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Yale University Department of Music

To Cut the Gordian Knot: The Timbre System of Krzysztof Penderecki

Author(s): Danuta Mirka
Source: Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 435-456
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the Yale University Department of
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Danuta Mirka

Timbre is certainly the most complex parameter of sound perception.

In contrast to pitch, loudness, and duration, each of which possesses a sin-

gle equivalent among the acoustic parameters of sound, timbre depends

on the interaction of several physical aspects of sound. These aspects
include overtones, wave forms, sound pressure, transients, as well as the
number and frequency of formants. Moreover, a sound's frequency and
intensity-parameters which relate basically to pitch and loudness-exert
an influence on the resulting timbre. The complexity of timbre is evident
when one attempts to depict it within a representational space: timbre cannot be modeled within one-dimensional space, but only by means of
multi-dimensional scaling techniques (Spender 1980, 401). However, a
set that cannot be projected onto a one-dimensional line of real numbers
does not constitute an ordered set, and its elements are not comparable in
the mathematical sense. As a result, no clear relationship between particular timbres can be established, and hence no rational organization of the
perceptual parameter of timbre by means of any rigid system is possible
on the acoustic level. This may be why in the course of music history
timbre has usually been set aside as a secondary factor of musical form.
Even where it achieved a dominant position in the styles of individual
composers, as in the case of Debussy or in the Klangfarbenmelodie of

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Schoenberg, timbre was invariably organized in an intuitive manner. Nor

was the problem of timbre solved by serial composers. In spite of the
appearances of rationality, the serialization of timbre was essentially arbitrarily determined. Who, after all, will without qualification agree that the
relation between the timbres of violin and contrabass is the same as, say,
between the violin and oboe or trumpet con sordino? Assumptions of this
sort lie at the base of the timbre rows used in serial compositions. For the
young Penderecki, faced with the Gordian knot of timbre, nothing
remained to do but to cut it. He did so by transferring wholesale the problematic issue of timbre from the hopelessly muddled acoustic level onto
the motoric one: the level of sound generation.

I. Categories
Although the acoustic wave is a highly complex phenomenon, the
process of its generation can be presented simply as a collision of two
physical bodies, one being a sound source, the other being the body that
vibrates the sound source. It is likely that such a splendidly simplified
image of the sound-producing process was taken up by Penderecki from
the teaching of Mieczyslaw Drobner, the eminent Polish acoustician and
organologist. In 1958 Drobner moved from L6di to Krak6w to take the

post of lecturer at Paristwowa Wyzsza Szkola Muzyczna, the school

where Penderecki had recently finished his study in composition and was
employed as an assistant. Two years later, in 1960, the Krak6w publish-

ing house Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM) issued Drobner's

book Instrumentoznawstwo i akustyka, which remains the classical Pol-

ish handbook of both disciplines-organology and acoustics-named in

its title. In this book, Drobner termed the sound source a vibrator, and in

his subsequent publications introduced the complementary term, inciter,

for the body which agitates the vibrator. A combination of vibrator and
inciter is a sound generator. This formulation proposed by Drobner became an ideal point of departure for the consistent and rational system of
timbre organization elaborated by Penderecki in the early 1960s, the
period of his output labeled in Polish musicology as sonoristic.2
At that time Penderecki understood timbre primarily as a function of
the materials-in the most common sense of the word-employed in any
individual process of sound generation. Therefore the timbral categories
in Penderecki's sonorism are based upon materials most commonly used
in the construction of the musical instruments and accessories of the traditional symphonic orchestra: metal, wood, leather, felt, and hair.3 These
materials can serve as both vibrators and inciters. Yet, while the role of

inciter can be played by any of the listed materials, the vibrator can be
only a metal, wooden, or leather body. In fact, almost anything can be
made to vibrate; thus, it is theoretically possible for felt and hair to act as

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sound sources. But with these materials the vibration is so heavily dampened that it does not persist long enough to be heard. In practice, then, at
least one of the two sound-generating bodies must be made of metal,
wood, or leather. For this reason, I will call these three materials primary
materials. In other words, metal, wood, and leather can interact with any
material, including themselves. On the other hand, neither of the two

remaining materials-hair and felt-ever collides either with itself or

with the other within Penderecki's system, but must always interact with

one of the materials that constitutes a potential sound source. A simple

matrix, shown in the following table (Figure 1), displays all possible
pairs of interacting materials.
Though inspired by Drobner's acoustics, Penderecki's system nevertheless goes one step further than Drobner. In Penderecki's timbre system, it is of no importance whether metal, wood, and leather are represented by a vibrator or by an inciter, both colliding bodies being of
equal weight as primary materials. In this respect Penderecki-if he had
wanted-might have referred to the authority of the first father of physics,

Sir Isaac Newton: according to Newton's third rule of dynamics, if a

body A acts with some force on body B, body B acts with the same but
reciprocally directed force on body A. The same principle applies to bodies acting on one another in the process of sound generation. Even if one
is accustomed to think that hitting a metal cymbal with a wooden stick
results only in the former emitting a sound, in reality what sounds is not
only the cymbal, but also the beater. One may generalize this conclusion
in the following way: if a given body can be a sound source-that is, if it
is made of one of the three materials capable of performing this function












h mh wh lh




Figure 1. Pairs of materials represented by combinations

of vibrators and inciters


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1w i 0 ? o
.... f
........ .....
.... ... 0
.... ..*. ..
.. .... .... .

