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Paweł Szymański

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Paweł Szymański (b. 1954)

Szymański completed his compositional studies under Włodzimierz Kotoński (1974-1978) and Tadeusz Baird (1978) with a distinction from Warsaw’s Chopin State Postsecondary School of Music. In 1976 he participated in the International Summer Academy of Ancient Music in Innsbruck, and in the succeeding years (1978, 1980 and 1982) he took active part in the International Summer Courses of New Music at Darmstadt. This is also when he began his collaboration with the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio (1979-1981) and the Independent Studio of Electroacoustic Music (1982-1984), as well as the Studio of Electronic Music of the Academy of Music in Cracow (1983). The Herder Scholarship enabled him to further continue his studies, this time under the guidance of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati in Vienna (1984-1985). He was also recipient of a DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) grant in Berlin, where he collaborated with the Electronic Studio of the Technische Universität (1987-1988). In the years 1982-1987 he lectured at the Department of Composition, Theory, and Conducting at the Fryderyk Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw.

From 1979 Paweł Szymański is part of the Polish Composers’ Union and served as Main Board member (1989-1999), twice in the role of vice-president (1991-1994, 1997-1999). He was also member of the Repertoire Committee of the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music (1987, 1989-1998) at which he debuted as a composer in 1979, and co-founder (together with Krzysztof Knittel, Stanisław Krupowicz and Józef Patkowski) of the Friends of Warsaw Autumn Foundation (1997).

Paweł Szymański is laureate of many compositional competitions and recipient of artistic distinctions. In 1979 he received the First Prize at the Polish Composers’ Union Competition of the Young for the composition Gloria (1979) for women’s chorus and instrumental ensemble, and the fourth place distinction in the category of young composers at the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. In 1985 his composition Lux aeterna (1984) for voices and instruments won him one of the main awards at the Sacred Music Composition Contest in Stuttgart, and in 1988, his Partita III (1985-1986) for amplified harpsichord and orchestra received the First Prize (ex aequo with Barry Mason) at the Benjamin Britten Composing Competition in Aldeburgh.

The Polish Composers’ Union decorated Paweł Szymański with its yearly award in 1993, while in January of the following year he received the Grand Prix of the Culture Foundation. Also in 1994, his Miserere (1993) for voices and instruments found itself in the group of compositions recommended by the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in Paris, and a year later his motet In paradisum (1995) for men’s chorus received the main prize of the Competition of the International Foundation for Polish Music.

Paweł Szymański is also a valued author of music for theatrical shows and films as well as documentary programs. From the beginning of the 90s, he collaborates with the prominent director and documentarian Maciej Drygas. He composed music to many-time award winning programs, such as To Be in the Cosmos (1995), My Mountain (2001), the film A State of Weighlessness (1994), and the performance Zarathustra (2004), directed by Krystian Lupa and presented in the Old Theatre in Cracow.

In the autumn of 2006, a Festival of Paweł Szymański’s Music of several days’ duration was held in the Lutosławski Concert Studio of the Polish Radio in Warsaw. The festival was recorded by the Polish Audiovisual Publishing House and issued as a 4-disc DVD album.

In the 2012/2013 season Szymański fills the function of composer-in-residence of the National Philharmonic. He has said of himself: “I live and work as a free artist in Warsaw”.

Paweł Szymański’s creative output is one of the most distinct phenomena on the map of contemporary European music. Beginning with the Partita II (1978) written as a diploma piece, it is distinguished by stylistic unity and a characteristic, easily recognizable compositional idiom.

Andrzej Chłopecki writes that:

Paweł Szymański debuted at a time when Polish music was undergoing a marked change of aesthetic stances [...], and in which a new generation of composers, later referred to as “the Stalowa Wola generation”, found its voice [...] (Eugeniusz Knapik, Andrzej Krzanowski, Aleksander Lasoń), to which Szymański was added as if “after the fact”. The common denominator for the aesthetic stance of composers such as these became the turn away from the fetishization of innovation and the idea of the avant-garde (serial and post-serial especially) as well as a strong turn toward tradition, which brought the reactivation of such categories as the cantilena, euphonic sonority and the elements of tonal and modal thinking.

