Ad origine. Eugeniusz Knapik talks to Kinga Kiwała

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Kinga Kiwała: Professor, before I ask you questions about the festival ‘Young Musicians to the Young City’ in Stalowa Wola, I’d like to go back to the years which preceded this initiative. The mid-1970s can hardly be called a favourable time for young composers. It was rather a period of stagnation.  Krzysztof Droba, for instance, was worried about the evident lack of new young names in the field. Did you see and feel this yourself as a young composer?


Eugeniusz Knapik: One thing is certain: In my student years we did not have such a broad range of opportunities to get our works performed as young composers have today. There was a general shortage of concerts dedicated to students or composers… Then an initiative of the Polish Composers’ Union’s Katowice Branch appeared, known as the Silesian Rostrum of Composers. It was there that I had a piece of mine performed for the first time, while still a student. When I was in Year 4, Warsaw Philharmonic held a festival of music by young composers, where my La Flûte de jade for soprano and orchestra was premiered. To be able to hear my own music performed at the seat and by the orchestra of the country’s national philharmonic institution was an extraordinary experience for a student. But these were exceptional situations, and on the whole I agree that there were few opportunities to present our works. Towards the end of my studies with Górecki, I started a brief piano course and was preparing my programme for two diploma recitals. I had plenty of work, and so I did not think what I would do after my studies… Still I think that many of us asked ourselves this question: Right, so I will graduate, but what next?


And it was at this point that Krzysztof Droba appeared?


Yes, Krzysztof Droba asked me for a meeting. Naturally, I didn’t know him. We met at the student club and he told me a story, a bit like a fairy tale, about some kind of event he was planning in Stalowa Wola. To me, Stalowa Wola was out in the sticks, it seemed there was nothing there. But he said there would be a festival with Ives as its patron, and that we were to gather there to spend several days together, not only the young ones, but also the great composers of the day, as well as theorists and critics… “And there will also be representatives of PWM edition, radio and television, and the US ambassador,” Krzysztof said. I thought it was all rather incoherent and smelled like, how should I put it?...


…a dreamer’s fancy?


…Well, yes, that was my impression. An idealistic form of wishful thinking. There was no way it could come true. I didn’t treat what he said seriously. I was preparing for my piano diploma at that time, and was beginning to practise Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus. I turned down Krzysztof’s offer, telling him that yes, perhaps some time in the future… But honestly, I thought the matter was over for me. Krzysztof told me that he’d just invited Andrzej Krzanowski, and at this we parted. So it was Andrzej who went to Stalowa Wola, and on his return he says: “Look, it really is a festival unlike any others! And he encouraged me not to refuse the next time. So I played my second diploma concert and plenty of performances featuring Vingt regards… Krzysztof contacted me again, offering a concert dedicated to my works and encouraging me to come and see for myself… I agreed.


What are your memories of that first Stalowa Wola festival that you took part in?


I remember even the journey itself… To the back of beyond. I wrote a piece commissioned by the 3rd Festival, As on the Seashore. I had to arrange for the performers myself: twenty instrumentalists, including four double-basses. I obtained the Academy’s permission to borrow them. The trip took something like 12 hours, changing trains twice between Katowice and Rozwadów. We got off the train at two in the night and walked several kilometres to Stalowa Wola; 20 persons, 4 double basses, and several smaller instruments. It was so unreal that today it seems it just couldn’t take place, but it did.


