Electroacoustic Music in Poland (1957–1990)

From Unearthing The Music

Electroacoustic studio, Krakow, 1973

A History of Electroacoustic Music in Poland from the Perspective of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio 1957–1990 - An essay by Monika Pasiecznik for Sound Exchange.

Prehistory: The Film and Theater Music of Andrzej Markowski and Włodzimierz Kotoński

The beginnings of electroacoustic music in Poland can be found in the establishment of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (Studio Eksperymentalne Polskiego Radia) in Warsaw in 1957. However, already a few months before the opening of the PRES (which was made available for composers’ use in the second half of 1958), first attempts were made to create music from previously-recorded sounds. In the spring and summer of 1957, Andrzej Markowski composed music for Goldoni’s play »Sługa dwóch panów« (Servant of Two Masters) for the Ludowy Theater in Nowa Huta; and Włodzimierz Kotoński created music for Ryszard Golec’s documentary film »Barwy radości i smutku« (Colors of Joy and Sadness). The two soundtracks were made without any special equipment in the ordinary recording studio at Film Documentary Publications (Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych) in Warsaw, with the collaboration of the publisher’s sound operators. Under the same conditions, successive musical accompaniments were created for, among other works, films by Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk entitled »Dom« (Home) (Kotoński) and »Był sobie raz« (There Once Was) (Markowski). The techniques used by the artists were simply tape manipulations, montage and echo effects. The material consisted of instrumental and vocal recordings – and, in the film »Dom«, additional sequences based on sounds obtained from generators in the Electroacoustics Group at the Warsaw University of Technology.

The Birth and Early Years of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio in Warsaw

Bogusław Schaeffer

The Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES) in Warsaw was established in 1957. Over time, there were 93 composers working there, including 59 from Poland and 34 from other countries. All in all, they created ca. 300 autonomous musical works.

The founding of the PRES was possible thanks to the surprising openness of the President of the Radio Committee at the time, Włodzimierz Sokorski. This former Minister of Culture and Art, until recently an ardent propagator of socialist realism, now financed trips to electroacoustic music centers in Milan, Cologne, Paris and Gravesano for Józef Patkowski. It was this young, talented musicologist and manager who became responsible for the creation of an analogous experimental center at Polish Radio, and also drew up the initial program concept of the PRES, which defined its specific character. Józef Patkowski wanted the PRES to give composers the opportunity to create both musique concrète (after the French model) and electronic music (after the German model). The Polish center was supposed to serve both artistic experiments and the needs of Polish Radio by providing sound settings for radio programs, radio drama, reporting and other radio forms.

One of the characteristic traits of the PRES – a peculiar distinguishing feature of the Polish center – was its interdisciplinary artistic approach. Almost from the beginning, artists from theater, film, the visual arts and literature could be found in the Studio. The PRES became an important laboratory, especially for short art films: composers associated with the Studio contributed to the creation of the »Polish animation school«, the most distinguished directors of which were, among others, the aforementioned Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. Also created at the Studio was Krzysztof Wodiczka’s famous »Instrument osobisty« (Personal Instrument, 1969) – an interactive sound apparatus in the form of a pair of earphones and sound sensors placed on the hands. [1] Meetings of artists were initiated by Józef Patkowski, who organized open seminars on new-media art. On the frequency of Polish Radio's Channel 2, he also ran the »Horyzonty muzyki« (Music Horizons) programs, which were published in the form of an anthology of texts in the »Biblioteki Res Facta« Library series. [2]

The author of the design for the first installation of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio was the well-known Polish architect Oskar Hansen. It is worth highlighting that the PRES was created from scratch, which represented an exception among the radio studios in Europe, which had normally been adapted from old sound engineering studios. The interior decoration of the PRES – known as the »black room« – was comprised of red and black walls consisting of rotating panels with smooth (sound-reflecting) and perforated (sound-absorbing) surfaces. The furnishings also included modern point lighting and a system of lightweight metal frames climbing upward at an angle, facilitating quick access to the, at that time, heavy studio equipment.

