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Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... Andrzej Korzyński
Jakub Knera , April 17th, 2023 09:10

On the first anniversary of the death of Andrzej Korzyński, Jakub Knera guides us through the story of the Polish composer, providing ten points of entry to his back catalogue. All photographs courtesy of GAD records

I would venture to say there has not been a (film) composer in Poland with such broad stylistic and genre horizons as Andrzej Korzyński. A cursory glance at his oeuvre is enough to confirm this, especially if we examine how his work flourished behind the Iron Curtain. By creating music for TV and Film, Korzyński was given access to a wide range of technology which other musicians were denied. Much of this technology would even have been unaffordable for unsubsidized Western composers.

Korzyński wrote rock, funk, synth pop, jazz, and disco-style compositions using the workshop of a classical music composer. He reached for baroque, neo-romanticism, and neo-classicism, the achievements of the avant-garde. He realised himself in pop songs, theatre music, television, dance, and musicals, to film music, which became his most important field of activity. His film career began with the success of the song ‘Żółte kalendarze’ and the establishment of the radio station Studio Rytm, to which he invited later stars of Polish music such as Marek Grechuta, Czesław Niemen, Czerwone Gitary, Breakout, Trubadurzy and Stan Borys (during the eight years of the studio’s activity, they recorded over one thousand three hundred songs there).

But why the interest in Korzyński now? Most likely, it would not have happened without the Finders Keepers label, which has been putting out previously unreleased recordings of the composer for many years. Andy Votel, its co-founder, first became aware of Korzyński on a trip to Poland taken while an art student during the mid-90s. At the time, he bought many recordings because of the covers – only discovering how fascinating the music they contained was when he got home. Among them was Korzyński’s band Arp Life, which Votel identified as "The First Ever Eastern European Synth Orchestra".

“At 18, I was interested in the production sound and the open drum breaks with synthesizers. It was an unlikely combination, and I was more surprised than anything else. I used ‘Jumbo Jet’ to DJ with for many years after that point,” he remembers, but later he continued to see Korzynski’s name in different contexts. The compilation Muzyka Filmowa released in the 1972 revealed the versatile abilities of a Polish composer. “When I began to collect Polish records habitually, there were not many soundtrack albums like this. It introduced me to Third Part Of the Night, so I was hungry for the original master tapes,” explains Votel.

Korzyński regularly collaborated with Andrzej Wajda, Sylwester Chęciński, and Krzysztof Gradowski. Still, it all began in earnest for Korzyński when he wrote music for the first short films of his friend from primary school, Andrzej Żuławski. In Poland, his work was innovative; on a global scale, it corresponded interestingly with such Italian composers working in the late 1960s and early 1970s as Ennio Morricone, Fabio Frizzi, and Claudio Simonetti.

In his work, Korzyński presented two perspectives. The first was bright and harmonious, sometimes with orchestral sounds (such as on the big-budget youth series produced for West Germany, Janka), sometimes with synthesizers (Tulipan). The second was dark and experimental, crossing boundaries, and primarily associated with Żuławski’s films, which began with his collaboration with Pavoncello in 1967. Then came tape experimentation; the recording of tracks a little slower and a little lower so that when the proper tempo and pitch were restored, an unusual sound was obtained; he was involved in concrete music, extended performance techniques, and dissonance too.

Votel saw Żuławski’s Possession in his teenage years as an English language horror film (despite the British Board of Film Classification having banned it) and The Devil when he was in his thirties. “I love both these films, although the music in The Devil knocked me off my feet. Though I have hundreds of Polish records, this was the heaviest Polish psychedelic music I had ever heard. It is an incredible piece of work. I’ve never seen such chaos successfully committed to film.”

Votel met Korzyński personally thanks to his friend Daniel Bird who was working on a documentary about Żuławski and put him in touch with the composer. He watched all the films first, then asked Korzyński if he had master tapes – his archive was outstanding, expansive, and well-annotated.