Figure 2. Pairs of materials after the reduction

(m, w, 1)-then it becomes a sound source regardless of whether it is hit,

rubbed or plucked or itself hits, rubs or plucks. It follows that the mater-

ial pairs "mw" and "wm," "ml" and "lm," as well as "wl" and "lw,"
repeated in the matrix above, may be reduced to single entries. As a result
of this reduction, twelve pairs of materials remain (Figure 2). Every such
pair indicates one type of sound generator, as well as the type of timbre
characteristic of sounds generated by it.
As stated earlier, all the material categories chosen by Penderecki for

his timbre system occur among the traditional musical instruments of a

symphonic orchestra. This does not by itself mean, however, that a symphonic orchestra with its traditional set of instruments automatically renders the realization of that system practicable. On the contrary, in order
to use the timbre system in concrete pieces, Penderecki had to subject the
orchestral forces to serious changes. The timbre system presupposed

an equal weighting of the three primary materials-metal, wood and

leather-in performing the function of vibrators, whereas metal typically
predominates in the symphonic orchestra. One merely needs to compare
the number of stringed instruments (which constitute the body of the conventional orchestra) augmented by an assortment of cymbals, gongs, tam
tams, vibraphones and celestas, to the much smaller number of membranes of drums and timpani, and the almost inconspicuous collection of
rattles and wood blocks, to convince oneself of this simple fact. Not only
is there a greater diversity of metallic objects that generate sound, but
metallic objects also predominate in terms of sheer number. To balance
this unequal proportion, it was necessary to enlarge the representation of
the two remaining material categories: leather and wood.
Beside adding a whole arsenal of percussive instruments-such as rattles (raganella), claves, guiro, xylorimba, wood blocks (blocchi di legno),
and drums (casse di legno)-to augment the representation of wooden
bodies, the composer also employed several elements of stringed instruments (sound board, fingerboard, bridge, tailpiece, bowstick). Furthermore, Penderecki used non-musical equipment that is usually present on

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stage, but that hitherto had never been exploited for sound production:
chairs and stands, which at the beginning of the 1960s were almost always

made of wood. To play on these new sound sources, the sticks and nuts
of bows were employed. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the selection
of new wooden accessories betokens a very pragmatic attitude of the composer. Avoiding the cost that would inevitably result from inventing and
producing fanciful percussive tools, he managed to radically increase
the number of wooden bodies by using objects near at hand. Moreover,
these objects allowed him to diversify the timbre within the group of
stringed instruments, enabling him to employ this group separately. Indeed, from among the pieces based on the timbre system, as many as

four-Threnody-To the Victims of Hiroshima, String Quartet No. 1,

Polymorphia, and Canon-are designed for strings alone.
Leather, as the third of the primary material categories, is supplemented first of all by instruments of non-European origin. Congos and

bongos stem from South-American popular music, while tom-toms

reached Poland along with jazz, about which the young Penderecki was
truly enthusiastic.4 Oftentimes the composer bids instrumentalists to play
these instruments with bare hands, which considerably enlarges the representation of that material category (skin being understood as analogous

to leather). Hands and fingers serve also to play stringed instruments:

apart from the well-known pizzicato effect, the composer instructs players to rub, tap, or strike on sound boards and strings with the palm of the
hand or the fingertips.5
The invention of new instruments and accessories does not exhaust
the changes entailed by the timbre system. Apart from balancing the pri-

mary materials, it was necessary to obtain the appropriate combina-

tions-classes of sound generators-that could embrace all the classes

of timbres determined by the pairs of materials. And even a rich representation of a given material did not by itself guarantee the existence
of all its possible combinations with other material categories. In this
respect the case of metal is exemplary. Whereas its combinations with
hair (mh) and felt (mf) existed among the traditional techniques of playing orchestral instruments-the former as the arco playing of strings, the
latter as the striking of gongs, tam tams, or cymbals by soft, felt stickssound generator consisting of two metal bodies hardly ever occurred.
Their only representative within a symphonic orchestra was a triangle hit
with a metal rod. The generator class "mm" thus had to be created by
combining several traditional metal accessories to form hitherto nonexistent pairs of vibrators and inciters. As a result of one such combination, an astounding sound generator arose: piano strings rubbed by a
cymbal. Another, no less surprising combination of a metal inciter with a
metal vibrator was achieved by agitating piano strings with a triangle rod,
the latter disconnected from its original instrument. A true revolution