The first autonomous musical composition created at the PRES was Włodzimierz Kotoński’s »Etiuda konkretna na jedno uderzenie w talerz« (Etude concrète on one cymbal stroke, 1959). The starting material consisted of just one stroke with a soft mallet on a medium-size Turkish cymbal. The composer made use of strict serial rules to organize the sounds obtained. The cymbal sound was filtered into six bands of varying width and transposed to eleven pitches according to a standard scale. Kotoński also created an analogous eleven-degree duration scale and a six-degree articulation scale.

Another course of action was taken in the composition »Psalmus« (1961) by Krzysztof Penderecki, who created only one autonomous work of electronic music at the PRES (not counting soundtracks for films). The pre-composition material in this case was comprised of vocal sounds – speech sounds subjected to simple transformations such as transposition, filtering or echo. The composer organized them according to their articulational and timbral characteristics, at the same time rejecting Serialist rigors. He approached the compositional process spontaneously, montaging the sounds obtained at to his own discretion.

Kotoński’s, Wiszniewski’s and Penderecki’s compositions make use of uniform material (cymbal, generated sound, vocal sound). The next step in the development of electronic music in Poland was made by Andrzej Dobrowolski, who for the purposes of his »Muzyki na tasme nr 1« (Music for Tape no. 1, 1962) selected starting material from four different sources: 1) multi-tonal output from electronic generators; 2) piano chords; 3) sung sounds; 4) sounds obtained from the resonance of the strings when single vowels were shouted into a piano’s sound box. For all of the sounds, Dobrowolski applied a uniform method of transformation, as well as a strict organizational principle.

An original concept of electronic music was proposed by Bogusław Schaeffer in his »Symfonii« (Symphony, 1966). Namely, he drew attention to the peculiar character of work at the PRES, which in an essential manner affected the aesthetics of electronic music. So, composers unprepared professionally for independent studio work for a number of years utilized help from sound engineers, who translated their formal concepts into the language of electronics. In this manner, the sound engineer became a sort of co-creator of the composition. Bogusław Schaeffer emphasized the collective character of the work on his »Symfonii«, limiting himself to the creation of only an outline of the form and content (pitch and duration structures, as well as a more or less detailed description of procedures serving their realization), entrusting its realization in sound to his collaborator, Bohdan Mazurek.

Schaeffer’s Symphony, comprised of electronic and concrete sounds, was thus in large measure the work of Bohdan Mazurek. Working with Schaeffer became a stimulus for him to take up his own electroacoustic art. It was creative sound engineers (aside from Mazurek, also Eugeniusz Rudnik), knowing the radio studio’s capabilities inside out, fluent in the various tools and sound generators, who were to create their own separate electroacoustic music aesthetics in Poland, and de facto come to dominate its landscape. The high position of the sound engineer is a peculiar characteristic of the PRES.

Schaeffer’s »Symfonii« closed the PRES’s pioneering period. In the meantime – in 1963 – the Studio was expanded and enriched with new instruments. It moved to larger quarters, received a modern stereo console with eight inputs and two outputs (ETM, produced in West Germany), three new stereo tape recorders by Telefunken and an array of small but very helpful electronic devices. Many original solutions began to be worked on at Polish Radio by competent sound technicians. The PRES also received a separate studio for microphone recordings.

Two PRES Personalities: Eugeniusz Rudnik and Bohdan Mazurek

Eugeniusz Rudnik

The end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s inaugurated the artistic career of two creative sound engineers: Eugeniusz Rudnik and Bohdan Mazurek. These are the two most prolific artists to have devoted themselves exclusively to electronic music. Their compositions represent the lion’s share of the PRES’s achievements.

