Penderecki: A classical avant-gardist loved by Hollywood

Warsaw (AFP) –


Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki, who blazed a trail in classical music with innovative religious and symphonic works, died aged 86 on Sunday in his home city of Krakow after a long illness, his family told local media.

Venerated as one of the 20th Century's most influential composers, Penderecki worked with symphony orchestras across the world and won fans among top film directors including Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch who commissioned film scores.

His music appears in Kubrick's The Shining, Scorcese's Shutter Island, Lynch's Twin Peaks and, more recently, in an episode of TV show Black Mirror.

A key figure of the 1960s avant-garde, Penderecki remained respectful of great religious and symphonic traditions while blazing a trail in contemporary classical music.

Thanks to a temporary political thaw in Poland's communist regime at the time, Penderecki's works managed to break through the Iron Curtain and achieve swift international success.

The composer made use of unusual intervals, tone clusters and glissandi and used the timbres of instruments in innovative ways. Such techniques featured in "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima", a 1960 work for large string orchestra that won much recognition.

Penderecki did not shy away from unconventional effects: He used sheet metal, whistles, pieces of glass and metal rubbed with a file, rattles, electric sounds, saws, typewriters or alarm bells to add sonic texture to compositions.

He also invented music notation symbols to match his original means of expression.

Later, Penderecki gradually abandoned his avant-garde sound. Criticised by some in the musical community for backtracking, this evolution won him applause among non-specialists.

He returned to neo-tonal, post-Romantic writing, with a content and form more readily accessible to a larger audience.

"My music remains the same. Only the means (of expression) have changed," the Grammy-award winning Penderecki said.

In 2011, Penderecki collaborated with Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist of English rock band Radiohead, and the electronic music composer Aphex Twin -- both fans of his work -- on an album and tour.

"I'm happy that different musical universes were able to meet. And I got to see this enthusiastic young public," Penderecki said.

- Granddaughter first, botany second -

Unlike most of composers of his generation, Penderecki drew an essential part of his inspiration from religious origin.

"I always acted out of a spirit of contrariness," he said.

"When I was a student, sacred music was forbidden. Then, for years, it continued to not be appreciated by the (communist) authorities. It was also badly received by my colleagues."

Born on November 23, 1933 in the southern city of Debica, Penderecki attended the Academy of Music in Krakow and simultaneously studied philosophy, art history and literature.

He then combined his career as an avant-garde composer with that of a teacher of composition at various top music schools around the globe.

As a conductor, he gave concerts with the most acclaimed symphony orchestras in Europe and the United States and became a member of several music academies around the world.

"In my musical microcosm, I brought together gains in the avant-garde with the great tradition of symphonic music of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries," he once said.

"You can't be an artist without having gotten to know tradition, without having digested the works of the past, without having studied the old masters in depth."

To achieve this goal, he founded a European academy of music bearing his name, around his country home in the southern village of Luslawice.

"An artist's lot is a labyrinth. He thinks he knows the way but has to look for it over and over again," Penderecki said.

"Often he makes progress but then suddenly he has to turn and back up, reopen a door that had already been closed. It's a constant dialogue with the past."

A fan of botany, he planted labyrinths in his Luslawice garden and once said the pastime was so important to him that it "came second, right after my granddaughter".