The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Warsaw Autumn 

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One of Europe's biggest and oldest festivals of new music starts this Friday - the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music. The first was as long ago as 1956, just 3 years after Stalin's death, and it has been an annual event since 1958. As the first new music festival in Eastern Europe it became a beacon for both Communist bloc composers interested in the avant garde and Western critics with a taste for suppressed exotica. In its early years Warsaw was an immensely important festival, although this was possibly more to do with its newsworthiness than for its perceived musical importance. The London Times for example covered the festivals in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1962 - the New York Times covered 1956, 1959, 1961 and 1962. Yet the British quarterly The Musical Times didn't feature a report until 1966, the year that Penderecki's St Luke Passion, a work that had caught the imagination around Europe, was performed there; even this was only a 200-word notice.

By its very nature, the festival stood as a symbol of hope, and the sense of hopes fulfilled and dashed permeates many reviews of the festival. What is especially interesting in the early years of the festival is that the festival is encouraging two different sorts of hope, closely enmeshed with one another. The first is that it marked a symbolic end to Stalin's stranglehold over the arts. From as early as the 1958 festival, composers featured were experimenting with the avant-garde techniques they had come into contact with from the West - serialism, aleatory and the like - as well as developing new approaches that made sound itself a principle element of the music. (Over time this came to be known as 'sonoristic' music by the British press, although not until the mid-1980s, or 'Klangflächenmusik' by the Germans, who came up with a term 20 years before the Brits. Penderecki's Threnody is a prime example of the style.) From this point of view, the festival was a good thing - no longer were composers restricted to writing in the social realist style imposed upon them by their governments, but were free to write whatever and however they wished. For many composers, the most seductive thing about the serialist techniques of the West was that they created a purely abstract music, music that meant nothing and had no relationship to anything concrete at all - the polar opposite of socrealizm.

The other hope engendered in Western critics by the festival ran somewhat contrary to this however. For more than a decade, contemporary music had apprarently been chasing its tail as the avant garde around Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage had become more and more rarified, and seemingly further and further away from conventional musical values. In the high impact immediacy of the new works being heard in Poland many critics believed a way out of the avant garde's mathematical abstraction had been found - a path that led to music both modern and emotive. Over time however this appeared not to be the case - all too easily, critics felt that sonorism was as much a dead-end as total serialism. And anyway, by the late 1960s modern music's geographical focus had shifted once more, to the USA and minimalism.

Critical attention was focused on Warsaw Autumn because of these two hopes - intermeshed because, I believe, many thought that modern music's saviour would be an outsider, just as Bartók had been. Contemporary music had reached an impasse, but because of the slow thaw in the Soviet states, it was hoped the avant garde might grow there anew, and the way out of the impasse be lit from the East. When the world moved on and these hopes either didn't transpire or were no longer relevant, Warsaw lost some of its urgency on the musical scene. It is still an important event, but sadly no more so than any other festival, and it has been some years since it truly arrested the world's critical attention.

I however will be at my first Warsaw Autumn this year, and I'm dead excited. It's also my first time in Poland, so a good chance to try out a bit of the old język Polskie outside of the classroom. I'm not going for the full ten days - save that for next year I think - but I will still be there to see Michael van der Aa's new chamber opera One, Nono's La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura: Madrigale per più 'Caminantes' con Gidon Kremer, and in the final concert all four Lutosławski symphonies together. This is quite a rare event as Lutosławski wasn't much of a fan of his Second Symphony, so it doesn't get performed all that often. There will also be a whole bunch of new Polish music: in spite of all that might have changed, Warsaw Autumn has never given up its commitment to young Polish composers. In the gaps I will be exploring the city with a copy of David Crowley's book and a bottle of żywiec, and gathering up as much music as I can lay my hands on. Expect muchos reportage when I get back.

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