On June 25, 2019, Emily Theobald (PhD Candidate in Musicology, University of Florida) delivered a lecture on one of the pieces created by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. The work in question – Pittsburgh Overture – was written specifically for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra.
The lecture was divided into 4 parts, each of which provided essential context for the production and performance of the work. Theobald began with some history of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra (AWSO), a musical collective performing on Point Counterpoint II, a floating stage and art center. The choice of such an unusual place for performing music was motivated by the widening of the audience. Robert Boudreau, musical director of the Orchestra, attempted to strip avant-garde music of its elitism, bringing music to the people. The placement of the Point-Counterpoint plays an important role in its history. When the AWSO found its permanent home, it was in Pittsburgh’s Point State Park, in the meeting place of the three rivers of Pittsburgh: The Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio. The AWSO website describes its performance as a unique experience: “The orchestra’s audiences bring folding chairs and blankets to the riverside and watch in fascination as the shell of the orchestra’s floating arts center, ‘Point Counterpoint II’, opens and the music begins. From that point on, there is a shared experience between audience and performers that is remembered for many years to come. The music is unique and exciting, the floating stage is a one-of-a-kind wonder, and the setting is a harmonious blending of river sounds, the lowering sun, and camaraderie with one’s neighbors.” The sounds that are brought by the rivers and other surroundings play a crucial role in the performance, as is investigated in soundscape studies.
The second part of the lecture was devoted to Krzysztof Penderecki and his path from Sonorism to Neo-Romanticism. Penderecki was born in 1933 in Poland. His childhood was wretched because of World War II, and the experiences he had are not only reflected in his memoirs, but also found its representation in his musical works. Penderecki started as an avant-garde composer, who then moved to a more traditional type of music, calling himself “the Trojan horse of the avant-garde.” He explains his shift as an attempt to overcome the dissonance between artist and audience, which proved to be not that open to his experiments.
The work discussed in the lecture, Pittsburgh Overture, was in the center of the third part. It is an experimental work in Sonorism. The specific feature of this work, as of the style in general, is the usage of unorthodox sounds and techniques on classical instruments. The birth of Sonorism is associated with Polish experimental music, equivalent to that in Europe and USA, brought about by the recovery after World War II and the necessity to bring a considerable change in musical language. The challenge Polish composers faced was twofold; compared to their Western counterparts, they needed to escape both the bounds of classical music and socialist realism. Thus Sonorism came about, as a collaborative effort of the composers who met during the Warsaw Autumn Festivals. The initial purpose of the festivals was to share the music from around the world, but it ended up being a platform for sharing new Polish music.
The avant-garde features of the work were exactly what Boudreau was looking for when he commissioned it, as he wanted to represent Polish experimental music for his Polish Day. The program he created contributed to poor reception of the piece, since it was among classical works, setting certain expectations for the audience. However, it was consistent with the usual practice for introducing new works among already known ones.
Theobald concluded the lecture with the future prospects of her work, which is an investigation of the interaction between sonoristic works and the urban environment. Pittsburgh Overture is a case study for that, being written specifically for the urban environment, but also having a clear sonoristic affiliation. Is the urban environment more fitting for sonorism, and how does the soundscape contribute to the musical avant-garde, are the questions for Theobald’s future research.
Marija Fedjanina is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on contemporary Russian literature and its interactions with Western critical theory.