• Boundaries and Definitions (2008)
Boundaries and Definitions:
The Compositional Realities of Polish Sonorism
This article was first published in Zbigniew Granat (ed.), ‘Sonoristic Legacies. Towards New Paradigms in Music Theory, Aesthetics and Composition’ Muzyka 2008/1 (208) (Warsaw: Instytut Sztuki PAN, 2008), 7-16. The articles in this special issue of Muzyka were first heard as papers given on 11 July 2007 at a double session organised by Zbigniew Granat during the 18th Congress of the International Musicological Society in Zürich.
What is sonorism? Or should we say ‘sonoristics’? Both terms are used in musicological literature today. I shall try in this paper to provide a general context of the existing literature on the topic. I shall look at boundaries (geographical and cultural) and at definitions (chronological, technical and aesthetic). I will touch upon the rationales for the inclusion or exclusion of composers and compositions within these definitions. And I shall end by looking at the issue of harmony when it comes to sonorism.
As a term, ‘sonorism’ has had a fairly limited currency. Its invention by Józef Chomiński in 1956 really registered musicologically only in Polish circles. Of course, his original term was not sonoryzm but sonorystyka (‘sonoristics’). At that point, its boundaries were historical, in other words it looked back in time, primarily at European music of the first half of the twentieth century. The second stage in the life of sonorism was its subsequent application to recent music by Polish composers, notably in the 1960s. Even though this new music broke cultural and geographical boundaries that no previous Polish music had done so quickly, ‘sonorism’ as a term did not travel with it. It remained obstinately Polish in its usage. I hope to shed some light on why this should have been and why the term has never really taken hold elsewhere. The Second Edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001) has no entry on sonorism or sonoristics. (1) Zygmunt Szweykowski’s entry on Chomiński in New Grove does, however, outline the main elements of the theory of sonorystyka. (2) MGG likewise has no entry under ‘sonorism’, but Mieczysław Tomaszewski’s 2005 article on Penderecki refers to the terms Klangflächen and Klangmaterial. (3)
Perhaps we should consider whether such terms are regarded as genuinely equivalent to sonorism. Irena Poniatowska’s profile of Chomiński in MGG does not mention sonorystyka or any German-language equivalent. (4)
Even in Poland, ‘sonorism’ and ‘sonoristics’ seem to have dropped from sight in the 1970s. They are notably absent from two volumes translated into various languages as part of the Polish promotion of its new music abroad: Ludwik Erhardt’s Music in Poland and Grzegorz Michalski’s contribution to Tadeusz Ochlewski’s An Outline History of Polish Music. (5) Even in a more recent Polish volume, Encyklopedia muzyki, (6) the reader will look in vain until he or she finds Chomiński’s entry on ‘Sonologia’, where our term is used solely in its adjectival form, sonorystyczny (sonoristic). (7) The reappearance of sonorism as a musicological tool in the late 1970s (for example, in Krzysztof Droba’s 1978 article on Górecki in Ruch Muzyczny) (8) suggests that it had been merely dormant, not defunct. Its steady presence over the past thirty years therefore suggests that, at least in Poland, it is still considered a valuable component in musicological thinking, if not in general parlance.
What was more commonly used to describe the new Polish music after 1956 was the soubriquet ‘Polish School’. By the way, this was not the first time it had been used – Zygmunt Mycielski evoked it at the socialist-realist Łagów conference in 1949:
The composer is to create Polish music, though that does not mean folk quotations but music whose melodic contour, rhythm, form, harmonies and overall atmosphere add up to features that make it possible to distinguish a given work as belonging to or developing further the creative elements characteristic of the Polish musical school. (9)
Seven years later, the programme book of the first ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival resurrected the idea, even putting quotation marks around the term:
Thanks to the current Festival, foreign musicians will have the opportunity for the broad study of outstanding works of contemporary Polish music, while composers of the ‘Polish school’, which can boast fine successes in the international arena, will gain valuable opportunities for comparison between their successes and those of composers from other countries. (10)
It seems, therefore, that the psyche of Polish culture was not unfamiliar with the concept of a collective ‘School’.
