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Musique Surrealistique

by Hanna Kulenty
, October 2016

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have been exploring the phenomenon of time in music for many years. Why in music?  Because I’ve been educated as a musician, but also because, in my opinion, music is the most perfect language of expressing time, the so-called “time” – expressing it in the most appropriate way.
Let me put it this way: The art that I’m engaged in is a search for the metaphysical. Through controlling and taming the phenomenon of time I seek to purify both the soul – through catharsis, and the body – through emotions.

Art, for me, is the imitation of nature, or the interpretation of nature, if you prefer that term: imitation of the glissando of a plane flying by; imitation of the wind’s glissando weaving through the rhythmically resonating branches in tree crowns; interpretation of birdsong or of songs of dolphins, whales, bees, frogs, crickets and even people – in the fullness of their perfection. Art is perfection in a noble imitation of nature. Art is perfection in a respectful interpretation of nature. That’s why we have two words relating to each other in each langugage: “art” stems from  “artificial” in English, “sztuka” from “sztuczny” in Polish, “Kunst” from “künstlich” in German, and so forth.

Not long ago, I watched a shower of shooting stars. They were falling to the north-west at intervals of several minutes (in my time perception), and they were flying much faster than airplanes that were passing each other in the sky and creating, together with the shooting stars, a mystical counterpoint: airplanes of this world, here and now, and stars, out-of-this world, shining billions of years ago, the light of which is finally reaching me here and now. Mystic Nature. Cosmos. Each thing in its own time.
What I do is collect these different times, I watch them and embrace them in my consciousness, sub-consciousness and super-consciousness. We could say, as well, sur-consciousness. Then, I attempt to record my emotions and experiences of time in notes on music paper. While doing so, I slow down or accelerate Nature.

And here is another conclusion that I would like to share with you, a conclusion that is not only expressed in this brief note, but primarily arises from my music, including music that has already been written and music that will be created soon and will continue to unveil ever new aspects of the Mystic Secret.
Art means slowing down or accelerating the time of Nature. It means cancelling the reality of the time of nature, cancelling the reality of nature, cancelling the reality of time.  Making them all unreal. This is the kind of art I want to engage in while composing my music. 

Another subject worthy of reflection today is my musical sur-realism that I intend to present in my next work. I recently called my music not only the “spacetime polyphony” but also “musique surrelistique” – it sounds lovely in French, doesn’t it?  Why? Because I’m a composer that consciously connects and will continue to connect individual musical elements in such a way as to specifically change their time spans and temporal contexts. For instance, I may stretch a melody in such a way that a seeming lack of contact with this melody would be perceived by our sub-consciousness, or I may accelerate this melody in such a way that there is no room for any reflection at all, only for our supra-consciousness to guess the hidden narrative structure of this melody. In this way I change the quality and structure of time of these musical elements. Thus, I change their status, or their “state of being.” Recently, someone called me a composer of “states” and my music “music of the states.” Of course, this term refers to emotional states; they are emotional and distinct, even if they are unified.

I am a musical surrealist, not a sur-conventionalist, because I do not research or bury myself in conventions – neither in principle nor for the sake of compositional techniques. I only touch upon conventions briefly, if, of course, I feel a need for such a gesture. I am a musical surrealist precisely because I pass on to my listeners the emotional states and gestures that might accompany a given convention. I do not have to use these conventions, though. I am far more interested in the direct imitation and transformation of nature, not in the imitation of someone else’s imitation that is I am not interested in conventions.
Emotional gestures designed to move and touch listeners have been known since music came into being and this is what fascinates me. I’m interested in making these gestures less real, in cancelling their reality in my own way. It is of secondary importance to me that these elements also belong to a convention, such as a “human” melody. I do not play with conventional elements of the Baroque style. I play with the emotional states and energies that may accompany the Baroque style. I am not afraid of emotion. There are people ashamed of emotions, I really do not understand why… Music is also – or above all – emotion! Is it not true?
And this exactly is the kind of music that I want to write.   

Ladies and Gentlemen, I prefer to move my listeners, touch and inspire their emotions, instead of boring them. Now, I will undertake yet another attempt of moving and emotionally stimulating my audience with my musical surrealism submerged in the polyphony of spacetime.
Click here for the original Polish version   

The music of Hanna Kulenty   

by Maja Trochimczyk
, October 2003

The emotional intensity, structural clarity, temporal coherence and sheer sonorous impact of the music of Hanna Kulenty add up to create an original and fascinating sound world that could be summed up in the phrase: “the sonic geometry of the heart.” The composer seeks a full pe
Sound as volume; sound as breath, as motion, as change itself: sound as life. . . Hanna Kulenty’s music is permeated with images of organic transformation and growth, from Breathe for string orchestra (1987), through Perpetuus (1989), and Air (1991) for chamber ensemble. The intuitive shaping of evolving sound patterns, extended phrases and richly detailed textures in these works results from Kulenty’s original compositional technique which she calls “the polyphony of arches” or “arcs.” The works include many layers of simultaneous “arches” which may begin at different points of their trajectories and proceed at different speeds. From Sesto for solo piano (1986) to Trigon (1989) for ensemble, Kulenty juxtaposed several textural layers of growing intensity (rising tempi, register, dynamics) in complex patterns of ebb and flow. In Trigon, for instance, during a climax the third arch enters at the height of its intensity, branching out from the previous one. Yet, even in the most geometrically-titled pieces (such as Arcus for percussion, 1986; or the series of Circles, from Third to Sixth, for various solo instruments and piano and/or electronics, 1994-1996) the images are never concrete evocations or representations of objects, rather, they evoke shifting emotional states of a great intensity and scope.

