If it was not for stage fright, she would be a pianist – an interview with Elżbieta Sikora

She learned from the best to later contribute to the world of electronic music. She was shaped by the lectures of Pierre Schaeffer and by the Warsaw Autumn festival. Elżbieta Sikora, artistic director of the Musica Electronica Nova festival, tells how she got into the Groupe de Recherches Musicale, and how she later witnessed the rivalry of GRM with IRCAM.

Wojciech Sitarz: Several years ago you revealed that you were planning to travel around the world in search of sounds under extinction. Did you do it?

Elżbieta Sikora: Unfortunately, all the time I have had to put it off for various reasons like Musica Electronica Nova or opera writing, which take me more time than predicted.

Do you know what you would like to record?

I have a few ideas. The starting point for the entire trip was supposed to be an expedition to Patagonia. I wanted to record a melting glacier, which, running down to a lake, seems incredibly beautiful in terms of sounds. This happens only for a moment, once in a while.

Apparently, you always have a microphone with you to record unusual sounds. Does Wrocław offer anything interesting?

For now, I have been busy with something else, but who knows if the occasion arises? I haven’t been looking, but every place has its local tone.

The beginnings of your education started in post-war times when not only Polish music but also world electronic music were only emerging. Where did your interest in the genre come from?

It was partly an accident. Of course, electronic music came into my life when I studied sound direction. We had some classes in the Polish Radio Experimental Studio, but those first contacts somehow passed without consequences. Only when I went to Paris in 1968, I got into a course of electro-acoustic music led by Pierre Schaeffer and François Bayle, and I fell in love with this theme completely by chance…

It’s probably coquetry to say it was by chance. The Groupe de Recherches Musicales did not accept just anyone.

In fact, it was not so easy; I had to pass the entrance exam. I managed to go through that “sieve”, although some questions were a total mystery to me because of my linguistic deficiencies. Luckily, I somehow managed to pass and spent two years on intensive training in GRM. It was absolutely thrilling and instilled in me a certain way of looking at the world of sounds.

So the choice to study Sound Directing did not result from your desire to produce electronics, right?

No, sound directing itself seemed to be a very interesting subject. I once wanted to be a pianist, but my stage fright was so great, I could not become a performer. Not to mention the fact that I did not have a tendency to exercise several hours a day because too many things interested me. Therefore sound directing seemed a compromising solution. I never pursued that profession, but the knowledge gained proved very useful in my further career as a composer.

The Sound Directing faculty was among the first of its kind in the world. How do you recall that period of your studies?

For me it was a fantastic period. The studies were a very interesting package. As one of the few departments, the Warsaw faculty had already combined music with technology. Typical technological studies had been offered until quite recently. It was different only in Germany, which was inspired by our faculty.

Could it be sensed that you were the precursors of some music? You graduated from the faculty as a member of the eleventh generation, right?

Probably not. The studies were to produce specialists in record production. The electronics classes belonged to an expanded music programme. They wanted us to open to verified work. We were to produce a little étude, which was an interesting task. We also had harmony classes, where we could compose. The studies were very comprehensive.

The 1960s were the beginnings of the Warsaw Autumn festival, the rise of the avant-garde, and Polish sonorism. How did these events influence you?

I remember the Warsaw Autumn from the time when I attended my secondary school in Gdańsk. We went to the festival with a bunch of friends and we were fascinated. There was a wonderful atmosphere then. It allowed the audience to protest and react sharply to musical actions. Now the audience are quiet and don’t respond so spontaneously. People listen in a “humble” way; they don’t express their opinion by hooting        or stamping their feet. Those were the days when Waldorff would shout out loud insults and the audience would leave the hall or clap at inappropriate moments to manifest their opinion.

Most of your colleagues from the faculty took up sound production in the film industry. How did it happen that you went in a completely different direction?

Indeed, today all of them work in their profession, with great success. Nikodem Wołk-Łaniewski is a recognized sound recordist, repeatedly rewarded; he produced the soundtracks to Andrzej Wajda’s films and today he is also the head of the Faculty of Sound Directing.  Jacek Szymański and Jacek Złotkowski made the soundtracks for a number of television productions. Finally, Hania Sztompke ended up in Sweden. The faculty really produced high-class professionals. I went to France immediately after graduation, where I was looking for  training as a sound engineer in a radio station . I wanted to see how it was done in other countries before I started working in Poland. Only there did someone tell me about the course of electronic music. These interests of mine originated in Paris.

Why France then?

I had visited it earlier and it was charming. My mom was a Francophile; she graduated in Classical Philology and tried to teach me the language. She failed but I was interested in France and it was a natural direction. I went there hitch-hiking, and the journey through Europe took me two months to get to France.

What was Pierre Schaeffer like?

He was incredibly versatile. A man of  huge charisma and personal charm. He was also a despot and the group was a little afraid of him. Schaeffer had strong views on how one should be making music. He approached music as an analyst, philosopher and observer. I was fascinated by him, although I frankly admit that I could not assimilate much for the first six months when I listened to his lectures. It was a very difficult language, and I was a weak French speaker then. Pierre Schaeffer’s lectures were avant-garde in those times. He tried to find a formula that would encompass all the arts to analyse and present them. He was open to the visual arts, theatre and music, and often invited other artists of different disciplines to work together. He cooperated with film-makers such as Peter Kamler, a very interesting producer of animated films. Schaeffer was the founder of the French audiovisual institute. Not to mention the fact that in the 1940s he made concrete music. It was an accident too. He began experimenting with records while working in radio. Broken records created looped sounds, making the so-called closed groove. Such a repetition formed a rhythm of a new quality. The whole story began.

Did you have the feeling of association with the master?

