• Włodzimierz Kotoński (1925-2014)
Thursday, 4 September 2014 1 Comment
News has just come in of the death of the Polish composer and teacher, Włodzimierz Kotoński. He was 89. Along with Jan Krenz (b.1926) and Bogusław Schaeffer (b.1929), Kotoński was the last major surviving Polish composer born before 1930. He was renowned as a composition teacher at the Music Academy in Warsaw and his roster of pupils reads like a list of many of the most significant Polish composers born after World War II, including Krzysztof Knittel (b.1947), Stanisław Krupowicz (b.1952), Paweł Szymański and Tadeusz Wielecki (b.1954), Hanna Kulenty (b.1961) and Paweł Mykietyn (b.1971). Kotoński also wrote a number of reference books: Percussion Instruments in the Modern Orchestra (1963), Electronic Music (1989) and Lexicon of Contemporary Percussion (1999).
Kotoński was a pioneer of electronic music in Poland. He created Study on One Cymbal Stroke (1959), the first Polish tape piece at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (founded in 1957). The ‘score’, with floppy disc, was published by PWM in 1972. He maintained his interest in electro-acoustic music throughout his career, having also produced the first Polish stereophonic tape piece (Microstructures, 1963), which was followed among other pieces by Klangspiel (Cologne, 1967) and AELA (1970). He was also one of the first Polish composers to embrace serialism after the ‘thaw’ and the first ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival in 1956, in his Chamber Music (1958).
After 1960, like many of his close contemporaries, Kotoński became freer in his techniques and his soundworld was marked by a preference for chamber-like combinations, even in the orchestral pieces, and this distinguished him from his more famous – and slightly younger – colleagues such as Górecki and Penderecki. Characteristic works of the 1960s include Musica per fiati e timpani (1963), Monochromia for solo oboe (1964) and A battere (1966). In the early 1970s, Kotoński inclined towards loosely programmatic ideas, often with the theme of ‘air’: Aeolian Harp (1973), Wind Rose (1976), Bora (1979) and Sirocco (1980). Another grouping concerned the seasons – Spring Music (1978), Height of Summer (1979), Autumn Song (1981) and Winter Journey (1995), which all combined electronic technology and chamber ensembles.
Kotoński subsequently wrote three symphonies (1995, 2002, 2006), several concertos (including one for electric guitar, 1994) and three string quartets (2002, 2008, 2013). The last work premiered at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’, in 2010, was Black Star, a festival commission for the visiting Percussions de Strasbourg. Regrettably, and ironically in his case, digital recording technology has largely ignored him. Last year, however, Polskie Nagranie’s ‘Awantgarda’ series did issue an archival CD of his early music (Muza PNCD 1521): Study on One Cymbal Stroke (1959), Musique en relief (1959), Musica per fiat e timpani (1963), Microstructures (1963), Music for 16 Cymbals and Strings (1969), AELA (1970), Les ailes (1973) and Aeolian Harp (1973). Sadly, the CD soon went out of print in 2013, although it may now again be available.
In my few meetings with him, Kotoński was modest and shy, but he had nothing about which to be modest or shy. His impact on Polish music for over sixty years was considerable, and Polish composers and musicians today – not to mention those abroad – will mourn his loss deeply.