In terms of music after 1956, however, ‘Polish School’ needs to be treated with the utmost caution. It was a catch-all label that seemed appropriate at the time, particularly to foreign observers. (11) One Polish perspective on the ‘Polish School’ was provided by Michalski. In 1978 he wrote: ‘This phrase used by foreign music critics in the late fifties has never been clearly explained, and is still somewhat enigmatic to Polish musical circles’. (12) More recently, Zbigniew Skowron has implied that Lutosławski, for one, was not part of the Polish School. He writes:
[Lutosławski] witnessed the appearance on the musical scene of younger colleagues, such as Penderecki and Górecki, who, together with Baird and Serocki, laid the foundations of the ‘Polish School’ of the 1960s. (13)
Skowron sees Lutosławski as a witness, not a founder-member. If this definition of ‘Polish School’ excludes Lutosławski, so must it also distance him from sonorism. That therefore brings into question how other figures such as Bacewicz and Baird fit into the remit of these two non-congruent terms. Yet Leszek Polony, for one, seems to equate the Polish School with sonorism, to see them as congruent: ‘the phenomenon of the Polish compositional school, Polish sonorism’. (14)
For the purposes of this paper, I shall concentrate on the application of ‘sonorism’ to Polish music after 1956. (15) What follows is an outline that is concerned more with the composer’s point of view than the theoretician’s.
On an anecdotal, circumstantial level, it is interesting to note how few compositional titles incorporate this term. After the lone early example of Bogusław Schaeffer’s Equivalenze sonore (1959), the others that I have come across all date from the mid-60s into the mid-70s, rather later than we might expect if composers were deliberately associating themselves with sonorism rather than, as is surely the case, being associated after the event with this musicological construct. These pieces include Witold Szalonek’s Les sons (1965), Penderecki’s first De natura sonoris (1966), Szalonek’s Improvisations sonoristiques (1968), Penderecki’s second De natura sonoris (1971), Marta Ptaszyńska’s Spectri sonore (1973) and Marek Stachowski’s Poème sonore (1975). We might also include works like Włodzimierz Kotoński’s Klangspiel (Gry dźwiękowe, 1967). In other words, there are no works with such titles from the period which I call ‘high sonorism’. (16)
Now, by introducing a qualifier (‘high’), I enter into a very murky world. If the early-to-mid-60s are ‘high’, what is ‘low’? One alternative categorisation [for ‘high’] has been suggested by Teresa Malecka in the opening paragraph of an article on Penderecki’s First Symphony:
Penderecki’s instrumental music […] may be labelled today as classic sonorism. In it were realised all the typical features of this trend. There ensued a fundamental change to the hierarchy of musical values: in place of melody, harmony, metre and rhythm, sound became the form-creating, tectonic agent. Pitch as such ceased to have a vital role – colour was now dominant. The sound shape became the essential architectonic unit instead of the motif. (17)
If Teresa Malecka’s characterisation of Penderecki’s music from 1960-62 as ‘classic’ sonorism is valid, what or who else is included in ‘classic’, and what is excluded for being ‘non-classic’? Among musicologists who have suggested other qualifiers are:
• Krzysztof Droba (discussing Górecki): he suggests sonoryzm katalogowy (catalogue sonorism) regarding Górecki’s music of the early 1960s, sonoryzm redukcyjny (reductive sonorism) concerning Refrain (1965) and Canticum graduum (1969), and even the idea of ‘prekompozycja sonorystyczna’ (‘sonoristic precomposition’) for Refrain onwards. (18)
• Regina Chłopicka brackets Penderecki’s music of 1958-62 under ‘dramatized sonorism’. (19)
