Common roots

Each composer initially wrote in the spirit of avant-garde serialism, but none persevered at it. They all went their own separate ways, though their oeuvres had some things in common, things like experiments with electronics or graphic scores.

Reliance on tradition in music or complete opposition to it, composing for great symphonic orchestras or for unconventional instrumental ensambles, creating classical musical forms or film soundtracks and children songs – these are just some binary opposite hallmarks of Arvo Pärt's, Pierre Boulez's, Louis Andriessen's and Kazimierz Serocki's output. There is no doubt that they were such different composers as their legacy is. Not only because of their musical fascinations, but also because of the political or economic contexts of their careers. And yet it is possible to find common threads in their artistic biographies and all of four composers were tireless in their search for own, original musical language.

First of all, none of the four composers was indifferent to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and the doctrine of serialism associated with it. Irrespective of whether they encountered it at the university in Paris or through books, during the Darmstadt courses or at the Warsaw Autumn, among the works of each composer we will find at least one written in accordance with the principles of this technique, which at that time was a touchstone of modernity. In Serocki’s case this was a brief fascination, which disappeared with his discovery of the plentiful world of sound colours, while Boulez remained faithful to it much longer. Pärt (like the American minimalists) felt the inner need to reject contemporary fashions and return to traditional melodies.

The artistic oeuvres of Andriessen, Serocki and, above all, Boulez makes us realize how important a role in the development of 20th-century contemporary music was played by electronics and how big possibilities electronics offered. The three composers in question willingly took advantage of them. Suffice it to say that Louis Andriessen co-founded STEIM (Studio for Electro Instrumental Music) in 1969, and Pierre Boulez – invited by the President of France no less – became the first director of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique). Kazimierz Serocki, too, used electronic sound transformation, the best-known example of which is Pianophonie realized in Experimentalstudio des SWR.

Serocki’s piece is a good starting point for emphasizing another common aspect of the oeuvres of the four composers – fascination with sound, sonic experiments and exploration of new sound material. Serocki used unconventional sounds generated thanks to the use of novel means of articulation, the so-called extended techniques; Boulez used sound multiplication (for example in Répons); both men experimented with the sound space by placing the instruments on stage in an original manner (e.g. in Boulez’s Figures, Doubles, Prismes, Serocki’s Episodes). Political and social views on art became one of the reasons why Louis Andriessen composed untypically sounding works. Unfriendly to the idea of the orchestra, which he believed was too conservative and too hierarchical, the Dutchman wrote for smaller ensembles in which traditional instruments were accompanied by electric guitars or electric piano.

The use of electronic instruments and untypical articulation required new notation methods from the composers. In the sixties Louis Andriessen experimented with graphic scores, but in the end he abandoned this form of notation. He looked for other solutions, an interesting example of which is the score of Workers Union with the stave being replaced with one line symbolizing the middle register of the instruments. This simplification reflected Andriessen’s views – the composer sought to reach amateurs with his works.  Unlike Serocki and Boulez, whose complex compositions required not only unconventional rhythmic divisions and metre, but also legends explaining the markings used in the score (Fantasmagoria, Dialogue de l'ombre double). By comparison, Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli notation seems to be the most traditional, although it, too, is sophisticated in its simplicity. But in his earlier works written in 1960s he has also experimented with unconventional notations that need legends for performers (Diagramme, Pro et contra).

Thus, although creative strategies and choices in the biographies of the four composers are marked by individuality and originality, they all shared the most important challenges which the 20th-century and contemporary art of composing had to face.

Jan Błaszczak