ATTENTION: CULTURE!: Symphony No 3 by Mykietyn
Paweł Mykietyn, photo: Marcin Oliva Soto

Symphony No 3 by Mykietyn

Talk with Paweł Mykietyn

For a long time I had no idea how to name it. The entire piece is very bitter, just like the words written by Mateusz Kościukiewicz. But I cannot kid around with names like Jadwiga Rappé and titles like Symphony No 3. Paweł Mykietyn talks about his newest composition

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TOMASZ CYZ: You get a commission. Then what?

PAWEŁ MYKIETYN: The first feelings are always kind of intuitive. In the case of Symphony No 3, as you probably remember as you were there, I was planning something I called the Radiohead Variations. Ultimately nothing came out of it, but the idea stayed, mostly because Symphony No 3 sounds a lot like what the youngsters listen to nowadays. One caveat: I don’t split music into two genres we call “serious music” and “entertainment music” in Poland, the rough equivalents of “classical” and “pop music”, respectively. In my opinion these terms are nothing more than misnomers. But just as I was once processing classical and baroque conventions – a result of my fascination with the music of Paweł Szymański – I am now doing something similar but with pop music. But it’s all unplugged, there’s no electronics to speak of, and the orchestra tries to imitate electronic sounds using traditional instruments, while in the rhythm layer we have references to hip-hop and trip-hop.

Paweł Mykietyn, photo: Marcin Oliva Soto

OK, so you get commissioned to write a larger piece, but without any concrete pointers, target length, or the numbers of instruments the client wants used. What’s next? It’s all yours to write as you see fit – although it was different with the “Made in Poland” project, which was performed at last year’s Sacrum Profanum festival, where you had to use the poetry of Czesław Miłosz. But what we have here is a 125-page score with the title “Paweł Mykietyn’s Symphony No 3 for alto and orchestra, with words by Mateusz Kościukiewicz”. Where did it all come from? How?

Ever since I wrote Passion in 2008, I’ve felt a need to write bigger, longer pieces. The instruments were a secondary concern for me, the most important part was writing music with Jadwiga Rappé in mind. Her vocals, the freaky rhythms we talked about, and Kościukiewicz’s lyrics might combine into something truly unique. Paradoxically, a rock singer wouldn’t be a good fit in such a project.

Paweł Mykietyn

One of the most important composers currently working in Poland. Born in 1971, he debuted (La Strada) at the 1993 Warsaw Autumn, while he was still a student. In 1995, his 3 for 13 was awarded first place in the young composer category by the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. A year later, Mykietyn’s Epiphora for piano and tape received the same award at the 4. International Rostrum of Electro-Acoustic Music in Amsterdam. In 2000, Mykietyn received a prize for artistic excellence awarded by Polityka, Poland’s largest weekly. In 2008, his Symphony No 2 won the OPUS Public Media Award. He composed music for several of Warlikowski’s plays. Mykietyn also writes soundtracks (the most recent ones are for Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, Wajda’s Sweet Rush and Szumowska’s 33 Scenes From Life [33 Sceny z Życia]).

I worked on Symphony No 3 and the Miłosz composition simultaneously. When writing the latter, I decided to use his poems, and there is over a thousand of them. My first reaction after reading some of them was: “You can’t possibly write music that would reflect these verses.” It’s so full of genius, so intellectual, closed off. You shouldn’t be trying to add anything to poetry. Ultimately I came up with a multimedia performance piece, with two actors, some video, electronics and Ensemble Modern in which the most important part will be played by Miłosz’s poems.

In the case of Symphony No 3 I had trouble finding the appropriate literary material. I had a musical framework, now I had to find the words. At first I thought about using the abduction of Europa, then I tried to introduce the Roma culture through the works of Jerzy Ficowski, but I just couldn’t make that stuff work with the modern beats. And then I found poems written by Mateusz. They were perfect: it’s poetry, but it uses lots of slang words and phrases, it’s language you can hear on the street. And there’s nothing vulgar or pompous about it.

Paweł Mykietyn and Mateusz Kościukiewicz,
photo: Marcin Oliva Soto

His lyrics quickly became very close to my heart. Although I realise they’re very Polish in nature, I mean there are nuances in the text which can be understood only by people fluent in Polish.