However, this aesthetic also carries a mark of profound originality, which does not lend itself to easy pigeonholing in terms of style and collective tendencies. In the general outline it relies on a subjective play with musical conventions and creative inspiration by traditional elements with a particular preference for Baroque techniques and forms, as well as their constant transformation and repositioning in the completely new context of the contemporary compositional language.

To quote Andrzej Chłopecki again:

It has become customary to use the term “surconventionalism” in reference to the music of Paweł Szymański. The term pertains to the compositional strategy which relies upon the creation of new compositions from sound objects, and elaborated sound gestures derived from the conventions of the musical tradition, usually made by the composer as pre-compositional material [...]. Between the reality of musical convention and the “surconventional” final effect, a constant play is carried on in Szymański’s compositions. (2006)

The composer himself comments the relation between the past and contemporaneity in the following manner:

I try to find the key to tradition. This tradition, in the sense of music from the past that is based on certain well-functioning conventions, is a material, but if something becomes a material, it is already dead. I take from this material something which I can deconstruct, take apart into pieces, and then put back together into a different whole. I don’t have at the same time any destructive tendencies. To the contrary — it is even a kind of nostalgia for something well-known, something intangible, though also very clear [...]. (1997)

Contemporary artists, and that includes the composers – says elsewhere Szymański – find themselves fettered in the midst of two extremes. On one hand they risk gibberish if they completely reject tradition, and on the other hand they can fall into banality if they fix their gaze on it. This is the paradox of making art today. And what is the way out from such a situation? Since we cannot completely free ourselves from banality, we must lead a certain play or game with this banality, treating it like material that allows us to maintain certain elements of convention, but simultaneously achieve an appropriate distance in relation to it with the use of quotation, metaphor, and paradox. (Studio, no. 9, 1996.)

Paweł Szymański’s compositional output consists of several dozen works written mostly on commission by European institutions and festivals. Their premieres were often given with the participation of world-renowned artists at acclaimed musical events.

Selected works:

Epitaph for two pianos (1974), Partita II for orchestra (1977-1978), Gloria for women’s chorus and orchestra (1979), La folia for quadro or stereo tape (1979), Villanelle for alto tenor, two violas, and harpsichord to the words of James Joyce (1981), Two Pieces for string quartet (1982), Two Illusory Constructions for clarinet, cello, and piano (1984), Lux aeterna for voices and instruments (1984), Partita IV for orchestra (1986), Through the Looking Glass... I for chamber orchestra (1987), Through the Looking Glass... II for tape (quadro, 1988), A Study in Shade for orchestra (1989; version for solo violin 1997), Quasi una sinfonietta for chamber orchestra (1990, version for full orchestra 2000), Sixty-Odd Pages for orchestra (1991), Five Pieces for String Quartet (1992), Two Studies for orchestra (1992), Miserere – psalm for voices and instruments (1993), Through the Looking Glass... III for solo harpsichord (1994), Concerto for piano and orchestra (1994), Bagatelle für A.W. for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone and piano (1995), Recalling a Serenade for clarinet, two violins, viola, and cello (1996), Prelude and Fugue for piano (2000), Three Songs to Words by Trakl for soprano and chamber orchestra (2002; version for soprano and piano 2002; version for alto and piano 2003), Concerto a 4 for clarinet, trombone, cello, and piano (2004), Qudsja Zaher – an opera in two acts with prologue (2005), Ceci n'est pas une ouverture for orchestra (2007), PHYLAKTERION for 16 voices and percussion instruments (2011), Sostenuto for orchestra (2012) – commissioned by the National Philharmonic in Warsaw to celebrate the Lutosławski Centennial.

rs / trans. mk