Kulenty’s compositional style has evolved during the years since her dazzling orchestral debut, Ad Unum, written in 1985 for her graduation from the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland. Ad Unum is a powerful, dissonant, dramatic and well-crafted study of convergence towards musical unity; with a large-scale architectural plan realized through massive, mobile sonorities. Since that work, Kulenty’s preferred medium has been the symphony orchestra, which has the richest sound palette. She explored its full range of sonorities and volumes in three Symphonies (No.1 of 1986, No.2 of 1987, and No.3 of 1998-99) and several concerti (Piano Concerto No.1 and Piano Concerto No.2 of 1990 and 1991; Violin Concerto No.1 of 1992-3 and Violin Concerto No.2 of 1995-6, Flute Concerto No.1 of 2001 and Trumpet Concerto of 2002). Her orchestral style has initially been compared to that of Penderecki, Xenakis, or Ligeti; she has shared their flair for drama, expressive intensity, layering of thick and fluctuating textures, as well as a relentless motion of sonorities. Yet, her sound world is unmistakably her own: even fragments of large-scale works, such as Sinequan Forte A for cello and orchestra (1994), or Certus (1997) for orchestra, bear the mark of her musical personality, the imprint of her harmonic language and her rhythmic drive. The remarkable consistency of form, as the composer explains, results from her method of composing: she first hears or “envisions” (in sounds and time) the whole work in its entirety, in a point that contains all of its dimensions, and later writes down this momentary musical vision by “stretching out” layers of musical material that appeared in a condensed form in the initial revelation of the complete piece. Interestingly, the aesthetic world of her orchestral works, both with solo instruments and without soloists, leans toward the late-20th century symphonic ideal: large-scale developments, sharply-chiseled contours of sonorous masses, and a profound seriousness of expression. The word “sublime” comes to mind as the best label for what in Kulenty’s style is recognizably, grandly, romantic. The similarity, though, ends at the level of expression, and does not extend to details of musical language. Kulenty never quotes other composers’ music, not even when referring to their style. In need, she would rather write her own fugue in the style of Bach than cite one of his.

Nonetheless, Kulenty’s music is far from being expressively monolithic: its emotional trajectory leads from dramatic intensity to elusive moments of tranquility, especially in the cadenzas of works with solo instruments, or before the concluding segments of her compositions. Kulenty’s delicate, multihued sound fabrics arise from a polyphony of graceful sonorous strands (extended, slow glissandi) surrounded by shimmering sound planes (created by trills, tremolo, flutter tongue effects and frequently appearing microtonal harmonies). These subtle, constantly shifting musical layers bear a curious resemblance to patterns of undulating lines in the abstract designs of the composer’s graphic art (drawing and painting). This deep-level similarity indicates that these recurring gestures stem from a level of creative personality placed beyond the purely musical.

One of Kulenty’s preferred dramatic gestures is the use of reflections or “doubles” of solo instruments, either by employing a second, “mirroring” instrument in the orchestra (as in her piano concerti) or by adding electronic delay to the array of performing forces (in Violin Concerto No.1, Cadenza of 1992; Sinequan of 1993 and its orchestral counterparts; A Fifth Circle for flute, and A Sixth Circle for trumpet and piano). These sonorous mirrors create an air of nostalgia in the music that sounds as if it were “remembered” or “reflected upon” already in its unfolding. Achieving the emotional impact that Kulenty requires presents a great challenge for performers. Formidable technical difficulties make One by One (1988) for solo marimba and Arci for solo percussionist (1986) showpieces of instrumental virtuosity; the challenge in solo compositions for melodic instruments (Still Life with a Violin of 1985, Still Life with a Cello of 1993; A Fifth Circle for alto flute of 1994) lies in musical and expressive difficulties, i.e. sustaining the continuity of a melodic line through silences and creating a sense of continuing motion throughout the span of the work. This “rhapsodic playfulness” with musical time remains another hallmark of Kulenty’s oeuvre. Her works for chamber groups and soloists are notably less somber than those for symphony orchestra or the stage. Here the listener may find delightful reflections of jazz patterns (Going Up for ensemble, 1995; MM-Blues for two pianos and two percussionists, 1999), or a humorous pastiche of musical conventions (Stretto for flute, clarinet and guitar, 1998, Harmonium for harmonium solo, 1999). In general, her writing for soloists remains well attuned to the instruments’ characteristics and performance techniques; a pianist by training, Kulenty is equally at home writing for the strings, percussion and winds. Many works were commissioned and given their premiere by the Dutch ensemble, De Ereprijs, conducted and produced by Wim Boerman.