When I read some fragments, it struck me as kind of  an “urban symphony”…

I showed them to Jacek Poniedziałek, he translates stage plays so he has a nose for that kind of stuff. He said that Mateusz’s works are superb but very hermetic. And that they give off this “concrete jungle”, Varsovian vibe.

The lyrics have no particular plot, although it’s filled with actions, meetings, conversations. There are also some keywords used, like “subway” and “Mokotów”. It’s all a reference to Warsaw. What characteristic of Kościukiewicz’s poems inspired you to use them?

Paweł Mykietyn’s
Symphony No 3

Commissioned by the National Audiovisual Institute for the inauguration of the Polish Presidency in the EU Council. The first performance of Symphony No 3 for alto and orchestra, with words by Mateusz Kościukiewicz took place on 1 July, 2011 at the Warsaw Philharmonic. The piece was  performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction Reinbert de Leeuw, with Jadwiga Rappé (alto). The performance was broadcasted live by Polish Radio 2 and Biweekly.

I started working on music, quickly finished the second movement and parts of the first, I also held on tightly to the idea of using the Roma themes. It was New Years Eve, my wife and I wanted to stay home but we ended up at Maja Ostaszewska’s place. The atmosphere was very intimate: it was only us, Maja and Michał Englert, Mateusz Kościukiewicz, and Małgosia Szumowska. Suddenly, some time after midnight, Michał and Mateusz started reciting slam poetry. And I felt that this kind of natural flow was the exact thing I was looking for. When I got the lyrics Mateusz wrote for me, things really started going fast. At the semantic level, it was the same thing that young bands are doing with lyrics nowadays. And you’re right, of course, they’re filled with random actions, plot pieces and such…

There is also lots of wordplay. Repetitions suddenly become oppositions, there are variations in tone, meaning, not to mention weird rhyming combinations like: “sunę do ciebie zasłużenie”, “jak mniemam nie mam”, “na wskroś oś”, “zamiast kości ości mości panno”, or the repeating fragment consisting of: “idzie idąc / siedzi siedząc / nic nie robiąc”…

In the fourth movement, that part changes into: “idę idąc / siedzę siedząc / leżę”, suddenly switching into a first person point of view.

In the fifth movement, there is: “nie słucham dla ucha / chęć bucha co chucha na ciuch // Para buch koła w ruch”… The lyrics become a kind of linguistic exercise. If I remember correctly, Świetlicki’s Ładnienie employed a similar tactic, the plot happened somewhere inside the language, between the words.

Yes, we can trace some similarities between Świetlicki’s work and Symphony No 3. What fascinated me in Świetlicki’s poem was the lack of pathos, and that despite being grand, it’s not really high poetry.

Symphony No 3 rehearsal in Warsaw Philharmonic,
photo: Marcin Oliva Soto

Symphony No 2 was written in 2007 and Symphony No 3 was  performed for the first time on 1 July 2011. What about Symphony No 1?

I haven’t composed it. But is there any sense in writing symphonies or calling your compositions “symphonies” nowadays?

The classical symphony employs a strictly defined structure. What about your No 3?

The first movement has two themes, the second movement is static, the third is a form of scherzo… If we’re talking structure, it would be definitely easier to see some remnants of it in No 3 than in Symphony No 2.

How would you define the musical language you use in Symphony No 3?

I want to do something else with each of my compositions. I feel like a debutante while writing every one of my pieces, whether they’re standalone compositions, movie soundtracks or musical arrangements for the stage. Of course, there are some tricks in my composer’s arsenal which I use constantly.

Jadwiga Rappé during Symphony No 3 rehearsal,
photo: Marcin Oliva Soto

Can we expect microtonal harmonies that you have been exploring lately (in Ładnienie and Passion among others) to make an appearance in this new piece?

Yes, but it’s not the central element of the composition. Microtones appear in the fourth movement. As far as the rhythm layer is concerned, there are some trip-hop elements plus the microtonal harmonies. I decided to pit one against the other.