• Mieczysław Tomaszewski indicates that ‘in Psalms [of David, 1958], dodecaphony meets the Netherland School, sonorism meets chorale. […] Then the punctualist Strophes  brought a sonorist resonance to the words of old sages’. (20)
• Where Teresa Malecka uses the term ‘classic’ sonorism for Penderecki’s pieces from 1960-62, Danuta Mirka calls these years Penderecki’s ‘sonoristic period proper’, further dividing it into an initial phase (Anaklasis, Threnody, Dimensions of Time and Silence and String Quartet) and a mature phase (Polymorphia, Fluorescences, Canon). (21)
Further qualifying terms include Tomaszewski’s suggestion that in Emanations, Anaklasis, Polymorphia, Threnody (above) and Fluorescences ‘Sonorism evolved into brutism’. (22) More drastically, Małgorzata Gąsiorowska conflates sonorism with ‘vitalism’ (a term which has even less currency than sonorism) by talking about witalizm ‘sonorystyczny’. (23) And there is one more double ‘-ism’ attached to Penderecki’s music: Lidia Rappaport-
Gelfand’s ‘sonoristic expressionism’, (24) not to be confused, I suspect, with Tomaszewski’s less controversial but more commonly invoked sonorystyczna ekspresywność (sonoristic expressivity). (25)
Rappaport-Gelfand’s description of Zygmunt Krauze’s Folk Music (1972) – albeit in an oddly uncommunicative translation – teases open some technical issues:
in Folk Music, aleatorism, sonorism, collage and other techniques are eccentrically woven. […] A peculiar situation arises – ‘a sonorism in reverse’. The phonic sounding, which the composer aims to achieve[,] must be deliberately flattened out, and lose its character’. (26)
In his study of Polish music between 1945-84, Krzysztof Baculewski heads the relevant section sonorystyka, not sonoryzm. Thereafter, he drops sonorystyka, preferring the Polish word brzmienie (sound) and using the adjectival sonorystyczny sparingly (it appears just 13 times). He deals with technical components under sub-headings: Brzmienia homogeniczne i poligeniczne (Homogeneous and heterogeneous sounds), Procesy transformacyjne (Transformation processes), Nowa artykulacja (The new articulation) and Dynamika i wolumen (Dynamics and volume). (27) Such terminology seems to depart and distance itself from the ties with our term, unlike Tomaszewski’s 1996 sub-headings sonoryzm aleatoryczny (aleatoric sonorism) (28) and symfonizm sonorystyczny (sonoristic symphonism). (29)
There have been several attempts to pinpoint the main technical elements of sonorism [in Muzyka this originally read: ‘the main elements of what I think of as ‘modern’ sonorism’ (AT)]. Central to any discussion is Chomiński’s contribution, in which he explored the essence of modern sonoristics under five headings: the technology of sound, the regulation of time, horizontal and vertical structures, sound transformation, and technique and form. (30) I particularly cherish his description of the composer’s command of these five ‘problems’ as ‘sonoristic regulation’.
Two years earlier, Tadeusz Zieliński had offered six elements of Klangflächenmusik which might readily be understood on a practical level: (1) sound colour (often enriched by new means of articulation), (2) dynamics, (3) sound shape in time and space (its length, width and thickness, organisation of lines and bands, points, inflections and arabesques on various patterns), (4) motion and stasis (various means of motion, motion in three-dimensional space), (5) combination of simultaneous layers of sound, (6) integration and variability of sound image in the temporal course. (31)
These and other definitions are worthy of further discussion.
Harmony and Inclusivity-Exclusivity
In the remaining portion of this article I would like to outline the one area which I think is problematic when it comes to defining the spread of sonorism across the spectrum of composers working in Poland in the 1960s. And this is the question of harmony.
