Michał Libera

The title of this text is a quote from Bogusław Schaeffer concerning the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. It might shock and provoke, but above all else, it is straightforward.
And it says a lot about possibly the most important institution of experimental music in the Eastern bloc. From today's perspective, the experimentation of the Studio's recordings can seem almost textbook. Lacking a clear narrative, even if short, the recordings are usually too long, full of contrasts and sounds - la Ministry of Strange Sounds. So what was missing then, that would allow Bogusław Schaeffer to call it experimental with a clear conscience?
In the 1950s and '60s, when this term was first coined in opposition to avant-garde music, it was supposed to have meant something much more precise. Certainly that definition was not used with such casualness as today, when experimental embraces everything that doesn't fit within the confines of public radio programming between 6.00 a.m. and 10.00 p.m., or in other words, anything that doesn't fit into the mainstream. Firstly, the term doesn't intend to describe an aesthetic field judged on the basis of recordings or renditions of music. For the result is the least important aspect of experimental music. On the other hand, however, the term doesn't serve to describe the composer's work method either. If the Studio is not a place to experiment but to work in, it is precisely because each type of work involves experimentation, a series of trial and errors, repeated procedures and mad ideas. Schaeffer tacitly refers to the best known definition of music by John Cage. In this American artist's opinion, experimental music is that in which a composer does not know the results of his work in advance. So it isn't about either the result, or the process, but the separation of one from the other - the process from the result; it is the unpredictability that separates them, it is about taking creative control over the result of the artist's work and handing it over to third parties - performers, chance or technology. As regards electronic music produced in the Studio, it was quite the opposite and this is exactly what Schaeffer refers to. Here, the result was virtually under the composer's complete control, as if his calling in life was to play out the famous words of Karlheinz Stockhausen, namely, that in electronic music, there is no need for an interpreter. The entire work is created by the composer, along with a few technicians. Each action can be repeated until the desired precision is attained. Paradoxically, any piece prepared in the form of sheet music is more experimental than the works produced in the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. There is something experimental about the very notion of "notation-performance", precisely in the sense of the division between the process and the result: notation is a repeatable procedure whereas performances are consecutive attempts comprising one experiment. The fear of many composers, Arnold Schonberg being the most prominent example, that the performer will spoil the interpretation, is a reflection of the idea that experimentation is an intrinsic part of the execution of a piece of music. Sheet music is therefore the perfect tool for separating the artist from his work. Maybe that is why, out of just a handful of works from the Studio's most characteristic period, which could conform to Cage's definition, it is hard to find even one that does not have accompanying sheet music. The most well-known is Bogusław Schaeffer's Symphony (1966) (also referred to as the Electronic Symphony, titled the Symphony in the sheet music). It is a typical graphical score, which is distinct from its counterparts in that it was intended for the sound engineer as a performer, not the instrumentalist. It consists of 50 pages' worth of four vertical tracks with different time lengths, comprising over 17 minutes of music in total.
In most of the time intervals, the composer placed sound events in the form of graphical symbols. Their meaning is defined over seven pages, with a further 11 pages of introduction and commentary, together comprising a substantial instruction guide. Nevertheless, they grant the sound producer plenty of freedom too. Examples of such instructions include: different pitches plus reverb, a stroke with an internal crescendo, a sudden ending, or a simple tone plus glissando, whose sound and often certain other parameters are to be defined by the sound producer.
Unlike the vast majority of compositions from the Experimental Studio's archive, the composer's role is over before the final sound effect is determined. The composer is like a scientist who creates a given procedure, a set of written and unchangeable boundary conditions, which have to be fulfilled during each new rendition. Their comparison depends precisely on the differences that are typical for each individual approach. Włodzimierz Kotoński, in his composition Aela (1970), proposed a somewhat different, though still experimental intervention in the creator-work relationship. As the title itself suggests, the piece is a combination of the idea of aleatoric and electronic music; as the first sentence suggests - it is in fact not a piece but a programme describing a certain family of electronic music pieces. Aela comprises only four pages of verbal instructions, without any graphical symbols. Kotoński decided to determine the scale of individual parameters of the composition and submit them to chance, determining specific values of a given realization. He therefore defined the sound material and the frequency scale, the time interval scale, the intensity level scale, the arrangement of directions for a dual-channel projection, the overall structure and types of random actions. For example: the sound material is defined only as simple tones with 25 Hz intervals ranging from 25Hz to 10,000 Hz. The role of the performer is to make random decisions (following the specific procedures defined in the score) within those defined scales and on the basis of those random choices, to prepare a rendition of the piece, or as Kotoński would have wanted it, a new version of the same programme. One of such versions in the form of a graphical score, was attached to a publication of Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (the Polish Music Press) as an example of the composer's realizations. However, it is the very concept of rendering electronic music aleatoric that constitutes a method for breaking the ties between the composition process and the sound production.
Perhaps the most typical example illustrating the experimental aspect of works produced by the Experimental Studio is Eugeniusz Rudnik's composition Skalary (Angelfish) (1966). It consists of output material recorded on tape, a set of sounds that sound the same, regardless of the playback direction. In addition, the composition is a particular type of score, serving as a user manual for how to use the tape recorder during playback. As a result, there are several versions of Skalary, lasting from three to nine minutes. So we can almost understand this work as experimental, or at least poly-versional (to use Bogusław Schaeffer's terminology). But the very nature of the recorded sounds, as well as the precision of the instructions, would suggest looking at Skalary as an abstract and humorous ditty by a composer who created several works in one stroke. The recurring question raised by experimental music is whether the composer could have imagined all the possible renditions. Is this type of electronic music really experimental? Let Morton Feldman answer the question: John Cage camp up with one of the best definitions of experimental music. He claimed that the end result of experimental music is unpredictable. That is a very interesting observation. After my first forays into electronic music, the results would start becoming predictable.