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Marcin Stańczyk (b 1979)
Acousmatic Music
Some Drops, for double-bell trumpet and chamber ensemble (2016)
Blind Walk, for chamber ensemble (2015)
Sursounds, for string quartet, wind quintet and electronics (2018)
Unseen, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (2018)
Marco Blaauw (trumpet)
Agata Zubel (mezzo-soprano)
Marcin Stańczyk (electronics)
Ensemble ONM/Szymon Bywalec (Some Drops)
Musikfabrik Ensemble/Johannes Sch÷llhorn (Blind Walk)
Lutosławski Quartet, LutosAir Quintet/Maciej Koczur (Sursounds)
E-MEX Ensemble/Christoph Maria Wagner (Unseen)
rec. 2015-2020, various locations in Poland, Italy and Germany
Text and translations of Unseen provided
ANAKLASIS ANA015 [48 + 56]

“What do we see when we are listening?”

This question constitutes the title of Jan Topolski’s lucid booklet essay which considers the acousmatic art of Marcin Stańczyk, a rising star of Polish new music. Earlier this year, I reviewed Mosa´que, a splendid Kairos compilation of Stańczyk’s work. This composer’s major preoccupation concerns the listener’s attempts to decode the messages issuing from a particular sound source (be it one or more acoustic instrumentalists, a loudspeaker, a branch blowing in an autumnal breeze, or footsteps, to give some examples) by linking the apparent movement or positioning of the source with the stimulus that hits their ear. Each of the four substantial pieces on this monograph seek to further Stańczyk’s investigations into this relationship, one which the regular concertgoer might well have come to take for granted.

Yet this is a pair of CDs. Given that the purchaser is therefore merely hearing the music they might reasonably be forgiven for imagining that a commercial release of this type of fare would prove futile, given this composer’s modus operandi. In fact the works themselves seem most agreeable in home listening terms, a point I hopefully made clear in my consideration of the Kairos disc. One piece features on both releases and Blind Walk arguably seems best placed to epitomise Stańczyk’s philosophy. Scored for a chamber orchestra of fifteen players, the primary conceit of the work is that the audience is blindfolded and the musicians walk amongst them, often utilising extended techniques whilst moving across surfaces ‘prepared’ by the addition of percussive materials such as aluminium foil and rustling leaves; additionally audience members might also be aware of seemingly contradictory haptic stimuli such as puffs of wind (generated by sheets of cardboard). Whilst the Kairos version seems to be a studio recording (performed by the superb Klangforum Wien) one cannot help but wonder if that rather confounds the spirit of the piece. The live, haptic concept is surely part of its raison d'ŕtre, and that’s why the new document is so valuable, performed as it is here by the equally accomplished Musikfabrik Ensemble in front of an audience at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The Kairos recording makes for a smoother, more satisfying listen; this older performance however certainly provides the listener with a flavour at least of the more authentic live experience.

The coupling on the first disc (of two) is Some drops for double-bell trumpet and ensemble. It would be stretching it to characterise this as a conventional concerto. Acousmatic elements are again to the fore, notably the feedback and harmonics which seemingly emit from a mouthpiece whose sounds seem to travel across space, against an ensemble backdrop which could be characterised as gently unravelling inertia. Moreover, during a live performance the audience is separated from the performers by a semi-transparent screen, although the soloist is free to wander – out of the hall altogether if they so choose. Another conceit is the incorporation of the sound of rain (the ‘drops’ referred to in the work’s title) into a tape part which is woven most skilfully into the texture. In this realisation Stańczyk, the Ensemble ONM and the renowned Dutch contemporary trumpet specialist Marco Blaauw contrive sounds which are by turn shimmering and calm yet simultaneously ambiguous and vague. Are these timbral effects contrived or accidental? There are certainly hints of jazz in the solo part which combine pungently with an intermittent minimalist groove implied by the double-bass pulse.

The second disc comprises pair of really impressive works from 2018. In Sursounds Stańczyk takes the acousmatic idea a stage further. The piece was inspired by a dream he experienced in his hotel room somewhere on the Ligurian coastline during a composer residency in that area. The sounds of surf and breeze intermingled in Stańczyk’s unconscious with the rhythms of trains on the old coastal line which could be perceived through his open window. He duly sampled some of these atmospheric sounds and wrote parts for four strings and five winds. For live performance purposes, a dozen loudspeakers are distributed around the performing space which broadcast both the live sounds produced by the players as well as electronic transformations of them. Only the cellist remains seated on the revolving platform at the centre (one assumes this is for practical reasons; perhaps Stańczyk is familiar with the 1969 Woody Allen film Take the Money and Run); the other nine performers wonder amongst the audience who are offered blindfolds or requested to close their eyes. As one might imagine it becomes awkward if not impossible for them to match the emergent sounds to their sources. Of course listening at home, this perceptual/theatrical element is removed and one is simply left to ponder the sounds unhindered by other distractions. Listeners will encounter a mellow, trancelike soundscape where waves of string sound expand and contract, punctuated by snippets of natural and environmental musique concrete. At its conclusion recognisable sounds from the urban world (airport announcements, traffic etc) seem to intrude upon the idyll, but perhaps they actually inhabit it. Sursounds is dream-like and expansive, seductive and lingering in its effect upon this listener at least – more impressively it retains that level of engagement during repeated listens. Perhaps the technological potential exists to create a surround mix to enable the home audience to recreate the live experience. For now this impressive Anaklasis stereo realisation makes an outstanding case for the work.

On paper at least Unseen for mezzo-soprano and (small) orchestra might seem to inhabit an altogether different kind of terrain; for this work Stańczyk has incorporated a text which combines an ancient folksong with a poem by the philosopher and writer Jerzy Żuławski. Both sources celebrate the mysteries of the summer solstice. Jan Topolski informs us that one of these arcane rituals involved the search for the fern flower, a plant which according to legend bestowed not only good luck to the finder but also the gift of invisibility during situations of danger. It is this aspect of the myth which fits neatly into Stańczyk’s aesthetic. Unseen is a collage of unworldly beauty, which seamlessly fuses the contemporary harmonic shifts one might encounter in spectralist music with unashamedly folk-inflected textures, notably accordion and hurdy-gurdy. Whilst the writing for the three percussionists is extraordinarily effective - a notable example being the sonic recreation of kindling for a bonfire produced by the pulling of Christmas crackers – the vocal music Stańczyk has devised here proves even more atmospheric. The redoubtable polymath composer/mezzo Agata Zubel’s part involves conventional and extended techniques; an entry at 20:00 is redolent of the traditional Nordic herding song known as kulning but the voices of others come through the speakers from every which way – these are apparently provided by the orchestral players and even the children of the group’s pianist. It really is a conundrum for the listener to establish exactly who is doing what, and Stańczyk succeeds in effecting that cloak of invisibility supposedly afforded by the legendary fern flower. Unseen absolutely defies my wholly inadequate attempts at description, alas; it is however utterly gripping, remarkably fresh and effortlessly moving – it hits you in the gut. Its every charm is captured in a recording which is as vivid as it is subtle. Experiencing it through decent headphones is mesmerising.

These last two pieces are the most recent by Marcin Stańczyk I have yet encountered. Both appear to be relatively through composed and seem more fully realised than either of the pieces on the first disc, although both Some Drops and Blind Walk emerge none the worse for that. On the other hand, Sursounds and Unseen seem like important statements to me, as approachable as they are rewarding. To my ears Stańczyk is rapidly developing into a unique, compelling voice.

Richard Hanlon
Published: November 16, 2022

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