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Stanczyk mosaique 0015108KAI
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Marcin STAŃCZYK (b. 1977)
Geysir-Grisey, for violin, viola, double-bass and two pianos (2006) [16:42]
Sighs, for chamber or symphony orchestra (2012) [15:35]
Mosa´que, for cello and electronics (2012) [7:03]
Blind Walk, for ensemble (2015) [19:29]
Afterhearings, for flute, clarinet, cello, guitar and piano (2015) [10:41]
Benedikt Leitner (cello); Andreas Harrer (technician)
Klangforum Wien/Patrick Hahn
Rec. January and March 2021, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna
KAIROS 0015108KAI [69:34]

Jan Topolski’s extensive and helpful essay refers at length to Marcin Stańczyk’s preoccupation with phenomena which, despite their apparent disconnection from the sound itself, somehow shape or frame the players’ production or the audience’s reception of his music. Topolski describes in explicit, digestible terms how each of the five works on this disc have been influenced in this way, and in so doing suggests how some of Stańczyk’s music (on a superficial level at least) might seem to constitute the missing link between composers broadly categorised as 'spectralists' on the one hand and the likes of sonic 'scientists' like Herbert Lachenmann on the other. Stańczyk is a figure whose name I have come to recognise more readily in recent years as a significant presence in the context of Polish music although it is unquestionably my loss that this is the first time I have encountered his work directly. He studied with Zygmunt Krauze and Ivan Fedele but only after graduating from law school; indeed he continues to work in the legal field (at an appeals court as well as in the role of ‘Chancellor’s Attorney for Equal Treatment’ at the University of Łˇdź) alongside his musical activities.

Appropriately, the first work on this portrait is the earliest and seems to reflect Stańczyk’s interest in spectral music during his late twenties, although Geysir-Grisey (the title itself is a serendipitous anagram) also addresses the composer’s interest in the natural world, in this case the particular geological processes and sonic consequences of the geysirs he encountered on a visit to Slovakia. Indeed, the deep bass thud which permeates the instrumental surfaces throughout the piece acts a metaphor for the systems that operate subterraneously beyond our conscious awareness, processes which have dramatic and frequently colourful consequences. In Geysir-Grisey, Stańczyk seems to be working to a conventional spectral formula of making a piece of unlimited variety from a restricted range of pitches, timbres and dynamics. Whilst the work might superficially seem to be the most conventional in this programme, it is bold, memorable and likeable. I really enjoyed the local reference implied by Stańczyk’s apparent allusion to the cimbalom in the last third of the piece. It’s performed with palpable drive with devout attention to its precise technical demands by three string players and two pianists from Klangforum.

The chamber (or full) orchestral work Sighs won the coveted Toru Takemitsu Award in Japan for Stańczyk in 2012, selected as it was by the single judge, one Harrison Birtwistle, who apparently described it as “…a piece I would like to have written…” It commences with a literal, rather explosive instrumental ‘sigh’, a gesture one encounters in spirit, if not in letter throughout its quarter hour duration. Sighs is simultaneously rhythmically restless and clearly textured, Stańczyk’s vertical superimposition of events and pulses at times seems similar to the strategies Birtwistle himself deployed in works such as Earth Dances, although the composer has pointed out that the title Sighs actually mirrors one of the signature gestures of Polish music, Chopin’s rubato, the sigh to end all sighs, and its apparent incongruity with the rush and heave-ho of contemporary life. Tiny pauses and spaces for rumination occasionally appear as if from nowhere, but are gone almost before the listener can grasp them. Sighs is a richly coloured, tactfully paced and tautly argued panel of inspired orchestral writing. This fine performance is deservedly blessed with an opulent and superbly detailed recording.

Mosa´que for cello and electronics skilfully blends synthetic and acoustic sounds in such a way that audiences might struggle to disentangle one sound source from the other. Cellist Benedikt Leitner’s bow is not required in this piece, and the recognisable pizzicato sounds may still be artificial in origin as different strummed effects seem to occur simultaneously. Siimilarly, the provenance of the regular vocalisations that are seamlessly incorporated into the weave of the work (breaths, sighs, humming, scat) is also unclear; they could in theory derive from the instrumentalist or the laptop. These voiced contributions reflect the diverse Parisian street sounds which appealed to the composer during a period of study at IRCAM. Mosa´que is simultaneously brusque, jazzy and diverting.

At 20 minutes, Blind Walk for an ensemble of fifteen players is the most extended work in this compilation. It’s also the most conceptually original. The players walk among the audience who are blindfolded, Stańczyk’s clever deployment of extended techniques for many of the performers renders listeners’ ability to identify individual sounds a challenge that is likely to confound their expectations, the task further complicated by the addition of everyday detritus (litter, dead leaves etc) to the surfaces upon which the musicians tread. Jan Topolski suggests that Stańczyk is teasing his audience, goading it to reconfigure its standard causal listening strategy (where one links a sound to a visible source) to a reduced version, focusing exclusively upon the sound itself. This of course is arguably what those of us who listen to CDs do in the first place. Breathing sounds and shimmering overtones dominate the textures of the opening, pricked intermittently by resonant woodblock clicks. The sound picture expands in due course to incorporate carefully placed string plucks, pianissimo elongated notes on seemingly distant single winds and brass, an extensive range of unidentifiable percussive sounds, whistles, hoots, birdcalls, guffawings, tom-toms, dislocated brass fanfares – it’s a jungle out there; or is it? Enormous tutti chords seek in vain to obliterate the chatter until the mysterious atmosphere with which the walk begun returns, slightly more familiar in its spirit, more focused in its execution. Blind Walk is a fascinating, inscrutable listen, engrossing in its mystery and often transcendental in its calmness. The interpolations are strange rather than especially harsh and serve to amplify the work’s singular, intense atmosphere. Inevitably one speculates about how one’s appreciation of the work might change to frustration during a sensorily deprived live performance.

Blind Walk is followed by the quintet Afterhearings, another piece which addresses the overlap between listeners’ expectations and their perception of music, an interface cognitive psychologists refer to as perceptual set. In this case Stańczyk is investigating the possibility of an auditory parallel to the visual phenomenon of the afterimage, whereby an individual stares at the sun before closing their eyes abruptly and seeing a series of weird shapes. Stańczyk makes use of techniques such as multiphonics in flute and clarinet and cluster chords for cello as he seeks to generate these Afterhearings. The overall effect seems delicate and meditative, almost random; it may be tightly controlled but it sounds anything but, nor is it any the worse for this apparent spontaneity. The second half of the piece seems characterised by a more pointed rhythmic basis. Whether or not the listener will be actively engaged in the disentanglement of actual from implied sound is an entirely different question; in any case Stańczyk’s music is compelling enough in itself to render it irrelevant.

Afterhearings concludes a most impressive monograph. These five examples of Marcin Stańczyk’s art are each underpinned by original concepts and distinctive sonic universes. The composer could not have wished for more intense or intensive engagement than that provided by the consistently brilliant Klangforum Wien, here directed by Patrick Hahn. The Kairos sonics are once more impeccable.

Richard Hanlon

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