Constraints and total theater


This particular composition focuses on constant material evolution through microtonal deviations and research in “gliding” performance techniques to find new timbral qualities of sound. Passaggio III: Phantom is also a study in performativity, requiring several musical elements played simultaneously. The effects part of Passaggio III: Phantom is based on three basic elements: singing, striking/stomping the floor with the foot, and tapping the instrument with the hand/fingers. The performativity of the piece requires the performer to have a special kind of openness to experiment and attempt to overcome his/her limitations when performing / or failing to perform certain effects desired by the composer.

While respecting the fact that some performers do not want to expose themselves in this way when performing music, I am willing to allow for alternative or less interfering with the performer's intimate space, types of performance of individual fragments, which are going to be introduced below. Nevertheless, I always particularly encourage the performers to try out the performative solutions introduced in the score. They are the fullest and most powerful vision of what I had in mind while composing the work.

First, and probably the most challenging for most of the performers, is the request to sing. Instrumentalists are not used to doing so, especially not in a classical music setting. The idea of opening the mouth to create an accompanying to the instrument's sound, the additional sound layer, becomes a threat to the whole work execution. What is more, a type of vocal performance requested is also the issue for itself. I have based numerous instrumental passages in the composition mixed with the mormorando bocca chiusa technique - using a gentle, closed-mouth, murmuring sound. Murmuring is a quite intimate technique, silent and delicate; it immediately surrounds the performer with the wall of isolation; on the other hand, striping from any layers that could be created between the audience. This contradiction of action consequences comes from the conceptualization of instrumentalist in an acting position through metamorphosis and execution of atypical, not assigned to his/her role, commands in public.

Participating in many improvisation courses and fighting with constraints myself, I wondered which one is more difficult to do for the musician instrumentalist on stage - to murmur, sing openly, or rather scream? Probably each process causes its own challenges, and the difficulty level lies in the performer's ability to let go and free yourself from doubts and uncertainty, and of course, from the context and surrounding that accompanies the performance. Liberating yourself from the shackles of classical music's traditional performance habits on stage is the main research of the Passaggi series. The urge to create a theatre, a space where music, supported by the movements and actions, still sends the primary message through the music itself is my huge desire to achieve. This search for a new way of music delivery method in the classical music world is not an unfamiliar concept in many cultures' popular or folk music. Rock musicians jump around the stage in excitement, encouraging the listeners to jump with them; many tribes in Africa perform music in circles, dance and pray simultaneously performing several different actions; even the conductors show their excitement and engagement in the music by exaggerated movements and the need to free your body through the sound. Why not searching for this freedom in contemporary music? Many respected musician-improvisers in the contemporary music world, like Thomas Buckner, Roscoe Mitchell, or George Lewis, emphasize the need to learn the art of improvisation among the classical music performers. In my opinion, it has only advantages that help the musicians to become themselves fully on stage, without hesitation, anxiety, or for that matter, facing no constraints.

Voice and effect action in Passaggio III: Phantom is interwoven with the viola's notated music material, creating one sounding body. Leaving out one element of the construction makes a hole in the piece's timbral picture and formal shape. The opening mormorando on the note D, performed with notated in detail nuances of the viola part, gives even more significance and importance to this introduction, dramatically focuses the listeners' attention, and immediately puts them inside the narration of music.  Voice oscillations between the pitches, connected with drone-like, slowly morphing viola cluster, like the one created in the last system of page three, focus on the timbral development of the performer tutti (instrument + voice) and again underline the intimacy of sound created through this moment. The last section of the piece, Improvisando: coda, is the structure, where the composer's imagination could not fall in order with the performer's requests, although I have really tried to keep to the rules I set myself before composing the work. I need to scream, and I need excitement and so-called "losing the temper" in the musical structure's final section. Violently screaming high artificial harmonic structure, filled with the rubbed string's sound, wooden noises and microinterval squeaks only asks to burst with the total emotional impact on the stage. This is the moment when the need for a total performer to be able to free through total theater on stage is crucial to the music of Passaggio. Not only the sound, the voice acting, but the impossible to notate in the full reaction of the performer's body in coming into contact with this situation take part in the realization of the work. As stated before, I truly respect that the performer might not be ready for this type of freeing music interpretation. Therefore I have described additional possible variants of performance for this particular fragment. It is up to the performer's subjective state of mind how much she/he can open up performatively during the execution of this fragment in public. 