I can recall this nearly surrealist tale about travelling with four double basses from your conversations with Krzysztof Droba (Krzysztof Droba, Spotkania z Eugeniuszem Knapikem [Meetings with Eugeniusz Knapik], Katowice 2011). It made a great impression on me. What an unusual sight you must have been…


Anyway, this is how my single-composer concert took place. The very fact of having all those people in the audience was extremely inspiring for me. There was my teacher Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Profs Mieczysław Tomaszewski and Władysław Stróżewski, as well as Józef Patkowski, Leszek Polony, Andrzej Chłopecki… There were also plenty of people from my own generation whom I didn’t know. The atmosphere was one of strange unrest. I had the feeling that I couldn’t grasp what was going on. In the beginning, on the first day, I still didn’t know what it was, since I hadn’t had time to absorb that atmosphere. With time the situation became more clear, and I realised I’d found myself in a world different from our everyday life. Living at the workers’ hostel till the end of that festival and during its later editions, I had the impression that we were building an enclave… Naturally, it was Droba who built it, and we were only the unwitting executors of his plan. What he built was far removed from everything I had known and experienced before. Interpersonal relations developed between us the composers and the audience of that provincial town, between us, the theoreticians and the critics… We were getting to know one another, as if we’d all realised that things could be different, that it doesn’t have to be a mere empty gesture… But when we’d been travelling there, none of us had even dreamed that such things could happen.


Why did it happen then? All that mythic festival with its paradisiac memories which, frankly speaking, I sometimes found hard to believe? And yet one can hardly remain indifferent to the testimony borne by all those present, to the memories of that enclave or island of freedom, values, and unique interpersonal relations. Everyone stresses these very aspects. How could such a phenomenon emerge, and what generated it: Droba’s personality, a combination of various circumstances, or perhaps something else?


I’ve never discussed this subject with Krzysztof because I have felt unable to ask him such a question. It’s beyond my capabilities. But I think what counted most was our shared experience. Krzysztof was only a little older than we were. His and our experience led us from the discovery of the avant-garde, Darmstadt, and sonorism to a point when we had to choose, when those avant-garde achievements proved insufficient. I didn’t want to build my own future, my musical (and not only musical) reality on those trends. I needed something different, something more. Without distance (which I then didn’t have), I attempted to find an answer to the question why I felt discouraged and where that need for changes came from. I looked for the causes. One of them (which Krzysztof also talks about) was the need to close that chapter in music which Darmstadt had represented for two decades. Another was the necessity to close the experience of sonorism, which seemed too flat and shallow for me to build anything more on it. The third element was Poland’s social and political reality, in which everyone tried, as best we could, to construct a better world for ourselves… This is why I think we all found a place for ourselves there, in Stalowa Wola. Krzysztof sensed this, and it was he who chose us for some reasons, such as those I have mentioned, plus the need to build what could be called a spiritual bond, to talk about music which belongs to the world of the spirit rather than about mere avant-garde tricks and technical-formal innovations. Thank God Krzysztof found us.


I didn’t have my own crystallised views yet. All I knew was that I didn’t want to do it the way it had been done before. At age 22 or 23 one explores the possibilities, and it seems that if we don’t do some things straightaway, later it might be too late. So Krzysztof’s call and gesture was very important. Without that invitation, I don’t know how my life would have developed. It could be similar, or perhaps quite different from what it was.


And how did Droba’s presence as the founder and the moving force behind the festival make itself felt on the spot, in Stalowa Wola? The image that emerges from various accounts is that of a person who ‘held all the ropes’, from organising the basics to building a community. Could you say a bit more about Droba’s activity there, on the spot? Did he really set the tone, or did it all just happen naturally, as if of its own accord?


I don’t know all the tricks of Krzysztof’s trade, so I can only guess how it was. What I remember is that he was eternally busy, organising some details, seeing to things. He was present everywhere. Many things were happening simultaneously, and there was in fact no time to sit down and talk, apart from official debates. What was wonderful was that despite the atmosphere of absolute freedom and kind of ‘complete improvisation’, everything was organised and in its right place. There was no imposed discipline, and still it all went as it should. To create this kind of atmosphere one needs something more than mere organisational skills. It is the creation of a space in which everyone feels well, and everyone can be oneself, feel free and collaborate – which doesn’t happen in collective projects, or only happens very rarely. This also contributed to the sense of important events taking place.


