Sunday, March 29, 2020

Krzysztof Penderecki 1923-2020, the composer without which The Shining would have been more boring and less scary

When I was between 19 and 21 as best I can recall I finally saw Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.  By the time I saw the film I had become acquainted with music by Bartok, Stravinsky, a bit of Messiaen and Penderecki.  What I found was that the movie was boring but perhaps, now that I'm in my forties, there's a possibility that as cinema passed through its first century what could seem like a tempo that builds suspense in one generation of cinema viewing is just torpid lingering to another generation of cinema viewing.  For instance, I rewatched Fritz Lang's Metropolis and while it plods compared to any blockbuster from the 1970s on it has a paradoxically lively tempo.  By contrast The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari isn't even half as long as Metropolis but feels like it trickles along with the tempo of water winding its way from the melting ice cube from which it has lately parted.  Or to quote Crow T. Robot , "For the love of G-d, would something please just happen!!??"

By the time I saw Kubrick's legendary King adaptation I was so acclimated to listening to music of the sort Penderecki was famous for composing that I was mainly bored with the Kubrick film.  I think I even said, "The soundtrack is great but this film is, honestly, pretty boring."  I have long since discovered that even though I can admire some films by Stanley Kubrick (2001) the only one I had any fun watching was Dr. Strangelove and I have found that Kubrick fans can be among the most annoying people in the whole wide world of arts conversations.

Interesting that Penderecki is reported as enjoying Radiohead, a band I just have no affection for.

Now I know Kyle Gann doesn't care for Penderecki and I haven't kept up with the composer's works from the last fifteen years but the St. Luke Passion was a piece I found riveting when I heard it in my 20s back in college.  I also ... know of someone who found his Capriccio for solo tuba inspiring when starting work on a chamber work for tuba and guitar. 

In some ways I've since found Lutoslawski and Ligeti more engaging but Penderecki has been one of those influences from my 20s and 30s as a composer that I can't help but note the composer's passing.  In a strange way I would say that the cultural legacy of Penderecki is, as the obits are showing us, more immediately pronounced in film as popular culture than within the realm of concert music.  He consolidated a lot of sounds without necessarily managing to seem, to me, as avant garde as many before and since him.  I'm not writing as an academic musicologist or music historian but as a hobbyist composer and guitarist there's this sense I have that Penderecki took ideas that were in some ways more concisely formulated by the likes of Xenakis or Varese or Lutoslawski and softened the edges of those kinds of sonic experiments to a point where there was a clearly high modernist gloss to music that could, with some effort, still communicate to people with more "traditionalist" sympathies.  The St. Luke Passion has a lot of high modernist 20th century techniques and sounds but as they were all woven into a musical account of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ the musical depictions of horror and suffering were congruent with the extra-musical narrative aims of the musical work.  As Penderecki would later note, when it came time to compose his Credo he used a very different musical language because the musical tools useful in a work narrating the death of Christ or evoking the victims of Hiroshima are not useful (at all, or in the same way) in a musical profession of faith. 

To piggyback on Kyle Gann's stated indifference to Penderecki it might be said that Penderecki's poly-dialect musical approach might not connect with people because polystylistic composition was rampant in the mid-20th century.  There was Schnittke and there was Rochberg and Berio and a variety of others who were juxtaposing contrasting styles and if perhaps Penderecki at his best moments gave us his St. Luke Passion (which sticks with me more vividly than any of, say, George Rochberg's string quartets) Rochberg went to the trouble of attempting to formulate his ideas about stylistic juxtaposition in a way that was explicitly theoretical enough other composers could draw upon it.  Penderecki, and I may just not know enough about his writings that aren't musical writings, assembled a panoply of musical dialects without necessarily framing it as explicitly as "my musical language" the way Messiaen obviously did and that to some extent Rochberg did (I just recently picked up A Dance of Polar Opposites and Amy Lynn Wlodarski's Rochberg biography thanks to Kyle Gann's blog.  I promise that as time and resources permit to try to get back to Rochberg ... which ... this is supposed to be about Penderecki so I'm going to drop G. R. now that I've played with the idea on the tail end of a weekend about how and why Penderecki's music, which I've often enjoyed, might not resonate with some who may hear him as the conservative recycler of daring innovations that were better formulated by his predecessors.

But, all that said, I am sorry to read that he has passed and even though Penderecki's influence on my own musical life has ultimately paled altogether compared to the nearly blinding musical luminosity of Haydn, Penderecki was a pretty big inspiration for me as a young musician and hobbyist composer, showing through his works and his shifts in style that it was possible to do the arch-modernist thing and the more neo-Romantic thing while being fairly clear about what extra-musical reasons motivated those shifts. 

For folks who haven't heard it yet and want to, Penderecki's St. Luke Passion

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