© Katarzyna Kukiełka

Do you feel the vibration?

Heaven, hell, love and country – life’s biggest mysteries were studied at the Polish festival Sacrum Profanum. And it ended well for two Danes.
  • Annonce

    Heroins of Sound
  • Annonce


You can't hear the trams when Mary Halvorson plays her electric guitar in the Cracow Philharmonic. The trams have otherwise always been a problem during concerts, because the music house is located on a central corner of the Polish city. Or perhaps the trams simply follow the fun rocking rhythm of the American composer and guitarist Halvorsen's work Belladonna: Sometimes small electric vibrations are felt, distorted guitar tones, driven through distortion pedals that sound as if they are running at different speeds, at least in different moods, than the four strings of the Mivos Quartet. You don't quite know who is pulling on whom; whether it is the guitar that is the soloist or the strings that lead the way. From time to time, the jazzified guitar rams into the elongated string sounds. The shocks and twists of the guitar are gentle, for the most part – but in the last piece Halvorson cuts in.

On the same evening The Sinfonietta Cracovia and conductor Lilianna Krych also performs Pure Voices (2021-2023) for string ensemble and electronics by the young Polish composer Aleksandra Słyż. All scratchy tones are eliminated; clean, long sound surfaces change and flutter. In Justė Janulytės Elongation of Nights the string orchestra sounds almost electronic. Endless landscapes appear on the retina. There are freezing adornments in Tomasz Sikorski’s Winter Landscape (1939-1988), which the composer wrote during a harsh winter in 1982. Sikorski is often referred to as Poland's first minimalist, and after his death gained cult status among young composers in the 90s.

© Adrian Pallasch
The Sinfonietta Cracovia and conductor Lilianna Krych. © Adrian Pallasch

»There were big protests when the piece was first performed,« says Marek Chołoniewski, composer, sound artist and professor at the Department of Electroacoustic Music in Cracow, before disappearing into a car.

Lynch adores Poland, she said. A perfect place between dream and reality

The last trams roll by and shake the music house, named after the composer Karol Szymanowski, one of Poland's great gurus. But music by Szymanowski, Penderecki or Lutosławski is not to be found at this festival. Krzysztof Pietraszewski, director of Sacrum Profanum, gives a lift:

»It's not because I can't sleep, but I'm very excited about the concert with the two Danes,« he says.

At home in the hotel, sleep is hindered by Polish Night Music (2007) by Polish composer Marek Zebrowski and American film director David Lynch. A friend of a friend thought of Lynch and twilight, when she tried to explain this year's festival theme, »Multiwersum«, the Multiverse. Lynch adores Poland, she said. A perfect place between dream and reality.

The robots are here

Twilights, at least actions between light and dark and the two geographical poles, are examined in more detail the next day in the old National Theatre. Dominykas Digimas' Oscillations for two sopranos and two altos (2020) is being performed after Five for five voices (1988), one of John Cage's so-called »number-pieces«. Two appetizers. Asceticism from America and Lithuania. Digimas surpasses Cage in silence. On the foyer stairs, in front of conductor Szymon Bywalec, stand singers from the Polish Radio Choir completely motionless.

© Katarzyna Kukiełka
Michał Górczyński performing Roboty-duety. © Katarzyna Kukiełka 

The robot, which stands next to Michał Górczyński in the next performance, doesn't make much of a fuss either. With improvisations on the saxophone and verbal exclamations, the musician tries to start a dialogue with the robot, asks questions, tries to get it to do things. Roboty-duety (2023) for clarinetist and robot arm is a raving robot duet:

»I drink my tea without spilling. Can pigs say roast beef? Yes, that's the only word pigs can say with a human voice.«

Robots can't change their own hands yet, we understand. They cannot go to the hairdresser or display the frailty that became part of the game when, not so long ago, the composers stepped on stage and became performers. Górczyński introduces the robot. Can they show tenderness when they can't even control their hands? Are they interesting or just lousy performers?

The Aarhus composer Niels Rønsholdt, who will be on stage in a few days, stands and studies a huge armless bust of Konrad Swinarski (1929-1975) – theater and opera director, a Polish superhero. Even without hands.

He wraps the violin's shoulders in silver paper, ties a noose around the violin's neck, plays with a knife. A chain rattles...

