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Greenwood Dessner Gibbons / Penderecki Lutosławski Górecki

An incredible conversation between top figures of the avant-garde world - Jonny Greenwood, Bryce Dessner, Beth Gibbons, and Aphex Twin - and pre-eminent contemporary Polish composers. The project was inaugurated with a joint performance by Penderecki and Greenwood at the European Culture Congress and has since spawned multiple new tracks, albums, and even a series of live shows.

The European Culture Congress in Wrocław was host to two previously unprecedented Penderecki performances. On September 10, 2011, he performed with Aphex Twin and the day before that, he took the stage with Radiohead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood. 

For the occasion, Aphex Twin wrote and performed a new piece called Polymorphia Reloaded, a remix of the Polish composer’s clsassical piece, whereas Greenwood performed 48 Responses to Polymorphia and Popcorn Superhet Receiver, the latter inspired by the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The shows were rounded out with a performance of Penderecki’s Canon for 52 string instruments and tape, Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, as well as Aphex Twin’s two original DJ sets.  

For Penderecki and Greenwood, the concert turned out to be more than a one-off, it marked the beginning of a prolific collaboration and launched a series of undertakings at NInA whose goal was to put Polish and foreign avant-garde musicians together and which served as a natural extension of the Three Composers portal.  

A documentary on Penderecki - Aphex Twin - Jonny Greenwood concerts.

Concerts in the UK and Italy

Less than two weeks after releasing their album, on March 22, 2012, the artists performed at London’s Barbican Hall. The performance consisted of Penderecki’s own compositions, including Polymorphia and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, as well as Greenwood’s commentaries on the two, 48 Responses to Polymorphia and Popcorn Superhet Receiver, respectively. The Guardian wrote of the show:  

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The performances were exemplary, and Greenwood's awe-struck appearance on the platform alongside Penderecki at the close led to a standing ovation.
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In turn, The Observer commented: 

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Penderecki's Threnody still has the power to shock, while Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver is already a modern classic.
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The Penderecki/Greenwood project was also very well received at the prestigious Contemporanea, Rassegna di musica nuova festival, taking place on the spectacular grounds of the Arco castle, itself a part of the the Alpine landscape of Trentino.

The Penderecki/Greenwood Album 

The collaboration between Penderecki and Greenwood was captured by NInA for the legendary New York label Nonesuch that released albums by Björk, Kronos Quartet, and Steve Reich. The performance was recorded at Alvernia Studios and the composers were accompanied by the AUKSO Orchestra, one of the best chamber orchestras in Europe. 

The album was warmly received by critics and quickly broke the Top 10 of the British bestseller list in the “classics” category, according the the Official Specialist Classical Chart. The project garnered widespread acclaim and was awarded with the Coryphaeus of Polish Music in 2012. 

Cover of the Penderecki/Greenwood album.
Cover of the Penderecki/Greenwood album, source: Nonesuch Records.

Dessner | Lutosławski

To continue the idea behind the success of the European Culture Congress and the Penderecki/Greenwood album, NInA invited Bryce Dessner and Beth Gibbons to collaborate with the Polish composer.

Bryce Dessner, a composer and guitarist, known to the public primarily as a member of The National, was commissioned by NInA to commemorate Lutosławski’s Year by writing a track inspired by the work of the Polish composer. His composition, Réponse Lutosławski, had its world premiere on November 29, 2014, in Warsaw. It was performed during a special concert that also featured compositions by Penderecki and Greenwood. Dessner himself described his composition in an interview with Polish Radio Three: 

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It’s a response to Funereal Music, one of the most important pieces ever written for a string orchestra. Lutosławski himself wrote it as a response to the work of Bartók. I felt as if Funereal Music opened a window for me, let me in, and allowed me to set out on my own journey. I pulled around 10-15 moments-windows out of that. And I tried to imagine the place I could reach by going through there.
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About Réponse Lutosławski, Dessner also says that it sounds as if he had written eight short poems and Lutosławski had authored the opening lines of each one. He emphasizes that he was quite stressed while working on the piece. The commission specified that the composition be a “response”, which Dessner took to heart. Anna S. Dębowska wrote about the piece: 

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Time will tell whether Dessner’s piece will become an invitation to The National fans to explore Lutosławski’s work. If that happens, they are in for a wild ride through very complicated musical matter with outstanding expressive qualities. The Saturday performance of Funereal Music has explicitly confirmed the masterpiece status of that particular composition. Neither has Polymorphia, performed on Saturday under the direction of its composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, lost any of its freshness and severity. It was very moving that the performance of the aforementioned pillars of Polish avant-garde music was directed by Penderecki, as he was the only one on the stage to have witnessed the era that bore the two compositions; hell, he was there to co-create it. In a very natural way, Penderecki became a convergence point for all the individual currents that underlaid the performance. Acquiring him for that project was one of Michał Merczyński’s and Filip Berkowicz’s greatest successes.

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Spot promujący koncert.

Gibbons | Górecki | Penderecki

The same stage was also host to another incredible event: Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and Krzysztof Penderecki performed Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 together. 

The piece was performed for the first time in Poland in 1977 at that year’s Warsaw Autumn Festival. The powerful and emotional response of the audience was evoked by the simplicity of the composer’s musical language, itself nothing short of a revolution as far as the composer’s work is concerned. Górecki himself commented on the piece: 

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I don’t see any reason to identify phases, write about transitions. If we listen closely, all of the pieces resemble each other in a way. I haven’t swapped out my revolutionary attire for the habit of a Franciscan monk, as I never wore either of them. I never needed them.
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The audience warmly welcomed Penderecki’s and Gibbons’ rendition of the piece. To quote Jacek Marczyński’s review in Rzeczpospolita

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When the singer of British trip-hop royalty Portishead started singing a folk song from the Opole region on the stage of the National Opera, some members of the audience sprang from their seats.
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Anna S. Dębowska wrote about the performance in Gazeta Wyborcza:

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Accepting Gibbons’ rendition of Górecki required an open mind and adjusting oneself to a different sort of vocal expressions. Her musicality, simplicity, and the authenticity of an amateur certainly helped. She was herself - she sat on a stool and sang straight into the microphone, her hair concealing her introvert self. She had probably put a lot of effort into training her Polish pronunciation as it was certainly beyond reproach.
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