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Nicholas REYLAND

Lutosławski’s Listener(s)

Lutosławski’s Listener(s)

Was Witold Lutosławski a musical narcissist? His late 1960s essay ‘The Composer and The Listener’ unveils the iden$ty of his ideal audience member. When composing, Lutosławski wrote, he bore in mind an atypical, very par$cular and fic$$ous listener based on ‘the one listener about whom I really know something’: himself. Lutosławski’s imaginary auditor was thereby modeled on his own ‘long and con$nually enriched experience in the field of listening to music’, with ‘[c]rea$on and percep$on intermingl[ing]’ as ‘elements of the same complex phenomenon’. The composer then fre1ed about whether this eliminated ‘the “average listener”’ from his composi$onal considera$ons, which might begin to sound ‘ego$s$cal’ or even ‘an$social’. Is it a breach of some ar$s$c contract, Lutosławski wondered, to ignore one’s ‘ethical duty to society’ for the pleasure of ‘fulfilling the desires of this one listener’? Having hinted that this may be the only way an ar$st can aspire to authen$city, Lutosławski then wrote of his hope that his desires might nevertheless be similar enough to a few other listeners’ desires that ‘the music I compose can be of some value’. As musicians and audiences around the world celebrate Lutosławski’s life and music in 2013, his centenary year, one would like to think that the composer’s fre7ng could finally be laid to rest. Hundreds of thousands of people will experience his music this year; many will be u1erly enraptured. Exploring the nature of that rapture in the remainder of this short essay will suggest subtle$es of









audiences, and touch upon the deeper mo$va$ons of his art. Worldwide centenary celebra$ons aside, here are two further ways to counter Lutosławski’s fre7ng. First, one might consider the cultural context of the essay and his music. Under Stalinist socialist realism and Polish communism, Lutosławski resisted (more successfully than many) the pressure to allow his ar$s$c achievements to become a mouthpiece of The State. Instead, as his

statements consistently reiterated, he sought to give the fullest possible account of his own inner world of the imagina$on. By composing for his imagined listener, Lutosławski was thus fulfilling an ethical duty, even making a poli$cal statement. His music is the tes$mony of a self that gives ‘the truest form to what [he had] to communicate to others’. Second, the music taking that ‘truest form’ reveals that, when it came to communica$ng beyond his ideal listener, Lutosławski need not have worried; indeed, one suspects he was well aware of his true powers in this regard. Elsewhere in the essay, Lutosławski wrote that a work of art’s main purpose is ‘to play on the human mind’; composing is the crea$on of ‘a definite complex of psychological experiences for the listener’. Lutosławski’s music thereby plays with our embodied minds and aspects of percep$on accessible to any listener, focusing on music as ‘direct experience’, as opposed to a process of structural code breaking. Music is about ‘sound effects’, he wrote: it is sound that affects. So how are Lutosławski’s listeners affected? And what do those experiences tell us about his desires and inten$ons? Consider the pieces he premiered from 1968 onwards,



in which







orchestre, the Cello Concerto, Preludes and Fugue, Les espaces du sommeil and Mi-par

form as impressive a sequence of composi$ons as any other

produced in the twen$eth century. And at the heart of each work is a climax of devasta$ng, almost trauma$zing violence, sculpted with a sonorous power hitherto rarely heard in music. Each piece, in turn, proposes a journey beyond its trauma: a chilly equilibrium (in Livre), a pyrrhic victory (the concerto), transcendence suddenly torn away (the end of the Fugue and Les espaces), rhapsody releasing the celes$al (Mi-par ). Lutosławski’s life – like the lives of so many of his Polish compatriots – was a story of surviving the worst in life. His pieces’ fusions of sensuousness and symbolism may therefore offer listeners – himself and others – a chance to undergo and work through musical approxima$ons of trauma, tragedy and transcendence. Or they may not. Lutosławski discouraged these kinds of specula$ons, and in a manner that might be considered the ethical twin to composing ‘for himself’. His statements on interpreta$on adopt a posi$on explained in a significant later essay, ‘Some Thoughts on the Percep$on of Music’. Not only do different

people hear different things when experiencing the same sounds, he wrote, but the same listener experiences ambigui$es when listening; one also hears different things every $me one listens to a piece; and this ‘variety of percep$on greatly increases’ when one considers ‘psychological reac$ons’ and ‘the realm of associa$ons’, i.e., ‘extra-musical interpreta$ons of sensa$ons’. To exemplify this phenomenon, Lutosławski explored the manner in which his music could produce diametrically opposed readings. He recounted divergences between listener interpreta$ons and his own feelings about his First Symphony (‘immense suffering’ vs. ‘serenity’), Cello Concerto (‘risky sa$re’ vs. ‘serious and straighHorward’), and String Quartet (‘humorousness’ vs. ‘the last work in which I would want to express humour’) – and he did so as a means to an end. In the end, he claimed, music’s message ‘must remain indefinable’. Once again, though, one has to weigh his words carefully. Lutosławski did not want single readings to become a1ached to his composi$ons. Living in a world where the authori$es controlled the narra$ve of individual lives through the imposi$on of universal lies, he preferred to create music that respects and empowers the individual’s right to interpret. The film director Krzysztof Kieślowski once said that, in the West, people do not know what it is like to live in a world without representa$on. In the Communist East, ar$sts like Kieślowski and









experienced and explored. Just as our minds seek the source and explana$on of a sudden caress or a blow to the body, Lutosławski’s music challenges us to decide which emo$ons should channel their affec$ve experiences, and which associa$ons with life his ‘definite complexes of psychological experiences’ approximate or transcend. And if there are answers to these ques$ons, they are located in the ‘direct experience’ of Lutosławski’s music – in becoming one of Lutosławski’s listeners.

Dr Nicholas REYLAND Senior Lecturer in Music, Keele University (United Kingdom)

'Lutosławski's Listener(s)', by Nicholas Reyland  

From the brochure ‘Witold Lutosławski 2013-2014’ published by the Polish Institute in Brussels

'Lutosławski's Listener(s)', by Nicholas Reyland  

From the brochure ‘Witold Lutosławski 2013-2014’ published by the Polish Institute in Brussels