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resulted, however, from the practice-derived from jazz-of playing

with metal brushes on suspended cymbals. These same brushes were also
employed by Penderecki to play gongs, tam tams, and tubular bells, and
even to play the strings of harps and pianos. With the aim of enlarging the
number of generators of the "mm" class, Penderecki introduced a typewriter, creating a sensation during the first performances of the Fluorescences. As this quasi-musical metal instrument demonstrates, making up
a representation of an earlier nonexistent class of sound generators could
incidentally lead to an expansion of the set of orchestral instruments with
new accessories. Mostly, such cases issued from practical considerations,
as when the interaction of a certain form of inciter and a certain form of
vibrator could have been obtained on traditional instruments, but would
have damaged them in the process. In the class of generators under consideration, rubbing two metal bodies against one another would scratch
their surfaces. Therefore, instead of costly percussive instruments, Penderecki simply used a piece of iron rubbed with a file or sawed with a
hand saw. A saw can also serve to saw wood, in this way creating an additional generator of the "mw" class, but this entails the use of a disposable
piece of wood.
Although Penderecki took into account such practical matters when
inventing his new sound generators, orchestral musicians often disagreed
with the composer as to what was or what was not harmful for their instru-

ments. Characteristic is the technique of playing strings that originally

called for the instrumentalist to tap the sound board with the nut (+)-an
interaction of two wooden bodies (ww)-which Penderecki did not intend
to be harmful. However, the performers thought the technique would damage the varnish covering their instruments (Erhardt 1975, 36). The composer yielded and specified that the sound board could also be tapped with
fingertips. Therefore, in the scores of the earliest pieces based on the
timbre system-Threnody (published in 1961), Dimensions of Time and
Silence and Fluorescences (printed in 1962), as well as the String Quartet No. 1 (issued for the first time in 1963)-this effect is described as
"tapping the body of the instrument with the nut or finger-tips." Evidently,
musicians preferred the latter possibility, and thus in Polymorphia (issued

at the end of 1963), and Canon (whose score was published as late as
1974), "tapping the sound board with fingertips" constitutes the sole way
of performing this effect indicated by the composer. As a result of this
compromise between the composer and the performers, a generator was
included among the class "ww" of sound generators which in reality did
not at all belong to it.
In light of the above discussion, it is clear that the notion of a musical
instrument is useless-not to mention anachronistic-in Penderecki's

pieces based on the timbre system. Because most of the instrumentsexcept for some simple percussive tools-consist of a number of con440

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stituent parts, with each part able to interact with a number of inciters,
every instrument becomes the basis for several different sound generators, which, in addition, may represent different classes. This has an
obvious effect on the grouping of instruments, that is, on the orchestration. In contradistinction to traditional orchestration, in which every instrument is ascribed a certain timbral quality, here one and the same
instrument can be used in a number of different ways and cooperate with
several different classes of sound generators in different musical contexts--depending on which of its elements is employed as a sound source.

This issue has in the past been touched upon by musical critics who
applied the term "percussive effects" to some playing techniques on
stringed instruments.6 But this term is unsatisfactory. For, if the classification of instruments depends on their vibrators-and this is actually the

basic criterion from Sachs and Hornbostel up to Drobner-then a violin

tapped on with the nut of a bow or with the fingertips does not so much
produce a percussive effect, but rather it becomes a percussive instrument:
a wooden idiophone in this instance. Similarly, a wind instrument that is
not blown but tapped with stops or pistons is not an aerophone but a metal
idiophone. This last "percussive effect" occurs in Fluorescences as a representative of class "mm," and it is the only instance of winds in Penderecki's pieces based on the timbre system. Parenthetically, the absence
of aerophones from other Penderecki scores written in the early 1960s
also results from the system. Since its underlying material categories are
all solid bodies, blown air-the proper vibrator of wind instrumentsconstitutes no category in the framework of this system. From here it follows that sounds emitted by the traditionally played woodwinds and brass

have-from the viewpoint of Penderecki's timbre system-a neutral,

"transparent" value. That they occur in Fluorescences is most likely due
to the circumstances of its commissioning. The piece was commissioned
by the Sinfonie-Orchester des Stidwestfunks, Baden-Baden. If Penderecki had used the wind section exclusively for snapping stops and pistons, he would have exposed himself to the commissioner's displeasure

while the musical critics would-in the best case-have suspected him
of a very peculiar sense of humor.
Penderecki's invention of new sound generators-and thereby new
timbres-was thus not a manifestation of extravagance by the composer.
It was not intended merely to shock the audience, nor did it spring from
an exuberant image of sound. Conversely, the new timbres were not-at
least originally-to serve some vague "new expression."7 If Penderecki
introduced in his pieces new quasi-musical instruments, unusual combinations of traditional musical accessories, or any previously unknown
techniques of sound articulation, he did so in terms of his system. Without them, the system would remain merely an intellectual construct devoid of any possible musical realization. Seen from this angle, the orches441