Constantin Régamey, who attended one of the festival’s editions (I think it was in the year when my Corale, interudio e aria was premiered), said later in an interview that he’d been to many festivals throughout the world, but he had never met with the kind of atmosphere that pervaded the Stalowa Wola festival…


I am still astonished today that this could happen. I do not wish to use grand words; at that time, we were not aware of it, though we felt somehow that we were taking part in something extraordinary. But in retrospect, from the distance of many decades, Stalowa Wola essentially remodelled the musical life of my generation, and left a mark. Will it prove lasting? Time will tell.


There now seems to be no doubt that its mark will last and that its impact has been substantial. Cindy Bylander also mentions the political aspect of those festivals. Were such themes really present there? It is frequently emphasised, after all, that the Stalowa Wola atmosphere was so unique, among others, not so much due to its antisystem character, but to its non-systemic quality which led to the sense of it being an enclave and a sanctuary from everything that was going on outside.


From what I can remember, this issue was not of paramount importance to us at all. But considering what motivated us at that time, our activity had its profoundly political aspects. We were attracted to Stalowa Wola by plans and priorities far removed from politics. Still, the very phrase ‘longing for freedom’ has its strong political and ideological colouring. This is then how that phenomenon ought to be perceived. The festival was not political in essence, but had its specific political dimension.


I really don’t know how Krzysztof managed to organise this event so that the festival was not closed after its first or second edition. Pressure only appeared later… Krzysztof once told me a story (but I’m not sure whether he’d agree to it being published). When the whole affair had won much renown, he was summoned to appear in front of the communist party’s regional meeting in Tarnobrzeg. The party leaders wanted to know which way the wind was blowing and what was going on in Stalowa Wola. He told them about the festival with his usual boundless enthusiasm, which seems to have proved contagious, since they let him have his way. After the meeting, an elderly communist (probably one of the prewar activists) approached him and said: “See, comrade, we need more such ideologically motivated people as you are…”


That’s a hilarious story.

Let me return to what you said, that you can’t be sure whether you’d be who you are, had it not been for the festival in Stalowa Wola. Did you ever talk – you, Andrzej Krzanowski, and Aleksander Lasoń – about the impact of those festivals on your development as composers and on your aesthetics? Did you have the feeling that the festival changed you in some ways? To what extent did it shape the artists whom Andrzej Chłopecki later labelled as the ‘Stalowa Wola generation’? And to what extent did it attract composers whose ideas had already been formed, and they simply corresponded to those promoted by the festival? For example, would your Corale, interludio e aria, considered as a flagship Stalowa Wola work, have been possible without the festival context?


Corale, interludio e aria would probably not have been written, since it was a response to a specific personal need and external circumstance, namely, for a competition which we, the ‘Stalowa Wola folk’, considered as nearly obligatory. Though the contest was a secret, as far as I know nearly all the composers present at the festival (and others too) participated in that event. As for conversations with Andrzej and Aleksander, there were not too many of them. It simply happened, and that was enough. Andrzej had been to all the festival editions, I joined him later, and Aleksander after me. Naturally we did engage in some conversations with Krzysztof and with Ives in the background. We did not have to talk, because that ‘something’ began to surround us and engulf us, and each of us invested a part of himself in that reality. But I had no idea that a generation was just being born. We were so different after all, but also strongly shaped by that atmosphere, though I can’t precisely point to the ways in which it happened. There are some key moments in everyone’s lives, and also in our artistic development. I’d already had several such moments before. What would my life have looked like if I hadn’t heard Vingt regards at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ as a teenager? I have no idea. All I know is that this powerful experience has stayed with me forever. And what if I hadn’t got hold, as a secondary school student, of the most recent album of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s music recorded under Jan Krenz? Perhaps I wouldn’t even have taken up composition studies. And then the festival… What if… I really can’t say. I appreciate the fact that it happened. From today’s perspective I can say that we were different afterwards, because of that experience.


And what was your reaction to Andrzej Chłopecki proclaiming the existence of the ‘Stalowa Wola generation’, which happened rather soon? Another label was added later, that of new Romanticism or new humanism… How did you react? Did you see yourself as a Romantic at that time?


