, it is my intention to make more than ‘pretty’ sounds.

AB: As individuals we are all interested in what is happening outside of music, in society. You have lived and continue to live in a country where social events have had a political impact on your role as a composer. You live in a country where enormous changes are taking place. Warsaw three years ago was completely different from Warsaw today. It’s not only a matter of external changes as represented by the Mercedes Benzes, Coca Cola and fast food outlets. It is the whole mentality, the way of thinking, and the political system that are undergoing drastic changes. That must have consequences for you as a composer. Does your music reflect these events directly or indirectly?

PS: The answer has to be no. My music reflects no ‘reality’ in any way, for I don’t think that it is possible for music to reflect anything outside itself. Music is abstract by nature. But of course, I know that not everyone agrees with that viewpoint. It does happen that people who have listened to my music come and tell me about stories that they have heard in my pieces, about something that I never dreamed of expressing. But I cannot say that people cannot experience this or that. My role is simply to set black dots on a piece of paper.

AB: Let us approach the subject from another angle: the last sentence of President Lech Walesa’s opening address in the festival programme book, says that we should bring music to the people, to a much wider audience. What do you say to this idea?

PS: I don’t want to say anything derogatory about Lech Walesa, but all the same I want to emphasize that people who work in politics ought to be very careful about indicating where art should go, what it should contain, and to whom it should be directed. I know that the development of art is tied to sociological processes, but personally that issue does not particularly interest me. Audiences, musicologists and critics should address that one. As an artist I think that it lies outside my concern; I must create, not explain.

AB: How does the current situation for composers in Poland compare with the situation before the political shift? It looks as though the gangsters have, to a large extent, free play, even in your own small musical world.

PS: The changes in society have had serious implications for Szymanski the person, but hopefully not for Szymanski the artist. Formerly the state supported artists, but the significance of this support should not be exaggerated. It was small change. Now the state is very poor, the economy in general is not doing well, so they are cutting back everywhere. The money available for culture is steadily decreasing. We are in a very sad, and in reality, a dangerous situation just now because they are contemplating substantial cuts to the Philharmonic Orchestra. If that happens, it will be particularly difficult to rebuild the organization.

We are freer people now, but paradoxically it is harder for me to live in the new capitalist society. The key word is ‘commissions’. It used to be that when I received a commission from a country in the West, I could live off it for several years! Now I can only live off such a commission for a few months because of the economic situation. In other words, there has been an equalization in many areas between the East and the West.

I try to make a living as a freelance composer; it was easier before. Nonetheless I want to emphasize how very pleased I am with the general changes that have taken place in my country in the last five years, even though my situation has become more difficult. I would rather have less money than less personal freedom.

AB: Has it become more and more important to get commissions from abroad?

PS: Yes, it has become very important. And if the commissions fail to materialize, then you have to teach or try to collaborate with theatre people or film makers. You find ways to survive, but the alternatives are limited because the crisis is felt everywhere. I know that artists have broad support in Scandinavian countries in the form of stipends and grants. It is really peculiar because these state systems are much more socialist than the free market system we have in Poland now. We receive virtually nothing from the state here.

AB: Have you ever thought of moving to the West as many artists from the East are doing these days? It could be combined with a position as a teacher.

PS: I wouldn’t mind travelling abroad for several years. I am free and can travel wherever I want, but I have never been interested in teaching. If I received an attractive invitation for a position in a foreign country, I would consider it, no doubt about that. Under the communist regime it was difficult to travel to concerts and festivals in the West. I always had to send requests to the police in order to get permission to travel. I was furious about this and felt as though I was in prison. Now I am free—I have my passport in my pocket and can leave the country whenever I want. It is a wonderful situation.

© Anders Beyer 1996.

The interview was published in Danish: ‘Mellem tradition og fornyelse: Interview med den polske komponist Pawel Szymanski’. Dansk Musik Tidsskrift vol. 67, no. 3 (1992/93): page 97-99. The interview was also published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000.

Pawel Szymanski work list (selection)
CM – Chester Music
PWM – PWM Edition, Krakow
AA – Author’s Agency,
Warszawa Moeck – Moeck Verlag, Celle

Orchestral works

K. (1972) 1222/2222/2 perc/pf/ 8 4 4 2. (8′). PWM.

Partita I (1976) 332/4431/5 perc/hp/pf/min 12 10 8 8 6. (11′). CM.

Partita II (1977-78) 333/4331/5 perc/hp/pf, prep pf/mandolin/l2 12 8 8 6. (25′). CM.

Partita III (1986) Cembalo solo (forstærket)3030/sop. sax/2alt sax/0331/ perc/el-guit/12 12 O 12 6. (14′). CM.

Partita IV (1986) 2222/4231/T/2perc/ 11 9664. (13′). CM.

A Study of Shade (1989)2232/22202/ 2 vib/pi/86442. (l l’-14′). CM.

60 Odd Pages (1991) 1111/1110/2 perc/str. (66644). CM.

Vocal/instrumental works

Kyrie (1977) for orchestra and boy’s choir. SSS (min. 21 vlices) AAA (min. 21 voices). 2222/4321/4 perc/ str., min. 12 10 8 8 4. (12′). CM.

Gloria (1979) for woman’s choir (min. 30 voices) and instrumental ensemble. (8′). PWM.

Four Liturgial Pieces (1980-81) solo sopran. 1200/0010/3 perc/pf/9 0060. (22′). CM.

Villanelle (1981) Tekst af James Joyce. Alt, tenor, 2bratsch, cembalo. (10′). CM.

Lux Aeterna (1984). SATB kor (24 voices)/^ vlc, 2 perc/2 pi/2 hp. (9′). CM.

Chamber works

Suite (1969). fl, pf, 2 vi, via, vlc. (13′). PWM.

Epitaph (1974) for 2 pno. (14′). CM.

Limericks (1975) for violin and harpsichord.(6′). CM.

Limericks (second version) (1979), for fl, vi, vlc. (6′). AA

String Quartet (1975). (11′). CM.

Intermezzo (1977), for 2 fl, perc, 4 vi,3vla, 2 vlc, eb. (8′). PWM.

Ten Pieces (1979) for str.trio. (13′). AA.

Sonata (1982) for 9 (or 27) vi, l (eller 3) eb, 2 perc. (12′). Moeck.

Two Pieces (1982) for str.4. (13′). CM.

Two Illusory Constructions (1984) for cl, vlc, pf. (13′). CM.

Through the Looking Glass I (1987). 1110/1000/ce]/pno/5 perc/cembalo/hp/ 3 mandolin/guit/1 1111. (13′). CM.

A Kaleidoscope for MCE (1989) for solo cello. (8′). CM.

Quasi una sinfonietta (1990). l(picc.) 111/1110/perc/pno/l 1111. (20′). CM.

Piano works

Trope (1986). (4’30”W). PWM. Two Studies (1986). (11′). CM.

Works for tape

La Folia (1979) produced in eksperimental-studie, Warszawa. (9’20”). PWM.

Under the Plane Tree (1980) produced in eksperimental-studie, Warszawa. (12’40”). PWM.

Crux Fidelis (1983) sound scape for the exhibition The Sign of the Cross in Art, Warszawa. PWM.

Through the Looking Glass II (1988) produceret på elektronstudiet i Berlin. (8’40”). CM.