Finders Keepers released records such as The Secret Of Enigma, Possession, SOS, and Man Of Marble. Besides the British label, Korzyński’s work has also been released by the Polish label GAD Records, whose catalog includes Akademia Pana Kleksa, ORWO Years, Mowa Ptaków, Wielki Układ, Tulipan and W pustyni i w puszczy, among others.

However, it's unlikely this fascination with his work would have developed without The Devil. The movie was all but forgotten; the music seemed lost. Everyone, Korzyński included, thought there were no tapes. But they had been saved by chance – film expert and director Kuba Mikurda took a photograph of the recordings in the archives of the Feature Films Studio, among which was the soundtrack to this film. He showed them to Michał Wilczyński of GAD, who promptly contacted the Centre for Audiovisual Technologies director, Robert Banasiak, to enjoy this unique release today.

“Michal Wilczynski at GAD was hugely important in this process, and we can’t thank him enough,” admits Votel. “He recognized that Finders Keepers were the first people to spearhead the Korzyński revival and that The Devil was our holy grail, so when he found the tapes, he was very communicative with us. We truly believed the tapes were lost and were just about to prepare the soundtrack using the film-reel elements. Michał was close to the source in Poland and a genuine, faithful ambassador of Korzynski’s legacy. I love Polish music, so GAD is one of my favorite record labels worldwide.”

Ricercar 64 & Piotr Szczepanik – ‘Żółte Kalendarze’ from Zabawa Podmiejska (1966)

Andrzej Korzyński graduated in 1964 from the State Higher School of Music in Warsaw. He studied composition and conducting, focusing on interpreting Beethoven and Mozart scores; his diploma thesis used modernist compositional techniques such as dodecaphony. In 1963, he went on holiday to Paris with Andrzej Żuławski, where he bought a Ray Charles record, which changed his thinking about music. He then formed the band Ricercar 64 (later joined by Michał Śniegocki, with who plays in Arp Life), which accompanied Piotr Szczepanik, a young singer he had met. The group combined classical music stylings with syncopated rhythms. ‘Żólte kalendarze’, the band’s biggest hit, sounds like preludes played on a harpsichord but in a big beat style (a Polish name for rock & roll which was acceptable to the communist authorities). The song is characterized by a calm rhythm and sorrowful strings in the background, with Szczepanik singing nostalgic lyrics about life passing. The sad and sentimental song quickly became a hit – to this day, it is the most famous piece of music to come from the composer’s pen.

Andrzej Korzyński – ‘A Mute Reunion’ from The Devil (1972)

Andrzej Żuławski’s second feature film is set in January 1793, during the Prussian army’s incursion into Wielkopolska (while Poland was under partition). It is the story of Jakub, a would-be kingslayer, who travels to his homeland, but this leads him into madness, and he tries to settle accounts with his loved ones who have sunk into betrayal and evil. The film has a horror convention – the communist authorities read it as an allegory of March 1968, when the government unleashed an anti-Semitic campaign, and students protested the removal of the performance of Dziady. The Devil soundtrack uses experimental compositional techniques – for example, the pieces were played a little faster and a little higher than needed only to be played back slower and lower: the final result was monstrous low notes that were not typically heard in music. Musically, ‘Mute Reunion’ is dominated by a harsh guitar sound, melancholic organ, and a sparing rhythm section, representing the landscape of conflagration through which Jacob walks. Wincjusz Chróst’s guitar was slowed down to half speed and played backward, then overdubbed with fuzzy effects before the tape was run the correct way – his ghostly guitar effects reminiscents of Hendrix, sometimes Amon Düül, the result is added by the distinctive bass guitar by Józef Sikorski. The film was banned until 1988 but returned to consciousness over a decade later.