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trations, and instrumental techniques Penderecki employed in the early

1960s depart from traditional ones in the same way as the timbre system
based on the material categories metal-wood-leather departs from the traditional partition of the orchestra into strings, winds and percussion. At
this point, one must also reject the suggestions formulated by some critics who claimed that, in Penderecki's early output, the "new" effects are
opposed to the "old," traditional ones. Such an opposition finds justification neither in the timbral organization of concrete pieces nor in the comments of the composer himself. On the contrary, Penderecki's statements
make it clear that the "history" of a given generator was entirely inessential.8 In the framework of his timbre system, both traditional and non-tra-

ditional sound generators are equivalent representatives of classes fixed

by material pairs. As in the case of the periodic table of Mendeleev, where

classification according to the atomic mass disclosed places for new, not
yet discovered elements, Penderecki's system revealed new niches which
could be filled with distinctive timbres. Thus, the system helped stimu-

late his discoveries.

II. Morphology
Let us turn from the problems of the practical realization of the timbre system to the main subject of this article, a reconstruction of the system itself. As explained earlier, the material pairs shown in Figure 2 fix

classes of timbres represented by individual generators and-what for

Penderecki is one and the same thing-by the individual sounds they
generate. But individual sounds are secondary in Penderecki's music. In
his pieces based on the timbre system the elementary unit is a set of
sounds, which I will call a segment. Sound phenomena contained in one
timbral segment can be identical or different, in the sense that they are
generated by collisions of bodies representing identical or different pairs
of materials. If all sounds are produced in the same way, that is, through
interactions of the same two materials, then the timbre of a segment will

be covered by only one material pair. Yet such "monochromatic" segments occur comparatively rarely. Much more frequent are segments
whose component sounds belong to several different classes. How can
their overall, resultant timbres be determined?
The initial analytical procedure in such cases is an enumeration of all
the material pairs producing the sounds of these segments. At this stage
of the description of a single segment, a given material can occur several
times as a component of different pairs. This is so because bodies representing one material category can interact with bodies made of either the
same or different materials, in this way producing sound phenomena that
differ in timbre. From this it follows that different materials may vary as

to the number of occurrences in a segment description. Of course, the


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w *i o *

- ~?~~~~~~~-~-r- - - ----- --- . ................. ..........-----?--- -- -------



Figure 3. Segment with one main material

composite timbre depends most on the materials that occur most frequently. Those exerting a decisive influence on the timbre of a given
segment will be marked as its main materials. The main timbral roles,
however, can be played only by primary materials-metal, wood, and
leather. Felt and hair can never dominate the timbre of a whole segment,
just as they cannot become a source of any one of its component sounds.
The main materials can be discerned by means of a method that I call
a "common denominator search." This search is easiest and most obvious

when all pairs belonging to a given segment form different conjunctions

with one primary material. The latter, which occurs in all pairs and in this
way forms their "common denominator," is the main material for the seg-

ment. Such a segment thus has only one main material (Figure 3). If no
single primary material constitutes a common denominator of all the
pairs within a segment, one has to search for the common denominator
of the greatest number of pairs within this segment, and then for the common denominator of the remaining pairs. If such a denominator as a primary material does exist, the segment has two main materials, and the
search procedure ends (Figure 4). However, if a common denominator
still cannot be found within the group of remaining pairs, one has to
repeat the procedure: first find the common denominator of the greatest
number of pairs, and then the common denominator of the last remaining
group. In such a case, the segment has three main materials (metal, wood

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.... .m ........ ................. ... ......... ..


Sf i

S............. ....



Figure 4. Segment with two main materials

and leather), thus representing an amalgam of all timbral categoriesthe richest, though at the same time the most heterogeneous (Figure 5).
Needless to say, three is the maximum number of main materials that can
occur in a segment, since in the timbre system of Penderecki there exist
no more material categories able to function as sound sources. At any
stage of the above-described "common denominator search" it can happen that two or even all three primary materials may be represented in the
same number of pairs. In that case, one has to choose one of them arbitrarily and then continue with the procedure. The arbitrary choice does
not affect the resulting set of main materials, which will always be the
same irrespective of which material was chosen first.
It is, however, possible that after the first or the second step of the ana-

lytical procedure just described there remains one pair of materials. If

this is the case, then one treats it in the same way as a segment containing sound generators of the same class, which is thus represented analytically by only one pair. With regard to such a segment, the search procedure for the main materials must be slightly modified. The most common
situation arises when the only pair characteristic of the segment is a redu-

plication of the same primary material (metal, wood, or leather) or its

grouping with hair or felt. Since in either case there occurs only one primary material, it must be the main one for the segment in question. A
more complicated situation arises when the only pair of a segment consists of two different primary materials. Because either of those materi444