Eugeniusz Rudnik was at the PRES from the very beginning. In 1958, he already had behind him three years’ tenure as a radio man. A graduate of the Faculty of Electronics at the Warsaw University of Technology, he never had any formal music education. An intuitive approach to composition, however, sufficed for him to create his own unique genre, the radio documentary ballad. He gained experience collaborating with such composers as, among others, Kotoński, Dobrowolski, Penderecki and Schaeffer, as well as Franco Evangelisti, Arne Nordheim and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In the catalog of Eugeniusz Rudnik’s works, we shall find abstract electroacoustic compositions, as well as such other genres as ars acoustica, feature, sound sculpture and Hörspiel. Rudnik is the author of the first Polish quadraphonic composition »Vox Humana« (1968). He has also experimented with open form, creating the multi-version composition »Skalary« (Scalars, 1966). In his works, Rudnik utilizes electronic and concrete material. He often makes use of a collage technique, and enjoys turning his hand to so-called »shabby materials« – that is, sounds cut out as various smudges, linguistic stumbles, etc.

It is from such shabby materials, as well as background noises from the line amplifier of a lamp console made by Telefunken, that »»Kolaż« (Collage) was created (1965). In this work, we hear rows of, among other items, snatches of popular music and fragments of speeches, which the composer has subjected to only minor transformations. »Kolaż« – alongside »Dixi« (1967), composed with a similar anti-serial technique and anti-sterile character – was intended to be Eugeniusz Rudnik’s answer to German Elektronische Musik.

In creating this artistic genre, Rudnik no doubt made use of his experience as a professional radio man, a creator of sound settings for radio dramas, reporting and literary programs. But already from the PRES’s genesis, there existed an awareness of the autonomy of radio art. Not only Patkowski saw the need for collaboration with composers in radio programs. This was expressed aptly in 1957 by Bronisław Wiernik in the pages of Antena: »Sound setting does not exist! On the radio, everything is sound. The word as well […] Radio is a new type of art. Radio is sound, […] word, music, acoustic effect, pause – or all of that at once, as elements of equal standing«. [3]

The most famous radio documentary ballad by Rudnik – »Peregrynacje Pana Podchorążego albo nadwiślańskie żarna« (The Peregrinations of Master Cadet or Mills on the Vistula River) (1999) – is an expansive 40-minute narrative. The radio drama is based upon, among other things, fragments from Andrzej Szczypiorski’s novel »Początek« (The Beginning), which in the work were divided up, prolonged, subjected to repetitions, multiplications and transformations. The transformations do not, however, go as far as to erase the message of the work. It is concerned with the difficult history of Poland and the entire region known as East Central Europe. The work by Rudnik, taking the form of a collage of many sound objects, quotations of music and text, exists in two language versions: Polish and German. »Die Wandlungen des Herrn Fähnrich oder die Mühlsteine an der Weichsel« was recognized by the German Academy of the Arts in 2001 as the best German-language radio drama. Since the 1970s, Eugeniusz Rudnik has not changed his artistic technique – he does not use a computer, but continues to work with tape and scissors, recording sounds, cutting them, then splicing them.

The second great PRES personality is Bohdan Mazurek, who began work as a sound engineer in 1962. A year later, he graduated with distinction from the Faculty of Sound Engineering at the Academy of Music in Warsaw. Earlier, he had taken lessons on numerous instruments, acquiring facility in improvisation on the piano, trumpet, clarinet, violin, violoncello and accordion. Before taking up his own musical œuvre, which came to pass in 1966, Bohdan Mazurek helped in the realization of works by such composers as Krzysztof Penderecki, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Włodzimierz Kotoński, Andrzej Markowski and Bogusław Schaeffer. Today, his artistic achievements include over 30 autonomous musical compositions, not including music for theater, film and art galleries.

Bohdan Mazurek was well-liked in visual arts circles. In 1968–1971, together with Roman Różycki, with the participation of Wojciech Markowski, he created an array of audiovisual micro-shows and installations at, among other venues, the Contemporary Gallery in Warsaw. He also helped Krzysztof Wodiczka in the realization of the aforementioned »Instrument osobisty«. Mazurek was the initiator of joint improvisations on electroacoustic instruments whose participants included Rudnik, François-Bernard Mâche, Arne Nordheim and Kåre Kolberg. [4] He has to his credit collective compositions, a rarity in electroacoustic music, such as »Schozyg« (1968) – a collaboration between Mazurek, Rudnik and John Tilbury. In this work, an experimental instrument equipped with a contact microphone array was used, constructed by Hugh Davies.

