The Avant-garde Alternative of the last 20 Years in Poland

From Unearthing The Music

Chopin in the city (artbloomfestival), Krakow 2010

"The Avant-garde Alternative of the last 20 Years in Poland: In Search of Points of Intersection" - an essay by Antoni Beksiak for Sound Exchange.

The 1990s

The years after 1990 were to a large degree shaped by phenomena from the last decades of the Polish People's Republic. Relative to the main trend of contemporary music, what was previously considered alternative at the Warsaw Autumn Festival – especially in the area of electroacoustic music – were activities associated with the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio, such enterprises as the Independent Electroacoustic Music Studio (1982–1984, featuring Andrzej Bieżan, Krzysztof Knittel, Stanisław Krupowicz, Mieczysław Litwiński, Andrzej Mitan, Paweł Szymański and Tadeusz Sudnik) and intuitive music, a symbolic figure of which is Zdzisław Piernik (b. 1942), legendary inventor of articulation techniques for the tuba (and performer of a rich compositional repertoire). His Intuitive Music Ensemble (Bieżan, Wojciech Chyła, Jacek Malicki) was blazing trails nearly 40 years ago – ineffectively, one could say – at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. About the character of this key festival in the 1990s, Dorota Szwarcman writes: »Meanwhile, Warsaw Autumn became a respectable middle-of-the-road festival – constantly recalling 20th-century classics, without any attempt to go beyond traditional concert halls, with only a small presence of young people’s œuvre. […] The general atmosphere was far from a creative ferment.« [i]

Against the background of that decade, what was exceptional on the Polish scene was the Audio Art Festival, existing since 1993 in Kraków (it also had/has offshoots in Warsaw and Wrocław), led by Marek Chołoniewski (b. 1953) and associated institutionally with the academic community (the Electronic Music Studio founded in 1978 by Józef Patkowski at the Academy of Music in Kraków, the Muzyka Centrum Artistic Association). Founded in 1977, Muzyka Centrum – aside from the œuvre of its members and the associated circle of artists – presented the newest music from Poland and abroad, as well as activities from the Polish Fluxus, instrumental theater and happening, inviting guest artists from outside of academic circles’. [ii]

It is interesting to prepare a list of artists who have taken part in the Krakow festival. Initially, the names appearing there were those of the previously-known Knittel [iii] (1947, for years a leading representative of alternative music in the compositional community with his incorporations of, among other things, rock music), vocalist and »orientalist« Litwiński (b. 1955), Jan Pieniążek [iv] (b. 1948) and Chołoniewski himself, who were involved in sound installations, multimedia and interactivity; Zbigniew Łowżył (1965, percussionist, creator of audio art and inter-media works), Andrzej Przybielski (1944–2011, free jazz trumpeter) and visualist Maciej Walczak (b. 1963), a regular collaborator with the compositional community. At the end of the decade, a new wave appeared at Audio Art: bassist Sławomir Janicki (b. 1967, in a duo with Piernik), one of the founders of the Bydgoszcz club Mózg; Anna Zaradny (b. 1977, saxophone) and Robert Piotrowicz (b. 1973, guitar, synthesizer); the later creators of Musica Genera, Jacek Staniszewski (b. 1969, noise artist, theorist [v]), Mazzoll (b. 1968, clarinetist, yass scene radical). Appearing twice, in different line-ups, was Zbigniew Karkowski (b. 1958) – an émigré, formally trained composer and persona non grata in the Polish compositional community who is (in)famous all over the world as a noise music guru. This choice is symptomatic of the phenomena of the last two decades.

Taking place parallel to this (also starting in 1993) was the Strefa event series, curated by Andrzej Załęski at the Gallery of Contemporary Art [vi] in Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle, which regularly presented alternative pop and rock, multimedia, performance art, free jazz and – probably the closest to the scope of the present article – events under the care of Maciek Sienkiewicz. The Warsaw offshoot of Audio Art [vii] also took place at the Castle. Presenting his works at the latter was Jarosław Kapuściński (b. 1964), who became more and more active in making audiovisual art and music films after emigrating at the end of the 1980s, for example »Wariacje na temat Mondriana« (Variations on a Theme by Mondrian, 1992), »Catch the Tiger! featuring piano« (1993) and »Mudry« (Mudras, 1993). [viii]

Characteristic of the 1990s in Polish music were such phenomena as »yass«. Born between Bydgoszcz and Poland’s Tri-City area, it represented a reaction to the conservative, orthodox and inbred attitude of a large portion of Poland's jazz community as it formed in the Polish People’s Republic. Declaring its inspiration in 1960s free jazz, its representatives realized in Poland to a large measure ideas analogous to the activities of the artists focused around New York's Knitting Factory. This was a necessary airing out of the genre which inspired numerous later achievements; however – placing emphasis on groove – it is only marginally of interest to us. Likewise, in the case of somewhat later activities in Warsaw – especially the concert-laboratory series Galimadjaz and Djazzpora [ix] – our subject appears on the fringes.