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als can constitute a sound source, they are of equal value in determining
the timbre of a segment, irrespective of which one excites (inciter) and
which one is excited (vibrator) in a given process of sound generation.
Hence, if a segment containing such a pair is considered as an isolated
unit, or if in the given musical context it is separated by a general pause
from the preceding and following segments, both primary materials of
the pair would have to be interpreted as its main materials. Yet this almost
never happens in Penderecki's sonoristic pieces. Every segment usually
constitutes a link in a chain whose perception is subject to the Gestalt law
of good continuation (Koffka 1935; for good continuation in music see

Meyer 1956, 83-127). As applied to syntactical units of Penderecki's

timbre system, this law means that, in terms of the anticipation of future
events, the listener tends to perceive, or "continue," the main material of
a preceding segment in the following segments as long as it is possible to

do so. On the other hand, orientation toward past events allows reinterpretation of the preceding segment, such that the listener discerns in it the
origins of the timbre quality that is only established as a main material in

the current segment. Thus in an uncertain situation, such as that which

arises in the case of one-pair segments, there is a tendency to perceive a
segment's timbre under the influence of adjacent segments and, consequently, to prefer as the main material the one that predominates in the
preceding and/or following segment (Figures 6a and 6b). Thus both primary materials of a single pair appear to be evenly balanced as main

-????--- ?I---?-- ??---------- ... .

': 1 i . . . . . . . . . . ... . .. . . .. . . . ............

hi-- -- - - - -- - 4 . . . . . . .! . . . . . . ... . .... . . ... . . .


Figure 5. Segment with three main materials


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(a>;?????????? ???--?--------------------- --?

w w
S- -



Figure 6. One-pair segment with one main material. This material

can be metal (a) or wood (b), depending on the context of
adjacent segments


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materials only if they are equally marked as main in the adjacent segments (Figure 7a), or if neither of them occurs among main materials of
either the preceding or the following segment (Figure 7b).
In light of the above remarks it seems clear that the complete definition of a timbre segment, as an elementary syntactical unit of Penderecki's timbre system, requires both the specification of all materials
involved in the generation of its component sounds, and the identification
of those which function as main materials. According to these stipulations, any two timbre segments are different if they vary in either or both

of those two constitutive aspects. Conversely, if no difference in either

respect occurs, they then form the same segment in two different realiza-

tions. It is noteworthy that, as with the above-discussed examples, segments consisting of the same set of pairs, and hence identical as to their
preliminary material description, can appear to be different in the sense
just stated when put into different musical contexts, because of differences in their main materials. On the other hand, segments consisting of
different sets of material pairs may appear to be two realizations of the
same timbre segment, if the sums of all their material categories and of
the main materials are identical. For the timbre segment as an abstract
syntactical unit, differences in its concrete realization are insignificant so
long as all the materials, including the main materials, remain the same
across various realizations.

III. Syntax
The timbre system based on material categories rules not only the
inventory of the elementary units (segments) that determine the morphology of timbre in Penderecki's early output, but also its syntax, that is,
the succession of segments over the course of a piece. In its essence, this
course is formed by a play of timbral oppositions between metal, wood
and leather as primary materials. First, material categories singled out in
a given piece as opposing timbral qualities may be contrasted by way of
a direct juxtaposition of segments whose main materials constitute poles
of opposition. For instance, a segment whose main material is wood may
come directly after a segment exhibiting a metallic timbre. In such a case,
a presentation of a timbral opposition will happen. Secondly, an opposition may be submitted to mediation, that is, a soft, gradual change forming a transition from one timbral extreme to the other. Segments of opposing main timbres are in this case separated by one or more segments
whose main material is either: (1) neutral in relation to the opposition,
standing outside the material opposition operative in a piece (leather in
the case given); (2) a sum of the opposing materials; or (3) a sum of all
three primary materials. Other types of transition result from varying
temporal relations between segments. Segments need not form a simple

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fl. ....


