An Interview with Mikołaj Górecki

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The son of legendary composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, composer Mikołaj Górecki is plenty accomplished in his own right. Born in Katowice, Poland, Górecki studied with his father at the Szymanowski Academy of Music before receiving his doctorate at Indiana University. He was recently featured on the 21st Composers' Portraits in Warsaw in December 2011 and his works have been programmed in international venues that include the Musica Polonica Nova in Wrocław, the De IJsbreaker Centre in Amsterdam, and Avery Fisher Hall in New York. He currently lives and works in Laredo, Texas.

University in Montreal from 2001 to 2002. He currently lives and works in the USA (Laredo, Texas). 
In 1988, he won the first prize at the 1st Bielsko-Biała Young Composers Competition for his Preludes for piano and, in 1994, he took third place at the 2nd Young Composers’ Forum in Krakow for his Sonata for clarinet and piano.
His compositions have been performed both in Poland and abroad, including the Lincoln Center and Avery Fisher Hall in New York; Montreal and Edmonton; the De IJsbreker Centre in Amsterdam; the ISCM World Music Days in Slovenia; the Festival of World Premieres in Katowice; and Musica Polonica Nova in Wrocław. 
The musicians who have performed his work include Kaja Danczowska, Jadwiga Kotnowska, Agnieszka Duczmal, Gabriel Chmura, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra in New York.
His works are published by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne and by Publishing House EUTERPE.

Listen above to an on-demand playlist of Mikołaj Górecki's favorite Polish works. We'll also be streaming the playlist this Wednesday at 7 pm as part of our first of two 24-hour Polish new music marathons. Continue reading for a web-exclusive interview between Q2 Music and Mikołaj where he discusses everything from hiding an electric guitar under his bed from his father to the cultural influence of Poland on his own compositions.

Mikołaj Górecki's Playlist

"I have chosen the voice as a leitmotif.  The “overture” could be the first movement from the Violin Concerto in A major op. 8 by Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, written in 1902. This concerto is underrated and could be seen as a link between Wieniawski’s and Szymanowski’s violin concertos." -Mikołaj Górecki

Mieczyslaw Karlowicz: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra: Mvts. 1 and 2
Karol Szymanowski: Stabat Mater: Mvt. 6
Witold Lutoslawski: Chantefleurs et Chantefables for Soprano and Orchestra
Krzysztof Penderecki: Polish Requiem: 'Lacrimosa'
Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki: Symphony No. 2 "Copernican": Mvt. 2

An Interview with Mikołaj Górecki

How does your Polish heritage inform your music? Do you feel that music in general should serve a higher cultural purpose?

I believe, in opposition to very common opinion circulating among composers and artists today, that history and the heritage may guide us and we can learn a great deal from them. Even the most revolutionary pieces in history of music were strongly linked with the past, e.g. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The question is: HOW they are linked with the past. That is the greatest secret of most of the great art, in my opinion. We may look at art of Paul Gauguin or works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and we will find similar attitude; the great respect for the past mixed with enormous urge of creating something completely new. So if you ask “if your Polish heritage informs your music” my answer is - yes, but if you ask “how does it inform” my answer is - I do not know. Now the answer to the second question: it depends what one’s expectations are. The listener who wants to be only entertained has very different expectations from the listener who looks for the deeper meaning in music. Bach, Mozart and other “serious” composers wrote dozens of purely entertaining pieces and these are often on the same quality level as their symphonies, masses or oratorios. Obviously, most of us would say composing the large scale symphonic or sacred work is a higher cultural purpose then writing a catchy song but the truth is that a simple popular song may also serve a higher cultural purpose, but in our times rarely does. Today we may say that many contemporary popular songs serve “lower” cultural purpose…

Do you feel that there’s a certain “Polish” approach? In your opinion, is there a distinct cultural stamp—whether it be a sound, technique, philosophy or aesthetic—that seems to pop up consistently in the work of 20th and 21st Century Polish contemporary “classical” composers?

