Penderecki and the sound of radical evil

The Exorcist
By Robert Barry

There is an idea, propagated in a recent Guardian article by Alex Ross and a book, Fear Of Music, by David Stubbs, that a broad public, though happy to coo in throngs at Kandinskys and Rodchenkos at the Tate Modern, cannot and will not accept modernist music. But for two decades now, since, in fact, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the very different work of two avant-garde Polish composers has attained a kind of hegemony across two different spheres of commercial music.

Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony (The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) has, since its Nonesuch release in 1992, become one of the most popular classical recordings of all time, reaching number eight in the UK album charts. At around the same time, the astringent sonorities and extended techniques of Krzysztof Penderecki have become the go-to sound for film soundtrack coordinators desirous of a certain monstrous sublime. The nineties saw Penderecki's concert works appropriated in David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Peter Weir's Fearless, and Jan de Bont's Twister; followed in the last ten years by Children of Men, Katyn and Shutter Island, and used again by David Lynch in Inland Empire. But to list the films upon whose credits the name Penderecki appears is to underestimate the reach of his influence.

Still from Children Of Men, Alfonso Cuaron, 2006

Don Davis, composer on the Matrix trilogy, admits to borrowing Penderecki's extended instrumental techniques, particularly on the series' more portentous third part, The Matrix Revolutions; Jonny Greenwood's BAFTA-nominated score for There Will Be Blood is essentially, in its supposedly more 'difficult' moments, an exercise in Penderecki-lite; while Marco Beltrami, Oscar-nominated for his score for Iraq-based war film The Hurt Locker, cites the Polish septuagenarian composer as an influence behind that film's use of cluster chords to Mickey-Mouse falling cluster bombs. Evidently, the use of Penderecki's techniques in film composition today is becoming as widespread as the use of serialism in the forties and fifties, when many of the composers in Hollywood had been pupils of Arnold Schoenberg.

Penderecki graduated from the Kraków Academy of Music in 1958, two years after Kruschev's denunciation of the Stalinist Cult of Personality, and the death of hardline Polish Stalinist Bolesław Beirut, produced a relative thaw in Polish cultural politics. With socialist realism put to rest, Penderecki was able to develop an avant-garde style of composition, heavily influenced by Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez. It was while working in the electronic music studio of the Polish national radio, in Warsaw, that Penderecki began to discover sounds that he was unable to realise using conventional instrumental techniques. The new techniques (particularly for strings) and new notational methods, which we often associate with  Penderecki's work, were thus an attempt to transpose electronic sounds into the orchestral domain.

The journey towards cinematic ubiquity might have begun in earnest in 1980 when, as the Solidarity movement spread across Poland, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining featured Penderecki's De Natura Sonoris, Polymorphia, The Awakening of Jakob, and, for its chilling denouement, two superimposed extracts from the great choral work, Utrenja. But it was the sound of another horror film, William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), that inspired Kubrick in his choices. Was it Penderecki's first opera, The Devils of Loudon, a tale of demonic possession based on Aldous Huxley's non-fiction novel, that led Friedkin to the composer? We hear a brief glimpse of Act 3 as Father Karras approaches the McNeill house, late at night.

Though it's the stadium-minimalism of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells that has entered popular consciousness as 'The Exorcist Theme', for Friedkin, Oldfield's minor key arpeggios were a signifier of hope and the chance of redemption. It was the astringent quarter tone clusters, screeching harmonics and percussive bowing sounds of Penderecki (along with other modernists, Anton Webern and George Crumb) that accompanied the appearance of radical evil at the film's demonic core: Father Merrin's vision on the mount in Northern Iraq, the appearance of the words 'Help Me' etched on Regan's belly, the beginning and end of the climactic exorcism scene itself. The composer who made his name at the Katowice Composer's Competition with a Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), would become a star of the silver screen through the sound of an irrepressible, internal malevolence.

The Exorcist was not the first film to feature Penderecki's music, but it did mark a significant change in his approach to the cinema. He had been hired as composer for Wojciech Has's The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), combining Prokofievian string flurries and quotations from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with acoustic folk ballads and electronic music, in combinations as diverse as the surreal romances of the film's narrative. Three years later, Alain Resnais had Penderecki compose a fairly traditional choral piece in Renaissance polyphony to be chopped, looped and fractured to match the fragmented sense of time of his protagonist in the science fiction film, Je t'aime, Je t'aime.

In neither case, despite working with such art house auteurs, did the music Penderecki was hired to compose for film match the radical nature of the sounds he was producing for the concert hall. William Friedkin had originally asked him to specially compose music for The Exorcist, but Penderecki refused, deeming it unseemly for a distinguished modernist to be seen as a composer of original soundtracks. It was this very refusal that would ultimately allow his far more extreme works for the concert hall to find mainstream acceptance in the multiplexes. Only by refusing to do what cinema wanted, was Penderecki able to be fully embraced by the cinema.

The irony is that just as mainstream cinema accepted him at his most uncompromising, Penderecki himself was moving away from the modernist techniques which had made his name, rediscovering romantic symphonic style, with a renewed interest in the voice and diatonic harmony. He had reached a limit, he now says, which he was unable to pass. While Penderecki himself has moved on, winning Grammys and international honours for his choirs and symphonies, the closed loops of cinematic time maintain the image of a younger, more uncompromising composer. Rather like the time traveller in Je t'aime, Je t'aime, cinema-goers find Penderecki's oeuvre trapped in the moment of its traumatic excess.

Krzysztof Penderecki, photo by Peter Andersen, (c) Schott Promotion


Read a Resident Advisor interview with Penderecki from August 2010 here.

Robert Barry is a freelance writer and composer, based in Paris. He writes a regular column on film soundtracks for Electric Sheep Magazine, and blogs at He is currently working on his first book, about opera and science fiction, for Zer0 Books.

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