One of the key figures in the modest free improvisation scene, Warsaw guitarist Andrzej Izdebski (b. 1975), indicates the beginnings of the constitution of this phenomenon as follows: »Tomasz Stańko in Cecil Taylor’s group, Helmut Nadolski, Andrzej Przybielski, Zdzisław Piernik playing intuitive music with Krzysztof Knittel at Warsaw Autumn in the 1970s… […] More recent history is Mazzoll (his projects in Germany), the Bydgoszcz club Mózg and its creators: Sławek Janicki and Jacek Majewski; beyond this, such figures as Tomek Gwinciński, the leader of the band Trytony, as well as Marek Rogulus Rogulski, often performing in a duo with Tomek Szwelas Szwelnik.« [x]

In stating that the dominant phenomena in the 1990s were different, we cannot, however, forget that what crystallized in that era was a new model of the creative personality outside the hierarchy: the artist who is active with equal artistic success in an area close to popular music (in particular, as part of club culture) and in the most »ambitious« areas of avant-garde music – furthermore, not infrequently coming from the environs of the first of these two fields. In Polish we can obviously cite, for example, Krzesimir Dębski, Edward Pałłasz, and even Witold Lutosławski. Such composers, however, tried rather to create an art music habitus within the mainstream pop culture convention (which obviously had a somewhat different significance during the time of the Polish People’s Republic). For a change, the artists cited here – whose activity fell into the first decade of the 21st century – are not infrequently self-taught individuals who took lessons in the area of contemporary composition, such as Patryk Zakrocki (b. 1974) and Tomasz Gwinciński (b. 1963), who studied with Bogusław Schaeffer, or composers with degrees in higher education who have traveled in alternative music circles since their youth, such as Arturas Bumšteinas (b. 1982), resident for the past several years in Poland. The issue of formal education is not key; they are linked, however, by activity in the sphere of intensive artistic inquiries, as opposed to attempts to play to audiences’ conventional expectations (regardless of the genre of which we are speaking).

For example, Piotr Zabrodzki (b. 1982) a.k.a. Mista Pita is a classically trained pianist, graduate of the Chopin State Music Secondary School in Warsaw, but he also uses bass guitar, double bass and percussion. In the role of vocalist and keyboardist, he forms part of the ensemble Senk Że / Cinq G / 5G – which belongs to the reggae/dance hall movement – as well as numerous related endeavors. He plays in the standing ensembles of the Przybysz sisters, Natalia »Natu« and Paulina »Pinnawela« (soul vocalists who once upon a time formed the group Sistars), and he collaborates with Marta Kossakowska a.k.a. Marika, a reggae/soul singer. With another key alternative figure, Bartosz Weber a.k.a. Baaba, he has recorded two discs »drawing on fake-jazz in the manner of Lounge Lizards« [xi]. With guitarist Jan Pęczak, saxophonist Marcin Gańko and percussionist Hubert Zemler, as Blast Muzungu, he leaps back and forth in a Postmodernist manner among styles – in the spirit of John Zorn’s Naked City, from country to metal. »Avant-jazz magma is the starting point, which, depending on the caprice of the musicians, tunes in a barrel-organ aura, only to pile up a wall of glitches, squeaks and whistles in the twinkling of an eye.«[xii] With Zdzisław Piernik, he has recorded a diverse album featuring Zemler and violinist Wojciech Kondrat (Namanga, Vivo 2008035CD, 2008), on which he utilizes the tuba player's sonoristic capabilities in an intriguing manner. »He expresses himself most fully (…) as a pianist, dazzling his audience with back-breaking cluster passages« [xiii]. Zabrodzki plays free jazz, free improvisation, bruitist electronics and radical metal with equal fluency; he freely and creatively juggles styles.

