People in art

“For the composer, impressions and feelings are important…” interview with Marcin Stańczyk

Marcin Stańczyk – a lawyer, composer, winner of the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award, scholarship IRCAM scholarship holder at the Pompidou Centre, Polish ambassador of culture in the framework of the 16 + 1 programme – talks to Anna Karahan about his impressions from his first study visit to China.

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You recently, completed your first study visit to China in the framework of the 16 + 1 programme. What surprised you most, and what did you discover new, for yourself professionally and maybe from the tourism and culinary perspectives?

We were in so many different places, we saw so many things, and we heard so much music that it is impossible to indicate only one thing, all the more so as this was my first visit to China. We travelled at the invitation of the Chinese Ministry of Culture, which arranged a unique and very intensive programme of the visit. We usually changed the place we were staying every two days, and saw and listened more often than not to two or three shows a day. It was such a veritable kaleidoscope of impressions, in which the very fact of experiencing cultural differences was exciting. I do have some idea of how it was for each of us, but all drew their own conclusions and had individual personal experiences. It is precisely in this that the real surprises are found.

This is shown, for example, in that, at a Chinese concert, there is no tradition of audience silence. Even when the musicians are excellent and the music is intimate, the Chinese converse freely among themselves, treating concerts as social events and an opportunity for conversation. This is just like it was in 18th century Europe. For us, Romanticism changed the myth of the artist as prophet, while in China this continues.

When it comes to tourist attractions, the most spectacular place we visited was the Labrang monastery in Xiahe, in the southern part of Gansu Province in the Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, located at an altitude of nearly 3,000 m. It is one of the six major monasteries of the “yellow hats” sect [the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism], comprising many Tibetan monks from outside the region of Tibet. I was surprised at the very beginning, when we were given a welcome “Khata”, a white silk scarf, which symbolises good will, auspiciousness, compassion and the purity of the donor’s intention. This mystical first impression remained with me until the end of the visit. Completely walled, the monastery is in fact a place where hundreds of monks study Buddha’s teaching, medicine, philosophy, and herbal medicine, and pray and meditate. In addition to the a show specially arranged for us by the monks, we heard uniquely Tibetan sounds, such as the squeaking of prayer wheels rotating in the wind, and Dungchen, the great Tibetan horns that announce prayer time in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. The sound floating in the mountains certainly remains in my memory.

Travel also abounded with culinary surprises. The biggest surprise was the tasty and innocuous looking green seaweed, originating in Quanzhou in the south of the country. About 15 minutes after eating, this, the lips start to go numb. This was also a special feeling. (laughs)

Before your visit, were you already familiar with traditional Chinese instruments, or was it only when in China that you became acquainted with their capabilities and sounds? Which of these instruments captivated you the most?

I knew of them before, but my knowledge was only scant and theoretical. What made the biggest impression on me was the Chinese “yangqin” dulcimer, a very sophisticated instrument from which sound is extracted with the use of bamboo hammers tipped with cotton, rubber, and even animal horn. Interestingly, the strings are stretched along the same plane but at three different levels, and each is tuned to a different scale. Playing the yangqin and controlling the bamboo hammers requires great virtuosity, but a skilled instrumentalist has great possibilities of expression. I was surprised too by the horns constructed from specially cut conch shells. This instrument is known throughout Asia, the Caribbean and Pacific countries. I did not know, however, that its sound could be so loud, easily piercing that of an entire orchestra.

Were you recording “samples” of melodies and sounds, in order to remember them during the creation of commissioned work? How in practice does the creation of such a composition take place?

Of course, all composers had equipment for recording audio and video. Frequently, concerts were arranged specially for us, so we had good conditions under which to capture them. However, the recording arises from concentration, so I recorded only fragments of sound, preferring to focus on listening, experiencing the music. For a composer, what is in our memory, what captivated us, our impressions and feelings, are probably more important.

How exactly compositions are created on Chinese instruments I still do not know. I have not yet started working on a piece. I’m working on previously commissioned compositions, and in my free time I try to listen to Chinese music and learn about these instruments. It seems to me that writing a piece of music for a Chinese orchestra will be a unique experience, not only due to the nature of Chinese instruments, their structure and limitations, but mainly because the Chinese musical tradition is quite different [from the European], and in writing for the Chinese orchestra you should, in my opinion, take this into consideration. This is all the more so because all members of the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra are great musicians, true virtuosos of their instruments, so it is worth trying to take advantage of their musicality and skills.

You also have a commission from one of the seven great national orchestras of China. Who decides which orchestras will perform your work? Is the theme imposed from above, or left for you to choose?

