At 77, Penderecki remains an icon in the world of classical music, which he has haunted the adventurous edges of since entering as a student of early electronic music in the 1950s. Those were the days when "electronic music" was the province of visionary academics in coat and tie, with weird ears and even weirder ideas that had little, if any, precedent in sounds or styles that had come before.
RA caught up with Penderecki when he was in New York recently to conduct a program of his work at Carnegie Hall. He was affable, friendly, warm—and seemingly happy to engage the questions of an inquisitor curious about how a life lived through music changes over time.
The Electroacoustic Music Studio of the Academy of Music in Cracow, 1976. In the late '50s, Penderecki conducted experiments at the similarly pioneering Warsaw Polish Radio Experimental Studio that were regarded, at the time, as some of the most forward-thinking compositions ever recorded.
Last night you conducted an orchestra from the Yale School of Music. How would characterize working with students at this point in your career?
For some pieces, like the Threnody, I prefer young people to perform it, because they are still open to learn. This piece, even though it was written over 50 years ago, is still very fresh and new. Some notation that I invented at that time is now common, but there are still some special techniques, different types of vibrato, playing on the tailpiece of the bridge, playing directly behind the bridge. These things are unusual, even after 50 years. With so-called normal symphony orchestras, sometimes I refuse to have this piece in the program, because it takes too much rehearsal. Some older orchestra musicians don't want to learn anything new.
You've spoken about consciously breaking from the avant-garde that you participated in early in your career, in the 1950s and '60s. How did that break come about?
It was not a break from one day to another, of course. It took me a couple of years. In a very short time, 10 years, I wrote 15 or 16 works which explored all that I wanted using new techniques, especially for instruments like the violin. As a boy I wanted to be a violinist, so my first experiments were with strings, violins especially and double-bass, which had so much possibility. But after I explored this in a very short time actually, I was bored. I didn't want to repeat myself. My music is always changing and looking for something new. The subjects are changing. I'm not staying in the same musical idiom. I am always looking. Take as an example Picasso, who was always going forward and back, forward and back. This is the kind of artist I admire very much. Not like Chagall, who was painting almost the same way for 50 years.
completely. It was a real shock to
hear completely new sounds."
Can you remember when you started thinking about music as something to explore?
My background was very traditional. It happened that my father and grandfather caused me to study as a boy, when I was 9 or 10 years old. Then I went to a middle school of conservatory music, where I had another three years. Then I went to university, where I studied counterpoint. If you listen, my music, especially the choral works, is horizontal, from that long study of counterpoint.
In '57, an electronic studio was established in Warsaw, one of the first in Europe. I went to Warsaw to study there. I was completely fascinated by electronic music. I was still writing music in the style of neo-classicism. I was fascinated by Stravinsky and Bach. But then I heard Herbert Eimert, Stockhausen—especially Gesung der Junglinge—Pierre Schaeffer and musique concrete in Paris, some Italian composers like Bruno Maderna. This electronic music changed my aesthetic completely. It was a real shock to hear completely new sounds. So from '57 or so, I started to be very involved in avant-garde music. My music was very much based on the sound of electronic music, like a transcription of electronic sound for live instruments. My imagination was richer because of electronic music.
What was it like to first hear that stuff when it was so new and unprecedented?
It changed everything. I began looking and searching for sounds on an instrument that could be close to electronic sound. Not only in the Threnody, but in Polymorphia, Canon for Strings, all written in a very short time between '59 and '62 or '63. But this kind of fascination, at least in my case, is always short. It was two or three years and then I had enough. So I went back to the orchestra, first to destroy the orchestra with pieces like Fluorescences in '62, and then to reconstruct the orchestra in a different way.
When you were most under the thrall of electronic music, why did you try to emulate it by other means? Why were you still writing for strings?
I was still playing violin at that time, and I wasn't a bad instrumentalist. I was maybe still dreaming of having a career as a violinist. But the live orchestra interested me a lot more than electronic music, which you can't change. Once a piece is done, it stays the same. With the Threnody, no two performances or recordings are ever the same. It's always different. I always leave space for each musician and the imagination and creativity of the conductor, which is not always the case that they understand how to be that way.
