How compositional techniques can obstruct expressive truth

Paweł ŁukaszewskiMon 4th June 2018

Paweł Łukaszewski explores the 'renewed tonality' of his choral works

Some years ago, Nigel Short and Tenebrae recorded my Ave Maria on disc, but the recording sessions for this latest album of 'Daylight Declines' was our first personal meeting. It was a great opportunity to listen to one of the best choirs in the world. It’s my 50th birthday this year and it’s a special year for me, but also, I hope, for my publishers. It was my dream to have a new album with my choral pieces and I was lucky to receive support from Poland - the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Polish Cultural Institute.

Over the past three decades I have written a few dozen sacred compositions, including works for unaccompanied choir and large-scale compositions of various kinds, from miniatures to cyclical forms. The human voice is, in my view, the most wonderful instrument and it is assigned the most prominent role in the majority of my compositions. It can be said that a sparing use of compositional devices has long been the hallmark of my music. Such an approach requires a selection of sharply-defined musical means in terms of structure, texture, style and overall architecture. This is the foundation of my creative path, which had been charted by such composers as Henryk Górecki, Marian Borkowski, Arvo Pärt and Sir John Tavener. Their music has served as a source of inspiration for me, although I don’t feel a formal link with any group of composers.

'Daylight Declines' includes 70 minutes of music composed between 2010 and 2015, all commissioned by great choirs and ensembles, including The King’s Singers. Mostly they are Lenten cycles to the Latin texts from Holy Friday and Holy Saturday (Tenebrae Responsories and Lamentations of Jeremiah). You can find also some music in English - mostly two Shakespeare Sonnets and Daylight Declines.

I attach particular attention to the text. Indeed, it is of fundamental significance for me. Such an approach is in line with the entire tradition of Christian musical culture. I am doing my best to reflect upon the Word so that its sense, message and meaning reach the listener. My musical idiom can be described as ‘renewed’. Notions such as neo-tonality, new simplicity and postmodernism are used these days in musicological and philosophical studies. For my own use, I have coined the phrase ‘renewed tonality’.

It seems to me that even though an excellent command of compositional techniques is indispensable in the creative process, it is only a means to achieve the goal but not an end in itself. It may be that the goal – which is the sacrum – begins where the compositional craft ends. This is likely to be the case because an excessive concentration on technical matters prevents a composer from reaching to the deeper level of the music, something that lies beyond the musical orthography, so to speak. I would not like therefore to limit myself to matters connected with the functioning of the elements of the musical piece, which to a large extent stem from the notation itself.

I have long been bothered, however, with questions pertaining to the depth of the musical message and the ways and means of charting the path which can lead the composer to the sacrum. In my view, a far-reaching reduction in the number of compositional devices (also when using large performance forces) is not an obstacle to writing music of great expressive power. I would describe my works as an ‘aural’ speech in which the reduction and simplification of the technical means manifest themselves as follows: the phases and mini-phases of a piece are very short and compact and follow one another in a violent manner. I avoid expanded developmental work while my sound world is imbued with a strong emotional expression.

To buy/stream Daylight Declines, please visit: hyperurl.co/DaylightDeclines

Paweł Łukaszewski

Łukaszewski's sacred music has featured on over 50 recordings. He is Artistic Director and Conductor of Musica Sacra Cathedral Choir in Warsaw.

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