Not really, but I’d say I almost had. He introduced electronic music to the public. He made it the subject of teaching at the Paris conservatoire. Thanks to him, the music came out of the studio.

Did you have a chance to meet Schaeffer later?

I remember that in 1989 I was moved when he came to the première of my work for orchestra and live transformation. He said that he had come to hear what I was doing. He was already an old man. I still had warm, heartfelt feelings for him. I will not let anyone say anything bad about him, although he might have deserved a few comments.

After ten years you returned to France, that time to IRCAM. Is that also accidental?

Not really. I got to IRCAM due to the Warsaw Autumn. In 1981, my composition for the tape entitled “The Head of Orpheus”, made at the Experimental Studio, was played there. Tod Machover heard it. He was then responsible for one of the IRCAM branches and suggested that I should go to Paris to compose a new song. “The Head of Orpheus II” was created there, with a flute accompaniment. Then I went to France for a French government scholarship, and so it happened that I stayed for a long time.

IRCAM and GRM were strongly competitive centres…

Very strongly at that time. IRCAM was created much later, only in the 1970s, while GRM was created in the 1950s. IRCAM was sponsored by Pierre Boulez, who wanted to combine a state of the art technology with new musical creation. Boulez governed the institute in a strict way. His outlook on music was very personal and he considered only some of its directions as appropriate. With his authoritative attitude IRCAM also won a large part of the subsidy. GRM long remained in the aesthetics of concrete music or purely electronic music, while IRCAM very quickly introduced live instruments into electronic music and carried out research on acoustic sound. The competition caused a situation in which it was forbidden to admit that you were working for GRM while composing for IRCAM.

How is this rivalry today?

Divisions began to rapidly alleviate. Now the centres exchange their experiences. I will not say that they organize joint concerts, but it might happen soon.

Is their music is very different?

It is different. IRCAM’s compositions have a specific sound and that IRCAM quality can be clearly seen. It is mainly about operating a synthesized sound. GRM has very diverse compositions.

Which of the trends suited you the best?

I felt best in GRM, it was my world, I originated there. When I started work at IRCAM, and soon after I was at Stanford University, a composer would have to learn programming. If not, he or she was lost, and not every composer is made to do programming or wants to devote to it. That problem has disappeared now. Access to computer technology is easier. You can work on the same program in both IRCAM, GRM, and also at your own home.

Completing a composition, you were said to think that the opera is a genre with no future, but a few years later your “Heart Ripper” was recorded in Radio France. What caused such a change?

Composers are unsteady. In the 1970s I was looking for entirely new forms of expression. It seemed to me that opera was a closed form, and searching cannot offer anything to us. I considered opera as an artificial genre, singing on stage irritated me. However, when I graduated from composition studies, Professor Zbigniew Rudziński forced me to write my first opera. I wrote “Ariadne”, a composition for only two female voices. It was supposed to be an expression of my rebellion, but writing for voices was interesting, and honestly, working with voice seemed to be engaging. I was enchanted with the potential offered by the opera form of drama. “Ariadne” interested Stefan Sutkowski and the Warsaw Chamber Opera staged it. It was a great compensation for the act of “selling myself to opera.” In addition, the composition won second prize in Weber’s competition in Dresden.

Did opera win you over?

I caught the bug for it and when I was in Paris, I started thinking about these types of compositions. I composed a radio opera entitled “Derrière son double”. Then came the monodramatic piece for the soprano and tape, and more designs on opera. Finally, I was asked to produce a radio track to a text by Boris Vian, and so “Heart Ripper” came to life. It was a composition with a lot of spoken voices and a narrator, so it was really a radio type, but with many sung parts and an opera construction. The whole piece was over an hour long, but I was told to shorten it to 45 minutes, according to the requirements of the radio. I felt sorry to lose that, so I showed it to various theatre directors in Poland. We managed to persuade the Grand Theatre in Warsaw, and a new version, much more lyrical, with a lot more singing but without a narrator, was created.

The première of your new opera, “Madame Curie”, is planned for November. How did the piece originate?

Seven years ago, with no contract, I started thinking about a new opera composition. I knew I wanted to write about a contemporary woman, a character closer to us, not the one from Sophocles’ works. In a discussion with my friend, a physicist, we arrived at the conclusion that the best character would be Maria Skłodowska-Curie.

Was the idea conceived independently of the Year of Skłodowska-Curie?

This proved to be only much later. With a draft of the script, I talked with Marek Weiss-Grzesiński and it turned out that he was very interested and wanted to stage it in the Baltic Opera. We started working on the project until it suddenly became clear that the Year of Chemistry and Skłodowska-Curie was coming soon. We had to hurry to make it in order to stage the opera in connection with that event.

What is this composition going to be like? Chamber opera again?

This time it is a full-sized opera for solo voices, orchestra and choir. There are four main soloists, and a total of eleven characters. There will be some elements of dance and an electronic layer of course.

The première will be held at the UNESCO Hall in Paris.

The event is to celebrate the Polish presidency of the European Union. We will all immediately return from Paris to Gdańsk, where the actual stage première will be held.  UNESCO cannot offer theatre conditions, so we will be presenting only a semi-concert version.

I read on the website devoted to the Year of Chemistry that you are a French-Polish composer. So who do you belong to after all?

This is how they treat me around the world. I have lived in France for thirty years. I always travelled somewhere, I was born in Lviv, then transported to Rzeszów and further to Gdańsk. After my graduation I lived in Warsaw. Paris is the place where I have lived the longest.

What would happen if music had not been invented?

It is impossible… Music had to emerge, there was no other choice. We do not know when the first note developed; we can only discuss how music was born. It is in dolphin songs, lion roars, squeaks of a rabbit, in a highlander’s call… and also in the hum of cars.

Interview: Wojciech Sitarz

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