Alien lanes

I’m not sure what spurred me to seek out Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima one night during a shift at the record store where I work.

The only recording I owned of the piece was on a set of cassette tapes that accompanied one of my college textbooks, and they were long since lost. But I’ve always liked Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and for some reason, I had a jones to listen to it.

It’s an incredible work, if only for the simple fact that it transforms 52 stringed instruments to sound completely alien.

At first, Penderecki was about to title the piece 8’57”, in the same manner as John Cage’s 4’33”. But the emotional content of the work was too apparent to relegate to a series of digits, as the composer explained.

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima employs a compositional technique called “sonorism”, where the timbre of an instrument determines the course of a work before all else.

With Threnody, Penderecki makes the string musicians play on parts of the instrument to create percussive effects, in essence turning the string orchestra into a percussion ensemble.

He also employs a mix of techniques to give the piece a sense of randomness without losing an overall sense of direction. There’s even an intricate canon midway through that feels a lot more orderly than it sounds.

It’s a thrilling piece, chaotic but structured, grotesque but beautiful.

The only recording of the Threnody available in the store that night was on a Naxos disc titled Orchestral Works, Vol. 1.

Penderecki’s Symphony No. 3, the opening work on the album, finds the composer embracing more traditional influences, although eschewing any post-Romantic leanings.

Emotionally charged, the Symphony No. 3 manages to retain the brash qualities of the Threnody with a more mature perspective on harmony and structure. It’s a more palettable style, but it’s not as stimulating as the sonorist works.

Orchestra Works, Vol. 1 is rounded out by Flourescences for orchestra and De natura sonoris II, pieces which find Penderecki expanding the sonic capabilities of the orchestra.

Flourescences for orchestra shows an obvious nod to Edgar Varese in its incorporation of a warning siren as an instrument. The clacking of a typewriter provides a percussive break at one point.

But the real centerpiece of the disc is the Threnody, a high-minded piece that turns out to pack an emotion punch. Strings have never sounded like that before.