Figure 7. One-pair segment with two main materials, metal and wood,
in two different contexts such that these materials are contained (a) or
are not contained (b) among main materials of the adjacent segments


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succession; they may also overlap or penetrate one another. Interpenetration of segments happens when a segment gradually decays and the subsequent segment increases in loudness until it completely dominates the
sound field. This may be achieved by dynamics or orchestration: by
gradually lessening the number of sound events belonging to a segment
and adding events belonging to the following one. Interpenetration is
thus a "soft" overlapping of segments. Still more subtle timbral transitions are possible. It must be kept in mind that the sound color of a segment is determined not exclusively by main materials, but bears the
stamp of all the material categories participating in the sound generation
processes. Thus, before a given material is established as having the status of a main material, it may already occur among the material categories of the preceding segment. In turn, a material which ceases to function as a main material may be preserved in later segments, to recall the
previously dominant timbre. Such procedures result, respectively, in
anticipation or continuation of a main material, and are important for the
smoothness of a succession in terms of the law of good continuation.
The very presentation of a main material may be more or less suggestive. Obviously, the main material will appear with the greatest force and
brightness if it constitutes the only material of a given timbre segment, as
in the case of a sound generator constituting a reduplication of the same
material (for example, "mm" represented by gongs, cymbals, and piano
strings played with wire brushes). On the other hand, the introduction of
other materials, which combine with the main material category, will
result at the same time in a dimming of the latter's characteristic timbre.
Of course, both "dimming" and "brightening" of the main timbre can proceed either gradually as a succession of slight changes or abruptly by
juxtaposition of contrasting segments. It is noteworthy that the aforementioned possibilities of timbre modulation, though conditioned by the
timbre system, are not rigorously governed by it. Rather, they are subject
to free choices made by the composer and express his strategy-some
times tending to sharp, contrasting juxtapositions, at others to soft transitions and nuances. It is in the realm of strategy, not of system, that one
can explain the disparity between the Dimensions of Time and Silence,
operating with a pastel palette of color nuances and penetrations, and
the glaring Fluorescences. The very choice of a material opposition for a
given piece, which marks the poles of its timbral spectrum, is also a matter of compositional strategy.
As an illustration of the above discussion, let us consider Polymorphia, the most outstanding of Penderecki's early pieces.9 This composition of classical proportions is based on an opposition marked by the
material categories of metal and wood. The analysis of the timbral course
traced by Polymorphia is summed up in the diagram shown in Figure 8.


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U 2~(3~Y(3) (3 403 C4


i2 w



|(2(~3)~U (

Figure 8. The timbral trajectory of Polymorphia

Felt is not included in the diagram, because it does not occur in the piece,
which is written exclusively for stringed instruments:

1-24 (mh): traditional arco playing on all stringed instruments, from

22 continued by violas alone;
22-32 (mw, ml): strikes legno battuto on strings, as well as taps con
dita between bridge and tailpiece;
32-37 (ml): pizzicato introduced by violins, then taken over by the
remaining instrumental groups as pizzicato con due dita;
38-40 (wm, wl): strings struck with the palm of the hand as a playing technique combining two sound generators: fingerboard
incited at the same time by the hand of the player (wl) and by the
strings (wm);
39-42 (wm, wl, ww): percussive effect of the previous section, continued in contrabassi (40-41) and second violins (41-42), joined
by taps on the sound board with fingertips (wl) and strikes on the
stand with the bow or on the chair with the nut (ww);
42-45 (ml, ww, wm): sound board tapped with fingertips, the stand


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tapped with the bow or the chair with the nut, legno battuto play

between bridge and tailpiece, and strings pizzicato;

44-67 (mh): return to the typical arco articulation. Apart from the
traditional way of playing strings before the bridge, in rehearsal
numbers 63-64 the strings are bowed between bridge and tailpiece (which represents the same material pair), and the bridge
and tailpiece are bowed as well, the latter treated by Penderecki
as a substitute for the former technique in the low register of cellos and contrabasses.

Observe that in the course of Polymorphia segments usually overlap. The

simple succession of consecutive timbre segments happens just once: in
rehearsal number 38, when the pizzicato play gives way to percussive
effects. At this moment the opposition between metal and wood-the
polar timbres of the piece-is presented. The same opposition is featured
in other early pieces written for strings alone. (Leather only occurs as a
pole of a material opposition in orchestral works including a large percussion section. Here, in Polymorphia, it never plays the role of a main
material. Apparently, in the framework of a string orchestra the composer

could not completely balance all the individual material categories.)

Mediation of the marked opposition is carried out in the course of returning to the initial timbre through the joint occurrence of wood and metal

as the main materials of the same segment (42-45). In this way the timbral course of the Polymorphia assumes a three-part, ABA form.