Like Eugeniusz Rudnik and many other artists at the PRES, Bohdan Mazurek moves easily between concrete sounds (processed to varying degrees) and electronic sounds. He enjoys combining diverse material on a collage principle; at other times, he superimposes synthesizer, instrumental and vocal sounds on one another. In so doing, he is guided by such psychological factors as the laws of perception, and not by concrete formal rules worked out in pre-composition sketches. Though structuralism is foreign to Mazurek’s music, it makes perfectly intuitive use of, for example, musical time. An essential form-creating element for Mazurek is, beyond this, the spatial formation of sound during live performance. Of Bohdan Mazurek’s »Epizody« (Episodes), Bolesław Błaszczyk has written that it is an »audio comic book from the psychotic pop-art circle«. Unlike Rudnik, who links contrasting materials seamlessly in completely realistic quasi-documentary forms, Mazurek creates surreal, poetic, quasi-film narratives. Their content is the unconscious and such emotions as anxiety, fear and eroticism. The work »Canti« (1973) is just such a »listening film«, composed from an array of interwoven sound planes. The material here is comprised of the following sound objects: a low, plucked harp string, a noisy crowd in a room, a female voice, processed whispers and other vocal effects. His skill in telling a story in sound is displayed even more clearly in the composition »Sny dziecięce« (Dreams of Children, 1976) which is an animated film soundtrack.

Bohdan Mazurek, like many artists, was deeply affected by political enslavement, which directly influenced his art. The composition »Z notatnika« (From a Notebook, 1983) was created despite the suspension of the PRES’ activity under martial law, and is a commentary on the situation in the country. A telling example of the composer’s involvement in current politics was the »Epitafium« (Epitaph, 1969), dedicated to the victims of the Prague Spring suppressed by Warsaw Pact armies – above all, a student named Jan Palach who, as a gesture of protest, set himself on fire in Prague in January 1969.

Electronic Music in the Studio PRES in the 1970s and 80s

From about 1970 onwards, PRES began to shift to voltage-controlled systems. In 1970, a Moog synthesizer was purchased; and in 1973, a portable Synthi AKS. At that time, the Warsaw Studio had a high technical standard; unfortunately, this is the only such moment in the history of the PRES, which from that time on was to fall into decline. This was evidenced by, among other things, difficulties in the implementation of quadraphonic sound, which was already in universal use elsewhere in the world. It was only in 1980 that the Studio acquired a 16-track tape recorder by 3M (USA), as well as a Polish new-generation console (Fonia model SM 131), with 16 voltage-controlled input channels and three group faders. Further purchases were made in the 1980s – the PRES obtained new digital apparatus: Yamaha, Macintosh and IBM computers, as well as a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer.

In the meantime, during the 1970s, a new generation of artists had appeared. This was the first group of composers educated in electronic music. Since 1967, a course in electronic music has been taught as part of the degree program in composition at the Academy of Music in Warsaw. Krzysztof Knittel and Elżbieta Sikora are both trained composers and sound engineers. They also have in common a sense of freedom in the use of electronics, not infrequently displayed in a performance-style approach. In 1973, Sikora, Knittel and Wojciech Michniewski founded the KEW artistic group, which still today enjoys using live electronics.

In 1971, when Elżbieta Sikora began working at the PRES, she already had to her credit a work composed at GEM entitled »Prénom« (1970; a newer version bears the title »Flashback«). Here, Sikora used such analog techniques as looping, delays, filtering, accumulation, micro-montage and mixing. After her two-year internship under the direction of Pierre Schaeffer and François Bayle, musique concrète was her main interest. The modern equipment at the PRES, however, soon encouraged Sikora to experiment with sound synthesis, playing oscillators, manipulating synthesizers by Moog, EMS, etc. As the composer recalls today, experiences taken from the PRES later permitted her to work successfully in other centers around the world: IRCAM, IMEB Bourges, CCRMA Stanford and the TU Berlin.