Chomiński discusses tone-clusters, defining them strictly as consisting of semitones or quartertones. He discusses ‘intensive intervals’ (seconds, tritones, sevenths and ninths) and homogeneous and polygeneous sonorities, terminology later picked up by Baculewski. Interestingly, he seems to sideline those vertical structures which employ what he calls the ‘harmonic factor’, and he ascribes greater value to thos structures outside harmony, i.e., to some extent pure structures. (32) If we accept Chomiński’s apparent hierarchy in which harmonic matters do not occupy centre-stage, then inevitably we begin to be able to separate out some composers from others. And this is because, in other respects, most of the experimental composers in 1960s Poland, from whatever generation, absorbed most if not all of the other parameters outlined by Chomiński, Zieliński and others. By Chomiński’s definition, Lutosławski might be deemed too ‘impure’ to be sonoristic, too fond of ‘intensive intervals’ (harmonically) and of harmonic progressions. Despite Lutosławski’s own use of phrases such as magma dźwiękowa (sound magma) and kompleksy dźwiękowe (sound complexes), both phrases using another Polish word for ‘sound’ (cf. Baculewski’s and others’ use of brzmienie), the subtleties of Lutosławski’s harmonic language are audibly effective. (33) Even in the central movement of Trois poèmes (1963), when Lutosławski is at his most ‘colouristic’, harmonic thinking characterises the climactic moment. We might likewise discount Serocki, whose pitch structures in the 1960s very
often work like Lutosławski’s. It is noticeable that, in the coverage of the 1960s in his monograph on Serocki, Tadeusz Zielinski steadfastly avoids any use at all of sonorystyka, sonorystyczny or sonoryzm. (34) Even those works by Bacewicz and Baird which peek a glance at sonorism, such as Bacewicz’s colouristic Pensieri notturni (1961) or Baird’s incidental music Etiuda (1961), give pre-eminence to pitch organisation. Meantime, the younger generation, like Krauze and Tomasz Sikorski, maintained a discrete harmonic distance from sonorism. Yet such distinctions are sometimes uncomfortable. In what sense are Penderecki’s or Górecki’s clusters non-harmonic? Are they not, too, interested in pitch? In this sense, it comes down to Chominski’s observation about ‘the selectivity of components’. (35) When the ear cannot distinguish between intervallic components, then, he implies, sonorism takes over. That is why, for the most part, composers like Lutoslawski and Serocki in the 1960s stand outside the boundaries of sonorism.
What happens, though, with a figure like Wojciech Kilar, whose music from the early 1960s was highly regarded? Yet Riff 62 (1962), Générique (1963) and Diphthongos (1964) have today become historical footnotes (only Riff 62 has been commercially recorded). Why should this be, given Kilar’s continuing eminence in Polish musical life? Could it be that these pieces, each in its own way, compromised the purity of sonoristic ideology as embodied in those same years by the ‘classic’ Penderecki? Did Riff 62’s jazz element jar (cf. the impact of Serocki’s Swinging Music, 1970)? Was Générique’s origins in Paris traffic jams (36) too picturesque or filmic? Was Diphthongos’s ethnic derivation from Trobriand Island songs insufficiently rigorous compositionally? In other words, were these pieces too slight technically and aesthetically, too eclectic? Did they not, eventually, ‘fit’?
This brings me back to Malecka’s phrase, ‘classic sonorism’. She uses this to describe Penderecki’s music between 1960 and 1962. By implication, therefore, there is ‘non’-classic sonorism elsewhere. Put another way, other pieces by Penderecki, and probably other works by other composers, are not ‘classic’ in sonoristic terms. It is surely significant that Penderecki is used as a touchstone; he is the centre of this particular universe. It is because Penderecki’s language in these works is so concentrated that it draws attention to itself and becomes the focus for this particular ‘-ism’. I wonder, therefore, whether the term sonorism, if appropriated in this way, is being hijacked and its usefulness diminished.
The fun – and it is fun! – lies in the discussion of those elements which compromise ‘classic’ sonorism, those ‘impurities’ that stretch and deepen the range of expressive musical language. I have already noted some of the major qualifiers (usually associated with Penderecki or Górecki): ‘catalogue sonorism’ and ‘reductive sonorism’ (Droba), ‘dramatized sonorism’ (Chlopicka). There have been linkages with bruitism (Tomaszewski), vitalism (Gasiorowska) and expressionism (Rappaport-Gelfand). There has even been ‘sonorism in reverse’ (Rappaport-Gelfand on Krauze’s Folk Music)! In terms of periodisation, Penderecki’s music of the early 1960s has been characterised as ‘classic’ sonorism (Malecka), ‘high’ sonorism (Thomas), and the ‘sonoristic period proper’ (Mirka).
I would like to close with another, not entirely serious thought. Most ‘-isms’ have an afterlife. Mirka uses the standard qualifier ‘late’ when discussing sonorism in Penderecki’s music from 1963-73. This music is still sonoristic to a large degree. But where are the qualifiers for sonorism’s afterlife? Mirka may call The Awakening of Jacob (1974) Penderecki’s first post-sonoristic piece, but the use of ‘post-’ here is merely a chronological signifier of change and does not work in the sense that most post-isms do. (37) Where is the real ‘post-sonorism’ or ‘neo-sonorism’? How might they be properly defined and explored not only in Penderecki’s output but elsewhere? How, for example, might we discuss recent music by composers like Tadeusz Wielecki, such as his Id for orchestra (1996), or, across the past five decades, electronic, electro-acoustic or computer music? Is the general absence of post- and neo-sonorism from musicological discourse significant? At least we have been spared the terminological qualifiers associated with sonorism’s diametric opposite, serialism. Can you imagine ‘integral sonorism’, ‘total sonorism’ or ‘systematic sonorism’? Actually, Mirka seems to have suggested that Penderecki did move in this direction when she wrote about his ‘sonoristic structuralism’.