Andrzej Korzyński – ‘SOS Tempo’ from SOS/The Sweet Decay (1974)

Korzyński’s short scores for his friend Żuławski films combined rock riffs, funky bass, and polyrhythmic drums – he also alluded to the rhythms of dances such as the tango and the waltz. In the 1970s he worked for Warner Brothers in Rome at the famous Cinecittà film studio on their soundtracks. He had the opportunity to meet Ennio Morricone and Jean-Claude Vannier, among others. Out of this came Korzyński’s score for Janusz Morgenstern’s obscene Polish crime series SOS, which tells the story of a radio show host who deals with the problems of callers in need of advice. ‘SOS Tempo’ draws attention with its orchestral arrangement, rushing rhythms, and mysterious rattles in the background, showing the talent of the structure benefiting strings and brass. It is reminiscent of such 1970s crime and thrillers as Don Ellis’ The French Connection or Ennio Morricone’s Le Serpent.

Arp Life – ‘Baby Bump’ from Jumbo Jet (1977)

Arp Life was formed in January 1976 using the name of a synthesizer, although the musicians played Minimoog primarily. The band was strictly a studio project, making music for theatre, film and TV. They took the twin styles of disco and funk, combining it with elements of improvisation (they recorded almost 60 tracks during studio sessions). Korzyński had already composed for Andrzej Wajda, and although it was Man Of Iron that played a fundamental role as the film that mythologised the events of August 1980 and the birth of Solidarity, eventually winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The director’s earlier film has a much more exciting score by Korzyński – Wajda decided to use it in his film Man Of Marble. ‘Baby bump’ refers to ‘bumper music’ – a short sound clip that weaves between program elements on the radio. It appears in the film’s opening sequences when the protagonist, a young film school student, attempts to realise a documentary about an esteemed Stakhanovite. Votel compares Arp Life to Goblin in Italy and Fusioon in Catalunya.

Andrzej Korzyński – ‘Absage an Viktoria: The First Feeling’ from ORWO Years (1977)

In the 1970s, Korzyński was a sought-after composer of film music, and not just in Poland. His compositions for Janusz Nasfeter’s Butterflies came to the attention of Celino Bleiweiss, who made television films in East Germany, resulting in a collaboration that lasted almost two decades. For many years, listening to this music outside Germany was impossible. This situation has now changed thanks to its restoration by GAD Records, remastered from the original tapes taken from the composer’s private archive. It shows another face of Korzyński, featuring pop-rock themes played on guitars, lyrical strings, synthesizers, and elements of early music. The entire work is performed by musicians associated with DEFA studios under Manfred Rosenberg. The film Absage an Viktoria tells the story of the wife of a worker who settled in West Germany in 1961. She attempts to meet up with her daughter but fails because of the construction of the Berlin Wall. ‘First Feeling’ is distinguished by a dense synth part which is then lined with an acidic melody.

Andrzej Korzyński – ‘The Night The Screaming Stops’ from Possession (1981)

Żuławski shot Possession in Berlin and joined the ranks of cinema’s most controversial filmmakers. It begins as a loosely semi-autobiographical film about marital breakdown, before moving entirely into the hyper-real and horrific with the appearance of Isabelle Adjani’s character (the only actress to win at Cannes and the Cesars for one film). Korzyński’s brooding, synth-driven music perfectly heightened the atmosphere of pervasive paranoia while entering a dialogue with cold wave; Finders Keepers calling it “mutant disco.” The music is remarkably eclectic – combining electronics, an almost danceable, slightly funky pulse, elements of rock, and orchestral sounds. These are Korzyński’s first steps towards synth-driven electronics, disco drum machines, and orchestral atmospheres for clavinet, Rhodes, piano and electric guitar. The track that opens the film has dark synth lines, a simple beat, and a shrill background. Korzynski, here, was using the jaw harp or tacked piano manipulated by Varispeed with ethereal overdubs. Votel says: “Korzyński was like the father of acid house, and bits of the music sounds like this super 303 acid, but it’s just this mad kids’ pantomime stuff.”