What about the avant-garde ultimately bored you?
The avant-garde didn't move. It was really innovative in the '50s, but there was this stagnation a year or two after I joined in. In the '60s, it just didn't move. Of the most interesting composers of the avant-garde—Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez—only Nono went in a different direction. The best pieces by the others were in the '50s or early '60s. Stockhausen went off in a direction where he started to contemplate writing music for Sirius. [sighs]
Was there a reason you think the avant-garde at the time grew overly indulgent?
If somebody has real talent, not just to do something for a short time but also to go a step further… An artist should not go one way only. It's like in a maze, a labyrinth—you can't move in a straight line. You have to go left, right, maybe two steps back, then search forward. That's what it's like in the life of the artist. It's exactly like in a labyrinth. If someone has talent only for five years, it's a limited talent.
When you drifted away, what did you go looking for exactly?
Every five years, more or less, I started writing a symphony. With every symphony I was searching for something different. Starting when I was 40, in 1973, the first symphony still had one leg in the wild avant-garde. But by the second one I was exploring something completely new.
You've talked a lot about the old age of traditional orchestral instruments. Do you spend much time these days exploring new instruments?
Oh yes. In Seven Gates of Jerusalem, I used a completely new instrument called the tubaphone. I use a lot of new percussion instruments. But you cannot invent a new violin, unfortunately. Strings and woodwinds are not moving much. Until the 19th century, there was much innovation building new instruments, extending the scale of instruments. Now of course you have some electronics, but it's not the same.
Have you worked with much contemporary electronic music gear? Do you have any interest or curiosity?
No. I'm 77 now, and when getting older there is a tendency… I'm not much now looking for the new. I'm trying to make my music deeper. I am writing more chamber music now, which I think is really important. Maybe I will find something new in the future, but I don't know. I still have plans for the next seven years to write.
Having gone through the evolution of electronic music as a composer in the 1950s and '60, do you believe in the prospect of another avant-garde of the sort?
Absolutely, yes. In music history, every 50 years there has been something new, a group of composers with a different aesthetic. It's supposed to be that way. In the 20th century, there was the avant-garde of the '20s around Schoenberg, and then another in the '50-'60s. That means there's supposed to be a new avant-garde now. But one problem is that we [in the '50s/'60s] explored almost everything. Even just an example of my own music, after the Threnody, how do you write something for strings more advanced? I don't think you can. I couldn't do it. I think our last avant-garde developed so quickly and explored so many fields of music that it's very hard for young people to do it.
Another factor is I think we had much better education. My background was very strong in classical music, so I could write a fugue close to Bach without any difficulties, because I was trained for many years. I used to be a professor at Yale in the '70s, and I had students who came to me without any background. They were just playing some instrument and improvising. I don't think moving music forward will be possible without craft, which a composer needs to make a step forward.
From my perspective, there's some interesting fusion happening with other realms wandering toward classical music and younger people getting into it more. Do you notice that, and can that help?
Crossover can enrich very much, but we need a big step forward. An avant-garde, or at least our avant-garde, was completely new, starting with electronics that nobody had ever heard before. I don't think it is possible for that to happen now, for a while. Maybe we need a completely new instrument. Maybe based in electronics, of course, but imagine if somebody could build an absolutely new instrument…
Have you heard much recent electronic music, or the kind of electronic music made for club culture?
No. My life now is to concentrate mostly on what I'm writing. Other music disturbs me, so I'm not listening at home to anything now. I did in my earlier years, but not now. Conducting 50 or 60 concerts a years, I spend at least 40 weeks working with orchestras. If I go home, I'm only writing my music. I am still trying to find something inside of me. Trying.
You know, in the old times, music didn't change much. But in my time it did, very much. So the expectation is still that there will be some group of composers… But maybe it's too late.