However we might view this idea, the really potent story of Polish sonorism lies in the creative variations imagined by each composer. Perhaps, though, we would do better to use ‘sonoristics’ rather than ‘sonorism’, as the former is a flexible theme and construct while the latter, despite or because of the many qualifiers, has become a restrictive term. Where ‘sonorism’ might be said to have stylistic and chronological limitations, ‘sonoristics’ remains inclusive and open to broad as well as detailed observations that go beyond composers and periods. As such, its application, rather than that of ‘sonorism’, may well yet spread the sonoristic message beyond Polish confines.
© 2008 Adrian Thomas
(1) I am reliably informed that Zbigniew Granat has written one for the online edition, although it was not available at the time of this writing. [UPDATE: Zbigniew Granat contributed the article ‘Sonoristics, Sonorism’ to Grove Music Online, <www.oxfordmusiconline.com>, in October 2008.].
(2) Zygmunt M. Szweykowski, ‘Chomiński, Józef’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition (Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, eds), (London, 2001), vol. 5, 705-6.
(3) Mieczysław Tomaszewski, ‘Penderecki, Krzysztof’, MGG Personenteil (Kassel, 2005), vol. 13, 265-70.
(4) Irena Poniatowska, ‘Chomiński, Józef M.’, MGG Personenteil (Kassel, 2005), vol. 4, 970-72.
(5) Ludwik Erhardt, Music in Poland (Warsaw, 1975); Grzegorz Michalski, ‘New Music’, An Outline History of Polish Music (Tadeusz Ochlewski, ed.) (Warsaw, 1978).
(6) Encyklopedia Muzyki (Andrzej Chodkowski, ed.) (Warsaw, 1995, rev. 2001).
(7) Chomiński had, in fact, used the umbrella term sonologia since at least the mid-1970s.
(8) Krzysztof Droba, ‘Droga do sensu tragicznego’ (The road to the tragic sense), Ruch Muzyczny 22/15 (1978), 3-4.
(9) Quoted in Adrian Thomas, Polish Music since Szymanowski (Cambridge, 2005), 45; see also Zygmunt Mycielski, ‘O zadaniach Związku Kompozytorów Polskich’ (On the Tasks of the Polish Composers’ Union) Ruch Muzyczny 5/14 (1949, 9-10.
(10) Quoted in Thomas, 86; see also Program festiwalu (Warsaw, 1956), 27-28.
(11) The ‘Polish School’ has as much validity as the ‘Manchester School’ in the UK, a term coined to cover the emergence of some talented composers studying in Manchester in the late 1950s (Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr).
(12) Michalski, 165.
(13) Zbigniew Skowron, ‘Lutosławski’s Aesthetics: A Reconstruction of the Composer’s Outlook’, Lutosławski Studies (Zbigniew Skowron, ed.) (Oxford, 2001), 5.
(14) Leszek Polony, Kilar. Żywioł i modlitwa (Kilar. Vehemence and Prayer) (Kraków, 2005), 84.
(15) I should point out that there are some authoritative studies to which I have not referred in this paper, including the writings of Hanna Kostrzewska and Iwona Lindstedt.
(16) Thomas, 180.
(17) Teresa Malecka, ‘I Symfonia Krzysztofa Pendereckiego’ (Krzysztof Penderecki’s First Symphony), Współczesność i tradycja w muzyce Krzysztofa Pendereckiego (Moderniy and tradition in the Music of Krzysztof Penderecki) (Regina Chłopicka and Krzysztof Szwajgier, eds) (Kraków, 1983), 176, quoted in Thomas, 161.
(18) Droba, 3.
