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Krzysztof WOŁEK (b. 1976)
Eppur si muove (2006) [22:25]
Bend (2003. rev. 2010) [14:46]
Elements (2009) [22:35]
Agata Zubel (soprano); Krzysztof Wołek (live electronics)
Orkiestra Muzyki Nowej/Szymon Bywalec
rec. September 2010, concert hall, Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD188-2 [59:46]

Here are three challenging works to add to our knowledge of the extraordinary richness of contemporary Polish music. Krzysztof Wołek’s studies were completed outside Poland, first in the Netherlands and then in the United States, where he now teaches, specialising in digital composition.
Eppur si muove, translated as “And yet it does turn”, were, according to legend, words uttered by Galileo just after he was found guilty of heresy because he believed the earth moved around the sun. In this he was following doctrines first espoused by Copernicus years earlier. Both figures are celebrated in Wołek’s work for soprano, chamber ensemble and live electronics. The first part is a setting of nine short texts that Copernicus distributed outlining his beliefs. The second sets two texts by Galileo, one in which he was forced to renounce beliefs he, in truth, firmly held, and the second, an extract from a much earlier letter in which those very beliefs are expounded. The accompaniment is for a chamber ensemble of fourteen players that is used fairly conventionally, and the electronics, used quite sparingly, are atmospheric and sensitively employed. The writing for the soprano soloist explores the extremes of the voice, but is not too cruel in its demands. In short, there are many beautiful passages in this piece, and the soprano’s opening passage, where many of her notes are doubled in the accompaniment, is typical of the solicitous nature of the writing and of the sensual beauty of much of it. There are, to my ears, a few empty gestures in the piece, and others where one wonders just what the composer was driving at, but if you respond to music that has been carefully constructed and with a view to how it sounds - this might sound obvious, but it isn’t - then you will probably appreciate this work. 

The earliest music on the disc is Bend, for chamber ensemble, though I’m unaware to what extent the work was revised in 2010. It is short and dramatic, even hyperactive. It is composed for two groups of stringed instruments with a some added wind, keyboard and percussion. One of the string groups is tuned a quartertone higher than the other, and, so the notes inform us, “the computer program Open Music was used to incorporate the ‘bent’ tuning into the harmonic language of the piece, reversing what we, the listeners, perceive as tuned and mistuned.” I can’t pretend to understand this - indeed, much of the descriptive writing about the works on this disc is beyond me - but going by my ears alone the piece is highly effective, with a strong narrative sense that holds the listener’s attention. It is intensely dissonant throughout, with many harsh sounds, but the music never descends into mindless aural violence. A Romanian folk song is quoted half way through, bringing some little respite.
The disc ends with the work that provides the disc’s title. Elements is an interestingly and logically constructed work in seven sections. An introduction leads into the first of four instrumental movements, each of which evokes a particular element. In order, they are “Air particles” (air), “Gravitations” (earth), “Ritual” (fire) and “Currents” (water). This might lead us to expect descriptive music, but that would be to oversimplify. Each of these short movements is played by the chamber ensemble, whose sounds are subjected to some limited, live electronic modification. Between each movement occurs a short interlude that is entirely electronic and pre-recorded, played through four loudspeakers that surround the audience. This recording is only in stereo, but there is already quite a strong spatial feeling about it. The first movement, representing air, is described in the booklet as “almost pointalistic”, a non-existent word as far as I can make out, but if a parallel with pointillism is implied, this seems very apposite. The music is made up of tiny fragments, thrown from one instrument to the other in all directions, with the live electronics providing weird but highly attractive echo effects. “Gravitations”, on the other hand, is represented by long, held chords and gong-like strokes. “Ritual” features trumpet fanfares, but with a positive plethora of other motifs, representing the random order and direction of flames. Water is more constant, it would appear, so the final movement, “Currents”, is largely based on a single, held note subjected to many and varied decorations and dying away at the end. In truth, though this music is highly atmospheric and certainly makes its effect, many hearings are required before anything particularly distinctive in the musical material itself can be discerned. The pre-recorded interludes are brief and very varied. They are made up for the most part of non-musical noises, many of them on the very edge of audibility, and many of them extremely beautiful. The work is rather perplexing, in that its actual musical content seems slim indeed, yet it creates a powerful atmosphere that makes one want to sit on in silent contemplation once it is over.
This is the third CD Accord album featuring the superb soprano Agata Zubel (see here and here) to have come my way, and in line with her reputation for contemporary music - she is also a composer - her contribution to Eppur si muove is stunning. Other than that, and with no real bearings on which to base a judgement, it is difficult to comment on the performances, except to say that the orchestra plays with evident skill and apparent conviction. The presence of the composer makes one imagine that the performances are definitive.
The first half of the booklet is, quite properly, in Polish. The second half provides an English translation of the vocal piece alongside the original Latin, as well as information about the artists. The main part, however, is taken up by a long essay on the music by Andrzej Chłopecki that is helpful as a listening guide, even as it points up the difficulty of describing music in words, especially when an attempt is also made to explain the composer’s aims, and even more especially in translation.
William Hedley