The term ‘Stalowa Wola generation’ was born quite early, and I think Andrzej was really the first one to use it. I bridled at it quite a bit. What generation is it, I thought, if each of us is separate and autonomous, each composes music differently, and will most likely develop in a different direction… But looking back from a long distance, it was true. As to whether it was Romanticism – I have always intensely disliked pigeonholing my works in any way. I believe that no composer (and no artist either) should put up a cage and lock him- or herself inside it. If I and my works are perceived as Romantic, let it be this way, but to me it is of little consequence. I’m trying to avoid all labels and any kind of pigeonholing. Like Ives, I would simply like to be free.


Since you’ve mentioned Ives, let’s dwell on this subject for a moment. Much has been said about his importance for the Stalowa Wola festivals, usually in the context of some basic values such as freedom, and liberation through truth… What was your perception of Ives at that time? Did his music and ideas influence young composers in any way?


I must admit I had known little of Ives’s output before I went to Stalowa Wola. I had only heard The Unanswered Question and The Fourth of July in live performance, and both made a big impression on me. Strange as it may seem, there was not so much of his music in Stalowa Wola. I can recall interpretations of his songs by Olga Szwajgier, there were some violin sonatas, and one or two small-scale pieces. I personally did not see his music as, so to speak, an illumination. I did not feel a strong need to get acquainted with it more thoroughly. One thing was certain: Such positive freedom of artistic creation, regardless of what others might say, combined with an ethically informed attitude, which has a spiritual basis – all this was in the air, and the festival emanated this atmosphere. This is what made it unique. In Stalowa Wola I could feel that openness to the nature of freedom, which in turn opens up to the nature of ethics and of spirituality. This, I believe, is the essence of Ives’s presence there and the most important statement made by that festival. I wanted to continue along the same path. I decided that since someone has opened that door for me, I should take this chance and enter.


In the late 1970s I was asked to perform Ives’s violin sonatas with Zukovsky at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’. By that time I had already begun to serve on that festival’s programme board. The offer made me extremely happy, though I knew how extremely difficult the task would be. Still, I’d already had the experience of Vingt regards behind me, so I ‘ploughed’ through all the four sonatas, but eventually Zukovsky did not come to Poland. It was 1980 or 1981, the political situation was precarious, and the performance did not take place at that time. It was only two years later that I eventually played those sonatas with Aureli Błaszczok. It was a phenomenal discovery for me, despite the fact that I had partly known them before. It was a profound artistic experience that has stayed with me ever since. I still play those pieces now and again, most recently I performed them last December – and I invariably find them fresh and pure. Their musical reality remains imperturbable.


Let me return for a moment to Ives’s definition of freedom as a category open to the ethical sphere. Many artists would reject such a definition, claiming that artistic freedom consists in doing whatever we want. This, after all, was the slogan of the avant-garde.


I naturally cannot agree with such a ‘cheap’ interpretation. When I hear such words as ‘an artist’s originality and freedom’, I usually find myself suspecting that they have been misunderstood at best, and usually they represent a downright hoax. It is nothing new to say that a human being and an artist is free if he or she has the will and the calling to be free. That’s all there’s to it. Artists need not talk about freedom all the time, or forcibly demand it, arguing that they have the right to do whatever they please. In public space nobody, not even artists, can usurp this kind of freedom. It generally bears poisonous fruit. This is not the kind of freedom we are talking about. Freedom results from the right to present one’s own vision of the world using one’s own means. But we are in a way responsible for that vision; it serves someone or something, and contributes to something significant. Art is not about bragging that the artist is free, but about finding out what that freedom is for. The search for truth is liberating. This is what Ives is about. He composed his own works without asking whether it would pay off; he wrote them though no one wanted to play them at that time. He did not change anything. He had a deep internal sense of freedom, but it was coupled with a conviction that we are obliged to behave ethically. If we wish to be free, let us behave ethically. This may sound like big talk, but it’s very true.


