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Gryka interialcell 0015110KAI
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Aleksandra GRYKA (b. 1977)
Youmec for harpsichord and tape (2006) [5:59]
Interialcell for ensemble (2003) [6:53]
Emtyloop for string quartet (2020) [12:00]
einerjedeneither for ensemble (2011) [12:24]
Mutedisorder for ensemble (2015) [9:30]
Florian Müller (harpsichord), Andreas Harrer (technician), Klangforum Wien/Johannes Kalitzke
rec. January and February 2021, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria
KAIROS 0015110KAI [46:50]

Whilst it doesn’t exactly make a critic’s job any easier, it is to Aleksandra Gryka’s great credit that she steadfastly refuses to play the PR game, or at least to observe the ancient conventions of explaining her artistic aims, outlining her means and justifying their execution. Discussing herself in a brief introduction she provides a confident (some might say brash) evaluation of her place in the great scheme of contemporary Polish music, alludes to her extra-musical interests in “science, cosmology and fantasy”, touches on the enigmatic compound titles she selects for her pieces, teases the reader by describing their common quality of “provok[ing] various interpretations” and basically leaves it at that. A more generalised booklet note provides a more detailed biography but little more; in other words, Gryka is content to let the music do the talking.

Youmec strikes me as being an impressive, unusual harpsichord concertino-type-thing with a striking electroacoustic element (the ‘technician’ Andras Harrer is credited on the disc along with Klangforum’s Florian Müller as the soloist). The harpsichord’s contribution throughout seems driven by a repeated bass arpeggio at the work’s outset, and by subsequent hints of melody and gesture. Electronic crackles, pops and auras coalesce to provide an attractive and mysterious backdrop. The piece has an agreeable stop-start quality which emphasises the unexpected in an attractive rather than irritating way. The narrative for the soloist borders on the aggressive, but this adds excitement and a brusqueness that sits well with Gryka’s ‘non-philosophy’. More than once the electronic element reminded me of Kid A or Amnesiac era Radiohead, a comparison which is intended as a compliment. I thought I might have also detected a suggestion of techno towards the conclusion. In any event I really liked this piece. In one important respect though the booklet has got it wrong; I listened long and hard for evidence of acoustic instruments; according to Gryka’s own page on the CulturePL website Youmec is scored for harpsichord “and tape”, rather than ensemble. I have made the appropriate correction in my listing above.

Interialcell for an ensemble of nineteen players is the earliest piece on this monograph. A blast of percussion and brass suggests we’re in for a slice of free jazz, and while what follows doesn’t entirely dispel that impression the threatening bass-drum pulse in the opening bars pulls the piece elsewhere. Interialcell is packed with incident; its unsettled progress perhaps a reflection of a structure which seems to consist of a sequence of discrete micro-interludes, somehow connected by tiny threads of colour or pulse. Gryka’s ear for tiny inflections of instrumental texture or unexpected emphasis is most impressive; this six minute work is replete with invention and contrast.

I think Emtyloop is actually a string quartet rather than an ensemble piece (another labelling error); four string players from Klangforum perform it here in a recording laid down in January 2021 but its world premiere by the JACK Quartet was actually scheduled to take place the following September at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, although I am unable to confirm that the recital went ahead as planned. In any case this music is as spiky and uncompromising as any on the disc. An aggressive opening slows to a stop before the instruments swiftly regroup and restore the initial ferocity of sound. Emtyloop conveys a rather mannered staccato feel, oscillating between repeated threads of melody, sul ponticello knockings and the inhalations and exhalations of the players themselves. These breathing sounds dominate a section from 4:02 before a thicket of Xenakis-like glissandi threatens to overwhelm the structure. Some of the angular contrasts which follow seem vaguely industrial but dissipate in due course into a delicately textured tremolando passage from 9:00 which seems significant in the scheme of things. Emtyloop ultimately convinces through the familiarity realised in the listener by Gryka’s ingeniously deployed repetitions.

einerjedeneither from 2011 involves another substantial ensemble comprising sixteen players, some of whom double up (if the booklet is to be believed in this case). A fruity bass-clarinet is prominent in the chaotic opening bars; the brouhaha yields to high strings, distant crackling, a voice humming operatically, yet more breathing noises presaging expressions of awe and surprise, a cymbal driven tumult and even some strange interjections of conventional piano sound whose sheer normality shocks the ear. There’s a lot of rather disconnected piano in the weave of this piece, which eventually melts into a fragment which could be a distant cousin of the funeral march from Webern’s Op 6 orchestral pieces. A sequence of echo gestures emerges in time until a crisis is triggered by a banshee howl and an alarm in the brass. Einerjedeneither resolves amid a haze of string harmonics and gossamer slivers of string sound.

The disc concludes with Mutedisorder, seemingly scored for a small group of clarinets, violin, piano and percussion. Regularly spaced breathy distant thuds emerge from an ambient background which could be distant rainfall. Odd scrapings and muted vocalisations add to a general sense of disconnection. Gryka throws flavours of jazz piano, sax, snare drum and percussion driven industrial noise into the pot, effecting an unfettered bass heavy dance in the process. Abrupt dissonant and resonant piano chords temporarily curtail the beat, until the dance continues unabated, punctuated by morse tappings whilst the rainfall sounds seem to encroach ever closer. Quiet, seemingly random interjections from clarinet and percussion interject until the sound of rain is all that remains and the piece ends abruptly. Mutedisorder is sonically intriguing, carefully arranged, and I suspect that the composer might approve of my appraisal that it is utterly uninvolving in an emotional sense.

Ultimately I found Youmec to be the most rewarding experience on this disc – an innovative and colourful workout for an old instrument in a strange environment. Performances and recording standards throughout seem exemplary. Whilst Gryka certainly has a penchant for creating unexpected sonic juxtapositions that seem to make a peculiar kind of sense, having played this disc through three times by now I’m still unsure as to what to make of it. Maybe that chimes with the quasi-manifesto she presents in her note, and especially these words with which I conclude this review: “The narrative is usually torn, fragmentary and always incomplete, it leaves the listener unsatisfied”.

Richard Hanlon

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