Finding Yourself Elsewhere: An American Composer in Krakow

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The author on a snowy Krakow day

It is difficult to place certain personal experiences into our conception of time. Sometimes these experiences so fundamentally alter our creative and spiritual psyches that they would hardly seem real were it not for the concrete dates that correspond with them. My most recent overseas excursion carved six months out of my life in just such a wonderful and disorienting fashion, and months later I find myself still trying to digest it all.

After several months of unemployment—along with freelancing that had predictably not paid the bills—I suddenly found myself in Krakow, Poland, working as a one-semester adjunct lecturer at the Transatlantic Studies Institute at the Jagiellonian University. I taught my mostly North American graduate students about subjects ranging from globalization to sound design to experimental modernism in music, all while the hourly trumpet call echoed out over the immense medieval square just outside of my classroom window. It was—for a short period of time—a dream job.

While it is nothing new for an American composer to find himself living overseas, I’ve noticed that most composers (and Americans in general) have a very limited conception of “where the action is” in Europe. Finding Krakow (pronounced: “krahk-oof”) already crawling with satisfied tourists and students from around Europe, Asia, and Africa, I kept wondering when Americans would finally awake to the incredible potential of this bewitching Slavic destination.

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Wawel castle & the author in springtime

Krakow… I had already visited this city twice before, yet the very mention of it continued to produce rarified air. A seat of kings within sight of the Tatra Mountains, Krakow is in a rare position for being a large cosmopolitan city. Whereas Warsaw and Wroclaw are business-centered boom towns, Poland is very keen on allowing Krakow to remain an exponentially growing center of European culture. It has produced musical luminaries from Lutoslawski to Penderecki, making it an important place in the conscience of any modern composer. In addition to this it offers all of the theatrical, visual, and culinary arts that the discriminating traveler could ask for. Whether you speak of the sprawling main square, the numerous breathtaking Cathedrals, the characteristic side-streets full of secrets to discover, or the more somber gray backdrop of the old Jewish Kazimierz district, my six months proved entirely inadequate to take it all in.

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Slowacki Theatre in Krakow

My idyllic experiences took a turn towards the surreal when I ran into Krzysztof Penderecki at the local shopping mall. Clumsily confirming his identity, we exchanged pleasantries while I sheepishly expressed my admiration for his work. He seemed pleasantly surprised that I had recognized him, and took great interest in what I was doing in Krakow. We exchanged contact information, and I wished the great man a pleasant Sunday. After Mass in downtown Krakow (an aesthetic feast in itself), I arrived back at my apartment. Turning on the television, the very first face I saw was that of Penderecki, being interviewed regarding his forthcoming national broadcast of the epic Seven Gates of Jerusalem. Sadly, I was never able to procure a meeting with him, owing mostly to his remarkably busy travel and performance schedule. That being said, I proudly bear the phone numbers to his office, garden, and personal driver, as well as the notoriety of being “that young American” who kept calling his office.

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Fire Dancers in Krakow

My friends will testify to my legendary good fortune as a traveler, and this certainly was evidenced weeks before I arrived in Krakow. I began my European journey visiting family in Szczecin, a large Polish city about two hours drive from Berlin (and coincidentally a favorite spot of Penderecki’s.) One immediately feels that Americans are still admired in this part of the world, and I found myself warmly welcomed on both a personal and professional level. Musically speaking, some doors came immediately open. Through the kind action of my cousin Asia, I became acquainted with the Szczecin Polytechnic University Choir. The choir’s director, Szymon Wyrzykowski, even asked me to complete the unfinished manuscript of my Vox Exultationis for choir and orchestra. The following week, as I boarded the train to Krakow, I found myself with a growing new composition in tow. This was aided by the lingering affects of my jetlag, which had led to a temporary fondness for early morning work. The foggy early mornings gave me the quiet atmosphere I needed to quickly finish this work. Organizational issues pending, Szymon hopes to organize a premiere in the Spring of 2010.

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Zbigniew Bargielski, photo by Maria Wiktoria Hübner

Back in Krakow, I would meet several times with my mentor and friend, Dr. Zbigniew Bargielski, who is a professor of composition at the Krakow Academy of Music. Over delicious coffee in the Nowoselski cafe, Bargielski would regale with stories of artistic life under the Soviet shadow, be it establishing his initial career or his experiences in seeking mentorship from Lutoslawski. Bargielski lamented that composition programs nationwide were shrinking rapidly, and that the nation which had given the world so many great composers in the 1960s and 70s was training ever fewer new creative voices. “The reason,” he said, “is simple. In this new economic landscape, it is ever harder to earn your bread as a composer.” While newfound intellectual freedom has increased creative possibilities for composers, a decrease in financial support is predictably helping to squelch emerging talent. There was also the perennial question of originality—after five decades of globally heralded innovation from Lutoslawski’s orchestral works to Penderecki’s noise music to Gorecki’s dramatic co-establishment of contemplative composition (often incorrectly labeled as “spiritual minimalism”), where was a composer to go? The very questions of state support, patronage, and originality which haunt American composers were also of prime concern in Eastern Europe.