When I looked at the score I noticed that you harmonise instruments very densely, simultaneously pushing instrumentalists “outside”, into soloist territory.

I do that, that’s true. It’s a way of constructing a delicate structure, like I did here [turns pages]. I can later play a simulation of that fragment for you – the instrumentalists are treated like a group of soloists, rather than an orchestra.

A friend of mine who studies sound direction is writing her doctoral thesis on the influence of phonography on composer technique. That issue intrigued me for quite a long time. When I was 19, I wrote a piece called …even though Daedalus made it… It had these looped motifs that were evidently inspired by the sound of a needle stuck inside the groove of a vinyl LP. I included something similar in Symphony No 3, although this time it’s like someone played a tape backwards. You can say my experiences from the recording studio have finally been put to practical use.

Symphony No 3 rehearsal, photo: Marcin Oliva Soto

I feel that with each piece, the composer tries to solve a particular problem. From what you’re saying, it seems that the theme for Symphony No 3 might be translating the rhythms of popular, or even club music, into the language of traditional instruments.

In 3 for 13 there is a variation on the fugue, Bach-like but processed. In Passion, microtonality is key – it was the harmonic starting point. In Symphony No 3, I started with fragments of syncopated music I wrote myself, which influenced the final language of the composition. But I wouldn’t say that the entire piece is just a big imitation of hip-hop beats.

I remember watching a movie on Andy Warhol. Instead of painting new stuff, Warhol was just repeating his canned soup pieces. In a weird twist of fate, the day before I bought my son a drum set for his birthday. And then it hit me. I sat at the drums, started playing the simplest of all rock beats and immediately thought to replace the drums with violin, played pizzicato, the bass drum with trombones and double bass, and so on. This was how the first movement of No 3 came to be, because it’s the simplest rhythm you can play on a drum set, only without a drum set.

Time seems to be of the essence in Symphony No 3: each movement is shorter than the previous one. The first movement is about 20 minutes long, the second – 12 minutes, the third – 10 minutes, the fourth – 6 minutes, and the fifth is only about 90 seconds long. This has to be important for the Symphony’s dramaturgy. I remember when you were talking about Passion being inspired by Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. When I’m listening to your music or listening to you talk about it, it’s hard for me to just disregard your experiences from the time you were making music for movies and the theatre stage. I think that you have a great need of dramatic expression.

Yes, but I have had this type of dramatic thinking since I was 19 years old, and that’s way before I ever started to work in theatre. Undoubtedly, making soundtracks helps me tremendously, it expands my horizons as far as writing dramatic compositions is concerned. Sometimes I feel that my music is a kind of non-semantic theatre – phrases and themes as protagonists. Although I’m tempted to write an amorphous, drama-less composition, I always end up composing a kind of musical movie.

Symphony No 3 rehearsal, photo: Marcin Oliva Soto

You seem to release a major composition every year, more or less. You’re still working with one of the biggest names in theatre in the entire world, you write movie soundtracks, one of which won you an award in Gdynia. On one hand it’s proof of the inherent power of your compositions, and on the other it’s proof that your work has a purpose. Moreover, we cannot say that you’re an underappreciated as an artists, working somewhere on the sidelines…

I always say that standalone compositions, movie soundtracks, and musical arrangements for the theatre stage are three completely different types of music. If I only focused on one type, I’d burn out in a heartbeat. I can’t write just one kind of music. Doing all three keeps me fresh and makes me infinitely more creative. At least I think so…

You were commissioned by the National Audiovisual Institute to write a piece for the Inauguration of the Polish Presidency in the EU Council. Earlier, you were commissioned by the European Solidarity Centre to write a composition for the 30th anniversary of establishing “Solidarity” and by the Wratislavia Cantans festival. Recently, you’ve also been asked to write something for the Sacrum Profanum festival. Aren’t you afraid that you’re becoming – or you’ve already become – a national composer?

I have heard this kind of talk before… I guess that’s just my — and the nation’s — fate.

One last question. There’s no escaping it, you’ve recently celebrated your 40th birthday. How do you feel about that?

Like I’m still 20 years old.

translated by Arthur Barys

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