(19) Regina Chłopicka, ‘Stylistic Phases in the Work of Krzysztof Penderecki’, Penderecki Studies 1 (Ray Robinson, ed.) (Princeton NJ, 1998), 54.
(20) Mieczysław Tomaszewski, ‘Penderecki. Changes and Nodes in his Creative Path’, Krzysztof Penderecki: Music in the Intertextual Era (Mieczysław Tomaszewski and Ewa Siemdaj, eds) (Kraków, 2005), 25.
(21) Danuta Mirka, The Sonoristic Structuralism of Krzysztof Penderecki (Katowice, 1997), 338-44. She queries ‘the regulative role of the sonoristic system in Fonogrammi (1961) and Psalmus 1961’, 339.
(22) Tomaszewski (Kraków, 2005), 25.
(23) Małgorzata Gąsiorowska, ‘Witalizm – panorama’ (Vitalism – A Panorama), Muzyka polska 1945-1995 (Polish Music between 1945-1995) (Herbert Oleschko, ed.) (Kraków, 1996), 60.
(24) Lidia Rappaport-Gelfand, Musical Life in Poland: The Postwar Years (New York, 1991), 72.
(25) Mieczysław Tomaszewski, ‘Sonorystyczna ekspresywność i alegoryczny symbolizm: symfonia polska 1944-1994’ (Sonoristic Expressivity and Allegorical Symbolism: The Polish Symphony 1944-1994), (Oleschko, 1996), 13-40.
(26) Rappaport-Gelfand, 80. In her book, she rather liberally uses the unusual ‘sonoric’ as well as ‘sonoristic’; the differentiation remains obscure.
(27) Krzysztof Baculewski, Polska twórczość kompozytorska 1945-1984 [Polish Compositional Output 1945-1984] (Kraków, 1987), 203-27. ‘Volume’, here, absorbs dimensions of density.
(28) Tomaszewski (Oleschko, 1996), 25.
(29) ibid., 30.
(30) Józef Chomiński, ‘Wkład kompozytorów polskich do rozwoju języka sonorystycznego’ (The Contribution of Polish Composers to the Development of a Sonoristic Language), Polska współczesna kultura muzyczna 1944-1964 (Polish Contemporary Musical Culture 1944-1964) (Elżbieta Dziębowska, ed.) (Kraków, 1968), 96-112. A different version of the same essay, omitting reference to sonoristics in the title – ‘Udział polskich kompozytorów w kształtowaniu nowoczesnego języka muzycznego’ (The Contribution of Polish Composers to the Shaping of a Modern Musical Language) – was published in Chomiński’s Muzyka Polski Ludowej (The Music of People’s Poland) (Warsaw, 1968), 127-171. This section was reprinted in English as ‘The Contribution of Polish Composers to the Shaping of a Modern Language in Music’, Polish Musicological Studies 1 (Zofia Chechlińska and Jan Stęszewski, eds) (Kraków, 1977), 167-215. This English version was the first opportunity that English-speaking readers had to investigate sonorism in any meaningful detail. See also Chomiński’s slightly different wording in his entry under ‘Sonologia’, Encyklopedia Muzyczna, 826-29.
(31) Tadeusz A. Zieliński, ‘Neue Klangästhetik’, Melos 7/8 (1966), 212; quoted in Mirka, 326.
(32) Chomiński 1977), 203.
(33) Witold Lutosławski on Trois poèmes, in Tadeusz Kaczyński, Rozmowy z Witoldem Lutosławskim (Conversations with Witold Lutosławski) (Kraków, 1972), 12-13.
(34) Tadeusz A. Zieliński, O twórczości Kazimierza Serockiego (On the Music of Kazimierz Serocki) (Kraków, 1985). Tomasz Kienik, however, highlights the term in his doctoral thesis, Instrumentalne kompozycie Kazimierza Serockiego – sonorystyczne dzieło muzyczne w swietle związków wysokościowo-barwowych (Instrumental Works of Kazimierz Serocki: The Sonoristic Musical Work from the Perspective of Pitch-Timbre Relationships) (Wrocław, 2007). I am grateful to Maciej Goląb’s conference paper presented at the 2007 IMS Congress in Zürich for this reference.
(35) Chomiński (1977), 195.
(36) Polony, 85.
(37) Mirka, 347.