The other effect used in the composition is striking/stomping the floor with the foot and tapping the instrument with the hand/fingers, a specific dichotomy of knocking patterns and color ranges between them. This concept, introduced only six times in Passaggio III: Phantom, suddenly changes the specific of listening when heard. A tap - quite short, muffled timbrally sound, sounds like a surprise, definitely not anticipated by the listener. Five of six rhythmic figures of this effect are introduced rather in a lower dynamic, intend to blend with surrounding delicate sound material. The only distinguishing part in their usage is the shape of the timbre introduced that momentarily metamorphoses the piece's narration. I find these actions triggering the ear quite easily, preventing distraction, and tremendously opening up the composition's musical space. Probably the urge to blend the "traditionally" performed sounds and various sound effects through the part of one performer is connected to the need for expansion of the function of the performer towards gaining control over the all surrounding parameters of performance space that are straight connected to the closest surrounding environment of the body.

Example of the final interventions of voice and viola

Example of microinterval melodic passages

Example of the introductory material

Example of "gliding" structures

Purification through sonic meditation


The development of music in Passaggio III: Phantom is like a mantra, a meditation, or one could say - a path - that you follow and do not resign in moving forwards. On the way, many surrounding elements mark their presence and drag your attention, but you steadily persist in moving to reach your aim. Meditation through the fluctuating sound is a phenomenon I have been searching for more recently during this year. Finding peace and inner silence in constantly changing musical structures, timbral modulations, and rhythmical movements may be a contradiction of a kind, but it successfully works for my mind. The phenomenon of modulation between timbres cleanses my entangled with everyday duties thoughts and brings a certain feeling of pleasure since the sound triggers a specific type of endorphins inside me. The satisfaction achieved through meditation in music is maybe particularly needed during pandemic times, a possibility to forget about the worries outside, just diving into the sounds themselves. Whenever I feel lost, Giacinto Scelsi's music helps me calm down, infiltrate the nature of the sounds, and gain the strength to move on. His music, based on oscillating on one pitch that triggers the sonic spaces around it with multicolor timbral plays, creates a "safe bubble" and provides shelter from worries. If I search for happiness and euphoria through the spontaneously diffusing harmonic spaces, I dive into the meditations of Iranian composer Fozié Majd and let the sounds of her repetitive music lead my thoughts in carefree mind-wandering.

Through a somehow completely different approach, through the movement, excitement, and complexity of harmonic networks on a microtonal lattice of sounds, I want to find my own version of mantra in music. The mantra that is based on and derived from the sound phenomena and focuses on the total picture of constantly moving ambiguous sound spaces.


The history of Passaggi




I wrote Passaggio I for female voice and cello in 2014. It was primarily a short virtuoso form, where I focused on theatrical movements and their correspondence between the two engaged performers. Action and reaction, giving and receiving, the cooperation of interpreters, and the bond that occurs in the moment of this relation, were crucial in composing Passaggio. The term, derived from Italian, means "a passage" or "a crossing", but also describes the technique of classical singing where the performer needs to jump smoothly between the registers and tries to maintain the same quality and depth of the voice, no matter the register jump he/she needs to perform. To my astonishment, this short composition occurred to be severely difficult to the students at IMPULS 9th International Ensemble and Composers Academy for Contemporary Music in Graz, Austria that practiced it during the workshops. The material required not so much virtuosity and technical advancement but rather a one hundred percent understanding between the musicians who perform it together, like the piano trio that performs together for already several years, where musicians are able to react to each other's gestures, sounds and interpretations with literally closed eyes. Considering this composition as a failure and not so well-executed experiment, I moved towards other compositional tasks. However, the thought of Passaggio I kept coming back to me, and the idea that I can possibly develop this project showed up with the commission for "Poznan Spring" 44th International Festival of Contemporary Music in 2015. The idea of Passaggio being an embodiment of traditional instrumental performance, improvisation, theater, a celebration of performativity, and freedom, all in one, shaped the second work from the series, written for a double bass solo. I had a chance to work with Mateusz Loska, a very engaged and dedicated performer who loves challenges. Overcoming constraints and hesitations, practicing and learning by heart many difficult performative passages and structural constructions, and finally being confident on stage with the performance, this time paid off and resulted in an astonishing performance. I have also realized that this composition functioned differently than the first one of the series for two reasons:


-       The performer was a soloist. There was no need to overcome the challenges within a group of musicians. Independence was a freeing factor;


-       The performer had a certain predisposition towards performing highly performative music material.


