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Duchnowski phonophantomatics 0015109KAI
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Cezary DUCHNOWSKI (b. 1971)
WELOVELIVE, for string quartet, soprano, sound constructions and electronics (2019) [16:02]
Drone Music, for ensemble and electronics (2014) [18:06]
phonoPhantomatics, for ensemble and electronics (2021) [27:50]
Parallels, for ensemble and electronics (2014) [10:16}
Agata Zubel (voice)
Klangforum Wien/Titus Engel
Rec. February and April 2021, Tonzauber studio, Vienna
KAIROS 0015109KAI [72:18]

This oddly named album is part of a sequence of four Kairos monographs each dedicated to young(ish) composers deemed to be at the cutting edge of Polish art music. These discs seem (at least in part) to have been sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and the Polish Ministry of Culture. There are many pieces featured in this tetralogy (the other issues are portraits of Marcin Stańczyk, Aleksandra Gryka and Wojciech Błażejczyk ) which I have enjoyed immensely, and very little which hasn’t impressed me, or which has seemed especially ‘ugly’ (whilst Kairos is among my favourite labels this adjective might occasionally be applied). On this evidence all four composers merit much wider currency. Each of them make music which is approachable, cleverly designed (I use that word deliberately) and surprisingly novel. These four pieces by Duchnowski each incorporate imaginative and extensive use of electronics. They are colourful and bear repetition. With one exception, what they are each ‘about’ is anybody’s guess; the rather inscrutable booklet note offers few clues (but plenty of biography). I have vainly surfed the web for further information.

As one half of the ElettroVoce Duo (voice and electronics) Duchnowski has a ready opportunity to collaborate with Agata Zubel, another Polish firebrand composer who moonlights as a soprano. For the present disc Kairos have simply designated the catch-all word ‘voice’ to describe her role in WELOVELIVE and that’s about right, given that her contribution could hardly said to be fixed or rigid. It seems to embrace a multitude of flavours which include percussive clicks, breathy sounds, cabaret, childrens’ playground songs, medieval troubadour music and at one point an impressive multi-tracked passage resembles the visceral passion conveyed in traditional Corsican polyphonic singing. Meanwhile Duchnowski’s kaleidoscopic assimilation of string quartet sound within a multi-hued symthetic backcloth creates a whole which defies easy description but generates a rich and peculiar beauty. If there is a formal text it isn’t provided, but I rather suspect any verbal production per se would prove meaningless in any case. The note provides no information whatsoever about WELOVELIVE (nor about two of the other works included here) – in this case that perhaps is not a bad thing. Think Hildegard meets Cathy Berberian meets Alvin Lucier meets The Cocteau Twins… really is the best I can do. In any case it’s a riveting, unsettling yet frequently beautiful opener.

Drone Music kicks of with a poppy flute, pungent accordion, percussion clicks and a single stringed instrument. These textures swiftly splinter over a gently fragmented piano solo and a ghostly violin, electronic bleeps and the hints of an organ drone, the one literal reference to the title of this piece that I can identify across its entire arc. The first section of the work seems to oscillate between these two broad sound worlds. Things change after about six minutes. Incongruous ‘punching’ gestures disconcert, in league with a stop/start motor noise. Little popping sounds and a looped flute suggest some kind of man-made environment breaking down. Time seems to speed up and slow down in an exaggerated manner. An insistent, rather rustic accordion gesture is disarming and hints that Drone Music might not in fact be completely serious. Another rise in intensity peters out lamely, revealing a timbre which resembles the sound which might be produced by a moth and a wasp trapped together in a corked bottle. The small ensemble (five players I think) seems larger than it is. Drone Music is quirky and engaging. If there is a concept behind it, I couldn’t begin to hazard a guess as to what it might be.

And so to the near half-hour work which lends its oddly styled title, phonoPhantomatics to this collection as whole. Jutrzenka Duchnowska’s note does provide some background here in her explanation of ‘phantomatics’, which she defines as “…the science of creating two-way connections between artificial reality and its recipient.” Thus the composer’s goal here is seemingly to incorporate a framework of reciprocal connectivity between acoustic sound sources (the instruments) and a synthetic (electronic) virtual environment where stimuli and responses trace and mirror each other. The work inevitably fuses through composition with improvisation. The sustained effect is one of dark fragility, Duchnowski’s sounds fading in and out of the picture in a scheme which creates a not unpleasant effect of disconnection and dislocation. In the first part of the work, the electronica takes its time to take hold, but it soon becomes the predominant essence within the immersive weave of the piece. At one point clarinets and accordions imitate ghostly zephyrs. Certain episodes bear a superficial resemblance to the rapidly interlocking motifs of a Nancarrow study; at other moments the spontaneity of the music gets close to free jazz. The sheer density of divergent material which frequently envelops the ear during phonoPhantomatics renders any sort of objective attempt at discrimination and analysis almost impossible – I suppose at those points the best policy is to sit back and allow the entire edifice to wash over you, although I do wonder whether the work’s extended length ultimately does it any favours. That’s not to say there are any noticeable longeurs; sometimes in music as unusual (and complex) as this, a detailed precis of the composer’s aesthetic goals can really help the listener. The brief summary of the philosophy that inspired phonoPhantomatics doesn’t really explain why the piece needs to be much longer than three other items on this disc; on the other hand there are no clues provided at all to help us unravel the meaning of WELOVELIVE, yet at sixteen minutes its duration seems ideal. The conclusion of phonoPhantomatics is certainly compelling, however; portentous trombone gestures inflate towards grandiosity and duly trigger a thrilling apotheosis; a huge, micromanaged crescendo which implodes in cymbals and white noise, revealing a chasm of glassy electronica, pricked by intermittent chirrupings, clicks, bleeps, rumbles and amplified keyboard phrases. Perhaps this is how the world ends….and why Duchnowski’s expansive vision takes its time to resolve.

Parallels, a chastely named piece scored for an electronically enhanced ensemble of cello, two pianos and percussion is more succinct. A ticking clock motif evolves into a kaleidoscope of piano, percussion and feedback sounds, before stately piano chords release a darker mood epitomised by a strident cello. Jazz drums provide a bridge to a revisiting of the initial, gentler, piano-led stylings of the opening. There is something rather Ivesian about the music here, a kind of modernised Central Park In the Dark, but an odd hiatus at 6:16 introduces a sequence of interlocking instrumentally linked cells which morph into harsh, repetitive gestures, presumably designed to disorientate the ear. This astringent ‘noise’ is most challenging; the silence which follows the conclusion provides balm for the ears. Parallels is clearly an illustration of Duchnowski’s more uncompromising side.

As ever, the precision playing of Klangforum Wien (here directed by Titus Engel) exudes commitment to Duchnowski’s cause. The Kairos sonics are exceptional – the synthesis of electronics and acoustic instruments optimally blended and sounding terrific through two speakers. It all adds up to absorbing, invigorating introduction to yet another contemporary Polish voice seeking and certainly deserving of your attention.

Richard Hanlon

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