x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

How Górecki mined the past for musical inspiration

With the death of the modernist Polish composer Henryck Górecki we reflect on his contribution to the approach known as 'holy minimalism'.

A 1994 shot of the composer Henryk Górecki. Janek Skarzynski / AFP Photo
A 1994 shot of the composer Henryk Górecki. Janek Skarzynski / AFP Photo

It is not surprising that many people are still mourning the death last month of Henryk Górecki. Sometimes credited as the man who brought audiences back to contemporary classical music, the Polish composer wrote beautiful, emotionally charged works that engaged a huge range of listeners in a way many classical music watchers had forgotten was possible.

It's equally easy to see why Górecki's work became so popular in the first place. Pieces such as his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs reminded people that serious modern music could be moving and harmonious, not just challenging and difficult.

But while few other contemporary composers matched his CD sales, Górecki was far from alone in his quest to reconnect western music with its past. He was often grouped, albeit reluctantly, with two other composers famed for rejecting the atonality of modernism, the Estonian Arvo Pärt and the Englishman John Tavener.

All looking in their various ways to western music's distant roots for inspiration, these composers - dubbed the Holy Minimalists - shook up public perceptions of contemporary classical music and have become extremely popular for their efforts in the past few decades. Despite this, the trio is still regarded with a good deal of suspicion by some classical music fans.

So why do these extremely well-liked composers still remain controversial? Part of the answer lies in their rejection of the modernist avant garde. While very different men, all three composers took parallel journeys away from writing the sort of atonal music that non-specialist audiences have never fully accepted. Sensing that modernist music might have wandered down a blind alley, Górecki and his cohorts started looking elsewhere for inspiration.

Their first port of call seems to have been the straight musical minimalism developed by the likes of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. This stripped-down musical style, developed in the 1960s, broke clearly with the classical tradition by creating subtly changing repetitive loops of music rather than the usual vocabulary of themes and variations.

While this was in itself groundbreaking, minimalist music also returned to tonality - in other words, it was "in tune" - making it immediately more accessible by audiences.

Often rhythmic and hypnotic, this bold but often simple music forged a new style that embraced non-western traditions and showed a kinship with popular music.

While the holy minimalists were clearly familiar with "straight" minimalism, they took its sparseness and tonality in an entirely new direction. Minimalism was the hip and decidedly modern offspring of the New York avant garde, but the music that Górecki and co wrote from the 1970s onwards fused its stripped-down, tonal ethos with a reverent backward glance to the music of the West's distant past.

In the place of minimalism's electronic and jazz influences, holy minimalism was typified by a stately sound that was strangely ancient. Recalling variously the character of mediaeval Gregorian chant, English Renaissance anthems or traditional folk laments (each composer took the style in a different direction) holy minimalist music tends to emphasise contemplation over variety or dynamism.

Strongly influenced by liturgical music - the epithet "holy" is not accidental as all three composers are or were practising Christians - the best-known works from the holy minimalist stable sound spare, airy and at times almost weightless.

They are also beautiful -at times heart-stoppingly, tear-jerkingly beautiful. Listening to the pure, unadorned chords and clear, bell-like tones of Arvo Pärt's music can make you forget what you're doing, stop you in your tracks with sounds that feel like a window into another, better world.

And there, for some, lies a problem. It's partly this invitation to reverie that makes it controversial with some listeners. Much classical music demands close attention. If you don't think about what is happening, anticipate what's coming next and notice how your expectations are modified or challenged, you often miss out on how brilliantly composers work with familiar musical forms.

Holy minimalism, by contrast, works in a radically different way from a composer like Beethoven. Instead of taking us on an ever-transforming musical journey of strident melodies followed by complex variations, a work such as Pärt's Summa creates a space where little seems to change.

In its forest of overlapping voices, no single musical line dominates over the others, while any changes in the music take the listener not forward to a new place but merely round in an eternal circuit, as if the music were hanging in space.

This modest simplicity and rejection of a sense of progression has led some to criticise holy minimalism as background music, or "holy muzak". Damned by some as popular with people who don't want music that will challenge them, it has been dismissed by critics at their most scathing as a form of high cultural chill-out, one that uses choirs and strings instead of wind chimes and pan pipes.

At the same time, you can't fault music for failing to do what it never attempted. Holy minimalism's spare aesthetic is a conscious choice, one it shares with many other meditative, non-western music forms. Its restraint is also a sort of spring-cleaning of the classical sound that has counterparts in earlier musical history - a similar back-to-basics approach led to the development of opera around 1600.

Furthermore, it can be as emotionally searing as any music if listened to with attention. The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is popular not simply because it's attractive, but because it creates a sound that is simultaneously despairing and resigned. Its second movement's vocal line, taken from a poem by an 18-year-old Polish girl imprisoned by the Nazis, manages to be at once a mourning dirge for the victims of tyranny and a song of consolation.

It's true that Górecki's piece creates this impression using a faintly familiar musical language, but that doesn't make its sound any less striking. That a talent capable of moving so many people is now no longer there to produce more music must surely be a great loss to western music.