Yes, I do. There is a certain “Polish” approach but I am not sure if it pops up consistently in pieces written in recent years. I am unable to specify what “Polish” approach is but certainly it exists. Today, living in times of the globalization, in my opinion, there is a very strong movement, especially among younger composers, not only in Poland, to write music without any cultural stamp. As long as the piece “sounds contemporary” they think they are fine. Unfortunately for me that is not enough. I think that work of any artist should represent certain elements which are characteristic not only for him or her but also for the culture in which he or she lives. Of course, I do not talk here about some folk elements. We are dealing here with things which are very difficult to explain, maybe even impossible to verbalize, where words are not enough. If you listen to great composers from the past it is always clear what country or culture they emerged from. Debussy would had never written music as he wrote not being French and Mahler would had never written his Symphonies in that unusual style not being Austrian and Jew.

What other cultures have made a particularly strong impression on your music, whether with melodic/harmonic language or the method of compositional approach?

Despite classics from the past I must mention Olivier Messiaen. His treatment of harmony is absolutely amazing. Probably he is the only composer who significantly contributed to the development of harmonic language in the second half of the 20th century. There also could be a very simple and sad answer why; because most of the composers of that period did not care about harmony. I know that he has many enemies among scholars and “academic” composers. They are annoyed by the titles of his works, the form full of repeats and even his orchestration, which in my opinion is extremely exciting and new. If you ask of other cultures which inspired me in some way I may mention Aztec culture. I wrote a piece for orchestra “Zan Tontemiquico” which means in Nahuatl: we come only to dream. It corresponds with the poem of Tochihuitzina, pre-Columbian Aztec poet. The poem treats about existential problems, but from a perspective of people who never heard about Sartre…

Was there a definitive moment or musical piece that inspired you to decide to become a composer?

I grew up at home were classical music was a daily topic. Composers such as Chopin and Brahms have been always very close to me. When I was about four I heard for the first time in my life West Side Story. It was a shock for me. The popular music was banned at our home but West Side Story was an exception. Maybe because of those memories from my childhood I use sometimes in my pieces elements of popular music. It still sounds to me quite exotic. By the way, when I was teenager I kept an electric guitar under my bed hidden from my father. He learned about that many years later…

In the early 1990’s, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was your teacher at the Music Academy in Katowice. In what ways does your father’s music inform your own compositional process or aesthetic?

As I said earlier the music was a frequent topic during our conversations, so there was not much difference between being his student or not. Usually we did not talk about compositional techniques only about music in general. When I was still in high school especially strong impression made on me his Muzyczka IV, chamber piece for the trombone, clarinet, cello and piano. It is a kind of a miniature of his Second Symphony, which was written a few years later. Another piece of his, which is very close to me, is Lerchenmusik for the clarinet, cello and piano. Was he responsible for your choice to pursue a musical career, or did you find yourself on that path independently of his direct influence? Generally speaking- yes. My father wanted me to be violinist. So when I was six I began practicing the violin. One year later I began playing the piano which I preferred than the violin. After few years I switched to piano as my major. But the truth was that I was never interested in being a performer. I have loved music but do not have that urge of sharing it with others thru performances. My only interest has been music itself. My greatest dream as a child was to be able to write music, especially for orchestra. The problem was that I grew up at home where a word “composer” was almost sacred, it was reserved for geniuses like Bach, Beethoven etc. Naturally, I could not say openly my dreams when I was very young. Later, when I was a teenager my father discovered by chance that I had been writing music and began to support me in that. But this did not change the fact that even today I do not see myself as a composer only as a guy who writes music.

Do you see this as being a particularly exciting time for contemporary music in Poland? Why?

I think it is exciting time for contemporary music anywhere, not only in Poland. We are lucky to live in times when an element of “shock” in the piece of art is worn out. You need to have really something to say, not just use this or another “new technique” which next day is forgotten.

What musical projects are you currently working on?

I do not like to talk about plans but I may tell you what my most recent piece is which I completed. It is a Nocturne for orchestra about 20 minutes long, dedicated to the memory of my father. It was premiered in Poland during one of the concerts commemorating the first anniversary of his death.