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She’s got the beat: Marta Ptaszynska plays a mean marimba, writes music too.

A professor of composition, the Polish native plays percussion and turns colors into chords of
emotive sounds.

In a daisy chain of artistic inspiration, the words of writer Edgar Allan Poe influenced the haunting images of artist Odilon Redon, whose hues were later transposed by composer Marta Ptaszynska into the notes of Moon Flowers. The 1986 concerto for cello and piano will have its New York premiere this summer at the Museum of Modern Art’s Summergarden concert series honoring 20th-century women composers. For Ptaszynska, the making of art from art comes naturally. “I can see music through colors,” she says. “When I look at paintings, they invoke in me musical sonorities. Art is always a great inspiration.”

That inspiration—what Ptaszynska calls “sparkle”—has driven her to build shining careers as one of Poland’s most accomplished contemporary composers and as a virtuoso percussionist. A native of Warsaw, Ptaszynska has lived in the United States since 1972, when she came to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music under American composer Donald Erb. She joined the University’s music department last year after a teaching stint at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington.

Now writing a concerto for Grammy-winning percussionist Evelyn Glennie, she’s also completing a concerto commissioned by virtuoso violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin shortly before his death this past March. The piece will be performed at an August 2000 festival by the Sinfonia Varsovia, the 50-member Polish ensemble led by Menuhin as its principal guest conductor for 15 years.

Ptaszynska’s earlier compositions are being played in a variety of venues as well. At the Juilliard School’s 15th annual Focus! Festival, held at New York’s Lincoln Center this past January, students performed Ptaszynska’s Four Portraits, which premiered with a Polish string quartet at the same location in 1994. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has tentatively scheduled a September performance of Ptaszynska’s monumental Holocaust Memorial Cantata, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of World War II and directed by Menuhin at a series of international festivals in 1993.

Today, Ptaszynska is known for these and other works, typically commissioned by orchestras, chamber groups, and soloists, and characterized by what Polish music scholar Maria Anna Harley calls “sensuous and expressive, though often dark, poetry.” But before pencils and pens, Ptaszynska wielded mallets and sticks. She’s skilled at all the percussion instruments, from the glockenspiel to the xylophone. Her irrepressible joy and knowledge of music suggest that their requisite striking, shaking, and scraping may offer the only outlet that can fully engage her energy and creativity.

It’s a talent she almost didn’t hit upon: At Warsaw’s Academy of Music, she majored in piano. She chose percussion as her mandatory “second instrument” only after watching a xylophone recital and concluding that the instrument’s series of wooden slats, graduated in length, formed a simplified version of the piano, easy enough for her to play without studying. And it did come easily to her. Today, she no longer practices, having memorized the major percussion parts and being able to sight-read newer ones. She notes: “My teacher in Cleveland said that if you learn something, and you learn it well, then you will retain it for life.”

After giving solo recitals for years across Europe and the United States, Ptaszynska has been accepting fewer and fewer invitations to perform. She prefers to express her noteworthy sensibilities through writing music for others to play. “Composing is more enjoyable to me,” she says. “It is like a passion, so I have to do this. I play just for fun.”

In her compositions, Ptaszynska often applies what she calls “percussive thinking,” blending an unexpected mix of sounds, or sonorities. “My musical language has its own special mannerisms, its own style, like people dress differently,” she says. “My gestures in music are made through melody, harmony, and colorful sonority. Texture through specific sonorities is very much my trademark.”

On one of her most popular CDs—Marta Ptaszynska: Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra, Songs of Despair and Loneliness, and Winter’s Tale—she uses traditional instruments in nontraditional ways. The staccato sounds from a marimba trail off, while the strings generate a steady reverberation of sound before being plucked sharply. Later, a mezzo-soprano’s voice wavers, almost vibrating. A series of sparse yet palpable, intense yet dreamlike sounds evoke at times the foreboding of a horror movie score and at others the airy tinkling of chimes in a Buddhist temple.
Ptaszynska says she is guided not by trends in composition but by her own muse. For example, when the BBC asked her to write a concerto to be performed by the renowned duo of cellist Roman Jablonski and pianist Krystyna Borucinska, she first leafed through some art books at her home, which was then in Connecticut. On that particular day, Redon’s Moon Flowers caught her eye with its dark gray, green, and brown colors and plants that sprouted human heads. “It was mystical,” she recalls of the painting, which she saw for the first time in person last summer. “I heard this combination of harmonic structures and thought, this is it—this is the piece. I knew what the chords would be. I worked it out in my head in a flash of a second.” The whole process—from visualization to notation—took Ptaszynska no longer than two months. She remembers writing the concerto’s last chord at the very moment the space-shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. Finding it a striking coincidence given the painting’s title, which she had already chosen for the piece, she dedicated the composition to the astronauts. The concerto was first broadcast in England on May 14 of that same year.

She approaches all of her work in a similar way, always keeping her eyes and ears open for new ideas. “Inspiration can come at any time,” she says. “It’s like an illumination. I can theoretically write a lot of music, but it should be something that will really sparkle. The sparkle is the energy that will get you to sit down and write.”

The energy she gives in the writing is the same enthusiasm she is looking for in the performing of her compositions. “Very often I’m pleasantly surprised when I hear a group perform my work,” she says, noting that it’s the involvement that’s key: “It’s the drama and the excitement and the energy that makes the difference.”—C.S.
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