I mean personally. Does what you're trying to express through music change? Does it grow more subtle or refined?
Oh yes, absolutely. In the avant-garde I didn't learn this, because it was jumping, but what I have learned since is that it has become a very important factor that my music has form. Respect your form. This great classical form of the large orchestra, this kind of form that developed in the last 200 or 300 years, is still in me. From time to time I try to go away, but then every time I return.
What about form pulls you back?
Logic. You must have exposition, you must have development. It's a very classical form, but nobody can do anything better.
Is there something affirming about working in a tradition so steeped in history?
I think the form of the symphony will stay. It almost disappeared in the '60s. We tried to do it, I tried to do it myself. But then I decided to go back and write a big symphony. I don't believe in improvisation. I believe a big piece for an orchestra has to have very clear form. You can write a 10-minute piece of course not using any form, just improvising and exploring ideas. But not a symphony. And I believe in the form of the symphony, the oratorio, the opera.
Your music has been used in some big movies, starting with Stanley Kubrick and up through the recent Martin Scorsese movie Shutter Island. How did that start?
I gave permission to use my music to Kubrick. He actually asked me to write music for his movie The Shining. I was working on a big piece so I couldn't, but I gave him some ideas for what he should listen to, which he did and took some fragments.
What did he ask for exactly?
I didn't meet him. He called me, and we had a ten or fifteen minute conversation. He was describing to me, especially when Jack Nicholson tries to kill in the labyrinth, he said he wanted something that was not direct, not illustrative, but had some deeper feeling, not just crazy like the scene is. I gave him the idea of a new piece I wrote that was an interpretation of the Bible, the awakening of Jacob. I thought it had a special atmosphere. I was using ocarinas, and there was something in it that sounded new. David Lynch also used my music for movies.
Did you talk to Lynch?
Yes, but not directly. I just gave him some ideas about some of my pieces. Another movie that used my music was a film by the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, Katyn. I wanted my music to be in that movie because my uncle was murdered there [in Katyn, the site of a massacre in which more than 20,000 Polish nationals were murdered by the Soviet Union in 1940; it's also the site of the plane crash that killed Poland's president and many ranking officials in April 2010]. I was supposed to go with the president to that spot this year, because I belong to something called the Katyn Families, but I didn't have time because I was in China and couldn't change the date. But I went there with the president two years ago, to the same place in the same plane.
I was very lucky.
empty piece of paper, I am lost."
Do you spend most of your time these days in Poland?
We have a house in Krakow, but I live mostly in my country house, which is 100 kilometers from Krakow. I am very interested in botany and have my own arboretum, the largest arboretum in Eastern Europe, with 1,700 species of trees. This is my second profession: hunting trees and collecting every year maybe 100 species. I started studying them myself. My grandfather taught me trees and the Latin names of trees when I was five or six. His father was a forester, so he knew them all. My garden and the park are 72 acres.
There is something about trees which you can't explain. I'm fascinated by them because they are always different. Each time of the year, they are different. It gives me another dimension. In the park, which I started 40 years ago, I started writing chamber music. It's a remote place. I have my trees around, and there is a silence—something in the atmosphere that you don't have in the city.
Do you play music to the trees?
No, never. [laughs] But there is something irrational about it, I would say. I am a crazy composer collecting trees.
I feel like I've read about how music may actually affect plants growing in positive ways.
Maybe they grow better with Mozart's music than with mine. [laughs]
Is there a certain kind of tree you're most excited about right now?
I have many kinds. I wouldn't say there are some trees that I like more than others. But I like maple trees, especially in the fall. I spent some years in Connecticut and saw the changing of the brilliant leaves. The same trees that I have [in Poland] don't turn the same color because of the change in climate.
Also I have two labyrinths, so I can get lost.
Labyrinths! Do you walk around in them?
Oh yeah. I like to be lost, to struggle along, like in my music. Every day sitting in front of an empty piece of paper, I am lost. I think "I can no longer write music" or "I have done so many pieces, what can I do more?" But I keep working. I am working every day.