The New Century

In recent decades, communities of listeners and artists have appeared whose educational path has not led from performance of Mozart in their childhood, for whom twentieth-century composition is conceived rather as the antithesis of »classical« music, from Bach to Brahms. Their œuvre is rooted in various pop culture fringe movements: heavy metal (death, doom, grind, thrash), ambient and drone music, noise, industrial music, avant-rock, free-jazz and others. What is key is the moment of aesthetic approach to areas of contemporary classical music, discovery of common artistic goals and technical issues and recognition of compositional achievements. The Viennese glitch community played a crucial role in Poland, a key moment being the rise of Austrian label Mego Records around the year 2000. In May 2003, the Alt+F4 Festival, prepared by the Salvia New Forms Center as part of the first Turning Sounds International Meeting (curated by this author), showcased a dynamic group of native artists, including Viön (Artur Jaworski), Facial Index (Jacek Staniszewski), Mem (Kamil Antosiewicz), Wolfram (Dominik Kowalczyk) and Spear.

Zbigniew Karkowski (2002). Photo by: Fredrik Nilsen

The So-Called Laptopists

Noise is relatively clearly present – in a manner characteristic of this genre – on the borderline between inspiring, fresh musical experiences (for example, Bartek Kalinka, b. 1976, a.k.a. XV Parówek’s mini-album »Glued Feet« AudioTong tng1034, 2007), and perhaps even leaving the realm of music per se – a tendency by no means marginal for lovers of dazzling acoustic pressure. A frequent guest in Poland is the aforementioned Zbigniew Karkowski – however, symptomatically, not at festivals of compositional art. One of his most interesting achievements (in the role of composer and curator) is the album »Persepolis + Remixes. Edition I« (Asphodel ASP 2005, 2002), including Xenakis’ monumental work of 1971, and a disc of reinterpretations by current noise artists, showing the continuation and differences (specifically regarding tools and timbres) between bruitism and noise. In 2009, this author commissioned from Karkowski the (to date) twice-performed monumental composition »Encumbrance« for the vocal ensemble Gęba. Among the new millennium’s most important figures utilizing electroacoustic material are Wolfram (b. 1969), Emiter (Marcin Dymiter, b. 1971) and Arszyn (Krzysztof Topolski, b. 1973), the duo Emiszyn, Dawid Szczęsny and turntablist DJ Lenar (Marcin Lenarczyk).

Arturas Bumšteinas

From the academic community, we can point out Arturas Bumšteinas, clarinetist Michał Górczyński (b. 1977), who is on a quest for extended articulational techniques, as well as the live electronics group Phonos ek Mechanes. This ensemble of Cezary Duchnowski, Paweł Hendrich and Sławomir Kupczak joins the live electronics tradition with a wide array of inspirations, constructing unorthodox narration in terms of substance, timbre and pace, aided by recycling. It avoids this fossilized, academic uniformity so common to the output of Polish composers, even the young ones. The musicians use various computer interfaces, violin, electric guitar, even Nintendo's Wiimote, and within the sonic fabric one can find the idiosyncrasies of individual members, such as the »clockwork« ticking of Kupczak's »Anafora V«. The three Wrocław artists present considerable compositional upbringing and attention to tone, uniting dynamic spontaneity with excellent control of the structure. [xiv]

Anna Zaradny. Photo by: Szymon Roginsk

Free Improvisation

The free improvisation community in Poland is modest, since this movement has not been appreciated by musical institutions – among the few exceptions is Warsaw’s Ad Libitum Festival, organized by the Polish Music Council Foundation. Knowledge emanates, above all, from independent centers, attracting listeners and inspiring musicians. A spectacular example is the Musica Genera Festival (Szczecin 2002–2008, Warsaw 2009), led by Piotrowicz and Zaradny, which presented to Polish audiences many distinguished artists from this movement, arranged unique artistic encounters and studied the connection of improvisation with composition, sound installations and visuals. But it's Michał Libera and Krzysztof Trzewiczek, under the name of »plain« (Warsaw), who actively introduced Polish musicians to the area of free improvisation; the heir of these activities is the 4.99 Foundation.

Robert Piotrowicz. Photo originally in

Even earlier, there were Peter Kowald’s trendsetting visits and collaborations with Polish musicians. Despite this, free improvisation is predominantly absent from contemporary music festivals, remaining one of the most specialized niche movements devoid of media channels. Piernik plays with, among others, Górczyński (»Energa One«, Kariatyda 002, 2002), Lenar and Izdebski, who in turn, together with percussionist Michał Gos (b. 1974), forms the duo Sonus Akrobata (»Mandragora«, Bôłt BR 1002, 2009). Other figures are, in particular, guitarist Piotr Bukowski, Marcin Dymiter and bassist Rafał Mazur (b. 1971); and from the academic community, pianist and improvisation teacher Szábolcs Esztényi.