Andrzej Korzyński – ‘Kosmiczny prolog’ from Akademia Pana Kleksa (1983)

The adventures of the mad professor Pan Kleks, addicted to freckles, has a powerfully psychedelic flavour, undoubtedly influenced by Korzyński’s music. The three part film consists of many hours of music – most memorable are the songs sung by Polish pop stars. Still, this album of instrumental-only pieces, released for the first time by GAD Records, shows the composer’s musical wealth and erudition. Escapades in disco and short synth miniatures brush up against, very musical, Disney-like themes played on juicy synths, vibraphone and flutes. Lyrical themes are arranged on a spectacular scale for orchestra and give one of the most colourful soundtracks in the history of Polish cinema. However, the idyllic atmosphere is interrupted by disturbing harmonies and electronics associated with the character of Shaver Filip, lending the film the flavour of a spy film. There is new wave in ‘Fight Of The Planets’ and krautrock in ‘Invasion Of The Werewolves’. These inspirations are best exemplified through the lens of the opening track ‘Kosmiczny prolog’ (Cosmic prologue), which begins with krautrock-style guitar played by Winicjusz Chróst and drums by Wojciech Kowalewski. At the same time, the finale features stellar synth shots that build up to all-out space rock. Inspired and commissioned by Unsound festival, Votel created the project Kleksploitation which juxtaposes music and footage from the film.

Franek Kimono – ‘King Bruce Lee Karate Mistrz’ from Franek Kimono (1984)

In 1981, the communist authorities imposed martial law. In the greyness and hopelessness of the Polish reality that year, people found relief in discos and all-night parties. Under the pseudonym Andrzej Spol, he invented the character of nightclub bouncer Frank Kimono, inspired by these underground clubs and parties. He describes his impressions of discos and girls; drinking and breakdancing; he juxtaposes socialist reality with Western fashion. Franek Kimono was a massive success, selling half a million records; it was pastiche but also racy synth pop of its time.

Marek Kondrat & Marlena Drozdowska – ‘Mydełko Fa’ from Mydełko Fa (1991)

At the beginning of the 1990s, capitalism crawled towards disaster in Poland after the neoliberal shock transformation of the system. In music, disco-polo appeared - a genre derived from Italo disco but drawing on Polish folk rhythms, simple chords, and melodies. It was called ‘sidewalk music’ because CDs were sold from makeshift bazaars arranged on camp beds laid out on pavements. Korzyński wanted to comment on this development, satirically – he wrote this song for actor Marek Kondrat and singer Marlena Drozdowska. The lyrics are the most important element here – the protagonist laughs at a silly and clumsy TV commercial featuring a guy sitting on a horse, waiting for a woman to wash him with soap. The music was composed by his then 17-year-old son Mikołaj, who used the simplest keyboard arrangement to emphasise the obviousness and crassness of the ad. This pastiche got quickly out of hand however. It is rumoured that just three days after the album was recorded, somebody stole the tapes from the record company before the music was to be broadcast on national television. Eventually bootlegs found their way into bazaar circulation, being copied illegally far and wide, even reaching the Polish community in Chicago. Despite being written satirically, ‘Mydełko Fa’ was taken at face value by many who heard it and it became a Polish wedding disco staple for years to come.

Andrzej Korzyński – ‘Czy chcesz być moją siostrą’ from Panna Nikt (1996)

Panna Nikt is an adaptation of a novel that tells the story of 15-year-old Mary, who moves with her family from the countryside to the big city and finds herself in a new school. The companionship of new friends affects her psyche. Wajda saw in this story a symbol of the generational change, representing problems young people faced in the mid-1990s, stranded between post-communism and the promise of European modernity. The director wanted the film to communicate with a younger audience through songs which were eventually abandoned, but Korzyński still managed to transmit these ideas via instrumental music. The composition is sometimes supported by synthesized, simple beats – something it shares with many Polish productions of the 1990s – complemented by guitar riffs and arpeggios. In ‘Czy chcesz być moją siostrą?’ (‘Do you want to be my sister?’) synth chords are arranged in a narcotic, psychedelic sequence with a depressive mood. There is no clear thematic accent here, rather monotonous ambient motifs in the vein of Tangerine Dream or Vangelis. Instead of rousing, colorful, and optimistic, motifs of heavy darkness painted with dark colors are exposed – this is the heaviest and most depressing of the composer’s soundtracks.

The Devil Tapes is out now on Finders Keepers