A Vignette of Krysztof Penderecki

I was fortunate to hear Krysztof Penderecki at a public composer’s forum in Toronto: one of the world’s most renowned composers in an age where artistic diversity is making renown increasingly difficult to attain or justify. He is seventy six as of this writing, an age of such experience as to seem knowledgeable in everything, and has composed for so long as to put any dozen or more of my fellow students’ combined study to shame.

He had a witty little story about how his career was launched. Born in Poland between the wars, he grew up and studied under a communist regime that restricted among many things travel abroad. But there was a composition competition which awarded as its first prize a trip to study in the west. As Penderecki said, he simply, absolutely, “had to obtain first prize” (paraphrasing as best I can). He wrote three pieces, not only penning each piece in a different style but with a different hand: Penderecki’s right hand one, his left hand another, and the borrowed hand of a colleague the last. Three compositions he submitted in disguise, and three prizes he received: first, second, and third. But important also were the premieres of his prize winning works at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, by which he gained a foothold in international attention that would propel him over the years along a path of eminence.

Every five years or so, Penderecki says he undergoes a cycle of stylistic rebirth. After some time, a specific style of composition becomes boring, tiring, exhausted to him. Then he erases all that he knew, building a pyre out of all his past artifice and scaffolding and then arising “as a phoenix from the ashes,” into something different and new. This new existence he explores in detail before repeating the cycle. Penderecki said that a composer spends “a lifetime learning” their art and music. Every day, and even every hour, is a struggle to invent and discover something new, something unique in the rapidly expanding universe of all music that has ever been written or played. How does a composer face such an imposing legacy? By trying, continually trying, and always persisting.

Penderecki described himself and his colleagues in youth as “rebels, angry with the world” and even one another. It was the “second avant-garde”: in his description, a time when everything worth doing had to depart radically from the past; a time which, above all, forbade such devices of tradition as major chords. But rebellion always near to his heart, Penderecki’s Polymorphia travels through a vast chaos of tone clusters and extended techniques (much like his better known Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima), to a final, cathartic resolution at the “forbidden” C major chord. Since then, like many contemporary composers he has taken a more conservative path, looking retrospectively to the past for structures and modes of thought to apply to his phrases, harmonies, and forms. But it is his inquisitiveness and eager experimentation, rather than rebellion, which I find most admirable and worthy of emulation.

I asked the maestro a question: I asked, “what is the purpose of music, and why is it that we compose?” As with nearly every question posed him he replied (lightly, as he always did), “I don’t know.” But then he continued, and said, that “music is a form of communication.” “We want to communicate and share our thoughts and ideas, and express ourselves to others.” I have to say I was not entirely satisfied with this answer, but it was worthwhile to hear nonetheless. One question it raises is, does art require, in addition to the individual, a group of people – an audience, a society, a context – to truly function as art?

I think that, in a field so frighteningly imposing as the business of creating pure art, the simplest and most fundamental questions though much ridiculed are yet the most significant. It is because to some degree, the process that any individual artist uses, even if it could be described, is relevant only for that one person. Each of us in the end must answer only to ourselves and our artistic judgement, and this conception makes art a highly self-critical, and thus individualized, challenge. But the meta-artistic process of finding meaning in one’s life and work is a task that we share.

It may be a little strange that a composer of such gravity and age should have yet to crystallize his conception of music, but I suspect it is natural. You don’t need to begin with a reason to compose anymore than you begin knowing a reason to draw, to sing, or to exist. There may perhaps be no fundamental justification – that like all else, music exists simply because it does, acquiring its relevance from our experience of it. Or perhaps there is a reason… but like the ancient Pyyrhonists, who were skeptical even of the claim of the impossibility of all knowledge, we shall continually seek reasons for artistic expression whether there is a conclusive answer or no.

2010 January 27