Yet despite economic obstacles, one is just as likely to see advertisements for contemporary music or opera as automobiles in Poland—especially in Krakow. Lest I exaggerate, it must quickly be admitted that the common Pole no more listens to modern concert music than the common American. Yet it seemed that even the coal miners here knew their great composers, clearly understanding their importance even if they didn’t understand their music. I was repeatedly surprised when my family proudly introduced me as “the composer in the family,” which was almost never followed by the cynical question: “So how are you going to make money with that?” In a country where the change from communism to capitalism is ongoing, I credit such intelligent attitudes for helping create an environment where the arts can nonetheless flourish. As such, Krakow produces an atmosphere where an artist can truly feel like a fish in water, and I quickly found myself wondering if I would ever dare to leave.


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“Chaps” Choir Performs Lukaszewski’s Via Crucis

As to new music itself, two performances come to mind as the highlight of my trip. The first took place in the Basilica of St. Jacob in Szczecin, where I returned to hear the Polytechnic University Choir (“chaps”), along with the Baltico Chamber Orchestra, in a stirring regional premiere of Lukaszewski’s Via Crucis. The hour-long setting of the Stations of the Cross—with a glorious and riveting setting of the Resurrection tacked on—combines extreme shifts in stylistic settings and orchestrational hues in order to portray the various characters and settings in the Passion story. I was pleasantly culture-shocked to see a public university’s choir stage this performance, all without any self-conscious attempt at secularization or the blunting of the work’s central message. In what was a blissfully odd moment in my new music experience, the city’s Cardinal—who sat in the front row during the performance—led the standing ovation. Following the applause, he blessed all those in attendance and demanded that the choir make an encore of the final ‘Resurrection’ movement. On the whole, Lukaszewski’s music seems a beautifully conceived response to the recent history of Polish music, addressing both the avant-garde masters while also drawing heavily from more recent popular contemplative works. Having already studied the piece thoroughly, I left even more convinced that I had heard one of the new century’s masterworks. (Thankfully, a stunning recording from Polyphony is available of this piece, and you would do yourself a favor to become acquainted with it.)

In a radically different setting in Krakow, I was able to witness several concerts by the enigmatic Bester Quartet, who perform regular winter shows in the medieval wine-cellar/concert hall in the Camelot Cafe in Krakow, on ul. Sw. Tomasza (St. Thomas Street). Jarek Bester’s compositions are a riveting combination of klezmer, jazz, and new music conventions, with the accordion-led quartet presenting entirely unexpected and powerful timbres for the adventurous listener. Faithful listeners joyed to the soulful sadness of works like Awaiting, while being thoroughly taken in by the virtuosity and infectious joy of pieces like Amorous Dance of the Orchid. Among my favorite pieces was The Prayer, in which a traditional klezmer meditation emerges from a gentle atonal noise-improvisation. As they were preparing for a new album and summer tour, Jarek Bester promised us a new composition with every concert. Hearing these innovative new works performed with such virtuosic fire, one can easily understand why the accordion is a serious conservatory instrument in Europe. Of particular interest to American listeners is the quartet’s close connection to John Zorn, to whose Tzadik label the quartet is signed, and whose works they have so faithfully recorded. (They may be readily found under their previous name, the Cracow Klezmer Band, on Tzadik’s website.)

When not reveling in Krakow’s cultural and culinary riches or preparing lectures for my remarkably bright students, I found ample time to continue to compose and build on the inspirations my Polish journey afforded me. Many times, sitting alone in my apartment while the Siberian-like winter blew graceful arcs of snow outside my windows, I could not help but feel connected to the long tradition of American composers seeking inspiration abroad. My friends in the city helped a great deal as well. Thanks to local editor Grazyna Kich, I was able to compose soundtracks for two short documentaries about Fatima and St. Francis of Assisi, respectively. Along with her daughter Magda, they comprised a large part of my support system, and I would be remiss in not gratefully mentioning them in this article. I also became friends with Pawel Dziewonski of the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra. We met over coffee to talk about music and life in general, with the end result being Dziewonski’s asking me to write a fanfare for his pet project, the Cracow Brass Quintet.

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With the Kich family outside of the Krakow Philharmonic

I drew much from my six months living in a place where the arts seem to be a very part of the lifeblood of a nation. As winter descends upon us in the States, I often find my thoughts drifting back to Krakow. The smell of ancient streets mixes with the sweet taste of fresh coffee and the joyous timbre of Polish sopranos in my memory; I think I have officially fallen in love with this city. Needless to say, I plan to return to Krakow soon, and hope that more Americans can begin to discover this enchanting hotbed of culture in the future.

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Mark Nowakowski on a castle balcony with the Wisla (Vistula) river below

Mark Nowakowski is an emerging composer originally from the Chicago area with numerous commissions and prizes to his name. He completed his education at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the University of Colorado, and Illinois State University. He most recently worked as an adjunct instructor at the Jagiellonian University, and is now serving as Curator of Music for the Foundation for Sacred Arts.