Zygmunt Krauze. Photo by: Jan Bebel

Sound Installations, Multimedia

A similar functioning in the »vacuum« between communities is characteristic of the sound installation, multimedia and related movements. This was clearly shown by the exhibition »Sound Invasion. Music and the Visual Arts« [xv]. Included were works in which music was used merely as a source of symbols and associations, or where the sound was just a side effect, as – so to speak – in an industrial machine. I consider this type of activities to go beyond the scope of the present text. Among a few exceptions, the most spectacular was Christian Marclay’s video quartet, a dazzling four-screen narration of musically-oriented clips from movies, exhibiting an intriguing, fast-paced polyphony of image and sound. Not infrequently, as well, the presence of this movement at festivals of compositional art has displayed the curators’ lack of orientation.

The Polish artistic community became interested in this movement already at its outset. Aside from the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko mentioned by Monika Pasiecznik, immediately after Stockhausen’s first inquiries in the area of »Wandelmusik« (foyer music) [xvi], the subject was taken up by Zygmunt Krauze (1938, »Space-Music Composition« from 1968, featuring interior decorator Teresa Kelm and sculptor Henryk Morel). This type of activity occasionally finds its way into the programs of various contemporary music festivals and art galleries. We will find it in the output of both alternative artists and those from the compositional community. Nevertheless, we cannot speak of a consolidated presence of this movement in Polish art, just as in the case of free improvisation. Today’s state of affairs reflects the phenomenon’s dispersion. Events from this area are relatively numerous; however, they require far-reaching research to identify their territory and locate it on the arts map.

However, it is also worth remembering that, for example, as part of the Chopin Year celebrations, many works in this area appeared. [xvii] In Kraków, four installations by Aleksander Janicki under the heading »Chopin in the City« were set up; in Warsaw, a subprogram of Warsaw Autumn (Paweł Janicki, Jarosław Kapuściński, Wiesław Michalak, Gordon Monahan, Józef Robakowski) and »Fryderyk Chopin. Ciennik osobisty« (Fryderyk Chopin. A Personal Diary Bower) (curated by this author) were realized. The latter consists of short snippets from Chopin's letters sonically elaborated by Wrocław's composer Sławomir Kupczak. The sound layer is presented spatially and allows deeper access to Chopin's personality and his complicated relationships with the world of his time, playing also with the tension between the inner space of the bower and the intrusion of surrounding city landscape. In Radom, the Mazovian Centre of Contemporary Art Elektrownia realized two installations by Grzegorz Rogala; the City Art Gallery in Łódź, the multimedia project »What next after Chopin…« featuring, among others, Krzysztof Knittel, Dobromiła Jaskot, Jacek Partyka, Marcin Stańczyk, Marta Śniada and Artur Zagajewski; while the Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu in Toruń organized the »Chopin – Field of Vision/Field of Hearing« festival, encompassing the areas of contemporary music and animation (Jarosław Kapuściński), along with such spheres as DVJ (Antistatic Family, An On Bast), electronic and acoustic music (Rafał Kołacki, Jacek Doroszenko) or interactive installation (Ksawery Kaliski) [xviii].

In turn, the No Local Foundation’s endeavor Fragile Boredom included an exhibition of works by Erik Bünger, Lawrence English, Paweł Kulczyński and Anna Zaradny in Kraków and Bytom. Most consistently devoted to this type of art is Kraków’s Audio Art festival. Recent years have brought increased interest on the part of various »inquiring« festivals in the sound installation, performance and multimedia movements, which – as one can surmise – is perceived as bringing a certain prestige associated with gallery-style »high art«, though obviously also as an interesting field of artistic inquiry. Its share in the programs of such festivals as Musica Genera, Unsound (Krakow) and Warsaw Electronic Festival, as well as the pop-culture Off Festival (Silesian conurbation) and Open'er (Tri-City area), is increasing.

Places and Channels

Monotype Records Logo

The œuvre of these and related artists plays out, above all, in those few music clubs that include such music in the scope of their repertoire, art galleries, and non-government organizations founded for this purpose which (not without success) attempt to obtain funds from state and local government sources. A number of specialized record labels exist, such as Monotype Records and Musica Genera (also involved in improvisation); individual titles appear in the catalogs of record labels of broader profile (Bôłt, Lado ABC); most numerous, however, are publications under ephemeral labels and various »samizdat« releases (CD-R discs, cassettes) in microscopic limited editions, with strong international aspect, however.