»La tête d’Orphée II«, realized in the Studio IRCAM, is the protagonist’s confrontation with the surrounding world, which can be interpreted in the context of Elżbieta Sikora’s emigration to Paris. The third work in the series touches upon the political situation in Poland – its title is »Jenek Wiśniewski, grudzien, Polska« (Janek Wiśniewski, December, Poland; 1982). The protagonist of this work for tape is a young person (whose real name was Zbigniew Godlewski) who was shot to death by military police during the pacification of a shipyard workers’ strike on the Baltic coast in December 1970. In Sikora’s work, he is »Orpheus descending to the underworld of reality«.

Knittel's electroacoustic œuvre is characterized by a peculiar programmaticism; despite his ease in use of electroacoustic material, he does not experiment for the sake of experimentation. More important than the work itself is the process of its creation; for this reason, Knittel most enjoys engaging in electroacoustic improvisation (with such artists as, among others, Marek Chołoniewski, Axel Dörner, Uli Fusseneger, John King, Marcus Weiss and Agata Zubel).

The End of PRES' History: Electroacoustic Music in Poland after 1985

Marek Chołoniewski

In the 1950s–70s, the PRES was the only professional electroacoustic music studio in Poland. It played an essential role in the country’s musical life. It not only created conditions for the development of compositional art, but also organized concerts of electroacoustic music, seminars and workshops, as well as popularizing electroacoustic music on the frequency of Polish Radio’s Channel 2. It collaborated closely with the Warsaw Autumn international contemporary music festival, which had been founded barely a year earlier (1956). The PRES also gradually began to fulfill the function of an electroacoustic music archive, having collected a huge library of works as well as professional literature.

During those years, the PRES developed basically apart from political interference, and only martial law (1981) left its mark on the Warsaw Studio, where activity was suspended at that time. In 1985, for political reasons, Józef Patkowski was removed from his post as director of the PRES. In the ensuing years, the electronic equipment was dispersed and partially destroyed. The PRES has not recovered since that time, and sporadic initiatives undertaken by subsequent directors of the PRES are today of symbolic character. The PRES does not exist as a real creative laboratory, but only as a peculiar kind of historic brand or logo.

Today, professional electroacoustic music studios flourish at the music academies in Kraków, Warsaw, Łódź, Wrocław and Katowice. Though their character is, above all, didactic, they also engage in artistic activity and organize concerts. In an age in which almost anyone can have a private studio in their own home, it is difficult to determine how many electroacoustic music studios there actually are in Poland. On the other hand, the liquidation of the PRES meant a de facto breakdown in the development of professional electroacoustic art in Poland. The capabilities of even the best-equipped home studio are limited; the equipment in the academic studios, in turn, is often obsolete. Neither the one nor the other provides the opportunity to experiment, for example, with spatial sound projection, live electronics, sound installation or complex interactive systems at the highest level. Above all, at such centers there is not even the essential information and acoustic base, much less a modern studio and concert infrastructure. For this reason, Polish composers interested in creating electroacoustic music are obliged to travel abroad to studios in Germany, France or the United States.


[1] Krzysztof Wodiczka’s »Instrument osobisty« referenced the political situation of the time in Poland. As the artist says, it was »the first attempt at a strategy to take the floor and speak through space, even in conditions of a practical lack of right to a private voice«. The tool was again used by another artist, Józef Robakowski, who made a film entitled »Reaktywacja Instrumentu osobistego« (Reactivation of Personal Instrument, 2005).

[2] Horyzonty muzyki, ed. Józef Patkowski and Anna Skrzyńska, Biblioteka Res Facta, vol. 1, PWM Edition, Krakow 1970.

[3] Quote comes from the pamphlet attached to the 4-disc album »Studio Eksperymentalne Polskiego Radia« with Eugeniusz Rudnik’s compositions, p. 24.

[4] On the basis of the improvisation, organized for PRES’s 40th birthday, a film entitled »Divertimento« (1997) was produced by Polish Television.