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On the Sound of Stars

The music of Bettina Skrzypczak

An important phase in Bettina Skrzypczak’s compositional development comes during the period of great political and cultural turmoil in Poland, around 1980. Its dynamics, to which even art was not immune, have had a lasting impact on her sensibility. For her, composing is a communicative act, and in working on musical material, she is also always working on her own relationship to the world. In doing so, her gaze extends beyond the horizons of music to more distant realms of knowledge, from aesthetics via philosophy to the sciences.

From the start, her work shows a tendency towards a synthesis of traditional Polish lines – represented by composers like Lutoslawski, Baird, Serocki and early Gorecki – and current West European influences. This grows stronger in the years from 1984, when she makes contact with Lutoslawski, Nono, Pousseur and Xenakis at the summer courses in Kazimierz, the “Polish Darmstadt”. She is particularly stimulated by the way that Xenakis’s thinking mediates between art and science. Proof of this lies, among other things, in her ideas about space and sound, and her reflections on the dialectic of chaos and order. Concerning the latter, it is primarily the aesthetic and philosophical aspects that interest her; it was never her intention to translate the tenets of chaos theory into compositional recipes.

The way Bettina Skrzypczak works with the colours and sonic masses of a large orchestra shows an eminently sure hand. One can already hear this in her first orchestral piece Verba (1987). When it was awarded a composition prize at the Zagreb Biennale, with the premiere being conducted by Arturo Tamayo, it seemed as if this was the launching pad for the career of a composer who was already being treated in Poland as a ‘shooting star’. But after moving to Switzerland in 1988, she had to start all over again. Today, after long, persistent work, she can point to a rich oeuvre that embraces practically all concert genres, and gains a lively response. In March 2005, the music journal “Dissonance” announced that “Bettina Skrzypczak est une des locomotives de la vie musicale suisse“. But interest in her music has long ceased to be confined to Switzerland, as an increasing number of international performances shows. The composer continues to maintain strong ties with her native Poland. After a performance of her vocal work Miroirs at the Warsaw Festival in 2003, the Polish journal “Ruch Muzyczny” found in her work “proof that the Polish modernism that was supposedly buried long ago is still alive in music”.

Bettina Skrzypczak is reluctant to offer personal interpretations of her work, and doesn’t divulge secrets. The enigmatic programme note to her orchestral piece SN 1993 J (the title refers to a supernova discovered in 1993) is typical: “The composition was inspired by the birth of a new star. How is that? Where is the hidden meaning in this?” She seeks to give an answer through her music. And the listener too is invited to let his imagination take over, and search for this meaning. The composer regards her works as “illustrations of living processes” in the broadest sense. This ranges from the intimate feelings that find expression in the essentially lyrical tone of some works, via scientifically researched processes in organic nature (Phototaxis for string orchestra), to a cosmic event in SN 1993 J.

Intuition is of great importance to Bettina Skrzypczak – it is a notion that is only seemingly in contradiction to compositional rationality. “All discoveries are bound up with intuition”, she says. “A strong intuition is a maximum of energy gathered just before the eruption. Absolute potential”. So a sort of mental Big Bang at the start of each work, from which the subsequent, protracted process of working out everything else is derived. In concentrating on the moment of genesis, this thinking fights against reification; the configurations of the material are the outcomes of the creative impulse, not its starting point.

The principle of becoming underpins both the structure and the outward appearance of the works. Form is the result of organic processes in the material, with melodic/harmonic micro-organisms often acting as the core cells for broader developments. The subtle blurring of melodic and harmonic contours creates zones of uncertainty, in which the distinction between line and chord, pitched sound and noise tends to be abolished, overriding the parameters. Everything fuses into a single stream of sound, whose internal details are exactly structured. Something like this happens towards the end of the String Quartet nr 4, with its microtonal frictions and polyphonic condensations within a very narrow pitch space; its iridescent sonic character is further enhanced by the refinements in articulation. The result is a high-level intensification of expression in soft registers. The reverse, a powerful expansion of sonority, can be found in the final part of the Piano Concerto, or the spatial composition Vier Figuren: the stream of energy sustained by strong rhythmic impulses leads to a series of kinetic explosions which, at their climax, can switch abruptly into their opposite: an introverted calm.

At such moments, the strong physical presence that is a basic feature of Bettina Skrzypczak’s music comes nakedly to the fore. And something else strikes one. Even freewheeling expression is always subject to constructive restraints. This guarantees the success of a music that sets out to discover traces of the spiritual in the shattering of the senses. By daring to be extreme, she provides a vital counter-paradigm to a world dominated by cold rationality. 

© 2005 Max Nyffeler