Monday, January 11, 2010


Krzysztof Penderecki - Matrix 5 (Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra; London Symphony Orchestra/Krzysztof Penderecki)
I once heard David Lynch tell a story about listening to Penderecki’s music at earth-shaking volume, getting lost in the music until he suddenly realized his wife was shouting for him to turn it down. It’s no surprise that Lynch likes Penderecki. In fact, his recent films make a good compliment to this music in the way they (mostly) abandon traditional narrative structure in favor of an abstract headspace that Lynch refuses to explain, for fear his explanation will become authoritative and exclude a viewer’s personal, subjective response. Edgard Varèse once said that music could only represent itself and that might be true in if the music existed in an uninhabited vacuum. If Krzysztof Penderecki conducts an orchestra in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still irritate Mrs. Lynch? Or does music only represent something when it is processed by a listening human being?

This compilation of performances from the 1970s is the fifth installment in the “Matrix” series from EMI, a series intended, according to the liner notes, “to open up new horizons to the music lover who is looking beyond the standard repertoire.” In Penderecki’s case, he doesn’t “open up new horizons” so much as “fill the old horizons with the glow of burning cities.” I can respond in any number of ways. I could dwell on the fact that homes and people are being incinerated, for example, or I could focus on that mesmerizing aura of color. “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” is a thrilling piece of music only marred by a programmatic title that deprives it of possibility. I know what Penderecki wants me to think about when I hear it, (the aforementioned incinerating people) but I first purchased this album shortly after receiving an iPod shuffle as a gift and as the actual CD and case rested on a shelf at home and the music came with me everywhere in MP3 form, I had only a vague recollection of the individual titles to these compositions, without which, they can mean just about anything.

The fact that so many interpretive options are available is exactly what fascinates me so much about this music. Maybe I’m the product of one too many touchy-feely Reader Response classroom chats, but I love the idea of an exchange in which the listener is at least as important as the composer and performers. Penderecki makes abstract, challenging music that does not utilize any of the emotional signifiers of traditional harmony. The listener gives the music meaning.

When he made Music for Airports, Brian Eno set out to make music that was as ignorable as it was interesting, music that would reward different levels of attentiveness in different ways. In doing so, he also succeeded, perhaps by accident, in creating music that would compliment differently whatever the listener brought to it. The music was a setting instead of a story. The compositions on Matrix 5 are also Map Music. There’s no logical forward development, just a dissonant sound-world in which things happen. If those sounds have specific meaning to Penderecki, I don’t care to know about it. I choose to live inside this music when I hear it, making meaning from whatever I brought with me.

1 comment:

Mr. Stevens said...

Nicely put friend. Reader Response is the way to go, if its touchy-feely - then so be it. I will be checking this album out for sure.