The timbre system, whose rules are presented briefly in this article,
governs the organization of sound color in eight pieces of Krzysztof Penderecki: Anaklasis for 42 strings and percussion (1959-60), ThrenodyTo the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 strings (1960), String Quartet No. 1
(1960), Dimensions of Time and Silence for mixed choir, strings and percussion (1960-61), Fonogrammi for flute and chamber orchestra (1961),
Polymorphia for 48 strings (1961), Fluorescences for orchestra (1962),
and Canon for string orchestra and tape (1962). It was thus employed by
Penderecki for just three years: from 1960 until 1962. Beginning with the
St. Luke's Passion (1963-66), and in later works, the composer abandoned

this system-most likely for rather prosaic reasons. Since Anaklasis,

Dimensions and Fluorescences all required large groups of percussionincluding several instruments rare within the orchestra, but indispensable

for articulating the basic material categories-they were prohibitively

expensive and at times logistically impractical to perform. In turn, atypical techniques of playing instruments frightened conventional perform-


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ers, which very often led to sharp conflicts, protests, or even mutinies of
orchestras. One needs only to mention the famous scandal during the Fif-

teenth Music Festival in Venice, when-in spite of Bruno Maderna's persuasion-the renowned orchestra RAI-Radiotelevisione Italiano refused
to play Threnody. Such events created a climate unsympathetic to Penderecki's early scores and discouraged frequent performance. Renunciation of the timbre system, though resulting in the loss of a strict control
over sound color, solved all these problems and provided the composer
easier access to the musical market.

With Penderecki's abandonment of the timbre system, the properly

sonoristic period of his output ends and a late sonorism begins. In the latter period-in addition to a number of famous instrumental scores such

as De natura sonoris I (1966) and De natura sonoris H (1970), Sonata

for cello and orchestra (1964), Capriccio for oboe and strings (1965),
Partita for harpsichord and chamber ensemble (1971-72) or the First
Symphony (1972-73)--Penderecki also composed operas, oratorios, and
other works destined for large vocal-instrumental forces: The Devils of

Loudun (1968-69), Dies Irae (1967), the diptych Utrenia consisting of

The Entombment of Christ (1969-70) and The Resurrection (1970-71),
Cosmogony (1970), Canticum canticorum (1970-73), and Magnificat (1973-74). The renunciation of the timbre system led to a revaluation
of orchestration and instrumental techniques. The composition characteristic of a traditional symphonic orchestra is restored, with its predominant string section plus a competing group of winds. The sudden promotion of wind instruments, hardly utilized in the preceding period but
once again taking over the role of the second most important orchestral
section, is evidenced by the score of De natura sonoris II, in which a
leading role is performed by the brass. In turn, the percussion, exploited
so extensively from Anaklasis until Fluorescences, now recedes into the
background; even if still given important tasks in individual pieces, it is
employed more sparingly than before. The composer's recourse to atypical sound articulation is also much more sparing.
Despite all these differences, the pieces belonging to the period of late
sonorism are closely connected with the earlier sonoristic output thanks
to another, more basic system, which constitutes the other part of Penderecki's compositional technique conceived at the beginning of the 1960s.
That system, complementary to the timbre system, concerns the organization of the three remaining parameters of sound perception-pitch,
loudness, and time-which in turn governs the other characteristic of segments-their texture-and results in a number of effects typical for Penderecki, especially clusters and glissandi. The basic system, which is a
topic of another study (Mirka 2000),1o turns out to be more persistent
in Penderecki's output: it makes for the stylistic unity of the sonoristic
period before and after the Passion, and its abandonment-in the Awak452

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ening of Jacob (1974)--definitively closes the whole period. True, in his

post-sonoristic output Penderecki does not completely renounce the conquests of sonorism. But even though one occasionally finds glissandi and
non-traditional playing techniques in his later scores, they occur separately from their original basis: not as an indispensable means for the
realization of systemic assumptions, but rather as interesting sound
effects once invented and, though still remaining at the composer's disposal, already relating to a different musical world.


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1. To clarify the theoretical claims of my article, it may be necessary to emphasize
that, rather than offering one of several possible hypothetical theories about the
timbral organization of Penderecki's works from 1960-62, it provides a reconstruction of the compositional system he employed. The full system, presented
broadly in my doctoral dissertation (Mirka 1997), consists of two halves called
respectively the basic system and the timbre system. Having elaborated upon my
reconstruction, I consulted with Penderecki in April 1995, who confirmed via personal communication that it corresponds with the procedures he actually used in
the process of composition.
2. The first to use this term was J6zef M. Chominiski. He later gave a broad theoretical description of what he called the "sonoristic regulation of musical form,"
which he extended onto any sort of contemporary music containing non-traditional means of sound production (Chomitiski and Wilkowska-Chominiska 1983,
126-153). More specifically, the noun "sonorism" and the adjective "sonoristic"
are used in Polish musicological writings for the avant-garde sound-mass music
of the 1960s that was composed by Penderecki, as well as Wojciech Kilar, Henryk Mikolaj G6recki, Witold Szalonek and others.
3. As is well known, in the construction of contemporary instruments natural materials have frequently been replaced by synthetic substances, especially in the case
of percussion instruments. But this process of technological progress was not as
advanced in the early 1960s. It is irrelevant for Penderecki's timbre system as long
as the synthetic materials preserve the acoustical properties of natural materials.
4. Hardly anyone remembers that the Polish premiere of Anaklasis took place during
"Jazz Jamboree," the most important Polish festival of jazz music organized in

