got the beat: Marta Ptaszynska plays a mean marimba, writes music
A professor of composition, the Polish native plays percussion
and turns colors into chords of
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 Arts 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 inspirationwhat Ptaszynska calls sparklehas
driven her to build shining careers as one of Polands 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 Universitys
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, shes 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.
Ptaszynskas earlier compositions are being played in a variety
of venues as well. At the Juilliard Schools 15th annual Focus!
Festival, held at New Yorks Lincoln Center this past January,
students performed Ptaszynskas 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 Ptaszynskas 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. Shes 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.
Its a talent she almost didnt hit upon: At Warsaws
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 instruments 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 CDsMarta Ptaszynska: Concerto
for Marimba and Orchestra, Songs of Despair and Loneliness, and
Winters Taleshe 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-sopranos 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,
Redons 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 itthis 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 processfrom visualization
to notationtook Ptaszynska no longer than two months. She
remembers writing the concertos last chord at the very moment
the space-shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. Finding
it a striking coincidence given the paintings 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. Its 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 Im pleasantly surprised when I hear a group perform
my work, she says, noting that its the involvement thats
key: Its the drama and the excitement and the energy
that makes the difference.C.S.