Musica Genera Festival 2009

Aside from CDs released in minimally-sized editions (and sales of files on the Internet, where the leading outlet is the shop), as well as vinyl discs, which attractive as physical objects and have audiophile connotations, of great significance are netlabels. A considerable role is played in Poland by the online label AudioTong (over 50 catalog items), which has recently »advanced« to the role of CD editor. It is co-run by an artist from the noise movement, Zenial (Łukasz Szałankiewicz, 1978). Critical recognition of this type of music is negligible. Writings on the subject are extremely dispersed and require thorough research.

Contacts between Communities

In attempting to assess the results of encounters between the communities of formally and informally trained contemporary music artists, we must observe a cautious rapprochement, marked by distrust and reserve. At festivals organized by the compositional community, alternative music is either not present or »negatively« present – thanks to the community’s closed attitude and falsifications of its image. Also slowly, but consistently, repertoire from the academic community is being included in the programs of alternative events – sometimes there are performances of works by such artists as Alvin Lucier, Cornelius Cardew and the co-creators of the Experimental Studio by performers from different communities (the activity of the group presently associated with the 4.99 Foundation). In both real and virtual space, a discourse is in progress – not infrequently of a strongly antagonistic character – which does not at all mean that, for example, the majority of the young compositional community in Poland is aware of the activities of their colleagues »on the other side of the border«.

All in all, today's new generation of avant-gardists has come from elsewhere; in the Polish contemporary music community, however, it has discovered for itself Bohdan Mazurek, Eugeniusz Rudnik, Zdzisław Piernik, and other achievements relegated to the night concerts of Warsaw Autumn.

Text based in large measure on the article »Muzyka alternatywna« (Alternative Music), in: »Raport o stanie muzyki polskiej« (Report on the State of Polish Music), Institute of Music and Dance, Warsaw 2011.


[i] Augustyn Bloch, Ruch Muzyczny XX/1991, according to: Dorota Szwarcman, »Kłopoty z wolnością. Po roku 1989« (Problems with Freedom. After 1989), Stentor, Warsaw 2007. (accessed 23 June 2011), chapter »Czas Warszawskich Jesieni. O muzyce polskiej lat 1945–2007« (The Time of the Warsaw Autumn Festivals. On Polish Music from 1945 to 2007).

[ii] Conversation between Marek Chołoniewski and the author on 24 June 2011.

[iii] The presence of other Polish composers is on a rather one-off basis.

[iv] »Jan Pieniążek is an artist-engineer, engineer-dreamer, artist-ironicist«,, accessed 26 June 2011.

[v] Together with Dominik »Wolfram« Kowalczyk and Artur Kozdrowski, creator of Neurobot, a group existing from 1996 to 2003 – as much an artistic ensemble as an Internet magazine (, accessed 26 June 2011).

[vi], accessed on 26 June 2011

[vii] Taking place parallel to Strefa was the CSW music program, initially prepared jointly with PTMW, and then with contemporary music group Nonstrom.

[viii] Dorota Szwarcman, Ibid.

[ix] For a concise panorama of 21st-century Polish alternative music, I refer the reader to a text written jointly with Łukasz Iwasiński and Małgorzata Cnota: »Alternative Music«, in: »Music in Poland. A Guide 2010«, Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Warsaw 2010.

[x] Glissando 3/2005, interview by Przemysław Psikuta.

[xi] Łukasz Iwasiński, Ibid.

[xii] Jarek Szubrycht at (,129601,4656396,plyta-recenzja.html), accessed on November 1, 2011, translated by this author.

[xiii] Łukasz Iwasiński, Ibid.

[xiv] Based on this author's unpublished review of the group's performance at the Audio Art festival in Warsaw on December 19, 2007.

[xv] Zachęta National Art Gallery, Warsaw, 7 April–2 August 2009.

[xvi] Cf. »Karlheinz Stockhausen«, in: Wikipedia, Ch. 2.2. 1960s, accessed 29 August 2011 via link on official Stockhausen page;, accessed 29 August 2011

[xvii] Antoni Beksiak, »Sygnał zwrotny« (Feedback Signal), in: »Rok Chopinowski 2010. Impresje – świadectwa – ludzie« (The Year of Chopin 2010. Impressions – Testimonies – People), Chopin 2010 Celebrations Office, Warsaw 2011.

[xviii], accessed 10 March 2011.