© Katarzyna Kukiełka
Composers and performers Kuba Krzewiński and Michał Pepol. © Katarzyna Kukiełka 

Soon after, the performer Kuba Krzewiński stands and looks deeply into a violin hanging from the ceiling. The violin dangles innocently with its little long-necked body. There is a history, a relationship, perhaps evil, between the two. He wraps the violin's shoulders in silver paper, ties a noose around the violin's neck, plays with a knife. A chain rattles... Nina Fukuoka's work on_the_other_side (2018-2023) is a scene from all time love stories. We stand around them as silent witnesses for a drama between a violinist and a violin. Old violins are cheekier performers than new robots. They have more secrets and mysteries in their bodies.

Love is studied further in Alvin Lucier's Love Song (2016). Krzewiński and Michał Pepol move around the hall, each with a violin, which is connected to the other's violin by a long string: when one violin is played, it is also heard on the other. In Krzewiński's Contre No. 1 (2017) the two musicians caress the cello and the violin. Their hands slide up and down the bodies of the instruments. Physically slapping like a flamenco serenade. Michał Pepol also plays the cello pop hit »Kocham cię, kochanie moje« by Maanam. 

Touching, bodies, the tactile is a theme in the theater this evening.

© Katarzyna Kukiełka
Dominika Wiak. © Katarzyna Kukiełka

Michał Górczyński returns with his saxophone and without a robot. Wojtek Kiwer plays home-built electronic instruments and stones attached to microphones. The dancer Dominika Wiak contributes to a sensuous performance with micro sounds as an alluring engine.

The whole floor is vibrating. There are sounds on the floor.   

We walk down the stairs to where we started three hours earlier, the foyer of the old theater. The choir sings For love is strong (after The Song of Songs) (2008) by the New Yorker David Lang, who is known for large-scale installations such as The Mile-long Opera, where 1000 performers tells about loneliness and TV dinners in a big city. Now, we are standing in a wardrobe at a Polish theater and will shortly be handed our jackets.

© Katarzyna Kukiełka
Szymon Bywalec in front of singers from the Polish Radio Choir. © Katarzyna Kukiełka 

We stand like frozen statues around the choir, which has stopped time with intimate a cappella storytelling. For the second time tonight, Niels Rønsholdt is completely engrossed. He almost sings along.

Techno and silicone

If minimalist music rhymes with the feeling of weightlessness, frozen surfaces and fast pulse, we hear a core example of it in American Tristan Perich’s Open Symmetry (2018) for three vibraphones and one-bit electronics, i.e. primitive electronics. Endless pulse beats, curves as wide as surfer waves. When the tempo is occasionally said, it's like when a toy robot runs erratically because the battery is dying, but finds the tempo again on a recharge. When the musicians from French Ensemble 0 and Swiss Eklekto play the last pulse after an hour, one understands a reviewer's description of the work: »techno music for silicon life forms«. Someone from the audience says: »It was like changing gears in a car. You were cruising off.«

Rei Nakamura and Wojtek Blecharz. © Norbert Burkowski

Multiverse is the theme of this year's Sacrum Profanum festival. An infinite number of universes with all possible physical laws abound in the many works with minimalist leanings. We enter the hall together again, and another universe begins: In his installation performance, sound artist Wojtek Blecharz walks around among the audience and places small speakers in the hall. He's wearing a pantsuit, the atmosphere is devotional, and someone behind me is whispering something about a cult. Meanwhile, Rei Nakamura gently touches the keys of a grand piano and scrapes under the instrument. A howl flutters, bass notes are repeated. Blecharz is now standing right next to me and moving two small speakers above my head. The piano concert was advertised as a »sound massage«. This piano concerto goes into the muscles and we experience this concerto differently because peoples muscles work in different ways. Like ears. 

My English colleague and ambient fan calls it sadism and flees

In the Japanese cultural center Manggha the next day, trance is guaranteed.

It's mantric when the Chain Ensemble with percussion, keyboard instruments and electronics perform Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt's 1976 work Canto Ostinato. It takes concentration to play the simple theme over and over again. Also in this piece, the duration of which can be extended for up to many hours, gear changes are experienced. The music flows with small jerks and via romantic byways. Minimalism doesn't tend to be that melodic. The accents are different. My English colleague and ambient fan calls it sadism and flees. He does not get to experience that the minimalism becomes blurred and profanely dirty in the final minutes.

