Pianophonie (1979) for piano, electronic transformation of sound and orchestra
The initiative behind the piece came from the Experimentalstudio der Heinrich-Strobel-Stiftung des Südwestfunks in Freiburg. Beginning in March 1976 Serocki would spend a lot of time there, carefully studying the possibilities offered by the available electronic equipment, including four oscillators (two of which were operated personally by the pianist modifying the colour of his instrument in real time), two ring modulators, delaying devices, filters and amplifiers, and, above all, the halaphone. This last device, making it possible to simulate the movement of sounds in space, was constructed by the first director of the Freiburg studio, Hans Peter Haller with the help of Peter Lawo – the two surnames became the basis of the name of this “marvel of new technology”: HA(ller)+LA(wo)+PHONE.
Hitherto faithful to traditional instruments and their colour potential, Serocki decided to use the new possibilities of enriching and transforming the sound of the piano offered by live electronics. Moreover, the composer decided to juxtapose the final effects of such operations with a contrasting sound of the traditional orchestra. He achieved this in a fascinating manner – the piece features both colours known from Serocki’s earlier works and their revelatory “mixtures”, as well as totally new colours (e.g. glissandos or oscillator improvisations), and even a kind of melodic leitmotifs running through the piece in various modifications.
Pianophonie is also a sophisticated example of how to solve the question of sound space. As it is shaped both by the orchestra and electronic sound transformation, the problem concerns not just the stage but also the auditorium. The piano placed centrally at the front of the stage is so removed from other instruments that it is impossible for the orchestral sounds to be captured by the microphones. Nevertheless, there is constant interaction between the solo instrument and the sounds of the orchestra coming from different parts of the stage. The electronic equipment in turn transfers the sounds of the piano to the space of the concert hall by means of six loudspeakers (working either all at once or in various configurations). Thanks to the halaphone the listeners have the impression, for example, that sound gradually moves closer to them, moves away from them, travels around the hall. These effects can, of course, be achieved only in concert.
The composer himself called his work a “kind of symphony for piano”, commenting on its structure in the following manner:
“There are seven, closely linked developmental stages in the work. The aggression and brutality of the first movement are relieved by a lyrical episode provoking a return of fast, pulsating music; a slow fragment played directly on the strings of the instrument precedes a unique, quite extensive solo piano cadenza; finally, a motoric episode leads to a climax followed by a modified reprise of the initial movement”.
[Pianophonie, note in the programme book of the 23rd Warsaw Autumn Festival, Warsaw 1979, p. 17.]
Undoubtedly, there is a huge build-up of expression and sonic beauty in Pianophonie. The piece is deservedly referred to as Serocki’s greatest achievement. It also turned out to be his last work. One that opened up new paths for the Polish composer, paths that we was unable to follow, however.
Pianophonie was premiered on 18 November 1978 at the International Meeting of Contemporary Music in Metz. Its recording under Ernest Bour with Szábolcs Esztényi on the piano won the prestigious Prix Italia in 1979. However, it was difficult to organise new performances owing to the dynamic progress in electronic music technology, in the face of which even the most advanced equipment quickly became “obsolete”. Yet in the 21st century the attractiveness of Pianophonie led to two successful attempts to revitalise the electronic part with the help of computers. In 2008 it was “translated” into the digital language by Cezary Duchnowski and Marcin Rupociński, and six years later (2014) – by Adam Kośmieja and Kamil Kęska.