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Wojciech BŁAŻEJCZYK (b. 1981) General Theory of Relativity #NetworkMusic for voice, ensemble and live electronics (2017) [14:00]
General Theory of Relativity (2018) for clarinets, percussion, piano and violin (2018) [12:45]
M.A.D.(Mutual Assured Destruction) for ensemble (2007/20) [8:17]
Angels of Peace for double bass, oboe, French horn and bass clarinet (2017) [15:15] Aether for ensemble and live electronics (2020) [8:59]
Holger Falk (baritone), Andreas Harrer (technician)
Klangforum Wien/Johannes Kalitzke
Partial text of #NetworkMusic included in booklet
rec. January and February 2021, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria KAIROS 0015111KAI [59:20]
I suppose that the main problem facing those composers who choose to engage directly with the attitudes, behaviours, politics and mores of the present is the possibility that their music might date all too quickly, yet it’s a risk the best composers are prepared to take if for no other reason than to acknowledge and document for the benefit of future generations the anxieties, preoccupations and contradictions of a given period. The best creators will always find some kind of curious audience in the days to come. It’s a thought that has repeatedly occurred to me since the beginning of the current pandemic; one of my regular lockdown strategies has been to reacquaint myself with the magnificent documentaries of British filmmakers like John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings whose work from the 1930s and 1940s brings the realities my parents’ and grandparents’ faced on a daily basis into my own experience; the wonderful restoration work carried out by the historians at the British Film Institute (and elsewhere) renders these films extraordinarily fresh and newly relevant.
I wonder then how listeners say, fifty years hence, will respond to the daring music of the Polish composer Wojciech Błażejczyk who turned 40 this year and who seems to have a more pronounced interest in the social media, political double-speak and technology that dominates the current zeitgeist. Błażejczyk apparently cut his musical teeth as a guitarist in a prog rock group – given his age this itself might strike one as a gloriously unfashionable milieu for someone who would have reached adulthood at the turn of the millennium – before he eventually graduated in composition as a pupil of his eminent compatriot Zygmunt Krauze. Unusually, he also studied journalism and political science, both fields which seem to inform his musical philosophy on the evidence of the works included on this new issue. It is also relevant to refer to Błażejczyk’s far from casual interest in technology; he has invented a number of acoustic and electronic instruments and is a renowned sound engineer and soundtrack designer. Each of the five works included here overtly tap into one or more of these preoccupations.
In #NetworkMusic, baritone Holger Falk delivers a text compiled by the composer consisting of real and imagined social media soundbites, memes, aphorisms, abbreviations, instructions and the like. It’s novel to hear these phrases rather than just see them; it may be a familiar language but it’s almost unprecedented to encounter its accents and sonics. The instrumental backdrop is hyper-agitated, faster than light, a soundtrack for an ADHD world. Initial taped phrases are hard to pick, but Falk plays his part as some kind of shapeshifting virtual MC to a tee. Electroacoustic elements are not unexpectedly rapid, crackling and glitchy but surprisingly smooth in textural terms, until the last couple of minutes at least. Falk’s intermittent shouting is more abrasive. #NetworkMusic is entertaining, frequently amusing and always arresting. Time will tell whether it bears repetition in one’s living room.
Equally dizzying and disorienting is General Theory of Relativity; according to the booklet this fascinating piece is scored for clarinets, piano, percussion and violin but you’d never guess as much if you just listened to the opening three minutes which are dominated by electronic loops and recorded fragments of so-called politicians’ and officials’ post-truth speeches (all of which allude to the non-existence of ‘facts’ and the pre-eminence of ‘interpretation’). The piece marries free-jazz chaos, taped speech (whose inflections are cleverly mirrored by instrumental rhythm and pitch in the manner of Steve Reich or Peter Ablinger), blocks of instrumental and synthetic din and at one point wild applause. It’s a brilliantly realised conception, powerful and imaginative and terrifying in the manner of an Adam Curtis film. In this case the life-or-death importance of the themes Błażejczyk is tackling render it likely that this bold and thorny piece will indeed transcend its era.