Out in the countryside

The organic – and or sadistic – piano themes continue in the brain during the 20-minute tram ride to a theater in Nowa Huta, a concrete suburb and former socialist model city. Until 24-year-old Brìghde Chaimbeul stomps Scottish folk with her foot and a bagpipe in her arms. Saxophonist Colin Stetson, who is on her new album, is replaced by Paulina Owczarek. »We just met today. Let's see what happens.« 

Chaimbeul and Owczarek share the same melody, but the bagpipe sounds almost electronic and futuristic despite its folk music origins. The drones clatter. The drones of the saxophone are more gentle transitions. It showers softly and lays the foundation On top of it, the bagpipes attached to microphones sound like a ship's hull sailing in the water on an endless drone journey.

»Don't you feel any vibration?« The student replies: »No«

During the break, Marek Chołoniewski has promised to explain the scandal surrounding the first Polish minimalist concert. However, he misunderstands my question and begins to tell me about the first concert in Poland with the American (just deceased, ed.) composer Phill Niblock in 1985: »It wasn't protests, but his music was not understood. The crowd just walked out. A music student asked Niblock why the poster said it was an installation. Niblock replied: 'I was in Budapest and thought my concert was next week. There was no time to make an installation.' The next day, during a presentation at the American Consulate in Cracow, a braver student asked: 'Can you explain, what is the connection between image and sound?' In Niblock's work The Movement of People Working shown on two screens working people and a single sound, a drone, which just runs for 10 minutes. And Niblock replies: 'Don't you feel any vibration?' The student replies: 'No'. 10 years later Niblock was at my festival Audio Art and there was a standing ovation. In Poland, minimalism has not been so strong, but there are two minimalists, Tomasz Sikorski and Zygmunt Krauze, who consistently reduced the material to just a few elements. It was a specific form of Polish conceptual music.«

Chołoniewski fails to explain more about Sikorski, the first Polish minimalist. Or why the Sacrum Profanum does not worship the old Polish gurus. We are lost in translation. Which is not a bad thing.

»This is not country music,« whispers someone

Jakob Kullberg and Orkiestra Muzyki Nowej. © Katarzyna Kukiełka
Jakob Kullberg and Orkiestra Muzyki Nowej. © Katarzyna Kukiełka 

Dressed entirely in denim and a bandana around his neck, festival director Pietraszewski announces new musical journeys: »Now we're going out into the countryside.« Country, Niels Rønsholdt's song cycle, starts. Jakob Kullberg holds his cello like a guitar. He sings. The composer himself is also on stage. Rønsholdt sings. So do the musicians in Orkiestra Muzyki Nowej in 18 pieces with titles such as »Gone Like a Turkey Through the Corn« and »Heavy is the Heart«. It is quiet in the theater hall. »This is not country music,« whispers someone upon the meeting with a restrained falsetto voice. There is something both down-to-earth and spherical and bright about the quiet stories about tangible realities and real people in patches. A whip cracks, pearls are thrown onto the stage. The sounds of prairie and Americana rush in the ears of the social realist concrete city of Nowa Huta.

»It was like a visit to another world,« says one after the concert. »Yes, a journey back in time. Echoes of folk music, clear echoes of something foreign. Pure twilight. Often the music stuttered like on a record,« says another. A third says the work was far too long. My English colleague is at a loss for words, but finds two: »Marvelous«. »Eccentric«.

The festival director's concern about the concert with the two Danes turns out to be pure theory. Not of this world.

Lone wanderers of the universe

The festival is over. Sacrum Profanum – the sacred and the profane, the impure – must be dissolved. The musicians drive out of Nowa Huta and into a bar where the bartenders dance on the counter in cowboy boots while pouring drinks. There is country music in Cracow. Even if the music in the speakers is pumped dance, and it continues into the night. The musicians who stand at the bar also operate in several worlds at once. The multiverse exists in this bar tonight, singing cellists are not a rare sight, and the multiverse is neither digital nor invisible, but physical and hard as a boot stomp. Like pulsating minimalist music that just drives and drives into the garages of loneliness. Here, it's just a matter of stepping on. The next stop is either a minimalist heaven or hell.

A friend of a friend said that a critic has compared Zebrowski/Lynch's Polish night music to »silent hotels where lonely travelers meet«. This is where we are. This Polish bar will be impossible to find a second time. These kinds of places find you as much as you find them.

In a little while, the first trams will drive through the dawn and set reality into action. »Don't you feel any vibration?« Right now – in this corner of the world – these kinds of questions are theoretical and redundant questions.

The festival Sacrum Profanum took place on 23-24 September and 9-12 November in Cracow, Poland. Seismograf participated in the November part.

Seismograf's travel and accommodation was paid for by The Adam Mickiewicz Institute. The institute has had no influence on the content of the article.

English translation: Andreo Michaelo Mielczarek