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Remembering Krzysztof Penderecki 1933-2020
The Quietus , April 4th, 2020 07:59

Musician and writer James Martin remembers the Polish conductor and composer, while celebrating his entire career - not just the early, highly praised work - as evidence of someone who wished to remain in tune with his times and not just repeat himself

Earlier this week I was quite shaken to learn of the death of Krzysztof Penderecki, the world-famous composer and conductor. Well into his eighties, Penderecki leaves behind a collection of some of the most extraordinary music of the 20th Century.

I saw many people sharing his extraordinary Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima (1960) on social media this week. This was my own introduction to the composer, a frenetic ballet of shearing chords and restless pizzicati, resembling the motor tics and spasming movements that populated the theatrical productions of his fellow Pole, Jerzy Grotowski. As Grotowski trained and reshaped the bodies of his actors to perform his bizarre plays, Penderecki may be said to have done the same with the orchestra. By asking his players to beat upon the bodies of their cellos, to tap and bow eccentric rhythms and lambent harmonies, he summoned new thoughts and feelings into the minds of his listeners.

The result is a sound so recognisable that you can see it referenced in everything, from the slowthai/ Denzel Curry collab 'Psycho', to the score for the famously boring film Insidious.

From the mournful pangs of the Threnody to the unsettlingly massive Dream Of Jacob (1974), the first fifteen years of Penderecki’s career have ensured that he will not suffer the anonymity so commonly assigned to artists whose lives go out in our forgetful age. It has been pleasant to read a positive affirmation of his experimentalism in newspapers. What has not been pleasant to read, however, is the sneering tone with which cultural prefects have been happy to describe the composer’s later career.

Take Keith Potter’s obituary in the Guardian, which boasted of how Penderecki was emblematic of the failure of the avant-garde “to sustain a lifelong career without abandoning their original principles”, in its first paragraph. In most of the printed accounts of Penderecki’s life this week a jaded revolutionaries' disappointment has appeared, which, thirty years on from the liberation of the Eastern bloc, seems almost passé in the ubiquitous nightlands of capitalist realism.

When your choices for the posthumous appreciation of Penderecki fall between the Guardian’s polite dismay and the Telegraph’s hortatory description of his “patriotic and provocative” style (words that describe Donald Trump about well as they describe Penderecki), you can’t help but feel Anglophone culture is getting an iron curtain all of its own.

It was easy for the English-speaking world to conclude that Penderecki’s music ‘softened’ in his later years, partly because his initial efforts were tightly connected to a vision of primal, cosmic viscera. Stanley Kubrick used Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1961) in The Shining to show the haunting of Jack Torrance’s broken, alcoholic mind; more tellingly, Lynne Ramsey commissioned Jonny Greenwood to fill the soundtrack of You Were Never Really Here with sub-Pendereckian string sounds as lately as 2017. The ‘early sound’ stands for a weird fiction of forces beyond human psychology that was, ironically, the actual basis for Penderecki’s early experiments.

But if Penderecki sought a scientific ordering of his music through timbral and textural layout, by the 1970s this project was receding in scope, a victim of its own success. Science and music began to cohere to the extent that there seemed no point in synthesising Science with the Gay Science, to attach the continental appetite for philosophical liberation to the automotive power that acoustics and psychology offered.

When Penderecki finally completed his De natura sonoris trilogy in 2012, it was hard not to feel that “the nature of sounds” was now an historical fable, rather than an achievable insight. Even a sophisticated response to natural law started to look like a Yuan dynasty painting of trees laid out to mirror the Confucian order of society. A spiritual allegory long swallowed up by the materialism of the present. No one wanted it on their living room wall.

