Agata Zubel is a multi-prizewinning and prolific composer and vocalist who is in danger of becoming an establishment figure before the age of 40, such are her credits and current status as professor in the Wroclaw Academy of Music. Even before hearing a note of this music she had my support for a statement from which all musicians could learn: “I believe that every composer should also remain a performer, and every performer ought to compose.” Performers who are close to the creative processes involved in the music which they perform are far more likely to succeed in communicating as musicians, vice versa to those who are closed. Zubel’s clear sensitivity to her instrument, the voice, and to the timbre and subtleties inherent and discoverable in the instruments for which she composes, leap out from every bar of the pieces on this disc. Likewise, the players here sound as if they are entirely in sympathy with her idiom.
String Quartet No.1
brings us straight into a world which is full of confluence and contradiction. The pizzicato/glissando textures come straight from Lutoslawski, but computer manipulation of the cello sounds extend the range of effects into even more abstract realms. Wild noise and subtle gesture exist side by side, and from about the fourth minute there are some passages which seem more to tease silence rather than inhabit a musical structure. Battling cellos over rough-hewn pedal tones are part of the build-up which takes us to the final coda, a sequence of diminishing explosions shared by the instruments and the electronics.
is a setting of the eponymous 1936 poem by Samuel Beckett, and both this text and the Agata Zubel’s piece are a kind of psychological drama. This expresses itself in a monologue on the subject of unrequited love, filled with anxieties, turbulent responses, and unanswered questions. The setting has its abstract, atonal elements, but responds to the text fairly literally: from the sense of confused longing, through what feels like insects crawling all over your skin, to the extended in-exhalations of the final lines, “If they love you/Unless they love you.”
works use electronics, and are part of a conceived cycle of chamber pieces for voice and a chosen instrument. As a vehicle for Zubel’s remarkable vocal technique these are of course highly effective, building on the kind of foundations laid by the likes of Cathy Berberian. The contribution of the computer is not to be underestimated in these works. As with the String Quartet
this extends the dramatic and spatial range of both voice and instrument as well as serving both as a link which gives them common and equal status in the pieces, and creating fields of sound which make the works seem that much grander, as if many more musicians were involved. Both of these Unisono
pieces have the feeling of studies: not sketches in the sense of any kind of incompleteness, but part of a longer road which will end up creating something which might end up as comparable with Berio’s Sequenza
series. Filled with spectacular effects and with numerous conscious or unconscious semantic references to jazz in the percussion of Unisono I
and the tango in Unisono II
, we are drawn in by this quasi-recognition and treated to works whose stature goes much further than, and in of course in fact have nothing to do with stylistic parody.
is performed here by the percussionist for whom it was written, Jan Pilch. Percussion is a kind of bête noir for the organisers of modern music concerts, being a favourite of Polish composers in particular. Rather than having her roadies hump heaps of exotic instruments which will only be employed for one note in their piece, Zubel makes good and energetic use of the wide variety of sounds chosen for this work, and the general atmosphere of the first half is of hot restlessness, helped further by computer manipulation of the sounds. More meditative moods take over halfway, inhabited by the surrealism of cymbals repeating and moving around the soundscape, some notes robbed of their initial attack and disorientating the ear. A ‘drum solo’ on a jazz set grows out of this lonely field, the computer sounds flying from the kit like sparks at a firework display, and Chinese cymbals have the last word in a conclusion which lacks a cadence.
I was sent this well produced and attractively presented disc by our avuncular and indefatigable editor Len with a little yellow note, “Give it a try please”. Agata Zubel may not yet be a household name beyond Poland and the certain areas of the modern music scene, but on this showing hers is a name which will make a wider impact before too long. If you are interested in new sounds and the forefront of modern music don’t be put off by the fluffy glamour image the cover projects: give this a try, it’s seriously interesting.
(1900-1990) Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) [30:29]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Vers la flamme, Op. 72 (1914) [6 :26] Alban
Sieben frühe Lieder (1905-8) [14:47] Pawel
SZYMANSKI (b. 1954) Drei Lieder nach Trakl
Agata Zubel (soprano); Marcin Grabosz (piano) rec. Witold Lutoslawski
Concert Hall, Polish Radio, Warsaw, December 2007–March 2008
CDACCORD ACD149-2 [63:59]