Winner of the 2010 Composition Award: Joanna Woźny

Concretion and Abstraction

The Dialectical Sound Worlds of Joanna Woźny

Recognizing the entirely different has to be one of the primary aims of any art that takes itself seriously – no matter whether it be explicitly formulated as such or not. Expressing the other: an attempt that any contemporary music to be taken seriously lives from, continuously on the verge between success and failure, between the uncharted territory of the non-identical and the calm waters of the familiar. For our perception, however, the other – even the new, per se – means a paradoxical demand, as it requires leaving our usual mode in which we classify all the phenomena of the world. Instead of sorting impressions into the drawers available to us, the other demands perception to go beyond itself, something it can only approximate.

Change is closely related to the other. Asking oneself where it begins and where it ends, one soon faces similar paradoxes. It is no different with the music of Joanna Woźny. Her principal theme, if it can be reduced to a common denominator at all, is continuous change. It can enter quite unnoticeably, standing up against its counterpart, repetition. In any case, repetition never means mere recurrence of the same. What was there before seems different the next time. The compositions on the portrait CD released by the label Kairos in autumn, 2011, as part of the Erste Bank Composition Award, demonstrate this in many ways. All of them are about transformations that always seem to have already begun and could go on endlessly, but for the fact that, at the same time, an ever-changing dramaturgy of fading-out is fulfilled.

Some of this Joanna Woźny may have gleaned from Beat Furrer, her teacher in Graz, but even more, it must always have been one of her peculiarities. Pupil and teacher also have in common a special affinity for silence – in both cases without the music being exhausted in it. With regard to Joanna Woźny, around the time when she completed her studies (2003) and for the first time stepped out into a broader public, her scores showed a clear tendency towards restraint concerning dynamics and the density of events. Equally clearly, however, her composing over the last few years has changed. A change, which at first glance may possibly seem bigger than it actually is. The quietude and restraint, which at first had by far prevailed and which had hardly ever been left, found competition: more massive sounds entered the stage, fierce outbreaks began to pervade Woźny’s delicate sound structures. But such eruptions also serve to further sharpen the intended listener’s hearing for the nuances and the fragility of her whole musical diction. Here, a circumstance one meets at every turn in her music becomes especially evident: in each of its ramifications the composer’s musical conception proves to be deeply dialectical; one does not have to follow her music’s obscurations consciously into every nook and cranny in order to feel them by hearing, but whoever endeavours to do it anyway will profit the more from it.

The dialectical sound worlds of Joanna Woźny mediate between concretion and abstraction, between concentration and refinement, with it always being possible for the one to suddenly or gradually turn into the other. Little of this can be immediately ascertained, but this little has great power and intensity – like the small gestures at the beginning of as in a mirror, darkly (2010) for ensemble that unfold in a dense field of events. What is repeated, what undergoes change here? The references are so diverse that there seems to be no unequivocal answer, but everyone can find a somewhat different view. Unambiguousness of events is something altogether avoided almost distrustfully in Woźny’s music. Instead, as in a mirror, darkly is pervaded by meandering striations leading to those thoughts the composer has formulated for this work created in connection with the Erste Bank Composition Award: here, she has found “impurities which, for example, happen on (old) film strips due to dust particles and scratches, or which one can see looking through scratched glass” as metaphors for the process in which the initially clearly exposed gestures become smudged and obfuscated. For example, by glissandos executed by the strings, or wiping motions also indicated by the winds. Time seems to stand still after the piano speaks up with uncommon presence around the middle of the piece.

While we’re on the subject of speaking: to capture the musical processes here in language is especially difficult, even more so because even hearing and reading the score, connections can only be half-decoded. Rather, they remain, hanging in the air. In the second half of the piece,  when what had gone before is regarded as if in reverse, familiar elements return, changed – or do they merely remind us of things already heard after our perception has been sharpened?