Warsaw to this day. Penderecki's interest in jazz is evinced also by Actions for
free-jazz orchestra, composed a few years later (1971).
5. The effects meant here include striking the strings with the palm of the hand sul
tasto, tapping the sound board with the fingertips, rubbing the sound board with
the open hand, and tapping the strings between bridge and tailpiece with the fingers (con dita).
6. This term was used for the first time by Marian Wallek-Walewski in his article "W

kregu poszukiwani materialowych. Krzysztof Penderecki" (1960). This article was

intended as the introduction to a study, Partytura wsp6iczesna (A Contemporary
Score), that he was to write together with Krzysztof Penderecki-a study which
never appeared. Tadeusz Zieliniski writes extensively about many such "percussive
effects" in his articles of the 1960s (Zieliniski 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1968).
7. Incidentally, it is worth stressing that Penderecki--contrary to his most fervent

apologists-was and still remains skeptical about the expressive capacities of

music. In a TV interview with Alicja Resich-Modliliska, 1995, the composer said:
"Music cannot express anything. Of course, one can give some dedication or title,
but that is it. Music is abstract and ideal, it boils down to structures and forms."
8. Very characteristic in this respect is the composer's utterance during the interview

given to Tadeusz A. Zieliniski, first published in Swedish magazine Nutida Musik,

then reprinted in the Polish Ruch Muzyczny. Challenged about his innovative ways
of treating traditional musical instruments, he responded: "Thus you also yield to


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illusion...; you pay attention only to new elements, although in my piecesbesides new articulatory means-there are also several older ones" (Zieliniski 1963,
8). He explained the relation of the new sound effects to traditional timbres in the
following way: "Occasional non-instrumental noises only supplement the orchestral timbre as coloristic retouching and are adjusted to that orchestral timbre." In
the course of a discussion closing the seminar on his output, organized in 1975 in
Krak6w, the composer stated the same idea even more laconically: "For me, there
has never existed any difference between noise and a sound [of definite pitch]"

([Discussion] 1976: 46). These two notions were used-imprecisely-at the time
as synonyms of sounds produced in a new and traditional way, respectively.
9. In my dissertation (Mirka 1997) the reader will find further analyses of full com-

positions using the terms presented in this article: Anaklasis (186-188), Dimensions of Time and Silence (205-208), String Quartet No. 1 (226-228), Fluores-

cences (256-259), Canon (269-270).

10. For a detailed discussion of both the basic system and the timbre system, see Mirka

1997. Penderecki's use of the basic system in St. Luke's Passion, as well as its symbolic and expressive significance in that composition, is discussed in Mirka 2002.

Chomifiski, J6zef M. and Krystyna Wilkowska-Chomifiska. 1983. Maleformy instrumentalne. Formy muzyczne L Krak6w: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne.

Drobner, Mieczyslaw. 1960. Instrumentoznawstwo i akustyka. Krak6w: Polskie

Wydawnictwo Muzyczne.
Erhardt, Ludwik. 1975. Spotkania z Krzysztofem Pendereckim. Krak6w: Polskie
Wydawnictwo Muzyczne.
Koffka, Kurt. 1935. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace and

Meyer, Leonard B. 1956. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press.
Mirka, Danuta. 1997. The Sonoristic Structuralism of Krzysztof Penderecki. Katowice:

Akademia Muzyczna.

--. 2000. "Texture in Penderecki's Sonoristic Style." Music Theory Online


. 2002. "Passion according to Penderecki." In: Siglind Bruhn, ed., Voicing the
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Sadie, Stanley, ed. 1980. The New Grove Dictionary ofMusic and Musicians. London:

[Discussion]. 1973. "Dyskusja na seminarium poswiqconym tw6rczo'ci Krzysztofa

Pendereckiego." Muzyka 2(81): 29-52.
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Zieliniski, Tadeusz A. 1961. "Nowe utwory Krzysztofa Pendereckiego." Ruch

Muzyczny 12: 17-18 and 24.
--. 1962. "Der einsame Weg des Krzysztof Penderecki." Melos 10: 318-323.

- . 1963. "Wsp6lczesny kompozytor a tradycja." Ruch Muzyczny 12: 8-9.

-*-. 1964. "Fluorescencje Krzysztofa Pendereckiego." Ruch Muzyczny 2: 5-6.

.. 1966. "Neue Klangaisthetik." Melos 7/8: 210-212.

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