Freedom and truth coexist in Ives. But what is truth?[1] (we know who asked this question…), and how does it work for a composer?


Naturally I have considered this question. Some say that everyone has their own truth, but this is a simplistic claim. Truth in art… Let me quote a definition of originality. In the mid-1970s I came across a book which, I can say this today, shaped my thinking: Herbert Read’s The Origins of Form in Art. In the chapter dedicated to originality, he claims that: “Originality is not the urge to be different from others, to produce the brand new; it is to grasp (in the etymological sense) the origin, the roots of both ourselves and things.” Originality thus does not depend on inventing products which are unlike anything that existed before, but on the ability to discover the roots of oneself, the origins of oneself and of the thing that we create. This sentence was very important for me because at that time I did not know what path to choose yet… There was a euphoric affirmation of novelty in music for novelty’s sake, and so we felt the pressure to embrace that euphoric attitude. Later everything happened at the same time: Stalowa Wola, Read’s book, and many other impulses… I realised that I need not push myself to be different from what had happened in music before. It’s a bit like what Lutosławski said: “Write the kind of music that you would like to hear yourself.” All this changed my direction. Rather than engaged in a chase for novelty, as I had previously done, I asked myself who I am and what testimony of myself I wished to give. I began to develop my technique to cope with this task.


There is one more question which I personally find fascinating, but to which I haven’t found an unequivocal answer in any sources so far. What I mean is the Silesian aspect of the phenomenon. Why was it among young Silesian composers that Krzysztof Droba met with such a favourable response to his ideas and to the newly discovered compatibility with Ives’s stance? Could you point to any major parallels and similarities between Ives’s thinking and the so-called Silesian ethos? The role of this ethos is mentioned between the lines in your conversations with Droba. Is it possible that young Silesian composers found the atmosphere in Stalowa Wola so congenial because they had been shaped by that ethos? I’m asking this question as a person from outside, with no close links to Silesia.


Well, what is important is that Krzysztof himself envisaged such a compatibility. Living here, in the very centre of Silesia, one doesn’t have the distance or perspective necessary to judge about such things. The work ethos emphasised so frequently not by Silesians themselves, but by persons from outside, is actually very close to Ives’s ethos, too. Whether this is a coincidence or not, I can’t say. But could so many coincidences occur all at the same time? Or was it perhaps Krzysztof’s insight that allowed him to see this similarity and give it a new meaning? I don’t know. Facts are what counts. The facts are that as a young academic on the faculty of Cracow’s Academy of Music, having obtained the permission of the Academy’s vice-chancellor, Krzysztof organised a festival in what was then the Tarnobrzeg Province, but within the orbit of Cracow’s influence. He invited to that festival almost exclusively composers (and performers) from Silesia. And, most interestingly, Penderecki approved of this as the head of the Academy. I don’t know what their talks looked like, but the vice-chancellor must have been aware of what I’ve just said. The composers’ milieu that lent its authority to the whole event was in fact absent from Stalowa Wola, and was replaced by the Katowice circle. So this unity or harmonious interaction of Ives’s, Droba’s and the so-called Silesians’ ethos really seems to have taken place.


And what is that Silesian work ethos all about? Do I understand correctly that it is about work as seen from the perspective of values?


There is a two-way relation here. Work is valuable if its target is to attain a certain value, not mere consumerism. To my grandparents, the way I remember them, hard work was a value in itself; it was their duty, not only because they had to maintain their family, but conceived as an obligation in a general sense. So they strove to fulfil this duty and do this work as best they could. What comes to my mind in this context is Zbigniew Herbert’s observation that Dutch painters did their work so meticulously as if each stroke of their brushes decided about the order of stars in the firmament, and had the same significance. So my grandparents worked well not because it was demanded from them, but because they demanded it from themselves, and could not do it in any other way. This is where ethics emerges as the primary and supreme value. At least so it was in the past. As for the present, I’m not sure, the concept seems to have got a bit muddied. But I’m convinced that part of this ethos is still an important element of social life.