That Joanna Woźny displays a special predilection for the complex chords of wind instruments, in Return (2006) for saxophone and ensemble, for example, testifies to more than just a penchant for certain instrumental colours. Ambivalent and vague, the major part of the interactions between the individual and the collective here takes place on the sound level. And the major part of development within the piece takes place between a concretion in tangible shapes or gestures and their dissolution in microscopically illuminated sound – up to a point where such differentiation ceases to make sense, as micro-timbral processes and concrete outlines permeate each other too much. That, also, is an aspect that Joanna Woźny’s music wants to make the listeners aware of, just like the fact that every repetition has something double-edged about it. The composer ambiguously remarks that Return hints at “various forms of repetitions … of recurring brief musical sections, motifs and sounds up to the repetition of formal units”, but immediately qualifies that these repetitions are “neither too clear nor exactly localized”. And so the commentary on the opus remains as open as the piece itself: one is “confronted with the situation of a return, in which the musical material re-constitutes itself after a temporary absence”. Or perhaps only after its transformation? Here, too, one encounters transformation and change everywhere, for example when single notes vibrate until they tremble, when timbre instigates further developments – a sign for the energy pervading Woźny’s music as a whole.

This even holds true for the most restrained of her compositions like the haiku score kahles Astwerk (“bare branches”, 2007/2008) for voice, flute, violin and violoncello. It goes without saying that the term “Vertonung” (literally “tonal rendering”) which the composer herself uses has different connotations than talking about conventional song tunes. Rather, the titular text precedes the piece “as a motto”, it “appears only sporadically (mostly spoken) as a suggestion” (Woźny). Although the tonal language here is minimal, it is far from bare-branched. Within drawn-out soundscapes the voice is mostly embedded in a meshwork from which sighs or single sounds emerge. And since the “singing voice […] is primarily employed timbrally”, it becomes an inherent part of the meshwork of subtle nuances. Music that is close to silence yet highly eloquent: The soft whispering hiss of the voice and the breathy sounds of the instruments form an insoluble connection that seems equally endangered and compelling.

The problem of connection and coherence appears to be grafted onto big dimensions in Loses (2006) for large orchestra with its vibrating beat frequencies and extensive sound fields. The title reminds one of the term “Losigkeit” (“lessness”) which Martin Erdmann once coined for the music of Morton Feldman. Yet the connecting lines between disparates are closer than the title insinuates – a “paradoxical intervention” (Viktor Frankl, Paul Watzlawick) which, on hearing, should actually encourage the search for the connected? The work commentary does not exclude this, since it mentions that the strongly furrowed composition appears “seemingly incoherent, directionless, unrelated”, and enables a continuous “questioning of events”. Eruptive beats lead to clear and disguised repetitions, resuming gestures in other positions, other speeds, with different timbres. The “seeming” incoherence in Loses, from which the listener can still decode (or construct?) contexts, lives from a radical fragmentation of events – horizontally as well as vertically – when events are juxtaposed like single islands of sound or lying sounds tremblingly arise as if they wanted to let their outlines disappear within themselves. Dissolution, fading-out, disappearance, and again: time standing still.

Finally, one could also interpret the delicate piece of chamber music Vom Verschwinden einer Landschaft II (“A landscape disappearing II”, 2010/2011) for piano, violin, viola and violoncello in dialectical counter-movement to its title. Namely, one could just as well speak about the creation of a landscape silhouette when the contours gradually grow out of the joint flurry of instruments. The music “in spite of, or just because of its different instrument idioms (piano and strings) searches for similarities in sound” (Woźny), thus creating mutualities from (again) seeming dichotomies, not only on the levels of sound and arrangement, but also with regard to structures. One can clearly hear that all the instruments of the piano trio have strings, and that in spite of the instruments’ different construction these can be set into vibration in a similar manner. And again between all the rigid repetitions, knocking sounds and muffled notes, it is the restless little motifs here, which, like in all Joanna Woźny’s music, keep emerging – and which maintain the continuous tension between abstraction and concretion.

Text: Daniel Ender