Those of us who became adults in the early 1980s will recognise the apocalyptic three letters M.A.D. as the signature abbreviation for the suffocating atmosphere of the cold war. Many will look at today’s geo-political crises with vivid memories of the potential for ‘mutually assured destruction’ with a similar level of dismay unshaken by age, experience or world-weary cynicism. In Błażejczyk’s eponymous piece (scored for three brass, percussion, string quintet and piano) he transcribes elements of war theory into an eight minute instrumental episode. It proceeds from an explosive drum tattoo and pseudo martial fanfares, via rumbling explosions of timpani and bass-drum, scything shards of string texture, alarm gestures and numbing silences toward an evocation of physical action and horrified response. Prettified interludes of sad violins and ethereal tuned percussion presumably reflect the latter, their beauties somehow irrelevant and utterly unconsoling. M.A.D provides plenty of evidence that Błażejczyk is equally talented when it comes to writing for conventional instrumental ensembles. This brief work might be sobering and grim, but it is also compelling, exciting and superbly performed here.
The ironically titled Angels of Peace sounds as though it requires larger forces than the oboe, bass-clarinet, horn and double-bass quartet identified. There’s a lot of vocalisation on the part of the performers (grunting, howling, chanting) and percussive sounds (mostly emanating from the bass and clarinet, I suspect). The dominating feature of the work is the repetitive, unwieldy march kicked off by the double bass at the start; this gesture diminishes and expands, and persists throughout the piece. The strings on the instrument seem to be deliberately less taut, so as to project a more generalised ‘ensemble’ sound. Imagine the ominous martial opening of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra played ad infinitum in a dry acoustic on broken instruments by an inebriated band of provocateurs. There are any number of military allusions in the work, among them bombastic joke trumpet fanfares and berserking-style roars, so it comes as little surprise that the piece is actually Błażejczyk’s acerbic response to the current Russian interventions in parts of the Ukraine, a project which continues to make ever more alarming headlines. The title alludes to an infamous speech made at some point in the past by the current Russian president detailing his ‘wholehearted’ commitment to universal peace; this is delivered in full by the French horn player who intones the text through his mouthpiece. The experts do say that one way of blunting the impact of a threatening figure is to reduce them to infantile, quasi-comedic banality. This does the job most effectively. The sound and content of Angels of Peace adds up to effective satire of the bleakest kind.
The album concludes with Aether, one of Błażejczyk’s most recent works, a literal manifestation of the composer’s engagement with technology in that it incorporates the readings from a device called a Soma Ether, which he used to record levels of electromagnetic radiation in certain locales around Warsaw. The timbres that emerge at first are strange, unsettled, oscillating between the near inaudible and loud, granulated rumbles. Instrumental sounds permeate these discomfiting textures, until a regular sequence of loud, complex pulses takes over and duly implodes into a neon blend of acoustic and synthetic sounds. By 3:35 a glassy halo survives, contracting and expanding to absorb bleak clouds of instrumental monochrome. This becomes more pronounced, glowering and even threatening. At 6:45 a backdrop of fresh electroacoustic timbre prevails, underpinned by an irregular glitchy pulse, before wailing brass and high pitched instrumental noise blow it away, leaving just the disarming bleeps of the radiation device. As an experimental piece of meaningful sonic art Aether makes its mark, but it’s unlikely to make the mixtape that we’ll be using as background music next time we invite all our society friends to a dinner party.
I take my hat off to Wojciech Błażejczyk, a rare example of a composer who seems more than prepared to make the kind of music that’s likely to ruffle those feathers that need ruffling. Looking in from the outside, I only wish that there were more like him elsewhere. Despite its darkness and irony, much of the music on this disc is seems compelling and important. It’s performed with Klangforum’s customary levels of commitment and vim. The vivid recordings will leave no listener wondering. Rather than speculate about its continued relevance over future decades, perhaps it’s sufficient for now to be glad that individuals like Błażejczyk continue to shake the tree at the same time as documenting a world where the pace and quality of change becomes ever more bewildering for a hefty percentage of the rest of us.