Through the 1990s the composer developed an original version of “post-minimalist” style, characterized by a reduction of the number and density of musical layers, in comparison with the earlier, saturated and dramatic style of the “polyphony of arches.” She called this style her version of the “European trance music” (though she pointed out its parallels in extended time scales and meditative qualities of Indian ragas, rather than Western minimalism). Her shift in this direction was partly affected by her post-graduate studies with Louis Andriessen, who for every new piece reduces his material in such a way as to create a specific compositional and philosophical problem. Unlike most of Andriessen’s students, however, Kulenty seldom used sudden textural cuts and shifts in this period. Instead, she often structured her compositions as single, powerful arches, slowly evolving in time, gradually increasing their gripping intensity of emotion. Good examples of this style are provided by her cycle of works titled after successive “circles” though not written in that order (A Fourth Circle for violin and piano and A Fifth Circle for alto flute with electronics, both of 1994; A Sixth Circle for trumpet and piano, 1995; A Third Circle for piano solo, 1996). The pervasive repetitiousness of evolving melodic phrases and the insistence of fast-pulsed, obsessively rhythmic patterns in these works suggest their kinship to post-minimalism. Simultaneously, though, it brings to mind the Baroque technique of “spinning-out” used in preludes and toccatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Kulenty’s penchant for musical drama and intensity of emotion found a suitable expression in her music for stage. The “intuitive constructivism” coupled with a heightened emotional intensity of her music is well-suited for highlighting dramatic situations. These traits are apparent already in her early monodrama to texts from Three Women by Sylvia Plath, entitled The Parable of the Grain (1985). Her 1996 chamber opera, The Mother of Black-Winged Dreams, explores the difficult subject matter of the “multiple personality syndrome” and touches upon issues of intense personal suffering, including dark themes of child abuse. With the scenario penned by a Canadian writer, poet and sound artist, Paul Goodman, the opera is structured as one huge arch of increasing tension. Multiple voices, whisper and laughter rise and fade on the tape; multiple personalities shift and change on the stage…Kulenty’s mastery of time and her ability to structure her musical material into layers moving inexorably, inevitably towards powerful climaxes brings a symphonic dimension to her other theatrical compositions, including the ballet Elfen (1997), written for her favourite chamber orchestra, De Ereprijs.   

The most recent opera, Hoffmanniana, completed in 2003, brings together Kulenty’s fascination with time expressed in her new technique of “polyphony of time dimensions” and her interest in stark existential subjects. The opera’s libretto by Dutch writer and stage director Erick Aufderheyde is based on an unrealized film scenario by Andrei Tarkovsky, enriched with fragments from Tarkovsky’s personal diary dating from 1986, the year he died. The libretto’s basic idea is to mirror the lives of Tarkovsky and Hoffmann: the opera begins from Tarkovsky’s last words and traces his last year backwards while simultaneously presenting the final seven days in the life of E.T.A. Hoffmann in chronological order. The composer’s approach to the perennial rivalry between verbal and musical layers in the opera is to transform them into simultaneous layers, with the spoken and sung texts appearing alternatively in the foreground and the background. The overall formal plan follows the schema of the seven days, with four days appearing in Act One and the remaining three in Act Two.

The new compositional technique of the “polyphony of time dimensions” emphasizes the circularity of time and the simultaneity of time-events occurring on different temporal planes. This technique emerges in Hoffmanniana where it supplanted the “polyphony of arches” used until about 1993-4, and the “European trance music” used until 2001. The “polyphony of time dimensions” transforms selected elements from earlier compositional techniques into a new style, making its appearance also in the Piano Concerto No. 3 (2003) and the Trumpet Concerto completed in 2002 and first performed in 2003 by Marco Blaauw as the soloist with the WOSPR Orchestra (National Polish Radio Orchestra of Katowice), under the direction of Belgian conductor Ronald Zollman. The live recording from the premiere of the Trumpet Concerto received first prize at the UNESCO Rostrum of Composers for the year 2003. With harmonic and sonorous gestures endowing the music with an unmistakable Kulenty-imprint, the Concerto reveals a composer who has mastered her resources and is able to draw from her vocabulary to highlight the virtuosity of the soloist and the rich sonorous palette of the orchestra. In the Trumpet Concerto Kulenty shares with her listeners and performers the exhilarating joy of making music, taking them on a wild musical ride through a kaleidoscope of soundscapes, a magical Perpetual Mobile inspired by the dance music from the Balkans.

Kulenty’s original world of music continues to grow with each new composition. Her next project is a theoretical explanation of her technique of “the polyphony of time dimensions” and its philosophical aspects. The composer’s most remarkable achievement to date is the creation of intensely emotional, stark yet enchanting music, that, to cite Rilke again, “streams towards us . . . goes right through us. . . it is almost like a higher air, we draw it into the lungs of the spirit.” In its immanent reality of sound, Kulenty’s musical world “breathes a different air.”