As for the second commission, a piece for an orchestra of Chinese instruments, the Chinese only expressed the wish that I should create this. They have not specified any subject, although reference to Chinese culture would certainly be welcomed. I think it will prove to be a fascinating compositional experience, and a chance to convince the Chinese audience that a European composer has experienced and absorbed Chinese tradition. Early indications are that I can choose the orchestra [to perform my work]. Some of them we saw on our journey, but not all, so it would be worth seeing the rest too.

When will you return to China and what are your plans in relation to this work?

Ideally I will write fragments and go to China for a couple of tests to find out whether my initial ideas have a good chance to develop. Only later will I finish the piece. I hope this can be arranged. The Chinese Ministry of Culture has extensive plans in relation to the compositions arising from the 16 + 1 programme. They are to be presented in China, and during a foreign tour by Chinese orchestras, which is great and important news for us because it ensures that our works will remain in circulation.

How did the idea for the dance theatre show based on the story of the Archaeopteryx arise? Is there maybe a chance that such a project could be produced with Chinese artists?

This is my idea. I like to watch contemporary dance, is has great prospects, and directly affects the senses. In addition, I like ideas that involve the exclusion or limitation of one of the senses or one of the fundamental elements of a species. I had already written an opera in which there were no soloists, and for the performance of which the audience’s eyes were covered. This time I have the idea of a dance show which would be veiled, happening entirely on a darkened stage, with the impression given by the who show – musically and visually – emerging directly from the dynamic movements of the dancers and lights and microphones attached to their wrists and ankles.

Apart from that, I was fascinated by several instruments which I connected with a submission made in 2011 for a commission from Teatr Wielki in Łódź for their Łódź Ballet meetings. The idea was connected with the archaeopteryx, which lived in both Europe and China, and is said to have been a transitional stage in the evolution of reptiles and birds. The archaeopteryx was a bird whose wings were big, but not yet developed enough to fly, so it moved in jumps. Scientists argue about the conjecture of this dramatic picture of evolution, but that is not important as the whole story can be treated metaphorically. In Łódź I had to give up on many of my ideas, so I was left with a hunger that may now be satisfied by bringing those ideas to fruition.

You had the opportunity to spend two years at the IRCAM Paris Institute of Research on Sound at the Pompidou Centre. Which of the experiences you gained there do you value most?

First of all, these were two very intense years of learning new music technologies. It was an opportunity to work with top-class specialists in this field, with programmers, and with sound engineers. Under the tutelage of such people, I as a composer feel much more comfortable pursuing my own artistic visions.

I wrote two pieces for acoustic instruments with live electronic accompaniment. These were “Mosaique” for the cello, which has so far been performed dozens of times, not only in Europe but in the United States and Israel, and “Afterimages”, for two full drum sets and performers’ voices. In the latter I was able to create and model electronic musical elements that emerge only with from the whispers of the movement of hands and drum sticks in the air. Neither I nor the experts from IRCAM knew of any other such piece, so it gave me a lot of satisfaction. In 2014, as a resident of the city of Paris in 2014 – a cosy place to work – I wrote my first opera, “Solarize”. The opera gained critical acclaim from both critics and audiences. The musical layer, libretto and visuals referred to the techniques of collage styles and aesthetics, while the subject referred, among other things, to the problem of the limits of freedom of artistic choice. This is a very important piece of my oeuvre and I hope that it will be given more performance opportunities.

What are the biggest differences in approaches to composition and music in Europe and China? Or is it rather that music is a universal language and connects people across nationalities and cultures?

Music is a universal language, and certainly connected. But we should also be aware that, for cultures so different, separated for centuries, the understanding or experience of music are to an extent different.  We should also remember that the Chinese musical tradition is built on foundations different than our own. Most often it is monodic, which means that the musicians of a band or orchestra play the same or almost the same tune. Sometimes there are two voices in parallel, or embellishment of the melody, but the concept of harmony, in our European sense, which includes the rules of combination according to our tonal system, do not work in traditional Chinese music. Our system is based on various scales, usually pentatonic, the Chinese concept of “harmony” is much more open. It is about a relationship, or cooperation, between all elements in a musical piece that allow the most common feelings to be expressed in an idea. In addition, for the average listener in Europe, Chinese music does follow the basic process of development in which, I think, an attempt is made to build up or discharge energy. Yet sometimes even a fairly simple structure can bring about a wonderful artistic effect. Nanguan music, which is absolutely unique, has a sublime and almost hypnotic form that probably affected me the most.


Official website of composer: Marcin Stańczyk

Read also: Marcin Stańczyk – Polish representative in China

Photo © from private archive of Marcin Stańczyk