Not every instrumentalist likes to perform certain types of music. It is a matter of personal taste and a set of abilities that the person possesses that helps him/her work on a certain type of music material. Developing the series of Passaggio has taught me to always discuss all the possible details with the music's potential performer before writing it down and delivering for the performance. It has also taught me how to discuss, respect the performer's opinion, but also try to persuade in some innovative or more challenging visions I want to introduce in the music.


Passaggio III: Phantom was created in such a manner during the autumn months of 2020, after the consultations and talks with Polish viola player Lech Bałaban, who clearly introduced how much he is able to step beyond his comfort zone during the performance, and which techniques or actions face a challenge he is not ready to overcome in a performative work like that. Like the previous works from the series, the composition is also devoted to the issue of transition, change, and metamorphosis. This short virtuoso form, having an etude character, requires the performer’s skills in the synchronic presentation of multiple musical elements – traditional play as well as singing, including body movements and performing noise effects.


VI Passaggio III: Phantom. 

Harmonics and harmonies

Desire for “gliding sounds”


The search for microtonal deviations in Passaggio III: Phantom focuses on three main material developments. In this piece, microtonality is treated freely, and without any previous sound analysis, it intends to sharpen and radicalize the music's harmonic content. I have searched for the possibility to use microtone as a small particle of ever-changing progression of sounds, not so stable, yet visible unit in the procession, the passage of notes. This has caused the composition's score to be presented by notating individual sound phenomena on each separate stave for each separate string of the instrument. The benefit of this treatment lies in the ability to control precisely the movements of the bow and left hand over the strings and fingerboard. It also helps to write down the actions to be performed on each string very clearly, especially the multiple stops to be held longer on two strings, including the dominating passage on one of the strings.

To make the example, the very opening harmonic structure of the composition, focusing on the usage of artificial harmonic on the third string, blended with the sound of the second open string (supported by the voice intervention as well!) create a very detailed and complicated construction to be written on only one stave. The artificial harmonics in this composition are mostly set into finger tremolos of the harmonic position, glittering and even slightly gliding sound structures. The irregularity and incompleteness of the developed sound create the right and desirable sonic picture for the composer. The elusiveness of timbral sound effects, achieved through this approach, makes the composition become a phantom, a ghost, or an echo of the sounds that one day sounded in full, but now are only the reminiscence of the full sound.

The second page of the score contains a transformation of the previous material towards a pure glide between the sound structures. By the slight loosening of the bow grip and less tight keeping the artificial harmonic position, the performer's hands gain the right weight to glide and smoothly move between the sounds' implicit passages. I have changed the traditionally notated glissando sign and introduced the word "glide," which, in my opinion, functions best in describing the very effect I want to hear in music. This glide performed on the artificial and open harmonics in exchange, but rather focusing on the artificial ones, fluently transitions between the lower sounds, moves towards the highest possible artificial harmonic position, strongly blended with the noises of bow pressure on the string and wood noise, to slowly move downwards towards the final, closing the section, open string of the lowest viola string.

Another concept worth introducing in this piece refers to the melodic gliding-like passages, notated between pages four and six of the score. This time, I did not want to sue the artificial harmonics, but rather to focus on the viola's lowest string's timbral quality and the possibilities to explore its sounds. Low nasal sound of the C string and the tender microtonal fluctuations of oscillating between the strings passages drastically mark the change in the music's character. The structures become more concrete - even tangible - through their full sound exposure. Still, this part's material is heavily reduced, returns to the previously used harmonic structures, but never fully repeats, presenting each time a slight variant of the past.  


The performance of Passaggio II by Mateusz Loska on double-bass

Material sketches to Passaggio III: Phantom

The formal sketch of Passaggio III: Phantom