You have used the terms ‘spirituality’ and ‘the spiritual dimension’ of art several times in our conversation. Many sources, including Cindy Bylander, claim that what was missing from the Stalowa Wola festival, the generation and its output was precisely that spiritual dimension (understood narrowly as a religious one). I find it hard to agree with this view. What is your personal understanding of spirituality in music? Is it synonymous with religious themes? Was spirituality present in any sense in your works associated with the Stalowa Wola festival?


I do not see spirituality as a mere synonym for religiousness or for religious references. It is a wider notion. Naturally, the religious sphere is an important, perhaps the most important part of it, but we can conceive of the spiritual reality also without reference to religiousness in the strict sense of the word. The years when we made our debuts as composers, marked by events such as Karol Wojtyła being elected pope, abounded in our Polish music world in countless works which could be called religious, at least judging by their titles. To some extent I felt it was excessive and what I did was partly out of contrariness... Quite simply the omnipresence of religious subjects at that time made me shun this then ‘fashionable’ sphere, or perhaps I decided I wasn’t ready for such themes. Still, I hope that in my works from that time, such as La Flûte de jadeAs on the SeashoreCorale, interludio e aria, as well as the Quartet, one can sense part of that spiritual world which I craved for so much.


It was sensed and noted by the critics. Bohdan Pociej described your Aria as “spiritual music of the purest kind.”


Yes, I can recall this statement. I was waiting for the moment when I would be ready for tasks with strictly religious connotations.


And that was Moby Dick?


Yes, that was Moby Dick. I think this one example should suffice, since it is the quintessence of everything that existed or was born in my mind. So I had to wait till in the year 2000 before the Whale appeared on my horizon.


But these things are hard to discuss. It is a delicate sphere of work, which a composer had better remain silent about. A music composer’s words are helpless, unlike his sounds. Undoubtedly the revelation of the spiritual aspect of my work is the main task and aim of my or of our efforts. All the visible and audible palette of sounds serves exclusively this one purpose.


I am aware that this is an intimate sphere for an artist, but let me take this question a bit further. Is spirituality in art a form of opening oneself to a higher reality, to a message from what Lutosławski called an ideal world?


It is, indeed. It is a very complex and important issue. We would need to ask questions about the aim of art. The vision of artistic work which I find close to my heart is one which opens us to something more, to what ‘reaches beyond’ and opens us to a world we would never be able to enter without art; namely, to the extrasensory reality, which is by no means an illusion. I think that only art can reach that world, human and non-human at the same time, and attempt to reveal it. We can only get there by using our senses, but sensory perception is not the aim. It is a splendid mystery…


Finally, let me return to the Stalowa Wola festivals, and to the purely musical forms of implementing the values you have talked about. In 1976, during the 2nd Festival ‘Young Musicians to the Young City’, Krzysztof Szwajgier issued this call: “Let us write songs for voice and piano. It is the only form that gives us a chance to find our way out of this dead end alley.”


I wasn’t present when he said it, but I can guess that Szwajgier, discouraged by the musical reality which he faced, called on composers to write songs instead. So it was a kind of manifesto. And I am personally not too fond of manifestos. But indeed, even before this statement of his, I had opened up to song writing with all my heart. Was it a coincidence? In the previous two decades (the 1950s and 60s) the song as an emanation of expression and melody in music had virtually disappeared, and music found itself in a dead end indeed. So though Szwajgier’s call was more like a provocation, it can be interpreted literally as well. Singing and songs were those phenomena which took hold of my imagination, and are still present in my output. I find melody and therefore also songs close to my way of thinking.


That kind of songs that we can find in Le Chant, later in the instrumental arias, in Singing from the 2nd movement  of your Quartet, and finally in the operas?


Yes, that kind of song, which is the song of our roots, as in Read’s definition of originality, that is, reaching back to our origins, ad origine. It is there and we should let it sound out, allow it to manifest itself.

Katowice, 4th May 2015

[1] J 18,38