In recent years, one of the most vividly memorable Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festivals was 2017, when the work of Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski was prominently featured. Huddersfield is in fact the only place in the UK that i’ve ever had the opportunity to experience Karkowski’s music performed live, which suggests everywhere else is either too ignorant or – more likely – too timid to consider programming it. Karkowski’s music is not necessarily intimidating, though his radical, implacable embracing of extremes perhaps makes his music more likely than most to send certain portions of the audience scrambling for the exit.
One of the most striking performances from HCMF 2017 (which i somewhat raved about at the time) was given by Gęba Vocal Ensemble. The concert included Encumbrance, a half-hour work by Karkowski for choir and electronics. The piece seriously bowled me over, so i was excited to learn that a CD of Encumbrance has recently been issued on the Polish label Bôłt. Better still, the disc includes two performances of the work, which may seem peculiar but turns out to be extremely revealing about which aspects of the music are fixed and which are variable. The performances, which date from 2014 and 2016, are again given by the Gęba Vocal Ensemble, with the electronics realised by Wolfram in the earlier recording and Constantin Popp in the latter.
On the one hand, it’s more or less clear that these are two renditions of the same composition. The structure is typically Karkowskian, positioning slabs of connected but contrasting material one after the other, lending the work a monolithic quality. Encumbrance has four such slabs. The first emerges from a deep bass tone, over which the male voices perform a litany of moans and groans, the female voices a network of rapid, indecipherable whispers that quickly become an abstract textural layer of noise. The second section abruptly switches to the close juxtaposition of electronic tones and sustained sung pitches, some static, some rising, while the third plunges into an everywhere of noise, within which movement can be heard (or at least, sensed: at times it’s not at all clear what precisely is happening – or indeed if anything is happening at all, possibly being an illusion); the voices here are much more inaudible. The work concludes with another amalgam of electronics and voices, echoing the second section, before ending back in the depths on a deep drone.
Antoni Beksiak, who commissioned the piece and is one of the Gęba vocalists, describes how Karkowski provided the ensemble with “a sketch score, written instructions and one sound sample, by way of example”, plus some “Pure Data visual programming language patches”. This suggests a fair amount of latitude in the realisation of the work, so it’s not surprising that while both performances follow the structural outline summarised above, the way they articulate its details is strikingly individual, particularly with regard to the relationship between the voices and electronics. This relationship, which is at the heart of the piece, is an extremely playful one, almost like an experiment in which Karkowski is throwing together seemingly disjunct elements to see what happens when they collide – and, more importantly, to see if they might actually blend or fuse.
The 2014 performance helmed by Wolfram places more emphasis throughout on the voices. A consequence of this is that the three discrete layers of sound – electronics, female voices, male voices – cohere and merge more strongly. The opening section is a case in point: eventually it’s difficult to hear the distinction between organic and synthesised sound. That being said, his rendition of the third section, saturating the space with a wall of white noise, is stunningly forceful, by far the most abrasive sequence on the disc. The way this gradually evolves into the impression of a vast water torrent, with minor fluctuations in intensity, is spellbindingly effective. Likewise, his take on the second section – a pair of endlessly rising sine tones overlaid with sustained and sliding vocal pitches, combining to form a complex ringing sound agglomeration – is rapturously gorgeous, the low voices coming to resemble deep gongs.
Constantin Popp’s 2016 take on the piece allows more imagination in the electronics. The opening deep tone – initially so deep as to be practically subsonic – has a constantly modulating timbre, shifting between different patterns of undulating waves, a really beautiful effect. The attention this places on the electronics causes the elements to gel less, though this turns out to be just as much a positive in its own right, leading instead to the creation of stratified sections, which in the way it particularly highlights extreme differences in register, only makes the music seem yet more immense. Instead of a wall of white noise, Popp founds the third section on a cascade of low, crunchy noise, the inner movement of which sounds far more muscular. Here, the lack of blending again creates something spectacular, as if it were a giant multifaceted entity formed from the coalescence of a large number of smaller sound objects, some noise-based, others resonating pitches.
Both Popp and Wolfram render the final section as a highly dramatic, even unnerving, vocal caterwauling that seems to be pushing the singers to their stratospheric limit, in the process practically transforming them into organic sine tone generators, before Encumbrance resets into the bass, where it could feasibly begin all over again.
Listening to Zbigniew Karkowski’s music at home obviously isn’t the same as in the concert hall, where the sense of a large space being filled with these elemental textural forms is overwhelming impressive. Yet despite that caveat, these recordings capture fully – and, perhaps, with more fidelity than i perceived at HCMF 2017 – the sense of radical, experimental play running throughout the work, making the progression through each slab of sound, and from one slab to the next, a real-time act of trial and error resulting in the most fantastical of sonic collisions and collusions. To get the full effect, don’t just listen as loud as you dare, but louder.
Relased a few months ago by Bôłt, Encumbrance is available (very cheaply) on CD – no other formats at present – from Serpent.pl.