So Penderecki bent (rather than broke) his avant-gardism, to escape redundancy in a world that was substituting the dialectic opposition of economic systems for the pragmatics of perestroika. His principles were not abandoned in his later music, but rather ‘phased out’ to produce a streamlined modernism, one which accounted more for the resistance musical innovators encounter from financially stretched orchestras and artistic institutions than for bourgeois taste as a universal maxim. If his music was to attain popular appeal among audiences who shrank from the New Sound, he needed to express it in more traditional means. The counterpoint of textures achieved in his early orchestral works from strings survives in works like Song Of The Cherubim (1986) and the Polish Requiem (1980).

Penderecki reinvented, rather than restarted, his technical accomplishments; no one could hear the 'Agnus Dei' of the Requiem, which builds a choir of hundred to a climax on a chord so dislocated from the surrounding tonality that it brings the entire movement to a standstill, and think they were dealing with a conservative artist. No one should fail to see the resemblance of this cacophonous apostrophe to his early work for strings Polymorphia (1961), in which, after eight minutes of noise created from aleatoric tapping and bowing, a perfectly voiced C major chord concludes the piece. That was the modus operandi of Penderecki; the idea that harmony was subordinate to, rather than necessary for, the creation of music.

Because the function of music has nothing to do with the materials of composition; its function is its social reception amongst those who have the patience to listen to it. Music is constructed from the feelings it causes in us, not the chords we compose it with. It is telling that as a conductor Penderecki championed the works of Dimitri Shostakovich, another composer whose stylistic friendliness had prompted Pierre Boulez to call him “the third pressing of Mahler”. Now that the engorged phalluses of Western Art Music have been put away during its inevitable decline, we hear both Shostakovich and Penderecki for what they really are. Sofia Gubaidalina and Caroline Shaw continue to force this radical acceptance of what contemporary musical culture really was, and really is, into ever stranger pathways.

It is for two reasons then, that the death of this astonishing force in contemporary composition leaves me with a deep feeling of sadness. The first is sentimental; I was born late enough to view the metamorphosis of Penderecki’s output from avant-garde auteur to sociopolitical lightning rod with a detachment that did not preclude my optimism at seeing artists weather the bitchy criticisms of their ungrateful spectators.

But the second of these two reasons is more important. It is impossible to contemplate writing about threnodies and requiems and disasters without acknowledging our own modern disaster, and what a sufficient artistic response to it will look like. In 1980, when Solidarity, a Polish trade union which at its peak comprised 10 million members, commissioned Penderecki to write the Polish Requiem, it remained possible for the composer to discard the pretensions of his avant-gardism in order to elicit a comprehensible sorrow from his subject matter, without mawkishness. Today on the one hand we are confronted with a slew of music that patently fails to achieve its promise of a public statement – Miss Anthropocene, Future Nostalgia, and Ghosts V: Together all spring to mind. Countering this are a slew of albums which have retreated to private settings to make their ideas audible - Man Alive, 925, and so on. Why does that kind of public music feel impossible today? If music is formed in its own social reception, then I’m not sure how music will form in an age when the public space has finally been shot down by the digital one.

At the end of the 5th Century BCE, in his comedy The Frogs, Aristophanes sounded out the times with a debate between the playwrights Aeschylus and Euripedes. Aeschylus is the puffed-up and yet decorated representative of the old style, Euripedes the vital, angry voice of the new one. In the end, the only way the wizened thesp and enfant terrible can settle their debate about who’s better is to judge the ‘weight’ of their verses on a pair of massive scales. Surprisingly, the old codger Aeschylus wins – but only because he’s brought poetry about rivers and busted chariots, which are heavier than his adversary’s humble mace. The point of this is that both of them are idiots, but it also shows that the relationship between style and content is redundant, because they are intrinsically linked.

Penderecki did not attempt to say the same thing in different styles. He said new things each time. His music presents one of the most complete artistic legacies of modern times – precisely because it changed over time. Its worth is not easily assured by reducing it to political categories of conservatism or progressivism. Those who do sound like they’ve never really bothered listening to Krzysztof Penderecki. Flatulists are the sort of artist who I like to see doing the same thing over and over, not composers. Can such an artist confront the events of our time in as diverse a language, and prolific a career, as his?