• WL100/24: Notebook, 11 March 1961

Lutosławski on New Instruments

New instruments, or the direction in which they should be investigated:
1) Piano enriched with different sounds (those that to date have been obtained by ‘preparation’ and others), achieved by means of mechanically moved nakładka on the strings, etc.. as well as percussive elements;
2) instruments which will fuse traditional instr. with electronic ones, e.g. double-bass, electr. guitar, etc.

Nowe instrumenty lub kierunek, w którym należałoby ich poszukiwać
1)  Fortepian wzbogacony o różne brzmienia (te, które uzyskuje się dotychczas przez “preparowanie” i inne) uzyskiwane za pomocą mechanicznie poruszanych nakładek na struny, etc. oraz elementów perkusyjnych;
2)  instrumenty będące połączeniem instr. tradycyjnych z elektronicznymi, jak np. kontrabas, gitara elektr. etc.

Witold Lutosławski, 11 March 1961  [my translation]

In mid-March 1961, Lutosławski was trying to complete Jeux vénitiens for its premiere in Venice on 24 April 1961. He had finished the final (fourth) movement just four days before he wrote this diary entry on 11 March, and he would complete the second movement two and a half weeks later (28 March).  At this pivotal point in his career, when he was not completely certain of how to develop his musical language ( although he had already started making use of aleatory procedures in the finale), he was evidently looking at a number of possibilities.

2)  instruments which will fuse traditional instr. with electronic ones, e.g. double-bass, electr. guitar, etc.

The idea for new instrumental construction never had any traction in Lutosławski’s further thinking.  He did, however, utilise extended oboe techniques in the Double Concerto (1980), written for Heinz Holliger and his wife Ursula.  But to my ears at least, this rare departure from his normal practice is not an entirely happy foray into untraditional sound sources.

1)  Piano enriched with different sounds (those that to date have been obtained by ‘preparation’ and others), achieved by means of mechanically moved nakładka on the strings, etc.. as well as percussive elements;

This observation is more interesting.  It implies that Lutosławski was aware of John Cage’s music for prepared piano. More intriguing is his use of the phrase ‘mechanically moved nakładka on the strings’.  Skowron (Lutosławski on Music, 2007, p.299) translates this as ‘mechanically moved objects placed on the strings’.  The first question is raised by ‘mechanically moved’.  What did Lutosławski have in mind – what type of mechanism?  Had he come across it in an existing piece by another composer or was it a flight of fancy on his part?  The second question – which I hope Polish readers may solve – is the meaning of nakładka.  It seems variously to mean flat metal or wooden objects (like fish-plates joining two stretches of railway rail, or the overlapping of planks on a clinker-built ship), or sheaths or covers to protect sharp objects.  I cannot work out quite how this transfers to piano preparation. Any ideas?

There is one unconventional technique that Lutosławski does employ.  It’s in Jeux vénitiens.  He does so in the two movements whose composition chronologically flanks this diary entry of 11 March 1961.  In the otherwise stylistically conservative second movement, which was not changed between the Venice premiere and the revised version that we know today, he uses ‘cylinders of stiff cardboard’ in bb.83-103.  The device also reappears in the finale, at letter H and from letter M to the end (although, as I have not seen the first version of this movement, I cannot say if the cylinders were used here originally).

In the second movement of Jeux vénitiens, six different lengths of cardboard tube are required for the two pianists (on one piano).  At b.83 (marked p), Player I depresses the white keys between specified pitches with a 60cm tube, the black keys with one that is 59.5cm long.  A moment later, Player II uses a 54.5cm tube for the white keys, 52.5cm for the black.  At b.87, Player I starts a series of p clusters at varying pitches using shorter tubes, 14.4cm for the white keys, 15.6cm for the black.

WL JV:II b.83

At letter H in the finale (part of the movement’s climax), the two players are instructed to use the (longest) tubes ff.

WL JV:IV letter H

Lutosławski’s technique at letter M in the finale is different.  Just one player is implied – the score does not indicate that a second player is required, although it might make it easier if two were involved.  Three and a half octaves are to be suppressed silently by the tubes (no length given): ‘hold them down with the elbow and left hand until the end’. On top of this, the right hand plays a little five-note riff.

WL JV:IV letter M

It seems to me that these three passages in Jeux vénitiens link in directly with Lutosławski’s first musing on 11 March 1961, even if he took his observations no further in subsequent pieces (not even in the central, percussive movement of his next work, Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux).

5 Responses to • WL100/24: Notebook, 11 March 1961

  1. Nakładki are also the things you attach to your walking boots to be able walk on ice in the mountains in the winter, so perhaps L had in mind flat objects attached to the surface of the strings? This is easy and produces a (probably for then) startling effect … although how any such object could be mechanically manipulated I’m not sure.

  2. jonathanpowell says:

    Yes, sort of, I think the same word is used, but I’ve come across these for walking, not for actually climbing *up* the mountains, I don’t dare do that!

  3. Maybe he was refering to the snowshows that look like rackets. To me this sounds like if maybe WL wanted to put a sheet on the strings, as other composers did, like for instance Villa Lobos in his Choros Nº8 for two pianos and orchestra of 1925. One of the pianos is almost ‘prepared’ as it has a sheet of hard paper on the strings. Otherwise maybe he is refering to a metalic bar that is swept on the piano strings by a second player, exactly as it happes in John Cage’s Third Construction in metal.

    • Thanks, Justino! I have seen no record of either the Villa Lobos or the Cage being performed in Poland by 1961, but that doesn’t mean to say that he wasn’t aware of them. Observations such as Lutosławski’s above could, of course, be based on conversations that he’d had with other composers, or on pieces he may have come across on his few trips abroad since 1956, such as his involvement in the ISCM festivals in Rome and Naples (1959) and Köln (1960). The plot thickens!

      Certainly, Lutosławski seems to be referring to something flat, that covers the string(s), but it’s not clear if this object is particular to one string or to several lying next to each other. Some sort of ‘shoe’ fitted over/round the string(s) sounds a possibility. But we have not yet solved the issue of ‘mechanically moved’…

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